From right to left : John, Myself, Production Manager Robert Brown, Associate Producer Larry Franco. The Juneau Ice Field. Location Scout April, 1981

Thursday, October 6, 2011


                 I have been repeatedly struck by the ease in which the word assimilation has found its way into casual conversation and broader popular culture today ( THE THING "ASSIMILATION" MAZE at Universal Studios). Now accepted vernacular and taken for granted, when discussing this movie  the debate has moved on to the when, the where, and the why, but in 1981 one of the biggest storytelling problems John faced was how to effectively communicate the idea of assimilation in terms clear enough an audience would understand and accept. With this as preface, we turn to the variety of ways we dreamed up to kill off our friend Bennings... 


        OUT ON THE ICE



                Originally a set piece of Bill Lancaster's first two drafts, this terrific scene had McCready, Childs, and Bennings giving chase to infected dogs ( in this draft Blair didn't kill them all ). Bennings at one point was to be pulled under the ice by the creature, quickly bobbing up in different areas in progressive states of assimilation. Action was also to include one of the dogs leaping at Mcready while changing in mid-air.  Original plans called for a large exterior ice scape set to be built on stilts on one of  Universal's largest sound stages, running half  its length and continuing up the wall, creating a cul-de-sac.

                  The only exterior that would have been shot indoors the scene, although written for day, was switched to night to make it both more dramatic and easier to shoot. It was to be lit by the headlights on the snow cats, catching nightmarish glimpses of what we needed to see ( and in the process hiding what we had to ). In full operational mode, the set would have featured an army of effects people working both above and below, wind machines, snow cats, real and fake dogs, flamethrowers, explosives, a ton of goo and rubber, sophisticated hydraulics ( at one point I remember a tentacle was to grab a snow cat and fling it into the night) all done in an environment cooled to 40 degrees for good measure.

                   Although we made some attempt to simplify the scenes workings, it became clear as we prepared the rest of the film that it was increasingly unaffordable, with a cost estimate of close to two million dollars and a month to set up and shoot  ( a small movie in itself ).  



                 Conceived as a relatively simple way to dispose of a major character without involving any effects work ( Rob was well underway by this time on the other sequences, and did not have the time and money to take it on ) this second attempt was written by Bill Lancaster as a straight "Halloween " style  murder scene. It involved just two people, with Bennings being stabbed in the back with an icepick by an unseen assailant  ( intended to be Blair, whom you were to never see ). As you might imagine it was filmed very effectively by John, but when it came time to look at a first rough cut of the movie it felt aberrant, out of place, almost as if it belonged in a different film. But there was a bigger problem looming...

               " I don't think they (the studio) quite got the uniqueness of the imitation aspect." John Carpenter - Creative Screenwriting magazine

                     John's first look at a rough cut occurred during a five week hiatus the company took between the conclusion of principal photography on stage and the resumption of work in Stewart. Although some of the film played well, an early overriding concern was the need to effectively dramatize the nature of assimilation and it's consequences. With three already designed to be off - camera ( Blair, Palmer, and Norris ), the audience had only the Kennel to see the act in progress and that involved dogs, not humans. We had plenty of transitions back out once the creature was discovered, but was the essential defense the creature employs to disguise itself explained clearly enough? Time to go on the record. It was decided  to go back to the drawing board to come up with a scene that would unambiguously show Bennings in the process of being assimilated....   



                   ... but how to accomplish this ? We had completed interior filming in Los Angeles and there was no more Outpost 31. Rob and his crew were behind schedule with the effects on his plate and couldn't afford to be involved in any way - whatever John came up with would have to be shot on location in Stewart and added to the busy schedule there, with very little preparation...

                The resulting scene, written by John between the end of filming in Los Angeles and the beginning of location work in Stewart, accomplishes its goal in very simple ways. A new storeroom set and partial corridor were constructed on location inside the Outpost 31 exterior, the only interior scene shot there ( one small portion of the set was used to film the tie -in  where Jed sees the helicopter land ). Robs' shop sent up some miscellaneous rubber tentacles, orange dye and KY jelly as well as the same pair of slip on gloves stunt coordinator Dick Warlock wore in his "flight" to the ceiling as Palmer... 


                    A testament to his storytelling skills, John makes full use out of very little and fashions a sequence, from the foreground blanket raise to Bennings strange wobble and tortured final scream that efficiently and without elaboration does what it needs to - make the physical connection between man and monster.

Peter Maloney wearing the same pair of slip - on  gloves that stunt coordinator Dick Warlock wore as Palmer in his "flight" to the ceiling...

                 And just to make sure the audience understands what has just happened and the stakes involved MacCready in the very next scene tells Garry " that was one of those things out there, trying to imitate him"...

               This short scene, also written by John, was filmed at Heartland the same day the alternate McMurdo ending with Kurt was done. Its purpose was to hammer home verbally the idea of assimilation to the audience. No subtlety or shaded references here, just lay it on the line and mission accomplished  (for now, but we'll return to this theme later ).

                An additional note - those that picked up the fact that Windows dropped the keys off - camera as he runs to get MacCready are correct, and we did lift the sound of them hitting the floor in post production for emphasis...




  1. Hey, I'm just curious, as you seem to be the man in the know, can you do a blog entry on the casting of Donald Moffat as Garry? He's oddly my favorite character in the film, and I've always been curious how he was selected for the role, as he's perfect.


  2. I've been wondering about that production still of Bennings getting stabbed by an unseen assailant for years now, so it's awesome to finally hear the story behind that lost scene. Thanks again, Stuart!

  3. Thanks, Stewart. I've always loved the cutting room floor.

  4. So, so good. The original idea (lit by the snowcat lights) would have been amazing but I do so love "It's Bennings"

    Easily one of the best blogs I've read, thank you so much for providing all this info on one of my top three movies of all time

    Keep them coming!

    P.s. If you put all this in a book I'd buy it in a heartbeat!

  5. Yeah too bad the dog chase scene was never filmed, i remeber reading it in the alan dean foster novel, and there was some info about how the thing swallows bennings like a snake swallows its prey. There was also some description of how the thing had difficulties maintaining its fom while assimilating bennings....

  6. Also was the stabbing scene completely lost?i mean why is it not on the outtakes of the last dvd/blu ray version?

  7. here is a better picture of stabbing scene


  8. I had 2 reservations about this scene:
    1. Showing movement under the blanket and Window's double-take seemed like an Abbott and Costello thing.
    Both were unnecessary.
    2. Benning's assimilation looks way too fake.
    It appears to be a dummy with some slimy goo smeared over him.
    Would have been better if Bennings were still alive while it was happening.