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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


                "We're Dead" remarked producer David Foster. The occasion was his return from the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and the premiere engagement of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, where the trailer for THE THING also happened to be playing. The icy silence of the matinee audience of grandmothers escorting their grandchildren ( and vice versa ) was enough to elicit his precise statement of our predicament.


                   The ground had been shifting underneath our feet ever since the public previews, one executive confiding to me that the studio considered the movie a "missed opportunity", a product of failed expectations. The advertising campaign had changed overnight - the somber, predominately black and white imagery ( which we had been consulted on ) replaced overnight with the now familiar "glow face" ( which we hadn't ), the tag line " Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide" dumped for "The Ultimate In Alien Terror", which I abhorred ( "Man" was written by a publicist named Stephen Frankfort, who also came up with what I thought was the best tag line ever for ALIEN - "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream".  He was hired early on and his company also created the earliest teaser with the ice block. The "Alien Terror" tagline was concocted by a studio suddenly desperate to display the word "Alien" above the title ). Both I thought represented a last minute demotion to "B" film status, something we had fought for years, and evidence that Universal was effectively throwing in the towel in trying to reach a broader, more mainstream audience.

                  At least the sniping over the ending was finally over - the studio recognizing, in the words of  head of distribution Robert Rehme that "the movie they had was the movie they had, and it was time to get it out there". Universal approved the making of six 70mm stereo prints, two of which we planned to use for the critics screenings on both coasts in an effort to put our best foot forward...

                 ..."a foolish, depressing, over-produced movie... aspiring to be the quintessential moron movie of the 1980's" - Vincent Canby, The New York Times

                      ... a lot of good this did. The reviews, primarily from print sources at that time ( newspapers and weekly magazines ) were delivered to us in packets assembled by the studio's publicity department. Either one paragraph dismissive or openly hostile, the general line labelled the film as an exercise in unrelenting gore at the expense of story, character development, and tension.

               ..."the structure of the piece reminds unpleasantly of porno films...Daily Variety

 We were not prepared for the amount of anger unleashed on the film in general, or on John in particular ( the gore - pornographer charges that were made in some quarters were outrageous and particularly stung).

               ..."this movie is more disgusting than frightening, and most of it is just boring." David Denby 

               "...It has no pace, sloppy continuity, bland characters... It's my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here are some things he'd be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings..." Alan Spencer, Starlog magazine November, 1982

                  THE THING had no official premiere as such, just a lame attempt at a opening day screening at the Hollywood Pacific theatre presided over by Elvira, where free admission was given if you came dressed as your favorite monster. After the film started I walked around the corner to the Cahuenga Newstand to pick up the new issue of  STARLOG, whose review promised to be more sympathetic to the cause. No such luck - a pan, where it seemed to me that even the fan base had deserted us...

                ..." because this material has been done before, and better, especially in the original THE THING and ALIEN, there's no need to see this version "... Roger Ebert - The Chicago-Sun Times

                  I spent opening weekend visiting a dozen or so theaters in the Los Angeles area. First up were the 70mm venues ( The Hollywood Pacific and the Crest in Westwood ) followed by a host of smaller theatres in the San Fernando Valley and vicinity ( most of which were still not equipped for Dolby stereo and played the film in mono ). Crowd size seemed to be pretty much the same wherever I went. Theatres were not filled for the 8 O'clock showing on opening Friday, maybe at most half-to three quarters full. GREASE II, also opening, was drawing consistently larger crowds in the multiplexes where both films were playing. There was no line for tickets for the 10 O'clock, with only a small group waiting to be let in...

              The reaction of those attending those first showings? Muted, at best. Not for the first time I sensed that the film made a  large portion of the audience feel uneasy, and that as captives they were neither  happy or comfortable with that fact...

I'd be delighted to report that I had some advance sense that the film was having an impact on future generations of critics and film goers that first weekend but the truth was I saw no evidence of any groundswell. My impression was that a very large portion those that came were unprepared for what awaited them. In theatre lobbies afterward the most positive reaction I could elicit was an ambivalent sort of "its okay". No excited overheard conversation, just quiet ( I suppose you could say they were stunned into submission but I think that's putting too kind a face on matters...). 

               " It Didn't Open " were the three words that greeted me on the phone Sunday morning, spoken by Universal V.P. Helena Hacker. The film was projected to earn under Three Million Dollars for the weekend, well below studio estimates. It would go on to lose close to 50% of its theatres by the middle of its second week of release and, in a yardstick measured closely by exhibitors in the age of Lucas and Spielberg, generate virtually no repeat business.

                 Early the next week I went to see John at his home. When he opened the door he looked stricken, as if he had physically been punched in the gut.The financial failure of the film was one thing, but another was the amount of vitriolic slop that was thrown in his face for good measure. It was if he had crossed a moral boundary of some sort and, as seriously as we both took our roles in the production of the film we both still knew it was only a movie...


                     The immediate consequences for John were severe. In advanced preparation of Stephen King's FIRESTARTER as his next film for Universal, the project was abruptly cancelled ( FIRESTARTER, with an initial draft written by Bill Lancaster, had sailed though development in something under a year and was, up until the day of THE THING'S release, a testament to the studios continued faith in John ). I was in the process of setting up a re -make of  ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS with John ( to have taken place along the Alaskan Pipeline with helicopters ) at another studio, but this went down in flames as well...

                Although the simultaneous release of E.T. by the same studio is often mentioned as a conditional reason for THE THING'S failure, I  think it more the case that the film was simply out of sync with the tone and tenor of the 1980's. At a time when people were seeking re-assurance THE THING was offering up very little. To be certain E.T. had sucked all the oxygen out of Universal's publicity and distribution departments, but I doubt that a release date later that year would have made much difference ( and exhibitors at the time had the quaint axiom that "snow" pictures didn't play well in Winter). Perhaps the title of the film was an issue. John himself  made a late plea for a title change ( back to WHO GOES THERE? ), worried about the surfeit of horror and fantasy films in the pipeline as well as the release later that summer of SWAMP THING...

                    Thirty years later, it seems to me that THE THING plays right into the wheelhouse of contemporary culture. In an Internet age where questions of identity are now commonplace ( the accepted use of assumed names at online forums, for instance) it is becoming increasingly easy to make the case that almost no one is who he appears to be - a  validation of the film's theme that trust, always a fragile commodity, is a hard thing to come by...

                 Several weeks after the film opened I was approached in a bar by writer - actor Buck Henry (creator of GET SMART, writer of THE GRADUATE, one of the stars of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) who told me THE THING was "twenty five years ahead of it's time". Alone in his sentiments then, it now seems he was pretty much on the money...


  1. This was sad to read.

    It annoys me how stubborn aduiences can be and how much they refuse to look outside the box in the same way Bladerunner failed. Movies that it takes people of genuine intelligence to appreciate.

    People of the 80's weren't angry they were hopeful and looking forward.
    War does funny things to civilisation and shows how much cynical and dark films were hits in the 70's because of the outrage of the Vietnam war.

    This film would be a titanic hit if released now because we are all pissed off once again.
    This is reflected in the acceptance of modern day movies. The super Hero 'everything will work out fine' films are losing favour because people know things won't be alright.
    They want their entertainments to reflect that and hopefully as a result we will be headed for a resurgence of dark and art again.

  2. I wonder if there are any movies today like this... Widely panned, despite being excellent.

  3. It's possible but the the trouble is most movies these days are just mediocre.
    Movies ahead of their time like Bladerunner and The Thing were considered complete disasters.
    I haven't seen ay unmitigated disasters lately just lots of bland movies.
    I also think we are reaching the limit now of what new untold tricks movies have to do.
    All the breakthroughs happened in the last 50 years and all the best ideas have been done to the limit of what they can which explains all the remakes.
    Movies will have to take a new leap forward for them to become new and effective again, something like a holodeck from star trek where you are fully emersive within them.
    Either that or the human race will have to have a truckload of new stuff happen to it.

  4. I disagree. There are certainly still original ideas - I thought District 9 was a nice new spin, and you can't argue that Inglorious Bastards wasn't fresh... I'm still pulling for Del Torro to get At The Mountains of Madness off the ground. Maybe Ridley Scott's Prometheus will give sci-fi horror the shot in the arm it needs for that.

  5. Oh, and Stuart, I was just curious. In the scene where Mac goes out to the spacecraft, two guys go with him. Is it Palmer and Norris? It looks like them, but it's hard to tell with all the coats and all. The reason I ask is because they both turn out to be things. Was that intentional?

  6. Reading this does make one sick. What kills me most are the genre magazines like Fangoria panning the film when it came out. I have an issue of Starlog from 82 where they completely dis the film. Jackasses.