John Carpenter has had a hell of a career. His run from the mid-’70s to the early ’90s is nearly flawless and capable of going toe-to-toe with any director’s filmography. He’s entertained audiences with thrills and chills while introducing many of us to some of our favorite screen legends. Generally speaking, he’s beloved in cinematic circles the world over, but his work hasn’t always felt that love.
In the summer of 1981, Carpenter embarked on his first big-budget, big-studio adventure. Following in the footsteps of his hero, Howard Hawks, the Master of Horror accepted a gig to direct an adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr’s novella, Who Goes There? Working with a budget of roughly $15 million — a major increase from the independently produced projects he was accustomed — Carpenter churned out what is widely considered his masterpiece, The Thing.
The sci-fi/horror mashup hit theaters on June 25, 1982, with hopes of being a summer hit. Helmed by a young director on the rise and featuring a manly cast of the manliest men to ever man a wintry outpost, all the makings of a hit were present. Unfortunately, the film never quite took off for various reasons including the arrival of another alien visitor to theaters just two weeks earlier in the form of Steven Spielberg’s gigantic blockbuster, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Despite opening on a respectable 840 screens, The Thing sputtered to an eighth-place finish on its first weekend. In less than a month Carpenter’s would-be hit was outside the top ten.
It’s my personal belief that a film’s success or failure at the box office can rarely be attributed to the words of critics. People are going to see what they want to see and skip what they don’t. This is why we see many critically acclaimed films flop while panned disasters turn a profit. That being said, critics in 1982 certainly didn’t do Carpenter or Universal Pictures any favors.
Vincent Canby, the legendary critic that spent more than two decades reviewing films for The New York Times, wasn’t a fan labeling The Thing as a “foolish, depressing, overproduced” movie. The last dig being especially humorous as this was the first time Carpenter had enough money to overproduce. Canby’s biggest issue was the film’s basic premise. “One of the film’s major problems,” Canby wrote, “is that the creature has no identifiable shape of its own.” It’s almost as if the alien monster is a… shape-shifter? To make sure there was no confusion as to what he thought, Canby closed out his review with these brilliant last words — “It qualifies only as instant junk.”
A common complaint shared by many critics was the characters and their development or lack thereof. For the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr praised the actors but concluded they didn’t have much to work with saying, “the terse banality of the dialogue makes them all sound and seem alike — it’s hard to tell who’s being attacked, and hard to care.” Variety was almost on board with Kurt Russell as the film’s hero, but before the credits rolled they had to bail saying the “suicidal attitude adopted towards the end undercuts his status as a center screen force.” The legendary Roger Ebert was let down by the film thanks to what he called “the superficial characterizations and the implausible behavior of the scientists on that icy outpost.”
Perhaps the most notorious review was that of Alan Spencer in Starlog. Spencer didn’t mince words, using a page and a half to rip both the film and Carpenter to threads. “It has no pace, sloppy continuity, zero humor, bland characters on top of being totally devoid of either warmth or humanity,” Spencer wrote, in what is one of the nicer sentences in the review. “It’s my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct a science-fiction horror movie,” Spencer continued. “Here’s some things he’d be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings.”
Alright, alright, Spencer, we get it. You hate fun.
One thing most everyone was able to agree on as a positive was the sublime and groundbreaking special effects created by Rob Bottin and his team. Writing for The Washington Post, Gary Arnold declared the movie “a showcase for the extravagant horror brainstorms of the young makeup designer.” Arnold further praised Bottin as a “virtuoso” for his ability to create “a squeamish, hideous, shape-shifting monster.” Ebert referred to the special effects work as creating a “a geek show, a gross-out movie” capable of putting a scare or two into an audience. Maybe that’s not outright kudos, but at the very least it’s a backhanded compliment.
Even our boy Spencer couldn’t overlook Bottin’s work calling it “sheer perfection” and going as far as to say a more apt title for the film would be “Rob Bottin’s The Thing.” Not one to offer praise without throwing in another burn, Spencer was sure to include that Bottin’s work on this film was the equivalent of “hiring Van Gogh to repaint a park bench.”
Carpenter quickly felt the impact of the film’s negative reviews and poor performance. Universal paid him to end a new multi-picture deal he had just signed and he lost out on adapting Stephen King’s Firestarter, which was set to be his next gig. The director was so upset that he went years without ever talking about it. Modern responses to the film have been much more positive. Many consider it Carpenter’s best film — that’s where The Boo Crew ranked it. But beyond that, The Thing is viewed as one of the greatest genre films ever made.
Ultimately, Carpenter ended up getting the last laugh. The Thing has achieved immortality, forever to be hailed as a masterstroke of horror. More importantly, Carpenter is enjoying a stress-free life away from the camera playing video games, whereas many of those critics that bashed his film are now dead.