Exploring the visual majesty of John Carpenter’s finest achievement
John Carpenter is the ultimate example of an indie filmmaker. His best movies are typically humble productions that rely on creativity, resourcefulness and ingenuity rather than big bucks extravaganza, and on the rare occasions he has been backed by major studios he has seemed rather less comfortable. If you look at the director’s most expensive movies, they’re generally footnotes in his career, creative missteps that fail to communicate with audiences. Films such as the Warner Brothers backed Memoirs of an Invisible Man floundered on just about every level; all the ingredients were there for a surefire hit, it just didn’t turn out that way.
Perhaps the biggest indicator that Carpenter is less effective working with big budgets is his most expensive film to date. 1996‘s Escape from L.A., a belated follow-up to the filmmaker’s sci-fi classic Escape from New York, was a commercial disaster, bringing in little more than half of the $50,000,000 shelled out. I remember how excited I was when news of the sequel first reached me. I was thirteen and still naïve enough to assume that newer meant better. The trailers only strengthened those assumptions. The film featured a number of interesting concepts and classic Snake moments that a deftly edited trailer beautifully teased, but the actual film felt bloated and mismanaged, as if it had been conceived by a kid with too many toys at their disposal. There was also a fifteen-year gap between the two films following a protracted development period that went all the way back to 1987 — plenty of time for the casual moviegoer to forget about Kurt Russell’s gravel-voiced antihero.
A list of Carpenter’s most renown movies tells a different tale. 1976‘s racially unifying urban western Assault on Precinct 13 is a prime example of the filmmaker’s bargain basement artistry. The movie takes a basic premise, a paper-thin cast of low-key actors, all of it sprinkled with the director/writer/composer’s inimitable synth stardust, and delivers a stone cold classic of sociopolitical resonance that slips comfortably into the realms of genre cinema. The fact that it made $11,748, roughly a tenth of its cost, was neither here nor there. Carpenter had made a movie, and a damn fine one at that.
Clark: I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.
In 1978, Carpenter would dust himself off to bring us one of the most profitable independent movies ever made in slasher innovator Halloween, a film that would spawn a decades-long franchise and a whole host of sleazy Friday the 13th imitators. So low on funds were Carpenter and long-time associate Debra Hill that cast members were asked to provide their own wardrobes. Even Michael’s iconic visage had a huge element of luck to it, the crew finally cutting the eyes out of a William Shatner mask and painting it white after a plethora of designs had left much to be desired. Halloween would manage an incredible worldwide box office gross of $70,000,000. Quite the payday for a director who, “just wanted to make a film”.
It was after Halloween II, a venture that brought in ten times its $2,500,000 budget, that Carpenter set to work on his first big studio movie: 1982‘s The Thing. Fans of the director will no doubt appreciate the irony. Carpenter never wanted a sequel to Halloween. He always felt that less was more with a character who relied so heavily on mystique, and it was with Halloween II that he finally bowed to commercial convention, consciously upping the gore for the return of his most precious character. Halloween may have inspired the likes of Friday the 13th, a series which had since returned with back-from-the-dead commodity Jason Voorhess, a character who would take Myers’ brand of nondiscriminatory slaughter to crowd-pleasing levels. In fact, by the time Halloween II was released in October of that year, the original Halloween was looking pretty tame, dare I say dated, in the eyes of a generation baying for the crude practical effects artistry of someone like Tom Savini. Slashers such as My Bloody Valentine, The Burning and Friday the 13th Part 2 relied less on suspense, more on brutality and visual exploitation, and Carpenter was ultimately convinced into following suit. In the space of three years, the innovative filmmaker had been reduced to imitating his most famous imitator.
Carpenter would hand directing duties for Halloween II to rookie filmmaker Rick Rosenthal in what was his first major picture. Carpenter would write, produce and compose the film’s score, and would even re-shoot several scenes after being unhappy with a film he would later describe as “an abomination,” and “a horrible movie”, but something had become clear. Thanks to major advancements in the field, practical effects were the future. When it came to horror, modern audiences had had their fill with filling in the blanks. What was onscreen was now rivalling their imaginations, and seeing just what special effects magicians such as Stan Winston and Rick Baker would come up with next was a curiosity that needed quenching. That same year, John Landis’ groundbreaking offbeat horror An American Werewolf in London would win the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup, and Carpenter had landed just the property to forge a visual extravaganza of his own.
In an era of countless prequels, sequels and reboots, we have come to regard the whole process as a cynical exercise whose primary goal is to slash marketing expenditure, and modern CGI has become the ire of a generation. It’s facile to write off every remake as a lazy cash-in, but there’s so much underhanded trash to sift through in the 21st century that we’ve all become just a little dubious. CGI looks spectacular but it impresses me much less than the very best examples of practical effects artistry. That’s not to say that programmers are any less skilled when it comes to creating computer generated imagery, but we all know how powerful computer technology has become, and constantly evolving technology means that modern films have a shorter shelf life in terms of their ‘wow factor’. Conversely, the best practical effects artists are like hands-on magicians. Almost forty years after The Thing‘s initial release, there are still moments when you stop and think to yourself, ‘How in the hell did they do that?’
Of course, this is the opinion of someone raised in an era of practical effects, a person who as a child fled his grandmother’s house and ran to the end of the street having just experienced Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the first time. Audiences and critics didn’t take to Carpenter’s The Thing, a movie Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro would later describe as a “Holy Grail”. Part of this was no doubt due to their allegiance with Christian Nyby’s Cold War, alien invasion vehicle The Thing From Another World, the first adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 sci-fi novella Who Goes There?. It didn’t help that Carpenter’s remake happened to coincide with the release of two of cinema’s most groundbreaking sci-fi epics in Steven Spielberg’s ‘kids in peril’ classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Ridley Scott’s visual colossus Blade Runner, each blessed with the kind of iconic score that put Morricone’s work on The Thing firmly in the shade. That’s not to discredit one of cinema’s finest composers. Blade Runner is arguably Vangelis’ finest achievement, and John Williams’ E.T. score would define a generation of young moviegoers. It was simply a case of bad timing.
The generational element no doubt had a bearing on The Thing‘s initial reception. As proven by my own aversion to an over-reliance on CGI, people generally prefer what they were raised on. Whether its Dr Jekyll’s iconic 1931 transformation, an effect achieved using different coloured filters and makeup, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein or H.R. Giger’s phallic parasite the xenomorph, generations will always have their favourites, and there’s generally a degree of bias involved. No different from a dozen movies from Marvel’s hugely popular cinematic universe, The Thing‘s main drawing point back in 1982 was its practical effects, which would have been just as astonishing, and potentially off-putting, to moviegoers in the early 1980s as CGI is today. Carpenter was himself a huge fan of Nyby’s original (there’s a visual reference to the movie in Halloween), and was worried he wouldn’t do it justice without the aid of such technological advancements. In order to achieve the desired effects, Carpenter hired 22-year-old prodigy Rob Bottin, a precocious talent he had already worked with on The Fog two years prior, and who already had seven productions under his belt.
Bottin and his crew produced the kind of visual magic that many still consider the absolute peak of practical effects, an achievement aided by the fact that Carpenter’s The Thing is actually more loyal to the novella on which it is based. While the 1951 film ditched the story’s xenomorphic alien for a parasite of the standard bloodsucking variety, Carpenter gave us a creature that is able to assimilate other organisms on a cellular level, ditching the Cold War sentiments and Roswell references prevalent in its kitschy predecessor for a hyper-tense, beautifully constructed movie that is neck deep in paranoia.
Carpenter’s titular monster is an entity of almost invincible proportions, a creature with the ability to divide and conquer with its power of adaptation and surreptitious nature, proving itself an organism of raw intellect with an uncanny knack for self-preservation. Not only can it imitate the appearance of any other living being, it can adopt their personality and mannerisms, making it undetectable to even the keenest eye, a skill that would lead to one of the most intriguing open-ended twists in modern cinema. Once the outpost’s specialist Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) becomes aware of the creature’s unique abilities, he immediately reaches for his pistol. He may suspect that his colleagues are infected, but he can’t prove it, and every little action becomes a reason for scepticism and distrust. So convincing was Bottin’s alien life form that fans have since come up with a theory which suggests that outpost survivor and protagonist MacReady is actually ‘The Thing’ in disguise by the movie’s end.
Dr. Blair – You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them.
In a 2016 interview with The Huffington Post, actor Kurt Russell would explain, “John Carpenter and I worked on the ending of that movie together a long time. We were both bringing the audience right back to square one. At the end of the day, that was the position these people were in. They just didn’t know anything. They didn’t know if they knew who they were, but had you seen all the things in the movie, you’ve heard MacReady say, ‘I know I’m me,’ Well, you either believe him or you don’t. And Childs — you know, one of my favorite lines in the movie [is], ‘Where were you, Childs?’ And I think that basically says it all. I love that, over the years, that movie has gotten its due because people were able to get past the horrificness of the monster — because it was a horror movie — but to see what the movie was about, which was paranoia.”
The alien effects that Bottin and his crew brought to the screen were breathtakingly audacious, the film’s polymorphous entity assuming all kinds of forms in its quest to consume every living thing it comes into contact with. Particularly impressive is a version of the creature that has become known as ‘Blair-Thing’, a towering mass of tumorous flesh made up of a mishmash or past victims. There is even a scene to rival Alien‘s iconic chest-burster when Dr. Copper’s arms plunge into Norris’s opening torso, the creature’s modified form tearing off his limbs with its enormous, abstract teeth. At the time, it was an utterly startling approach, one that horrified audiences to the point of distaste, but not everything is so in your face. In fact, the movie is driven as much by the subtleties and slow-burning tension of those early scenes: the invading husky which quietly stalks the outpost before erupting into a ferocious torrent of tentacles, the two-faced corpse dripping off the examination table in search of its next victim, the dead-eyed sheen of newly discovered hosts. This isn’t your average monster. It is everywhere and nowhere. It is all-consuming.
The Thing‘s development began as far back as the mid-1970s, with several writers and directors attached to the project at one time or another, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper, the consensus being that the film had to be bigger, but it was the son of screen veteran Burt Lancaster, Bill, who finally landed the gig after proposing a more claustrophobic movie that tapped into audience paranoia. Initially, the movie followed the classic tried-and-tested formula that kept the alien creature largely hidden, something closer to the way Carpenter presented Michael Myers a half-decade earlier, but it was Bottin who put him on the right path, leading the writer along creative avenues that saw him come up with both the aforementioned severed arms moment and arguably the film’s most suspenseful scene: a tense stand-off that forces our crew to take a blood test that will reveal the monster’s true identity. So important were those particular scenes they convinced the director to finally take on the project. As the filmmaker would explain in a 1999 interview with Creative Screenwriting, “Bill wrote the screenplay with the monster in the shadows, the old Hollywood cliché stuff, which everybody still talks about even to this day. Rob Bottin was the guy who said, “No, you’ve got to put him in the light, then the audience really goes nuts. They really go nuts because there it is in front of them.”
Revealing too much can prove the death knell for horror movies, but for all of its visual embellishments, The Thing doesn’t sacrifice on suspense. Like many of the greatest horror movies, the film plunges its characters into a hopeless environment of almost total isolation. Its remote location in the Antarctica makes our crew vulnerable to even the smallest hiccup, adding extreme weather conditions and limited supplies to their paranoia-induced battle with an unknown quantity. MacReady and his snow-bitten comrades have nowhere to turn and nobody to turn to, facing an alien entity in an alien land. With this kind of set-up, the movie grabs you by the throat and never lets go, and there are so many classic scenes to cherish as the community continues to fall apart and infected crew members are picked off with the kind of inevitability that would further displease critics, who saw the movie as being too bereft of hope. The movie may have nihilistic tendencies, but that’s kind of the point given the cast’s situation, and the movie is never drab or wasteful. Revisiting The Thing, I struggled to think of another movie with such relentless and sublimely paced tension. In this regard, it was, and perhaps still is, unsurpassed in the Carpenter canon.
When Bottin finally joined up with Carpenter and co, pre-production was already underway. A design for the eponymous creature was yet to be thought-up, and Carpenter wasn’t too pleased with Bottin’s initial ideas, finding them a little on the peculiar side, but when collaborator Dale Kuipers was forced to leave production for personal reasons, the task was dumped firmly in the youngster’s lap. Bottin had just finished work on metamorphic werewolf flick The Howling, and since The Thing had presumably travelled the universe to wind up near the cast’s doomed outpost, the logic applied was that the creature would retain some of the physical attributes of other alien hosts. To achieve this, it was suggested that Bottin work with comic book artist Mike Ploog, someone the practical effects maestro was already a big fan of, and almost immediately things began to take shape.
As Bottin explained during an interview with Fangoria, “When I described my ideas to [Ploog] he dropped his coffee cup. But what he came up with was great. We must have gone through a thousand drawings — all good stuff. There was enough for six more movies.” Owing to its transformative nature, the monster’s design was actually several, with a mish-mash of assimilated subjects melding into a single shape-shifting grotesquery.“I didn’t want it to remind anyone of any monster they had ever seen,” Bottin continued. “I wanted to avoid, if possible, all the clichés. It was a dream come true. We could do anything; just think things up and make them.”
Achieving the creature’s unique aesthetic was also excruciatingly hard work, and Bottin, who has become something of a recluse in recent years, struggled under the pressure of the film’s large-scale production, even bringing in fellow special effects legend Stan Winston to lighten the crew’s burden. Winston was responsible for the infamous scene with the shape-shifting dog, which is near the beginning of the movie and helped to influence the tone of what would follow, though Winston was so impressed with Bottin’s work that he refused to be credited. “I found it difficult to work with so many people,” Bottin would lament, “all with different needs and wants… It got to the point where I was thinking ‘If I have to do another stinking mechanical dog, I’ll go nuts. So, I asked John if we could use Stan. He said ‘yes’. What was interesting was that it was kind of like being a director and hiring an effects guy for my own movie. I told Stan what I had in mind, and just let him go. I didn’t even go over to his shop. I’d told him to call me when he was done; and when I saw it, I was blown away! I mean, he walks in with this outrageous dog-monster on his arm, and I just loved it!”
MacReady: Watchin’ Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive…
With The Thing, Carpenter once again failed to make any serious commercial waves, managing a rather paltry $19,600,00 on a budget of approximately $15,000,000, though like many iconic films of the era, it fared much better on VHS the following year, the film quickly achieving cult status among horror fans. While critics praised the The Thing‘s technical achievements, they slammed the amount of exposure given to Bottin’s monstrous creations (a mixture of chemicals, food products, rubber, and mechanical parts), as well as the movie’s aforementioned nihilistic tone and what many perceived to be weak characterisation. As is the case with 21st century CGI, traditionalists felt the movie lacked substance, eschewing traditional storytelling elements for technological fancies. This was also an era of horror movie censorship, a legacy that Carpenter’s iconic slasher villain Michael Myers was directly responsible for, and The Thing‘s jaw-dropping visual elements were bound to rub naysayers the wrong way.
Of The Thing‘s criticism, Carpenter would say, “I’ve always thought that was somewhat unfair. I mean, the whole point of the monster is to be monstrous, to be repellent. That’s what makes you side with the human beings. I didn’t have a problem with that. The critics thought the movie was boring and didn’t allow for any hope. That was the part they really hammered on. The lack of hope is built into the story. There is an inevitability to it, but that’s not necessarily a negative.”
Years later, instead of writing the film off as a grotesque fancy, we’re instead asking the question: is The Thing Carpenter’s greatest ever achievement? That seems to be the consensus among fans, and in some ways it’s his most influential movie, one that not only matches the original but in many ways surpasses it, and how many reboots can you say that about? In fact, reboot has become such a dirty word I’d rather use the word re-imagining, because visually The Thing has all the imagination in the world, and in many ways is just as resourceful as something like Halloween, a movie that relied on subtleties as a necessity. The Thing is classic Carpenter with a cinematic upgrade, a larger budget loosening the visual limitations that had forged the director’s legendary resourcefulness, the kind that is still on display here. With The Thing, Carpenter gets the balance just right, staying loyal to those successful, once necessary subtleties of old, while bringing his latest monster out of the shadows and into the spotlight.