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A Mutated Hindsight: The Reception Study of John Carpenter’s The Thing

Horror films are like cockroaches; not just in the way they can be unappealing, scary, and gross to many individuals, although that is another appropriate analogy. I relate horror films to cockroaches in the way that they seem to last far longer than anyone expects them to. I believe no film exemplifies this notion better than John Carpenter’s 1982 Science Fiction Horror film, The Thing, a remake of the Howard Hawks produced 1951 film, The Thing From Another World. Another World was an adaptation of the 1938 novella, Who Goes There, by John W. Campbell Jr.. Today, The Thing is regarded by both critics and audiences as one of John Carpenter’s best works in his 30 year career, as well as one of the most exceptional horror films of the 1980’s. Modern critics praise its special effects by practical effects legend Rob Bottin, its original score by Ennio Morricone, and its themes of isolation, paranoia and distrust of fellow man. Adam Smith of Empire UK wrote in his January 2000 review: “The Thing is a peerless masterpiece of relentless suspense, retina-wrecking visual excess and outright, nihilistic terror.”

Critics and audiences are able to recognize the film’s greatest strengths today, but this was not the case when the film was initially released on June 25th, 1982. It was actually initially met with a mixed to outright negative reception. Critics from highly respected news sources like: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Sun Times, reviewed the film negatively for its nihilistic worldview, gratuitous violence, and supposed lack of characterization.

The first critical review I want to break down comes from The Chicago Sun Times. It was written in June of 1982, by none other than Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Roger Ebert, who gave it two and a half stars out of four. Right out of the gate, he labels the film a “barf-bag movie.” He then signals his two biggest criticisms of the film: “The superficial characterizations and the implausible behavior on that icy outpost.” Ebert elaborates on the second point in the next paragraph suggesting that the implausible behavior of the scientists led to him being confused as to who was human and who was alien. “Carpenter allows his characters to wander off alone and come back with silly grins on their faces, until we’ve lost count of who may have been infected, and who hasn’t. That takes the fun away.”

While I greatly admire and respect Roger Ebert’s many years of contributions to film analysis (he was always the type of critic who approached films for what they were trying to accomplish rather than meeting his own ideas), I think this is one of those cases where he missed what The Thing’s central thesis was. The main source of tension that’s found within The Thing is the paranoia associated with the fact that this alien creature can hide within the group, and at any moment, deform and become murderous. Every character has the potential to be a ticking time bomb. The audience is supposed to feel the same exhausting paranoid that the characters are experiencing. Ebert comments at the end of the review that: “It seems clear that Carpenter made his choice early on to concentrate on the special effects and the technology and to allow the story and people to become secondary.” According to an interview on the DVD extras of the film, Carpenter’s actual intentions were to stay true to the novel, which he originally read and was fascinated by in high school, as well as developing an Agatha Christie style “whodunnit” story with the tone of existential body horror. I can agree that Carpenter’s use of special effects were a high priority for him; his main goal as a filmmaker was to tell an effective story, not to invoke cheap thrills through gore.

This next review is by Vincent Camby, whose June 25th, 1982 article was published in The New York Times, and it really makes me consider the (at times) disconnected line between film criticism and filmmaker intentionality, as I fully believe this critic did not understand what he was watching. He makes a similar comment to Ebert, in that he says: “[The Thing] mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other.” There’s that word again: fun. Did every film critic in the 1980’s need horror films to be “fun” to be considered good? While there were successful horror films in that time that had a lighter and more playful tone like: Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), criticizing the lack of “fun” or “humor” in a film that shows no intentions of indulging in humor shows a failure of managing one's own expectations on the critic’s part. A film like Come and See (1985) is never criticized for its supposed “lack of humor,” so why did The Thing face such scrutiny? Is it because it is a genre film and not a historical drama? How is that fair criticism? John Carpenter was inspired by the tragic stories he read in bible school and wanted to tell a bleak and tragic horror story. In an interview with Collider in 2019, he states: “I was very young and impressionable and they read the Revelations. Holy shit! Are you kidding me? The end of days! Wow! The imagery was bizarre.” Carpenter was compelled to tell a darker story more than a fun story.

Camby showcases his further lack of understanding of the material with two key sentences: “One of the film’s major problems is that the creature has no identifiable shape of its own.” The entire point of the creature is that it could take any shape it needed to infiltrate and feed. That is what makes the creature frightening. It is not an obvious monster coming straight for the characters, but a monster lurking amongst them and pretending to be one of them so it can strike when their guards are down. It is clear in Camby’s review that it is not that he is incapable of understanding the material; it is that he deliberately chooses not to. He states: “There may be a metaphor in all this, but I doubt it.” Is it not a film critic’s job to decipher and analyze the meaning of a film, rather than give up halfway through? If I were to write Camby’s exact sentence in an academic college paper analyzing a film, I would be given a failing grade and be sat down to “discuss the possibility of changing your major,” and yet, his review was published in one of the most highly read newspapers in the world.

Unlike the creature, the advertising of the film was not supposed to mislead audiences and critics into believing this film was something it was not. The printed ads for the film, including one printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer in June of 1982, calls the film: “an extraordinary journey into the realm of unimaginable terror.” The main poster of the film depicts a man standing in a snow jacket, but instead of the man having a face, it depicts a white shining void, as though the threat is an eldritch horror beyond man’s own understanding. The original trailer of the film also sells the bleak and hopeless atmosphere that the film provides, as the narrator describes that these researchers in Antarctica are unsure of what they are up against, as the trailer cleverly hides any traces of what the creature looks like. I am unsure where Roger Ebert and Vincent Camby got the idea that this film was supposed to be a Funhouse Carnival ride horror film, because they could not have gotten that idea from the film’s advertising.

That being said, in certain trade magazines covering the film, there was a focus on showcasing its special effects. In Fangoria Issue #21 released in August of 1982, Rob Bottin was interviewed for his innovative special effect work on the film, as well as showing photos of the first ever publicity shots of the creatures.

The special effects were an aspect both Ebert and Camby praised to the point where Ebert believed this was the film’s main goal. The review by Linda Gross for The Los Angeles Times written in June of 1982 paints a clearer picture of the audience's mindsets in the early 1980’s. Two weeks ahead of The Thing, Universal Pictures and Amblin released a family adventure film featuring an alien creature. It’s name was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and it was a massive critical and box office success, and is still a highly celebrated film today, with its iconic imagery of a kid on a bike floating above the moon eternally integrated into modern pop culture. At the time of The Thing’s release, E.T. was fresh in the audience's minds, especially Linda Gross. While it is a more positive review than Ebert’s and Camby’s, Gross praises the film on a technical level; she makes multiple comparisons to E.T. as well as to other successful blockbusters at the time such as: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Star Wars (1977). Gross stated as the positive outlooks of modern filmmakers, The Thing “may be the dark side of E.T.” She elaborates, “Instead of providing us with love, wonder, and delight, The Thing is bereft, despairing and nihilistic,” as well as saying the film has “a terrible absence of love. The film is so frigid and devoid of feeling that death no longer has any meaning.” While her assessment is accurate in that the film is despairing and nihilistic, the film was never meant to provide any sense of love and hope as E.T. did, so it is not fair to either movie to be compared to one another when they are both trying to convey the complete opposite emotional response.

What I gather from these critical responses is that perhaps The Thing was the victim of a poorly planned out release schedule. Perhaps releasing such a harrowing and uncompromising depiction of an alien creature so soon after another film that depicted an alien creature with warmth and wonder was not a smart choice by its distributors. Imagine if Jaws (1975) was released two weeks after Finding Nemo (2003). Would it have been given the same reception it originally did? Perhaps not. Audiences and critics were not looking to be horrified after the positive hype surrounding E.T., and thus, judged the film as though not providing the same sense of wonder that E.T. did was a negative trait against it. Perhaps the film would have received a better reception if it was released later in the year, like October, when audiences are looking to be frightened.


Jeremy Kolodziejski

Jeremy is younger than he looks, and has passionately studied the art and craft of filmmaking for as long as he can remember. He is currently a freelance wedding videographer, and is also heavily involved in Competitive Fighting Games. You can follow him on Instagram @prof_k.o



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