John Carpenter was one of the many breakout American directors of the 1970s, who scored great acclaim for his tiny budget thrillers Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween, not to mention the sci-fi comedy Dark Star and the Oscar winning short film The Resurrection Of Bronco Billy, which he co-wrote. The director's interest in creating a new version of The Thing dated back to before Assault and Halloween had even been released. However, his growing clout would eventually make the project possible.
Carpenter's affinity for the Howard Hawks-produced original was such that he included characters watching it on TV in a scene in Halloween. When Universal Pictures pushed ahead with their plans to remake several of their old genre pieces (such as Paul Schrader's highly underrated revision of Val Lewton's Cat People), Carpenter would have considered a nature for The Thing remake. However, this wasn't such an easy career move for the young filmmaker. "At first I didnít want to remake The Thing because of my fondness for the original film which scared the hell out of me as a kid," Carpenter recalled. "Universal had the rights to remake it and so they approached me and asked if we could remake it in a different kind of way. I came up with the idea of going back to the original novella, Who Goes There?, by John W Campbell. Howard Hawkís 1951 movie, The Thing from Another World, had gotten rid of the imitative idea and a lot of that kind of material so I decided to return to those roots and basically reinvent the whole film. "
Although The Thing shares a basic similarity to Halloween...fear...this film dealt with more than just primal terror. Probably the film's key theme is mistrust and paranoia...the characters can't trust each other, and the audience felt the anxiety. The atmosphere and foreboding, not to mention the possibly apocalyptic outcome, made Carpenter find himself working in new areas. "That was one of the toughest movies ever to make. It was hard to embrace the darkness of it but that was what we had committed to. My editor said: 'John, youíve got to embrace the darkness. Thatís what this movie is about, thatís your job'. So I did. It wasnít a pleasant thing to do, thereís that little room down in everybodyís mind with your view of the world and the universe and sometimes you donít want to spend too much time there. I had to spend a good year and a half in it."
Setting a horror movie in the Antarctic is certainly an intriguing idea, putting it on the big screen no easy task. "There were two cold-weather shoots. There was a pre-production unit which went up to the Juno ice fields which is essentially where all the weather for North America begins. We spent two weeks there shooting in this little base. Wow, it was grim. Then we spent several weeks on refrigerated sound stages in LA during a heat wave. It was 104 degrees outside and 30 degrees inside so we all got colds. After that we made the trek to Stewart, British Columbia which is a little border town where itís rumoured that the last police department was burned down and the cops run off. So its lawless like the old frontier towns and this Hollywood crew and actors come stumbling in. We shot on top of a glacier and had to travel up by helicopter each day. At the time I hadnít got my commercial licence so I had the pilot ferrying us around, giving me lessons and letting me take over occasionally. I wasnít qualified to fly Kurt Russell around Ė theyíd kill me if I did that. Oh, it was grim and the stories of survival from that shoot are pretty amazing but we got it done."
The pairing of Carpenter and star Kurt has been a very popular one with fans of both men, although the average to disappointing grosses of their collaborations indicate not much interest from the general public. The friendship between director and actor started in the 70s and still exists today. "Sometimes you just respond to actors or actresses," said Carpenter. "I met Kurt in 1978 when we were doing a TV movie about Elvis in which he played the leading part and it was the way he approached roles, the way he saw acting and the way he saw movies. He was trained in the old Disney studios where theyíd cut the camera if you didnít say your lines exactly right. He had old studio training and so he was absolutely the consummate professional and that just appealed to me. He is a highly underrated, brilliant actor."
The Thing bombed in 1982, and didn't win over the majority of critics. However, time has been kind to his motion picture, and it has become a cult favorite and rediscovered by watchers of late night TV (like me!) and VHS users. The popularity of the DVD Collectors Edition became a must-have for many fans of the genre, and a successful Dark Horse comic book series most likely gained even more attention. For Carpenter, this must be vindication for a film he's held in (rightfully) high regard. "The Thing is one of my favourite movies Iíve made," he admitted. "I donít think thereís a movie quite like that film. Itís one of the bleakest films ever made, it has a strange ending where you donít know quite whatís happened and itís a depressing kind of pessimistic view of humanity and itís future."