Carpenter knew going in that The Thing would be a very difficult feat to pull off, given the script’s FX requirements. The production only had a budget of $15 million, microscopic by todays standards, but it still provided audiences with perhaps the most disturbing and impressive monster makeup FX ever seen. It was Rob Bottin, a former protégé of Oscar-winning makeup wiz Rick Baker, who handled the heavy creature-creation chores. Bottin had previously worked with Carpenter on the chiller The Fog, who also took the undead role of Captain Blake.
"I talked to a lot of different people," explained Carpenter. "And Rob was the only guy who came in and said, 'Look, The Thing can be anything. It can look like anything. It doesn't have to look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Dracula. It doesn't have any one look it has millions.' The idea being that throughout the universe it’s been imitating various life forms and carries all this information with it. That made a lot of sense to me. The issue then was to design each version of the monster as it went along, with little bits and pieces of what it imitated before, until, finally, it stands up. Rob brought along some film of a test he had done two days before, which was amazing. He had done it with a Christmas ball and a glove, and yet here was this hideous creature. And I thought, 'Let's go with him.'"
Carpenter's vision was the perfect fit for Bottin's outrageous concepts. In fact, Bottin's ideas would greatly effect how Carpenter would make his film. Prior to Bottin being hired, Carpenter had artist Dale Kulper design the creature. However, Kulper had to drop out of the film due to health reasons, and when Bottin came aboard, he threw out what was already in place. "Dale had come up with something that was a lot better than Alien's face-hugger," Bottin explained. "But it was basically a big bug. It was really neat, but it wouldn't be spooky enough. To me, because of the title, I expected something a little more like a thing. I didn't want it to remind anyone of any monster they had ever seen. I wanted to avoid, if possible, all the cliches."
The creature FX make their first real appearance about 30 minutes into the movie, with a sequence that reveals the alien's true nature. It transforms from it's disguise as a husky dog into bloody, writhing mass of twisted flesh and wriggling tentacles. While transforming, it also slaughters several other dogs in the pen, seemingly sucking the flesh off them. This creature was actually a teaming of legendary mechanical FX supervisor Roy Arbogast and the brilliant Stan Winston.
The most memorable section of the movie begins when Norris appears to have a heart attack, and Doc (Dysart) attempts to save him with shock paddles. However, Norris' stomach peels back to reveal a huge set of jaws, which proceed to bite off poor Doc's arms.
James Cummins, one of the key sculptors on the film explained how this horrifying scene was done. "The stuntman who doubled for Richard Dysart (Copper) was actually a double amputee who was fitted with a facial prosthetic (to look more like Dysart) and breakaway arms for the effects shot. The stuntman actually found it to be a rather unpleasant experience, reliving the loss of his arms." The jaws themselves were made of metal, and acted like a bear trap.
The sequence gets even wilder when a creature that resembles Norris bursts from the host corpse, and attaches itself to the ceiling, and the original Norris head tears away from shoulders, grows additional eyes, and legs and runs across the room. Got that?
"I thought, psychologically," said Bottin. "If I was this creature what I’d have to do is send out some sort of decoy to get their [the heroes] attention off the part of me that’s going to split the room. Then I thought a really fun thing to do would be for Norris’ head to escape the room. So, the neck stretches, stretches, stretches, until finally it severs and the skin breaks, and you see all this stuff like asparagus stretching, and goo popping. And then the head ooze down the side of the table and drops onto the floor."
For one shot of the head tearing free of it’s neck, Carpenter required pyrotechnics to go off in the foreground, which, alas, caused the makeup FX prop to explode, and Bottin’s crew spend the next day reassembling it for the same shot.
"There's no mystery to most of this stuff," admitted Bottin. "Most of the techniques are obvious if you think about it. We used cables, servos, pneumatics, hydraulics, hand puppets, wires, radio controls, marionettes, even a little reverse filming. Probably every effect known to man is in the movie."
The biggest FX creation was saved for last, as MacReady faced off with the final Thing manifestation, dubbed The Blair Monster, which took an amazing sixty people to operate. But this astounding piece of work was only seen very briefly in the final cut, as was a lot of other impressive work. Prior to that, other version of the Blairmonster was created, this one done through the tried-and-true technique of stop motion animation. Ultimately, more than a third of the makeup FX was omitted prior to relief. "At previews, people just couldn't take the images," recalled Carpenter. "They saw foetuses, wounds, death and stuff. We used a gooey substance, used in Twinkies, and that’s what the slime is, that’s what make the creatures glisten. In some cases we would color it, and the choice was, ‘Should we make it an outer space color like purple or yellow? Or do we make it what it is, which is bloody. We went bloody, and, whooah, what a reaction!"