GitRant – John Carpenter’s The Thing : A Retrospective

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The Thing was released to rapturous applause in 1982. The brainchild of Director John Carpenter, the mind behind Friday The Thirteenth and featuring the practical effects work of maestro Rob Bottin, whose memorable work on An American Werewolf In London ensured many a brown trouser. It stars Kurt Russel, fresh from his success in “The Buddy Holly Story”, and to my mind features his greatest performance, at least until “Overboard” was released a few years later.

The Thing is the belated sequel to the 1958 Howard Hawks movie, “Who Goes There”, and continues the story of a shapeshifting vegetable monster trapped in the North Pole. It joins “The Fly” and “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” in the pantheon of 80s movies that appeared to be about monsters, but were really about herpes.

The monster arrives at the base in the form of a dog which is being chased by two mad Norweigans with guns. The Norweigans don’t speak English, and just shout at Kurt Russel in their own language. The funny thing is, if you speak Norweigan, this scene gives away the entire plot:

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The creature is now in the base, where it proceeds to impregnate the men one by one and wreak havoc in their lives. As the men’s sandwiches go missing and toilet rolls mysteriously get used up with everyone denying all knowledge, man is pitted against man in a tale of paranoia and mistrust which culminates in an epic battle and perhaps the best case for glove puppets over CGI in all of cinema.

The movie is famous for its groundbreaking special effects, including the horrific sequence where a dog’s face splits open. Aware of the difficulties in training a real dog to perform this stunt, Carpenter enlisted the talents of animal trainers Ron and Valerie Taylor, the Australian couple who had trained the shark to explode at the end of Jaws, and the results speak for themselves.

Something about this film which would never fly in today’s politically correct climate is the fact that every single cast member has an enormous beard.

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Rob Bottin (above)  was responsible for maintaining the beards of each actor, some of whom were unable to produce thick facial hair on their own. Kurt Russel in particular wanted the fact that his face couldn’t produce anything more than the light blond fuzz of a hormonally confused thirteen year old kept firmly out of public knowledge. Bottin was however famous for his ability to grow a facial thornbush overnight by simply staring into a mirror and thinking about the black waterfalls. He would then affix his offcuts to the faces of the cast using spit and tears, before repeating the process the following night. As can be imagined, this was a terrible strain on Bottin, and he lived almost exclusively on manly foods like hamburgers, rare steaks and live weasels in order to hastily replenish lost testosterone. John Carpenter finally sent him to hospital after he arrived at work to find Bottin passed out on the couch on set, cocooned in a hard carapace made out of his own facial hair, a bit like that stretchy man off the X Files.

The studio had wanted to cast at least one female character to take some of the strain off Rob Bottin’s beard production. However, Director John Carpenter was well-known in the industry for his strange behaviour around women. An associate once reported that when around females, Carpenter would first make awkward bragging claims about having directed classic movies like “Gone With The Wind”, while looking at his shoes. He would then invariably punch the female on the shoulder and run off laughing, only to be found sobbing in a skip some hours later. It is for this reason first and foremost, that the Thing is something of a sausage fest.

However, as is well-known now but wasn’t common knowledge then, actors are sometimes known to spontaneously change sex when in a single sex environment, so three weeks into filming, Joel Polis, who played Fuchs, abruptly changed into a 16 year old girl. Rob Bottin’s beard went into overtime, and some of the extra stubblework was farmed out to Stan Winston (below) and his studio.

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Watching the final cut, it’s almost impossible to tell which is the male Fuchs and which is the female one thanks to Winston’s hirstute artistry. Winston, characteristically modest, always maintained that despite his contribution, ” this is Rob Bottin’s movie, not mine”. What a guy. When filming was over, and upon rejoining society, Joel Polis duly reverted to his male form, but was sadly unable to retain his powerful beard.

One of the biggest mysteries of this movie, and something which is often talked about over a pint of beer in the pub by passionate fans, concerns the ambiguity of the ending. The monster has been blown to pieces, the base has been destroyed in a fireball, and we see the two survivors, Macready and Childs, sitting in the burning wreckage. But, is one of them really gay?

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Kurt Russel would return for a remake, also titled “The Thing” in 2011, this time played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It’s a fucking shithouse, so don’t watch it.

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