John Carpenter's The Thing: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Kurt Russell Horror Movie

The spider-head from The Thing

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As a master of the horror genre with a penchant for politically motivated allegory, there is one film by director John Carpenter that best defines his career. His chilling, highly suspenseful creature feature The Thing follows a group of American researchers in Antartica, led by Kurt Russell, who begin to question who among them they can trust after discovering a hostile otherworldly being with the ability to imitate any living organism. The movie has sparked questions over the years, which we may be able to answer through some The Thing behind-the-scenes facts that are just as fascinating as the film itself.

The 1982 sci-fi thriller is lauded as one of the best horror movies of all time for its astoundingly realistic creature effects and unnerving paranoid atmosphere, as well as one of the few horror remakes that actually don’t suck - even surpassing the 1951 original by more faithfully honoring the short story that inspired it, John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” However, it actually took a long time for the initially panned box office bomb to achieve the praise it receives, which may actually be the film’s most confounding mystery. Perhaps we can figure it out as we unveil many other secrets of The Thing with the following these bits of trivia, starting with a glimpse at the imitation the movie could have been.

Gunnar Hansen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Tobe Hooper Was Approached To Direct The Thing Before John Carpenter

It is hard to imagine anyone better to helm The Thing than John Carpenter, who coincidentally incorporated a TV broadcast of The Thing from Another World into his original Halloween movie in 1978. However, he had not yet made the hit slasher masterpiece when Universal began considering who should remake the alien invasion movie, which is why Tobe Hooper was their first choice.

According to Bloody Disgusting, the studio parted ways with the director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre when his vision resembled what producer Stuart Cohen described as “a sort of Antartica Moby Dick” vastly different from the source material. Tobe Hooper would go on to direct Poltergeist in 1982, depending on who you ask, that is.

The title card for The Thing

The Thing’s Famous “Burned In” Title Card Was A Practical Effect

Thankfully, John Carpenter agreed The Thing should be more like “Who Goes There?” than The Thing from Another World was, but did pay tribute to Howard Hawks’ B-movie by recreating its iconic title card that literally “burns” into the screen. Visual effects artist Peter Kuran described how he achieved the effect 1998’s feature-length documentary The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, which can be found on Shout Factory’s 2016 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release that Amazon has available. He first drew the ominous design of the title on an animation cell which he placed behind a fish tank filled with smoke and covered with a trash bag that, when lit on fire, revealed the title in all its glory.

Kurt Russell in The Thing

The Thing’s Interior Scenes Were Shot In A Refrigerated Soundstage

The Thing also resembles the 1951 film's Antarctic setting, even though no shooting took place there, exterior shots were achieved in Alaska and British Columbia and the inside of U.S. Outpost 31 built on a Universal Studios soundstage cooled to an authentically cold temperature. Cinematographer Dean Cundey recalled on the Terror Takes Shape doc how the warmly dressed cast and crew would walk out into the Los Angeles summer heat to the see confused faces of studio tourists. They would eventually grow tired of changing for lunch breaks and opted to endure the heat instead, according to star Richard Masur.

Jed in The Thing

Canine Actor Jed Made His Film Debut In The Thing

By starring as resident dog handler Clark, Richard Masur got to spend a lot of time with Jed, whose performance as the titular creature's wolfdog disguise often gets more praise than most of the human cast. This makes it all the more surprising to learn that the animal actor, who would go onto star in both of Disney's White Fang movies, had never been in a film before The Thing on top of having little experience working with people, as Masur claims in Terror Takes Shape. Perhaps that was crucial to the memorably chilling and fittingly "alien" atmosphere of his onscreen presence.

Richard Dysart in The Thing

Doc’s Arm-Loss Effect In The Thing Was Achieved By Hiring An Amputee

When naming The Thing's most shocking flagship moment, many cite "Doc" Copper's (Richard Dysart) attempt to revive what he does not realize is an imitation of Norris (Charles Hallahan), whose stomach turns into a large mouth that chomps down on Doc's arms. In Terror Takes Shape, Rob Bottin, the man we can thank for the film's stunning practical effects, reveals that, in the following wide shot, the now armless Doc is then played by a man, who had lost his arms in an industrial accident, wearing a mask modeled from Dysart's face. Bottin also mentions how this same double was wearing fake arms made of jello, wax bones, and rubber in the close-up of the grotesque amputation.

Norris-Thing from The Thing

Rob Bottin Was Hospitalized For Exhaustion By The End Of The Thing’s Production

Rob Bottin, a big inspiration to the special effects designer of 2011's The Thing prequel Alec Gillis, was only 22 when John Carpenter hired him as to design the titular creature and its make-up effects, though you would believe he was an industry veteran by his impeccable work in the film that would prove to be more tiresome than one should really allow. Just take this excerpt from his Terror Takes Shape interview to see why:

I was so wanting this stuff to come out so great, I actually lived at Universal for a year and five weeks without taking a day off... I'd sleep on the sets... I ended up working so hard that I ended up in the hospital at the end of the show. John [Carpenter] looked at me and said, 'You don't look well. Someone take this guy to the hospital.' Since then I've wised up and I don't do that anymore

Any filmmaker would agree that no one should ever work themselves to threatening levels of exhaustion for their art. Of course, when the result is one of the scariest movie monsters in history, you cannot say it was not entirely worth it.

A transformed Wilford Brimley in The THing

Fangoria Magazine Held A Creature Drawing Contest Prior To The Thing's Release

Of course, the ability to shape-shift into an unlimited amount of forms is what really makes the alien antagonist of The Thing especially scary, unpredictable, and such an amazing creative opportunity. Renowned horror magazine Fangoria used that opportunity to hold a contest challenging readers to submit drawings of what they imagined the creature would look like, promising a trip to Universal Studios to the most accurate or unique illustration.

The winning submission, which Fangoria later shared on Instagram in 2018, really looks nothing like any of what the creature becomes in the film, but is so terrifying, it almost makes you wonder if that is what scared audiences from the theater. However, the makers of The Thing have other ideas.

The alien from E.T.

Cast And Crew Believe E.T.’s Success Caused The Thing’s Critical And Commercial Failure

With how highly regarded it is today, it is hard to believe that The Thing initially received poor reviews when it was came out in the Summer of 1982 and grossed a worldwide total of only less than $20 million. Well, audiences may recall that a little movie called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released just two weeks earlier and, as Dean Cundey would explain in the following Terror Takes Shape excerpt, he and most others involved with the horror flick assume the hit family film is what sealed its fate:

I think that, at the time, when The Thing was released, it was an innovative, very kind of unusual journey for an audience and I think that it came across an interesting phenomenon that was, at the time, we also had a very friendly alien that came to visit the earth in the form of E.T. and it was a case of an audience, at the time, feeling probably more comfortable with a friendly alien and the fact that the, sort of, dark edge of The Thing was something that wasn’t so appreciated at the time. I think audience’s sensibilities always change and they’re now prepared to accept an alien that isn’t so friendly in the shape of the Thing.

Norris actor Charles Hallahan also claimed in the documentary that if more time had passed between the release of The Thing and the heartwarming E.T. (which Steven Spielberg almost made into a killer alien horror movie, too, believe it or not), it could have been a real success. Of course, not everyone involved felt too confident in the film's nihilistic overtones either.

Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady in The Thing

An Alternate Ending To The Thing Was Shot To Give Audiences A More Hopeful Conclusion

Editor Todd Ramsay recalls in Terror Takes Shape approaching John Carpenter with the idea of, instead of ending The Thing with an uncertain fate for lone survivors R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (future Community star Keith David) that the audience may respond better to something more concrete and positive. Carpenter decided to shoot an alternate scene in which MacReady is rescued and confirmed to be still human, but to stay true to the source material, he ultimately opted to leave it out. Horror fans are thankful for ending we got for its more appropriately somber quality and, especially, the debates it has since sparked.

David Clennon in The Thing

Dean Cundey Implanted A Subtle Hint At Who Is Or Is Not The Thing

While The Thing never gets old no matter how many times you see it, nothing really tops the mystery of who the creature is imitating in the first viewing. Well, apparently it is much easier to distinguish the humans from the creature than we all realized as director of photography Dean Cundey would reveal in this pull from a 2016 interview with Blumhouse:

So we were looking for some kind of a subtle way, to say which one of these (men) might be human. You'll notice there's always an eye light, we call it, a little gleam in the eye of the actor. It gives life.

As you can see from the photo of Palmer (David Clennon) above, all it really took to know he was an alien was paying close attention to the shadows over his brow. Yet, does this also explain the The Thing's ambiguous ending that never confirms if Keith David and Kurt Russell's characters are still human? I will leave that one up to you.

Quick bonus fact before we go: did you know that the late legendary composer Ennio Morricone repurposed some unused music from his The Thing score for The Hateful Eight in 2015? What is really ironic is how he was actually nominated for a Razzie for composing the horror film while Quentin Tarantino's western, also starring Kurt Russell, earned him his first and only Academy Award, not counting his honorary Oscar in 2007. I suppose the real lesson to take from all of this is that good things come to those who wait.

Jason Wiese
Content Writer

Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.