Rewatching John Carpenter's 1982 'The Thing': When special effects don't hold up

the-thing

Image Credit: Everett Collection

Like a lot of movie nuts, I love to watch movies more than once. It’s an experience that generally enhances the pleasure of what you saw the first time. But not always. One of the fascinating things about rewatching a movie that you haven’t seen for years is that the film in question may now look totally different — even though not a single frame of it has actually changed. What’s changed is you: your rhythm, your eye and your ear, your experience and sophistication. And, as much as that, the culture around you has changed, and that culture is part of your cell structure. It influences how you take things in. Which means that a movie, merely by standing still, really can change.

When the frozen-arctic shape-shifting horror thriller The Thing was released this past weekend, I thought it would be fun to go back and rewatch a movie I haven’t seen since it came out: John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing (the new version is officially billed as a prequel). It’s a movie that a lot of horror buffs love; at the time, I thought of it as close to an instant classic. I was never a big Carpenter fan (those three-note musical scores! those two-note characters!), but to me he staged The Thing with leaping tension and skill. The result was a finely carved B-movie pedestal for some visionary special effects. In the nearly 30 years since Carpenter’s The Thing was first released, I’ve never forgotten the amazing effect of those effects: the bodies and faces (of humans and dogs) splitting wide open, like overcooked tomatoes that had finally burst, sprouting tentacles that whipped around like angry spaghetti or shooting out spider legs that carried body parts along with a kind of kinky speed, plus disembodied heads looming up out of those carcasses — as I recalled, it was like Alien gone Little Shop of Horrors, with a touch of EC Comics that’s-so-sick-it’s-funny grossout madness.

At the time, I was so wild about the effects in The Thing that I did a feature for the Boston Phoenix about the bad-boy artist who created them: Rob Bottin, then just 23 years old, a protégé of Hollywood effects legend Rick Baker — and, when I interviewed him, a kind of doofy-naughty hippie kid, as hairy as one of the werewolves he’d created the year before for The Howling (his first hit). I still remember a story Bottin told me about how, not being very good at sports, he’d fantasize that someone would throw a softball at him…and that his head would open up and eat the softball. Now that’s some kind of monster.

I was all set to sit down and write a horror-nostalgia post about how much I loved Carpenter’s The Thing. But last week, I watched it again, and I discovered, to my movie-critic horror, that the film was no longer working for me. It’s not that it suddenly seemed badly made — though I do have to say, the premise made less sense than I remembered. The Thing, an alien life form, mimics and replicates the human body structure, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It stays cleverly hidden. But then those bodies burst open like bloody carnations with jaws. Why? No reason given. The bodies burst open because the movie has to put on a bloody good show.

That said, the real problem I had watching The Thing a second time is that the special effects, much as I’d originally found them awesome, now looked fake. (Sorry, fellow fans, but that’s the only word that seems apt.) The thing is: Why? As a critic, I’ve routinely decried the overuse of CGI, the too-smooth quasi-unreality of digital effects. I have always stood up for the powers of analog. Yet had my eye, in the ensuing years, grown accustomed, or even unconsciously addicted, to the too-easy virtuosity of CGI? Bottin’s baroque nightmare ultra-contraptions, beginning with a Siberian Husky whose face splits open, now looked transparently like the cleverly rigged machines they were. I could still appreciate what a prodigious imagination he had, but no matter how hard I tried to sit back and enjoy the grotesque ride, I could see the artifice. Everything looked wet — too wet. At the time, this was a novelty, a way of lending an organic ickiness to the kind of body-part horror that used to be done with overly pristine rubbery synthetics. But the novelty hadn’t aged well; everything was so moist it looked freshly painted. And don’t get me started on the goo! This was another innovation of the era, dating back to Alien, with its milky translucent gunk dripping out of sexualized membranes. But in The Thing, everything was slathered in goo. I practically expected to look to the side and see a big vat of it marked with something like “Acme Internal Organ Spunk.” It was, quite simply, too much of a good gross thing.

alien

Image Credit: Everett Collection

Okay, so technology marches forward, and special effects frequently don’t age well. This is hardly news. (It’s the basic story of watching old horror and sci-fi movies on TV.) But as I sat back on my couch, reeling in disappointment that The Thing no longer cast the spell that I had remembered, I started to wonder: Why did the effects in certain movies hold up? The obvious counterexample, in this case, is Alien. It was made in 1979, three years before The Thing, and far more than the stodgy (to me) 1951 version of The Thing, it was the real inspiration for the Carpenter remake. I’ve seen Alien a dozen times, and the effects, at least when that gnashing alien fetus pops out of John Hurt’s stomach, have never lost their power to shock and unsettle. Maybe it’s a matter of the director. Ridley Scott knew how to film the alien in subliminal flash cuts — whereas Carpenter, a prosaic low-style minimalist, showcased Bottin’s effects like old-fashioned production numbers, with nary a cut. Or maybe Bottin had almost too audacious a vision to execute with techniques derived from the Rick Baker inflatable-bladder school.

I’m tempted to simply say: One movie (Alien) makes you literally believe your eyes, and the other (The Thing) doesn’t. Then again, the extraordinary mystery of special effects — that is, which ones really stand the test of time, and which ones don’t — is even more complicated than that. Because we’ve all seen old movies in which the effects, in any rational-technological sense, look extremely dated, yet they still cast their original poetic spell. I’m thinking of the lap-dissolve man-to-werewolf transformations in The Wolfman, or the cheesy-cool beastly apocalyptic grandeur of Godzilla (a man in a rubber suit!), or even the now-slightly-archaic-looking lightsaber duels in Star Wars; George Lucas keeps trying to improve the effects in his space epic, yet the more he “improves” them, the more removed from their original magic those movies become.

king-kong

Image Credit: Everett Collection

And then, of course, there’s the granddaddy of Hollywood special-effects fantasies: the original King Kong, made in 1933. Nearly eighty years later, it is, of course, easy to see the seams — the herky-jerkyness — of its scale models animated through stop-motion imagery. Yet no movie has ever surpassed its primeval fairy-tale majesty. When you watch King Kong, you know that you’re watching special effects, yet the timeless enchantment of the movie is this: It doesn’t just get you to believe that a towering gorilla can move. Kong does more than move — he lives. Maybe that’s the real secret of the special effects that prove eternal: They find the soul of the machine.

So I have just one question: Has anyone had an experience similar to mine with The Thing, only with a different movie? Name a film whose special effects you originally loved — but when you went back to watch it again years later, the effects didn’t hold up.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Comments (139 total) Add your comment
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  • Ross

    This is something that has crossed my mind when watching classic films ( or at least classic at the time), or watching a film like Aliens (cameron version) in 1080p HD and seeing the differences.

    • UGH

      Owen probably likes the CGI sharks in Shark Night 3D and Deep Blue Sea over Jaws.

      • Ed

        I didn’t watch The Thing when it came out in ’82, I was a kid, and when I heard that the monster stays hidden for a large part of the movie, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t sit down and watch it until a few years ago, and it blew me away. Now I watch it a couple of times a year. The story, direction, and acting are just amazing. The special effects are great too, the scene you’re talking about still holds up, I wish I had seen it as a 14 year old, but as an adult, I marvel at the craft and technique that went into it.
        As far as movies that I’ve revisited that didn’t quite hold up, I guess Lost Boys is one. I still enjoy it, but it’s not the otherworldly experience I felt as a teen.

    • Cygnus

      The exploding bladders and goo ARE what makes those effects awesome! The new Thing was seriously lacking those details, and the CGI all looked the same and bland to me. It was creative enough, and lacked “real” detail that the original had.

      • Kristen

        I COMPLETELY agree. I am only 20 years old, and I didn’t see the Kurt Russel version until this past Saturday, but it completely blew my mind, and it was before my time. I thought the special effects were going to be terrible, but they were one of my favorite parts of the movie. You can tell they’re fake, but they’re incredible! The new thing wasn’t as good as that version simply because it didn’t have that type of special effects.

    • pickle t1ts

      I’ve said it many times… Owen you’re a C – – T.

    • Mr Eko

      I think the author is overly critical of the FX in the Thing. Too much goo? Really? Also, I found the FX in Alien to be much more out-dated. Think about it -computer screens that look like 1980s era PCs with numerous blinking lights that clearly serve no purpose, but to look futuristic. And the alien creature at the end of the film is clearly a man in an oversized latex suit (a la Godzilla),

  • Babs

    As one of my favorite movies, “The Thing” captivates me for its SFX and its suspense. I still marvel at its innovation and creativity. In response to your criticism that it looks “fake,” how should a head that sprouts spider legs look? Or a chest that opens into a fanged mouth? I think the same reasons you admire King Kong can equally apply to “The Thing.”

    • DLT

      Precisely! The head sprouting spider legs and just walking on its way is probably one of the best scenes in any scifi movie EVER! I thought it looked fake when I saw it in the early 80’s anyway so for me, this movie still holds up. Plus NO ONE rocks that hair like Kurt Russell!

      • Francis Frank Succula

        Owen-

        Your article sucks and you are a hack. Please stop writing anything, anywhere. I think you are a moron and wish that the Thing (Yeah, the one that looks fake to you) would crawl into your bed tonight and render you a puss covered, arterial spraying pile of latex and goo. It would probably be an improvement on your looks considering that you are also Ugly. I’ve never seen what you look like, but judging by your opinions of movies, well…I’m just assuming you look like Comic Book Guy.

        P.S. The original Thing by Carpenter has one of the scariest movie monsters in movie history. I just watched it recently, and it still holds up. I guess you just didn’t have anything better to write about this week, since you have no imagination. Good luck with your future Suckination.

      • BG 17

        I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Frank S. here, with his “anyone with an opinion different than mine is an ugly moron who should die”, is likely a member of the Tea Party…

      • Francis Frank Succula

        Actually BG 17, I’m a Democrat who voted for Obama and not a member of the Tea Party. So the limb you are out on just snapped and you are currently falling to your death. I just really love The Thing, and this article touched a nerve. Thanks for your comment though. I won’t dare say anything bad about you, like I did about this article, or you might blame Sarah Palin. Peace.

      • BG 17

        I am glad that you have a sense of humour, anyway.

    • Dave

      After seeing the prequel “Thing” over the weekend, I was struck by how much I preferred the effects in the 1982 movie as compared to the CGI in the new one. I last watched the 1982 version 3-4 months ago, so I have re-watched it fairly recently.

      • Ed

        The thing is, the fact that the ’82 Thing had a limited budget, and the FX work was long and difficult, made the movie better. They had to build tension, the creature was as terrified of the humans as they were of it, maybe even more. That’s why it was trying to stay hidden among them. In the new one, they can create it all on a computer, so it transforms throughout the movie, it’s not afraid of anything.

  • Zach

    Sorry. I totally disagree. I just rewatched The Thing recently as well and thought it held up really well. I was still super grossed out at the right moments and thought the moment. Nothing looked cheesy CGI like most movies today. The make up and effects were real which to me makes them look even more real than the crap CGI that’s out today.

    • Seriously…

      It’s still a scary movie, but the FX do look dated, particularly the head on legs. The blood jumping out of the petri dish is still quite a shocker.

      • KVKC

        “But then those bodies burst open like bloody carnations with jaws. Why? No reason given. The bodies burst open because the movie has to put on a bloody good show.”
        Open up your imagination, Owen.
        The creature probably has been replicating, duplicating, morphing into other life forms for eons.

    • Billiam

      Couldn’t agree more. I’ll always have much more special respect for pre-CGI special effects. They don’t age as drastically; it’s the reason the original Star Wars trilogy looks more realistic/less cartoony than the new trilogy, it’s the reason movies like The Day After Tomorrow, I Am Legend and others are already unwatchable, just as I assume Avatar will be in 5 years (if it isn’t already, based on the plot). CGI works best when mixed with other effects, like animatronics, costumes, models etc. – for example, Jurassic Park & Independence Day still hold up overall.

      • David Madrigal

        @billiam I agree with u except about avatar anything Cameron does is timeless. Aliens titanic and terminator 1 and 2 still hold up very well

      • jay

        I love James Cameron, but Avatar didn’t hold up even when I was watching it. It might have been ok if I had watched it in 3D, but it shouldn’t have to rely on a gimmick. I have heard that the 3D looked amazing, so he probably focused all his creative energy on that. Maybe that works for some people, but sorry, no gimmicks for me.

    • Kurt Russell’s Hair

      I just rewatched the Thing this past weekend with my 14 year old son. We BOTH really enjoyed it and even with him being from the new CG generation (although I believe that he’s a real boy) he found it to be creepy and when the alien attacked the sled dogs he was partially looking away. NO CG movie can make him do that.

  • Brian

    I watched it for the first time ever about a month ago. I thought it was great. I actually think the effects look better than a lot of the overdone cgi effects in movies today. I really enjoyed it. I can’t believe it took me so long to finally watch it.

  • Zach

    My wife was trying to talk to me while I was typing so I realize that some of my sentences are totally screw up. My point was. The Thing holds up really well compared to CGI crap fests.

  • Jon

    On the other side of the coin, I’m a long-time admirer of the film and I’ve seen it so many times that its effects barely register as outdated. In fact, the physicality of the practical effects give the film a realness and gravity that GCI artists still needs to work on improving. I recently saw this film on the big screen again at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood with two pals (film studies academics, in fact) who had never seen the film before. They were both knocked out. So…there you go.

  • marilinda

    love it or hate it, there is no denying that THE THING is pretty fun to watch and kurt russell is great.

  • ^

    I’ll take The Thing special effects over CGI any day!

    • Nathan

      Me too.

      • Michael

        Me three

  • jc

    Owen is crazy. The first time I saw the THING was in 2007 and I was amazed at the effects. To this day I think they look better than 90% of any hollywood cgi.

  • Veritas

    I could not possibly disagree more. I watched the ’82 Thing a few weeks ago, and to my mind it still holds up as one of the best films of it’s kind ever made. The paranoid tension is remarkable, the color hues, the music and every single cast member were fantastic.
    As far as the FX go, I may come at it a little differently than you. I always look at a film and know an effect is an effect. Therefore, they ALL look “fake”. I must say though that I prefer the practical effect, the on-the-set latex and goo and hydraulic and wire operated creatures of the late 70’s through the early 90’s to any of the current effects. When I would see a new creature in a film of the 80s I would marvel at the engineering and the artistry of the sculptor and designer, and the movements of the puppeteers or actors-in-suits, and the way the cameramen would light and film, and the way the editor would cut it together. Nowadays, I see an effect and know, 98% of the time, a guy or gal clicked their mouse a few billion times. It all has a hollow cartoon look that just does nothing for me. And all CG looks bad to me, from the worst grade Z Syfy tripe to the dinos on Terra Nova to the pinnacle of blockbuster effects in things like Avatar. I know that alot of effects can ONLY be done with CG, and there has been great work done on landscapes or crowd shots or filling in background. But anytime they are the center of the action, it just doesn’t work.

    • D Clarke

      @Veritas i couldn’t have put it better myself, everything you said is 100% true, and the sooner these directors realize this the better. The annoying thing is with the technology available today think how great the animatronics, make up etc could be now, partnered with cgi where needed. There is too much of a dependence on cgi now, which is causing not only the effects themselves to look bland and rushed, but also the films themselves are getting worse as a result!!!

  • hkr

    thing is scarry for its suspense, story bub

  • ns

    I saw The Thing again within the last year, and I simply don’t agree that it looks dated. On top of that, you have to admire a film that dared to leave the viewer without any sense of triumph at the end, since either the “survivors” were doomed to die within hours, or at least one of them had become the Thing themselves.

  • Anon

    Manimal! Oh man, how I loved hat TV show when I was a kid! I bought into that thing like nobody’s business. Semi-recently, I refound it on YouTube, and holy cats, did that transformation sequence blow. Actually, the whole show sucked. But when I was a kid, I believed it to be the finest masterpiece ever put on the small screen.

  • The Howling disappointed me

    Also a Bottin film. It just fell flat to me now. Didn’t get me like it used to. Now it was simply stationary in its dated-ness.

    • ERTorre

      Have to agree re The Howling, although my problem with it now isn’t necessarily the effects but the way it was edited. When I saw the film when it was first released, I was terrified, especially with the one big werewolf transformation. When I watched the film again, that same transformation seemed to GO ON FOREVER, and the woman/soon to be victim of the werewolf just stood there, watching the creature transform, when it seemed she had all the time in the world to slip out of the house and not get killed!

  • Darren J Seeley

    Since you mention ‘Alien’ – we all know it was a guy in a suit (adult alien). But it is how you sell the effect that counts. Sorry, Owen- like everyone else, you really lost me. .

    • seattlejohn

      LOVE ALIEN and the fx are great…except the scene where Ripley blows it out the airlock and it is obviously a man in a creature suit and that scene always bothers me

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