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The Thing: 40 years on

Left to freeze by Thatcher’s censors, The Thing has finally been recognised as John Carpenter’s best film

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Horror films have never been so popular. To give you some perspective when it comes to the sub-genre of Zombie movies — some 600 films have been released since 1920 but half of these have been released since 2007. Many of these, like Zak Snyder’s 2021 Netflix release Army of the Dead rely on lavish but unrealistic C.G.I. As such many of these films go uncut or at least pass relatively unscathed through the censors. But there was a time not so long ago when directors faced a serious threat to their artistic free expression.

The film’s journey on its road to redemption is one barely known outside the world of geeky horror aficionados

For a diehard horror fan such as myself, the 1980s was the golden age of Hollywood horror. With the aid of some very creative minds working in makeup and special effects, visionary films across the world were pushing back the boundaries of the imagination. In the United States, A Nightmare on Elm Street haunted the dreams of hundreds of thousands of young cinema goers, whilst in Japan, Shinya Tsukamoto was warping people’s minds with the surreal cyberpunk horror Tetsuo: The Iron Man. When I think of the Italian masters I think less Titian and Botticelli and more Umberto Lenzi and Lucio Fulci; the masterminds who revolutionised the Italian zombie genre.

However, if I had to choose one film that stood out amongst the crowd, one film that terrified and fascinated me in equal measure, it would be John Carpenter’s The Thing. Released nearly 40 years ago it was originally met with near universal disdain by critics, but over the years has been reassessed as a true horror classic. 

But the film’s journey on its road to redemption is one barely known outside the world of geeky horror aficionados.

Until now. Allow this horror obsessed nerd to elucidate. 

Originally based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr novella Who Goes There?, The Thing is set in Antarctica and tells the story of a group of American scientists as they unearth from the frozen ice a parasitic shape-shifting life-form, capable of copying its victim cell for cell in appearance. The extraterrestrial lays dormant inside its helpless victim until discovered, then bursts forth, where it attacks and imitates its next victim. Led by a pilot with a certain roguish charm named MacReady (played by Kurt Russell), the film shows how the group are slowly picked off, one by one in progressively gruesome ways. Haunted by paranoia and suspicion, the cohesion of the group slowly breaks down as they learn they can no longer trust each other. Anyone could be “the thing”.

At first glance you would be convinced you were watching your average run of the mill horror movie. Thematically, it conforms to the standard horror tropes used by Hollywood since the dawn of cinema. But it is aesthetically where The Thing comes into its own. In order to create the film’s gruesome visuals, when filming began in 1981, Carpenter allocated ten per cent of the film’s $15 million budget to hire a young industrious artist named Rob Bottin. The 22-year-old Californian native learnt his craft working alongside the king of special effects: Tom Savini. Affectionately nicknamed “The Sultan of Splatter” for his inventive and extravagant gore-filled scenes, Savini mentored Bottin whilst they worked together on the cult horror film Maniac

To help realise Carpenter’s artistic vision, Bottin toiled relentlessly: working seven days a week for over a year, barely sleeping in order to create the twisted blood-soaked mayhem we see on screen. The dedication to the project got the better of him and he eventually collapsed due to exhaustion. He was subsequently hospitalised — diagnosed with double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer. The man truly understood the meaning to bleed for his art.

The film premiered in American cinemas in June 1982, but if Carpenter had any financial aspirations for the movie, he was sorely mistaken. The film was released the same month as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. When you juxtapose the visceral carnage of The Thing with Spielberg’s affable lovable alien, it was clear who the public favoured. According to box office receipts, The Thing pulled in just $19.6 million dollars (four more than its budget). Contrast with E.T — which by the end of its North American run had amassed $359 million.

When you juxtapose the visceral carnage of The Thing with Spielberg’s affable lovable alien, it was clear who the public favoured

To make matters worse, Carpenter was an established director. Coming off the success of Escape From New York, The Thing was his sixth cinematic project. It was panned by critics.Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times called the film “foolish” going to describe it as “instant junk.” Whilst the US horror and sci-fi magazine Cinefantastique ran an issue with an image of the film on its cover with the heading “is this the most hated movie of all time?”

Seeing as the film was a box office flop, Carpenter was going to have to turn to the burgeoning video rental market to recoup the costs. But to compound the misery, he was going to have to contend with a new problem looming across the western world: that of censorship.

I grew up during the era of the video nasty — the colloquial term used to encapsulate the moral panic unleashed upon the world of cinema by the censorship advocate Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse was a Christian conservative and her growing influence with members of the Thatcher government led to the creation of the 1984 Video Recordings Act (VRA). The Act gave statutory power to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). From 1 September 1985, any film aiming for a video release had to be run through the BBFC. The Act made it illegal to distribute or sell any video that had not been rated and classified by the board. It sent censorious shockwaves through the horror market. Many great horror films were suddenly removed from circulation, such as Sam Raimi’s glorious comedy horror, The Evil Dead, which was subsequently binned by video rental stores nationwide. One of the worst to suffer a protracted indignity was Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left: refused a cinema certificate in 1974. It wasn’t until 2008 —  34 years later — that it was finally released uncut.

The VRA did not just impact the video market. It hit individuals too. Between 1995-2007, 1,659 people were convicted under the Act. These are the only available figures, but a similar number of prosecutions have been estimated between 1984-95.

In an act motivated by political expediency and to placate the Christian conservative right, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) produced a list of 72 films they “believed” (read: never bothered to watch) were too obscene to view. A further 82 titles were put on the list for a less serious “Section 3” charge. The Thing found itself on this list.

Censorship is the foundation of tyranny. It violates free expression and the state should have no role in regulating the creation of art, no matter how “nasty.” But as history has proven time and time again, when it comes to censorship, it can have unintended and liberating consequences. The state had inadvertently provided horror fans with a huge underground market of must-see films.

The publication of the full banned list drawn up by the DPP gave true horror fans a “taboo tick list” that could be used to check off all the great gore films they previously knew little about. Horror fans wrote fanzines and traded tapes with each other. Through hushed voices and plastic bags passed under tables, I discovered a surfeit of amazing films, such as The Evil Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Cannibal Holocaust. This is where I discovered The Thing.

In 1992 critics started to openly call The Thing Carpenter’s best film

And I had the technological means to view it.

In 1979, Video Cassette Recorders arrived in the UK By the time the VRA gained Royal Assent roughly a quarter of households had one. Including ours. By 1987, The Thing had broken free from the list and was passed uncut, where it was able to reach a much wider audience. 

This is where The Thing found success. It wasn’t until a decade after its initial cinematic release did the film start to receive praise. In 1992 critics started to openly call The Thing Carpenter’s best film. Now nearly forty years on and many consider it to be one of horror’s truly great films.

A large part of my love for this film centres around one simple fact: despite what some critics initially suggested, The Thing is utterly disturbing. After nearly half a century, The Thing retains a powerful ability to shake you to your foundations. The cinematography, which perfectly captures the bleak frozen landscape, blends seamlessly with the score, composed by none other than western legend Ennio Morricone. No matter how often you view it, this film will horrify and repulse you.

Which I believe is a great thing.

Do yourself a favour and watch this film. You can thank me later.

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