Here’s the strange thing about The Thing, John Carpenter’s unsettling 1982 monster mystery: Though it’s one of the most obsessed-over films of the past 30 years — spawning comic books, a videogame, and a prequel due in October — its initial reception was notably frigid. “The movie was hated,” says Carpenter, 63-year-old director of such classics as Halloween and Escape From New York. “Especially by the science fiction and horror fans. Not a pleasant experience.”
Neither is watching the flick. The story of 12 isolated men (led by Kurt Russell) who stumble upon a 100,000-year-old protean creature in Antarctica, The Thing is replete with nightmarish pre-CGI effects. In one awesomely disgusting scene, a man’s stomach turns into a maw of jagged teeth while his head drops to the floor, sprouts spiderlike legs, and tries to scurry away.
Really, The Thing is about the contagious nature of fear. Because any of the men could be The Thing, the supposed heroes begin to turn on one another. By the end of the movie, their moral boundaries have proven as malleable as The Thing itself. “It almost feels like a David Mamet play with a horror twist,” says Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright, who calls it “the ne plus ultra of monster movies.”
Thanks to The Thing’s grisly bioshocks and downbeat tone — not to mention competition that same summer from Blade Runner and E.T. — the film quickly disappeared from theaters and Carpenter found himself fired from directing the adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter. But The Thing became a fixture in video stores and on cable, where it earned an audience of young fans. By the early 2000s, it had been sequelized in comics and videogames.
So perhaps it was inevitable that Hollywood would return to the icy wastes that spawned the film. The new Thing is a prequel set in a Norwegian research camp where the creature is thawed out. That’s a testament to the power of Carpenter’s vision and of his ever-morphing stature in the canon. His films were never much loved by critics, but they’ve been praised by everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Jonathan Lethem. “Maybe they’re ahead of their time,” Carpenter says. “That’s been the story of a lot of my movies. But that’s OK. I play a different game than a lot of people: I play for the long run.”
Carpenter has made only one film in the past 10 years — this summer’s ghost story, The Ward. He has seen several of his titles be rediscovered and remade, usually with his blessing. (He has nothing to do with The Thing prequel, though he admires one part of the filmmakers’ strategy: “I had an all-male cast,” he says. “I think they’ve got a few babes, which will be helpful.”) He’s still bewildered — and a little stung — by the way his chilly monster movie was received, but he’s grateful for the revival. “It’s nice,” Carpenter says. “Better than people calling me a bum.”