The TL;DR Version:
There were many, many complaints from critics regarding The Thing, which can be summarized as follows:
- The effects (which were the work of the legendary Rob Bottin) were too gory;
- the story was too bleak;
- there wasn't enough character development;
- it was too depressing;
- the pace was too slow;
- it was too different from the 1951 version (The Thing From Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by Howard Hawks) and too much like the original novella (Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell, Jr.),
- and so on.
Although it has often been suggested that the box office failure of The Thing was related to the incredibly successful E.T. The Extraterrestrial shortly before the release of Carpenter's film, this idea has been largely rejected by John Carpenter and Stuart Cohen.
What the Critics Said:
This movie is more disgusting than frightening, and most of it is just boring.
David Denby, New York magazine.
Too phony looking to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk... A foolish, depressing, over-produced movie... aspiring to be the quintessential moron movie of the 1980's...
Vincent Canby, New York Times
[The special effects were] let loose on us by the bucketful, and satiation rather than horror is the result.
Derek Malcolm, The Guardian
The only avenue left to explore would seem to be either concentration camp documentaries or the snuff movie.
William Parente, The Scotsman
The Guardian - The Thing Set On Survival, Anne Billson
"The Thing" is basically, then, just a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen. There's nothing wrong with that; I like being scared and I was scared by many scenes in "The Thing." But it seems clear that Carpenter made his choice early on to concentrate on the special effects and the technology and to allow the story and people to become secondary.
There can be such a thing as too much success, and John Carpenter's THE THING of last summer seems to be a classic case. It's a bit reminiscent of the archetypical shaggy dog story, the very long one about the lost, very, very shaggy dog, the punchline of which is, "Not that shaggy!"...
Audiences seemed to be asking, in essence, "Send us more gore!" Carpenter complied. The box-office response: "Not that gory!"...
Nevertheless, the predominant comment on THE THING was that it was an exercise in gory special effects. It was; I said so, too, and I said it in a generally unenthusiastic review. Like most other critics, I said it was all but impossible to care much what happened to the characters. While the film was perfectly well acted, the characterizations simply weren't there in the script. An actor can't act what isn't written...
As it is, Carpenter's THE THING will probably be forever a footnote in film history for two reasons.
One, Bottin and his crew devised, staged and photographed truly amazing special effects. At least in the trade, they will stand as a pinnacle of development. They are not merely remarkable and impressive in themselves, but they are phenomenal in the amount of time devoted to them onscreen. There are no cutaways from the horrible to let viewer imagination fill in the details. It's all on the screen, and there's lots of it, a little new and different each time.
Two, Carpenter may ruefully ponder the fact that, in an industry famous for scrapping whole stories to get an idea or two (as Hawks did in the version we all love), his project foundered because of excessive fidelity to its original source.
Ted Mahar, The Sunday Oregonian
The structure of the piece reminds unpleasantly of porno films.
It has no pace, sloppy continuity, bland characters... It's my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here are some things he'd be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings...
Alan Spencer, Starlog magazine
Quoted from Stuart Cohen's blog
After the Fact Analysis of the Critical Response:
Critics often get it wrong, but they've rarely been so wide of the mark as when they reviewed The Thing in 1982. Chacun a son goût ["To each his own taste"], of course, but they didn't just give it the thumbs-down; they tore into it like jackals....
[The periodical Variety said] "What [Christian Nyby's and Howard Hawks' 1951 version, The Thing From Another World] delivered – and what Carpenter has missed – was a sense of intense dread." Which is funny, because in 1951, the same paper had said of Nyby's film: "The resourcefulness shown in building the plot groundwork is lacking as the yarn gets into full swing. Cast members ... fail to communicate any real terror."
The Guardian - The Thing Set On Survival, Anne Billson
On release The Thing performed below Universal Studio's expectations. Various reasons are given, for example the fact that the kind of sci-fi audiences wanted was E.T., featuring a slightly more friendly alien. Carpenter was crushed, and moreover, sacked from his next assignment, helming an adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter. While the director continued to do good work, his career was never the same again. The Thing was Carpenter's first production under a major studio, and it made his future working relationship with the executives uneasy.
The Quietus - 30 Years On: The Thing Revisited
What Carpenter and Cohen Say:
John Carpenter (Director):
More often than not, when he is asked to explain The Thing's lackluster performance at the box office, Carpenter shies away from serious analysis. He often admits how devastating the experience was for him, sometimes adding that it has had enormous repercussions for his career since then. Occasionally, he puts on a brave face and pretends he doesn't care about it, and never took the criticism personally. In his most candid moments, he acknowledges that he was deeply hurt by the critical response, and admits to being unable to understand why he was the target of such intense vitriol.
Q: After making The Thing, you read a demographical study that said the audience for horror movies shrank by 70 percent over a six-month period.
A: Yes. It was shocking! [Laughs.]
Q: Can you remember where you saw this?
A: It was sitting in my office at Universal. Universal had sent it over.
Q: Was it their way of saying "Lower your expectations"?
A: Yeah: "Brace yourself."
Q: This must have been around the time that you did a rough cut ...
A: No, it was after we were finishing it.
Q: Wow, that's demoralizing!
Imagine a studio sending a filmmaker an article that essentially says "You're doomed". Do you think the studio has enough confidence in the project in question to promote it properly, or give it the wide opening that would help secure its succcess?
Q: During your career, you have done several films that did not do particularly well at the box office but which have subsequently gone on to become cult favorites—"The Thing," "Big Trouble in Little China" and "They Live" immediately come to mind. When you see one of your films reemerge like this, do you have any thoughts as to why they didn't click at the time with viewers but seem to connect with them now? For example, I can sort of understand why "The Thing" didn't work with the mass audience—it was one of the bleakest films ever made—but why a genuine crowd-pleaser like "Big Trouble in Little China" failed to take off remains a mystery.
A: I have no clue—you would have to tell me. I call it "John's Revenge"—you didn't like me then but maybe you will like me now. I have never understood that stuff. I understand about "The Thing" because that was really grim. That was about the end of everything and nobody wants to see that. I don't know — I can't figure any of that stuff out and I have stopped trying. The movies that I have made—I am very proud of them and love each one of them. I think audiences discover movies on their own and if you haven't discovered my stuff yet, I don't know what to say.
Roger Ebert Interviews
AV Club: I think of The Thing in terms of its critical reputation now, which is very strong...
John Carpenter: That's too late for me! I'm an old man now!
AVC: It’s hard to imagine it was so savaged when it first came out.
JC: Oh lordy, lordy. It was hated by, oddly, the fans. They thought I had raped a classic. It was the most hated movie of all time, some people were saying. The fans. What the hell is going on here?
AVC: Do you think if it hadn't been perceived as a remake it wouldn't have—
JC: I don't know. I stopped trying to analyze it and was like, "I guess it didn't work."
AVC: You’ve said it’s your favorite of the films you’ve made.
JC: Oh yeah. Close to it, if not the one. I thought I did a great job with it. But what do I know? [Laughs.]
AVC: That must have made it feel even worse, to legitimately feel like you'd done as good a job as you can do, and to have people differ so strongly?
JC: It was like, "Why are you shitting upon me?" But it's over now. You just go on.
I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit… The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie's director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.
Interview by Time Out New York, 2008, quoted in The Quietus - 30 Years On: The Thing Revisited
John Carpenter: I made a movie called The Thing, and it came out in 1982 and it was hated and hated by the fans.
Interviewer: Well, was that because E.T. had been released around that time, too? Isn’t that right?
JC: I don’t know. There’s a variety of reasons for it. But they thought I had raped Madonna. I’m telling you, it was unbelievable. I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, Well, this is one of my best movies, and they shit on it. What can I do?
I: It’s funny you brought up The Thing. I listen to this podcast by author Bret Easton Ellis, and he was talking to Ti West; he had just mentioned The Thing as the one film that basically let him know there was never going to be another horror movie that was ever going to scare him again. He had seen it as a kid, and he was like, “Yep, that’s it. I’m an adult now.”
JC: It’s about the end of humanity. It’s about the end of everything. I think part of the problem that the audience maybe had was that halfway through the movie, it’s hopeless. These guys are never going to survive, and I just went with it.
Consequence of Sound
Q. Given how badly the film was first received, how long did it take for you to realize that the Thing was well liked and respected? Was there a particular event or was it an ongoing thing i.e. people continually asking you about this particular film? Do think that part of the Thing's initial failure was down to the fact the alien creature was hard to empathize with? That it had no clear motive or ideology? Also that its appearance was amorphous and asymmetrical?
A. It took five to ten years for me to realize that THE THING was appreciated more than it was in 1982. Finally, maybe.
Fan Q&A, Outpost 31
Carpenter was left reeling from the critical reaction. "I was pretty stunned by it," he later said. "I made a really gruelling, dark movie, but I [thought] audiences in 1982 wanted to see that."
"I was called 'a pornographer of violence'," Carpenter said in 1985. "I had no idea it would be received that way [...] The Thing was just too strong for that time. I knew it was going to be strong, but I didn't think it would be too strong [...] I didn't take the public's taste into consideration."
Den of Geek - Examining the Critical Reaction to The Thing
Stuart Cohen (Producer):
Cohen seems to be less emotionally invested in the film, or rather, he takes immense pride in having been a part of making such a classic film, and is clearly grateful that audiences and critics eventually came to realize that The Thing is an absolute masterpiece. He might have been personally hurt by the initial reaction to the movie, but nowhere near as badly as Carpenter. He has shown himself to be more willing to analyze the film's initial failure, and his insights are invaluable in this regard.
He attributes the movie's dismal performance to a number of factors, including a lack of support from the studio, bad timing, incompetently handled promotional work, a general mood among viewers that made them unreceptive to the film's themes of hopelessnes, uncertainty, paranoia, and despair, and a sense that the special effects, direction, and plot line that were all well ahead of their time.
If you wanted concrete evidence of the low esteem the executive branch at Universal Studios held for THE THING at the time of its release, this is it. They considered it bereft of narrative drive lacking proper character development and was dull, confusing and slow. John has been quoted elsewhere [as saying that] "Sid Sheinberg tried to teach me how to make a horror movie". Sheinberg was then the President of Universal Studios, and made it known at the previews he was no fan of the film (he got into a well-publicised fight with Terry Gilliam a few years later with BRAZIL)...
Given the animosity displayed at the time, I now think we got lucky in being able to release the film as it stands - John did not have the right contractually to final cut, and the studio could easily have taken it away from him (as it turns out, they later DID, with [the televised] version). Great credit is due to the executives on the PRODUCTION side of Universal (Ned Tannen and Helena Hacker) who behaved responsively and allowed us our head, even though they took some flack for it (don't forget we were allowed to restore the original ending at the last moment).
Q: What did Universal think of the film before it was decimated by ET and the reviews came in?
A: Mostly disappointment. In the words of one executive, the film just “missed”. If you have any doubt what the film was thought of in certain quarters, take a look at the bastardized T.V. version, prepared without our knowledge…
Q: Do you think E. T. was a real reason for the film doing so poorly?
A: Partly, but I think now it had more to do with the time – I am writing a long piece on this…
Q: Would audiences have felt differently if the fates of Macready and Childs had been less bleak and uncertain?
A: See above
Fan Q&A, Outpost 31
The blog post Cohen referred to above:
"We're Dead" remarked producer David Foster. The occasion was his return from the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and the premiere engagement of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, where the trailer for THE THING also happened to be playing. The icy silence of the matinee audience of grandmothers escorting their grandchildren (and vice versa) was enough to elicit his precise statement of our predicament.
The ground had been shifting underneath our feet ever since the public previews, one executive confiding to me that the studio considered the movie a "missed opportunity", a product of failed expectations. The advertising campaign had changed overnight - the somber, predominately black and white imagery (which we had been consulted on) replaced overnight with the now familiar "glow face" (which we hadn't), the tag line "Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide" dumped for "The Ultimate In Alien Terror", which I abhorred ("Man" was written by a publicist named Stephen Frankfort, who also came up with what I thought was the best tag line ever for ALIEN - "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream". He was hired early on and his company also created the earliest teaser with the ice block. The "Alien Terror" tagline was concocted by a studio suddenly desperate to display the word "Alien" above the title). Both I thought represented a last minute demotion to "B" film status, something we had fought for years, and evidence that Universal was effectively throwing in the towel in trying to reach a broader, more mainstream audience.
At least the sniping over the ending was finally over - the studio recognizing, in the words of head of distribution Robert Rehme that "the movie they had was the movie they had, and it was time to get it out there". Universal approved the making of six 70mm stereo prints, two of which we planned to use for the critics screenings on both coasts in an effort to put our best foot forward...
A lot of good this did. The reviews, primarily from print sources at that time (newspapers and weekly magazines) were delivered to us in packets assembled by the studio's publicity department. Either one paragraph dismissive or openly hostile, the general line labelled the film as an exercise in unrelenting gore at the expense of story, character development, and tension.
We were not prepared for the amount of anger unleashed on the film in general, or on John in particular (the gore - pornographer charges that were made in some quarters were outrageous and particularly stung).
THE THING had no official premiere as such, just a lame attempt at a opening day screening at the Hollywood Pacific theatre presided over by Elvira, where free admission was given if you came dressed as your favorite monster. After the film started I walked around the corner to the Cahuenga Newstand to pick up the new issue of STARLOG, whose review promised to be more sympathetic to the cause. No such luck - a pan, where it seemed to me that even the fan base had deserted us...
I spent opening weekend visiting a dozen or so theaters in the Los Angeles area. First up were the 70mm venues (The Hollywood Pacific and the Crest in Westwood) followed by a host of smaller theatres in the San Fernando Valley and vicinity (most of which were still not equipped for Dolby stereo and played the film in mono). Crowd size seemed to be pretty much the same wherever I went. Theatres were not filled for the 8 O'clock showing on opening Friday, maybe at most half-to three quarters full. GREASE II, also opening, was drawing consistently larger crowds in the multiplexes where both films were playing. There was no line for tickets for the 10 O'clock, with only a small group waiting to be let in...
The reaction of those attending those first showings? Muted, at best. Not for the first time I sensed that the film made a large portion of the audience feel uneasy, and that as captives they were neither happy or comfortable with that fact...
I'd be delighted to report that I had some advance sense that the film was having an impact on future generations of critics and film goers that first weekend but the truth was I saw no evidence of any groundswell. My impression was that a very large portion those that came were unprepared for what awaited them. In theatre lobbies afterward the most positive reaction I could elicit was an ambivalent sort of "its okay". No excited overheard conversation, just quiet (I suppose you could say they were stunned into submission but I think that's putting too kind a face on matters...).
"It Didn't Open" were the three words that greeted me on the phone Sunday morning, spoken by Universal V.P. Helena Hacker. The film was projected to earn under Three Million Dollars for the weekend, well below studio estimates. It would go on to lose close to 50% of its theatres by the middle of its second week of release and, in a yardstick measured closely by exhibitors in the age of Lucas and Spielberg, generate virtually no repeat business.
Early the next week I went to see John at his home. When he opened the door he looked stricken, as if he had physically been punched in the gut. The financial failure of the film was one thing, but another was the amount of vitriolic slop that was thrown in his face for good measure. It was if he had crossed a moral boundary of some sort and, as seriously as we both took our roles in the production of the film we both still knew it was only a movie...
The immediate consequences for John were severe. In advanced preparation of Stephen King's FIRESTARTER as his next film for Universal, the project was abruptly cancelled (FIRESTARTER, with an initial draft written by Bill Lancaster, had sailed though development in something under a year and was, up until the day of THE THING'S release, a testament to the studios continued faith in John). I was in the process of setting up a re -make of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS with John (to have taken place along the Alaskan Pipeline with helicopters) at another studio, but this went down in flames as well...
Although the simultaneous release of E.T. by the same studio is often mentioned as a conditional reason for THE THING'S failure, I think it more the case that the film was simply out of sync with the tone and tenor of the 1980's. At a time when people were seeking re-assurance THE THING was offering up very little. To be certain E.T. had sucked all the oxygen out of Universal's publicity and distribution departments, but I doubt that a release date later that year would have made much difference (and exhibitors at the time had the quaint axiom that "snow" pictures didn't play well in Winter). Perhaps the title of the film was an issue. John himself made a late plea for a title change (back to WHO GOES THERE?), worried about the surfeit of horror and fantasy films in the pipeline as well as the release later that summer of SWAMP THING...
Thirty years later, it seems to me that THE THING plays right into the wheelhouse of contemporary culture. In an Internet age where questions of identity are now commonplace (the accepted use of assumed names at online forums, for instance) it is becoming increasingly easy to make the case that almost no one is who he appears to be - a validation of the film's theme that trust, always a fragile commodity, is a hard thing to come by...
Several weeks after the film opened I was approached in a bar by writer - actor Buck Henry (creator of GET SMART, writer of THE GRADUATE, one of the stars of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) who told me THE THING was "twenty five years ahead of it's time". Alone in his sentiments then, it now seems he was pretty much on the money...
Stuart Cohen's blog, The Original Fan
Cohen expanded on his account of the film's failure at the box office in an October 2016 Reddit AMA:
It was 10 years before I heard anyone speak well of THE THING. It was the director (then actor) Nick Cassavettes who told me it was his favorite movie - the first time I had ever heard anyone say that...
THE THING opened two weeks after the warm glow of E.T. began spreading across the nation and was the start of a crummy summer for John Carpenter and myself. The reviews were uniformly awful, unexpectedly so. Either vitriolic or one-paragraph dismissive. Most declared the film a violent, low grade slasher affair and were annoyed by the ambiguity - many singled out the ending as the source for their frustrations finally boiling over. Seems they were looking for more specific answers than we were willing to provide...
John was particularly hurt by the gore mongering charges that were thrown his way, as if he had made something unclean. The voice of the fan base at the time, STARLOG, declared Johns talents more suited to direct traffic accidents than motion pictures...
I saw THE THING with audiences all over the Los Angeles area on opening weekend. Reaction was muted. Theaters one half or three quarters full Friday and Saturday night. No lines. No advance sales. As Kurt Russell said recently nobody saw the story at the time - only the effects... With no repeat business the movie lost 50 per cent of its theaters by the end of the second week and was playing in some places on the lower half of a double bill with CONAN THE BARBARIAN...
The reviews and poor box office validated the studios concerns about the film, calling it a "missed opportunity." The ramifications began immediately. In the process of actively preparing FIRESTARTER, John had maintained an office on the lot but ended up never checking back in. FIRESTARTER was cancelled a week later. My deal was not renewed and I was politely shown the door a month later. A project I had set up at Columbia, a re-make of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS set along the Alaska Pipeline with helicopters (John directing, Bill Phillips writing, Kurt as Cary) went down the drain as well. The quote from the Columbia executive: "You guys want to make a career out of fucking up Howard Hawks movies?
Further proof of the upside down world we were inhabiting came later that summer when Ennio Morricone's score was nominated for a Razzie. I recall them calling the music pretentious...
The best experience I had watching THE THING with an audience in 1982 came later that summer. I was having dinner with friends at Taylor's Steak House in the Westlake area of Los Angeles and noticed the film playing in Spanish on the lower half of a double bill at a theater across the street. There the place was packed and the response was much better.
- Stuart Cohen, Reddit AMA