When John Carpenter’s movie The Thing was released it paned. Critics HATED it and audiences avoided it. I was not until its release to television with repeated viewings by fans that the films popularity grew from cult status to reach culturally iconic status 30 years. Perhaps John Carpenter’s The Thing was doomed to be despised from the start; because its source material, Who Goes There? was derived from a time so opposite the social and political issues of its release time. Every movie has a time for which it speaks, and if it is release out of sync with that time, no matter how good it is, society at large just will not embrace it.
A lot can affect the success of a film opening; marketing, critic reviews, audience reception and access, or simultaneous releases. Essentially if the box office profits are not greater than the films expenses then the film is considered a failure. Even if a film does not meet expected profits, yet it makes money, it is still considered a failure. So, for example, Citizen Kane, despite positive critic reviews was ignored by the press when it was released and failed at the box office making only 1.5 million dollars. It is believed William Rudolph Hearst, a media mogul of the time was offended by the film’s villainous portrayal of a media mogul and so refused to allow marketing[i]. Fight club, considered by many a modern classic, was an enigma to studio marketers and critics alike and so it failed to find that essential early movie going audience.[ii]
Many people blame the failure of John Carpenters’ The Thing on the release of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. a few weeks prior. Pleading the audience loved Spielberg’s feel good alien and could not stomach the horrors of The Thing two weeks later. Arguably The Thing is the polar opposite of E.T. in every way except that they are both extraterrestrials. But to say the movie was too scary and dark is overly simplistic an answer. You could point to the success of Poltergeist as an argument that audiences were eager for horror, so the terror of The Thing was not the detracting factor. It was something deeper[iii].
Another movie, now critically acclaimed, that failed miserably at the box office that same year is Blade Runner, a science fiction adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This is another dark movie where the view of humanity is dark, with an ambiguous, futuristic ending that leaves audiences with a bleak, hopeless feeling. These movies were released in 1982, the decade of the yuppie, Reganomics, and a return to conservative politics. Popular culture in the 80s reflected optimism, excess and overindulgence. It was the era of cocaine, hairbands, dissonant family values and teen angst. While beneath the surface of all the outward “yuppie” success the prevailing truth was a decade of stress and dissatisfaction. Audiences of The Thing were not yet prepared to see a movie whose voice was born from the great depression and spoke of distrust, paranoia and asked us what it means to be human.
In 1938 when John W. Campbell published Who Goes There? the Munich Pact was signed between Britain, France and Italy to let Germany partition Czechoslovakia. Hitler had marched into Austria and proclaimed it part of Germany. The Holocaust had truly begun as twenty to thirty thousand Jewish citizens were sent to concentration camps. The Germans had also discovered nuclear fission. The Atomic age had truly begun!
The United States we were just starting to recover from the Great Depression. Which great depression greatly reshaped the nation. No nation could face such a devastating crisis and not change. Migration altered our country’s population distribution. Toward the end of the Great depression America saw a resurgence of democratic virtues and the idealism of the “common man.” As totalitarian regimes spread thru Europe and Japan, the mythological American “Common man” hero became a staple of the pop culture of the time.
Enter John W Campbells Who Goes There? a novel where the common man is trapped by an unyielding environment and must overcome an enemy that hides within, disguising itself as one of the masses. In Campbell’s story a pervasive frustration and paranoia is rampant. The stories ambiguous ending leaves the reader unsettled and not quite sure if the alien escaped to take over the world. Did our heroes in fact stop it? Though the explorers are so sure they did, the reader himself is left to wonder and this feeling fits with the precarious state of the world. Throughout the book they argue amongst each other about the nature of what they find, whether they should examine it and if it is dead. The doctors among the group Blair and Dr. Cooper, argues about the safety of thawing the creature, and if any germs released would be compatible with human beings. Norris the groups physicist was concerned because certain animals on earth: “They freeze every winter and thaw every summer – for three months – and live.” But Blair states emphatically, “The beast is as dead as those frozen mammoths they find in Siberia.” Once the Thing wakes and they discover its nature it is Blair who first descends into paranoia and fear. He determines isolation is the only answer to the problem, much like America did when first faced with the idea of World War 2. As Europe descended into Madness it became their problem and only 13% of Americans wanted to intervene. It was not until the bombing of Pearl Harbor that American sentiment changed[iv]. Here Blair decides his only chance at survival is to lock himself away, after all who can he trust? “I don’t want anyone coming here. I’ll cook my own food… Kinner may be human now, but I don’t believe it.[v]” But soon enough they all distrust each other as they have no idea who is human and who is other. It is this tension, this fear of the other that makes this story so griping and horrifying. There is nowhere to run and readily identify a monster when it looks just like you. And why not. The Germans as they began over taking Europe did not look like monsters. You could not identify the monster with a glance.
Next comes the 1950’s and the most misunderstood era ever. Often held up as either the greatest era of our time or derailed as the most repressive and hated era of history, depending on your political ideals. To set the scene let me say, America was seen as the world’s strongest military power, with a booming economy. As Americans moved to the suburbs, they embraced consumerism whole heartedly. This was the post-war baby boom. The problems came from things we could not see[vi]. A fantastic movie depicting the suburban issues many vets faced is the 1956 classic The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Aside from the obvious racism and segregation of the time, women faced a new problem as their families fled to isolation in the suburbs. Where before women had roles as organizers and fundraisers for museums, orphanages and hospitals, as credentialed professionals; now the government and society pushed them into a singular role of the housewife. Women found dissatisfaction in this new role and a dependency on Prozac as they tried to cope with the isolation and lack of purpose beyond the nuclear family.
While many think of the Fifties as the decade of thrift, in fact it is the era when America truly began to embrace excess. The suburbs were about affluence, unprecedented consumption and conformity. If your neighbor had it, you needed it too, debt be damned! Selling became less about procurement and more about status. The large middleclass suburbs gave birth to big box discount stores built first by Eugene Ferkauf, who sold discount appliances to suburban families.
As America became a global power anxiety about nuclear weapons marked this decade with fall out drills in school and adds for family fall out-shelters. We had dropped the bomb to win the war and now we were attempting to build The Super, a Hydrogen Bomb, before the Russians. No movie shows this better than the 1950 movie Destination Moon as America races to be the first to launch missiles from the moon and stay number one in the atomic Race.
Fear of juvenile delinquency, especially that of females pervaded popular culture. This is seen in movies like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story and campy horror movies like Teenage Zombies, The Violent Years, and Teenagers from Outer Space. As we moved into the fifties we were at the top of our global power, we had pulled ourselves out of the depression and were showing once again America was unstoppable. At this same time, TV was replacing radio as the new medium of popular culture. It had become less a luxury item and more affordable to the average American family. It began to spread from the coastal cities then gradually inward toward middle America. This lowered Movie sales and radio revenues making the TV the new national media. But it came at a price. “It could grant instant fame to a person or popularity to a fad and just as quickly withdraw that fame or popularity.” – Fred Allen[vii]. I would say this is true for the entertainment industry in general and many actors, comedians, producers and writers have fallen victim to the fickle whims of the entertainment industry.
In 1951, Christian Nyby attempted to make Who Goes There? Into a film under the name The Thing from Another World! It did better than all other science fiction movies that year making taking in 1.95 million at the American box office. Again, critics did not understand or feel the film was more than a monster movie. Now, decades later, critics and fans alike understand that this was not only the best Science Fiction film of 1951, but a ground-breaking film regardless of the genre you put it in. Margret Sheridan plays Nikki Nicholson, a strong female character who does not quake with fear waiting for the men around her to save her. She pursues her love interest, who quite frankly tried to get her drunk and have his way with her. It’s odd to see the fifties lens on sexual assault and how flippant and cut they make it. He is posed as the likable hero and she the hard and loveable gal who can put up with his boyish charm. Nikki takes command and walks beside him into danger. She is a tough, fast talking girl who quite honestly could be the first inkling of a final girl.
In a time of nuclear fear, while this film may portrays the female lead well, it certainly gives the scientist and his ilk the short end of the stick. It is fascinating to see how little they knew about radiation then. Their sample room, full of radioactive rocks was kept on base in a simple closet with no protection to the men and woman walking by it, daily absorbing all those extra “rays.” The creature itself is detected because he and his ship are radioactive making the Giger counter an important tool in this nuclear age movie. The head scientist becomes convinced that the creature must be protected regardless of the cost, that it is superior to man and holds the secrets to the stars. He wants to study the creature, understand it and unlock its mysteries. When others try to convince him of its danger Dr Carrington replies “There are no enemies in science, Professor, only phenomena to study. We are studying one.” Could there be a more chilling and unfeeling portrayal of science? Modern scientist had just created the most destructive force known to man the atomic bomb, and now our culture was dealing with the consequences and the morality of it. How did we feel about what we had done and the scientist who had created such destruction?
While in the book the Thing is hidden inside us, copying us, Nyby’s monster is distinctly other. This appealed to a time when McCarthyism was beginning to take hold of the country. The Other, the Communist was out there, and the common man, the patriotic American must be vigilant against him. So, it was only natural that the scientist become the protagonist alongside the monster and the hero became the American solider. By making these changes to the story, Nyby was able to adjust the crushing desperation and despair of the original story. He had a monster to face off against, our heroes fought and destroyed him, triumphing in the end, but sending a warning to stay ever vigilant for future attacks. As Ned, our newspaperman finally gets his broadcast he warns, “Every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies! Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!” I think if these specific changes to the story had not been made the film would not have been as successful. The country was too hopeful, feeling it could take on the world and win. Though they knew the “bad guy” maybe lurking among us, most Americans were not really swept up in the fanaticism of McCarthy fervor.
Jump ahead thirty years to the magical era of the eighties. After the troubled times of the 1970s, ex. foreign turmoil and rising inflation; the rise of social, economic and political conservatism in the 1980s is not surprising. Often hailed as the decade of exuberant materialism and Reaganism, the 80s also saw the explosion of “yuppie” culture typified by the emergence of blockbuster video, cable TV and the Iconic MTV and its music video. As much as we like to think of this as the decade of decadence, the start of the 1980s was actually a horrible time for the film industry. In 1982, we saw the beginning of an upswing for some magic films and some disastrous flops! This year saw major flops like A midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Yes, Giorgio and Inchon. The most popular movies of the year were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Tootsie, An Officer and A Gentlemen, Rocky III, Porky’s, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, 48 Hrs. Poltergeist, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Annie. All movies that have happy endings by the way! Stephen Spielberg not surprisingly recently was quoted as saying “We’re nostalgic for the ‘80s because it was a stress-free decade, everything was sort of innocuous: style, music, it was great.[viii]”
As with the Fifties this could not be further from the truth. Underneath the pop veneer of Neon, MTV, synth sugar coating was the cold war, the crack epidemic, AIDS, The Iran Contra Affair and rampant consumerism that eventually lead to a second economic depression. Not only was there stress during this happy decade from the politics of the era, but social challenges faced by minorities and the LBGT community made further highlight the darker side of the eighties. The AIDS epidemic had taken 10,000 U.S. lives before Ronald Regan publicly acknowledged it. The AIDS epidemic isolated individuals and made an entire community a target. It was seen as a “Gay disease” and those with the disease were “Aids victims.” Government response to the Crack epidemic made matters worse for an entire generation putting a disproportionate amount of urban, black men in prison for small amounts of narcotics leaving them with a legacy of broken families and criminal records.
The New Right’s growth exploded as disaffected white liberals, unrestricted free market capitalist, evangelical Christians, and anti-tax crusaders came together to take over the right-wing party. The Cold War showed no signs of warming as arms control advocates on one side demanded a “Nuclear Freeze” and the other side continued to warn against the Soviet threat. As people moved from ageing Eastern coastal cities with their overcrowding, pollution and crime, they headed to the suburbs and rural regions of the Southeast, Southwest and California. These migrators became known as Sunbelters. They were tired of high taxes for social programs they saw no gains from, stagnating economies and government interference.
These disaffected Liberals eventual became known as “Regan Democrats” providing him the votes he needed to become governor of California and then President. Regan came through with campaign promises with government deregulation, reduction in government spending and tax cuts for individuals and corporations which became known as “Trickle down” economics. In 1982 Reaganomics proved less successful than hoped as the United States went into its worst depression since the Great Depression. Families lost homes, farmers lost their land and nine million people lost their jobs as of November 1982. After a slight recovery, just in time for his reelection campaign, the Stock Market crashed in 1987 another smaller decline, however; fans of Regan and his economic policies continued to grow popular.
Like most Americans Regan believed the Soviets and the spread of communism was a threat to freedom and democracy. He thus provided financial and military aid to anticommunist governments and insurgencies around the world with a policy known as the Regan Doctrine. In his eight years of office the Federal Government accrued more debt than in the entire history of the American Government. Regan also appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Some of the other things he did during his presidency were: he worked with the Soviet Union to curtail the buildup of Nuclear Arms, visited West Berlin and delivered his famous “Tear Down That Wall” speech, he signed a bill prohibiting abortion assistance, and took responsibility for the Iran-Contra affair. Many American’s still consider Ronald Reagan one of America’s greatest Presidents.
The best way to explain the cold war I have ever heard is by Philip Roth in the Prague Orgy when describing the difference between the soviet block and the US, “There Nothing goes and everything matters; here, everything goes, and nothing matters.[ix]” Kind of explains how we think of the eighties no too. By the end of the 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990s the Cold War had defrosted, but at the beginning of the decade it was at its frostiest and suspicion of the Soviets was its highest. The extreme polarization is similar to today’s atmosphere between the democrats and republicans. It was very us versus them, America vs. the Reds, Democracy vs Communism. In response you have the iconic American culture, TOP GUN, and iconic alternative culture, the Smiths and their subtle anti-consumerism. These fans were the counterculture of the eighties[x].
This Political Conservatism is reflected in the 80s popular culture. The “Yuppie” is a college educated, well paid, baby boomer with expensive taste. Everyone believed there was a chance to completely change their life and 1980s Hollywood reflected this in many ways. Just look at movies like American Giglio and the Iconic Pretty Woman where a prostitute meets prince charming and blows him away😉, as well as Night Shift and the also Iconic Risky Business. You now had to do better than everyone else as well and you had to do it by yourself! The individualism highlighted by Americanism was in full swing in the eighties. This constant pressure highlights the underlying anxiety and self-doubt pervasive of the era. While us forty somethings may not have felt it as much because we were 10 and 12 at the time, the adults were certainly feeling the stress. While looking back I Remember my parents constantly worrying about money, while my siblings and I never thought of ourselves as poor because we had just as much as everyone around us. You have to wonder if we were struggling so much, why did we need the Betamax’s, VCRs, Jordache Jeans and yearly family vacations. Keeping up with the Jones’s is expensive and unnecessary! Poverty if oft not mentioned in the eighties, but it was pervasive. When it was shown in Hollywood though it was in stories of overcoming and rising above. Rocky is a classic example for here you see Stallone Rise-above-poverty and become uber rich as the movies progress. Ralph Macchio’s poverty in Karate Kid has no grit or risks. It is the cleaned-up Malibu version with no real stakes[xi].
Many of the popular movies of the time appealed to movie goers of all ages and had an underlying message of optimism. Teen movies also had their heyday at this time with The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful and Ferris Buller’s Day Off which still have cult followings. By the end of the 80s 60% of Americans had cable televisions and MTV which debuted on August 1, 1981 with the video Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. This medium of television influenced the music industry, fashion and culture around the world. MTV became the Anti-Yuppie forum as time wore on, give those frustrated an outlet for their views, like Public Enemy and Heavy Metal acts[xii].
This was the stage for John Carpenters The Thing released in theatres on August 21, 1982. Full disclosure, I love this movie! I watched it for the first time hiding behind the couch as my parents watched it when it came out on video release in 1983, I remember being terrified and having nightmares for years, I was eight years old. I am always dumbfounded to hear this movie was hated by critics and moviegoers alike. But then I also loved blade runner and I am a self-proclaimed sci-fi junkie raised by parents who loved the genre. John Carpenters decision to stay as close as possible to the original source material, with its ambiguous ending and themes of suspicion, frustration and paranoia was ultimately the movies downfall and saving grace.
While the movie has been vindicated and is widely considered to be one of the best horror films of all time with groundbreaking practical effects that still hold up; in its day audiences and critics did not like or understand this movie. John Carpenter made the movie with $15 million, but the movie only made $19.6 million in domestically. Roger Ebert called it “A great barf-bag movie…. with superficial characterizations and implausible behavior.” Ebert hated the characters, the effects, the plot and premise. It was even nominated for a 1983 Worst Musical Score Razzie award. Writing for The New York Times, noted movie critic Vincent Canby described the movie as “foolish, depressing” with its actors “used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated […] it is too phony to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk.[xiii]” But I think what you are seeing here is a reaction not to the quality of the film, since obviously over time audience came to realize how amazing the film truly is, but to the time the film was released in.
In a time when everyone was trying to succeed and come out on top, when consumerism was at its highest regard and fear of the other (the reds, the junkie and the diseased) was at an all-time high, we are given a movie where all members were on equal footing, wealth means nothing and the enemy is inside us just will not land. It spoke to the underlying anxieties and unspoken realities we were not ready and unwilling to face in the eighties. In the movie, all the members of the station are at the mercy of the elements. They are stationed at Tule for eight weeks. John carpenter does a fantastic job of showing how everyone in the camp is essentially equal. While MacReady may be important because he can fly the Helicopter but once the copter is gone, it is only a person’s skills that makes them valuable, not money, birth or standing in the community. You must rely on your wits and each other. Then add into the mix that suddenly the people you are relying on to help you survive may not be who you think they are but are imposters. Who do you trust? How do you find out who is who? They had nowhere to run, they would die, so they had to solve the problem on their own. “See, what we’re talking about here is an organism that imitates other lifeforms, and it imitates them perfectly.” While this movie speaks to individualism, it’s talking about the absorption and destruction of the individual. As Blair says “He could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets, could change into any one of them at any time. Now it wants lifeforms on earth.” The movie builds its paranoia in an extremely stressful and anxious way. Benning’s is the first human to die after the dogs. This scene is burned into my child’s brain. The score burns behind the image as the camp surrounds the Benning’s Thing with his alien scream and malformed hand. The horror as the group realizes the alien is not just imitating “lower lifeforms” like dogs. Next Blair destroys not just the chopper but the stations radios too. “You think the thing wanted to be an animal? No dog makes it a thousand miles in the cold. Nah, you don’t understand. That thing wanted to be us! If the cell gets out, it could imitate everything on the face of the earth and it’s not going to stop!” Wilford Brimley commands the screen as he leaks fear and tension. If they do not succeed their lives and the future of mankind is on the line. And it only continues to get worse as they realize they have to figure out who is human and who is alien. The closed in sets, the cold, harsh environment are as much a character in this movie and the eleven actors. The eighties were stressful enough, where was the cathartic release? Where was the hope? Then, in the end there was no triumph or success. Just Jonesy (Keith David) and MacReady (Kurt Russell) sitting and waiting to see who’s who as they freeze to death. Dark and ambiguous. Fabulous! But not what eighties audiences were looking for.
As the cold war ended and we realized rampant consumerism was the path to massive debt, recession, environmental disaster and misery, audiences changed the way they consumed movies and empathized with the movie differently. Suddenly Carpenters movie made more sense. What do you think?
I did not discuss the prequel. But in 2011 a third installment was made that takes place at the sight of the nordic base before the 1982 movie. I offer no analysis, it has flaws and interesting moments. My favorite moment is the credits when they take you through and show you everything the others found at the base when they arrived.
 Cook, Megan, “Popular Movies that Were Originally Flops” Insider https://www.insider.com/popular-movies-that-were-originally-flops-2018-11#man-on-the-moon-won-jim-carrey-a-golden-globe-but-was-a-miss-for-most-critics-48
 Garfield, Leanna, “Cult Classics the Bombed at the Box Office” Business Insider June 7, 2016 https://www.businessinsider.com/cult-classics-that-bombed-2016-6
 Moore, Nolan “Why did “The Thing” (1982) bomb at the box office” August 16, 2015 Screenprism.com https://screenprism.com/insights/article/why-did-the-thing-1982-bomb-at-the-box-office/
 Heilbrunn, Jacob, “’Angry Days’ Shows an America Torn Over Entering World War II” The New York Times, July 25, 1023 https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/books/review/those-angry-days-and-1940.html
 Jones, Darryl, McCarthy, Elizabeth, and Murphy, Bernice, “It Came from the 1950s! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.” Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp 284 https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/9872
 Green, David B “2012: The Man Who Figured Out What You Really Want Dies.” Jewish World. Haaretz Israel News. Haaretz.com June, 5 2015 https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-2012-e-j-korvette-founder-dies-1.5369523
 Jones, Darryl, McCarthy, Elizabeth, and Murphy, Bernice, “It Came from the 1950s! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.” Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp 284 https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/9872
 Morgan, Tiernan, The Decade that Changed the Art World: Money, Media, and Brands in the 1980s: The Primary Takeaway of Brand New at the Hirshhorn is its Demonstration of How High the Stakes of Representation Became During the 1980s, a Decade of Proliferating Imagery and Technology.” Hyperallergic 2018, May 10
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[i] Cook, Megan, “Popular Movies that Were Originally Flops” Insider https://www.insider.com/popular-movies-that-were-originally-flops-2018-11#man-on-the-moon-won-jim-carrey-a-golden-globe-but-was-a-miss-for-most-critics-48
[ii] Garfield, Leanna, “Cult Classics the Bombed at the Box Office” Business Insider June 7, 2016 https://www.businessinsider.com/cult-classics-that-bombed-2016-6
[iii] Moore, Nolan “Why did “The Thing” (1982) bomb at the box office” August 16, 2015 Screenprism.com https://screenprism.com/insights/article/why-did-the-thing-1982-bomb-at-the-box-office/
[iv] Heilbrunn, Jacob, “’Angry Days’ Shows an America Torn Over Entering World War II” The New York Times, July 25, 1023 https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/books/review/those-angry-days-and-1940.html
[vi] Green, David B “2012: The Man Who Figured Out What You Really Want Dies.” Jewish World. Haaretz Israel News. Haaretz.com June, 5 2015 https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-2012-e-j-korvette-founder-dies-1.5369523
[vii] Jones, Darryl, McCarthy, Elizabeth, and Murphy, Bernice, “It Came from the 1950s! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.” Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp 284 https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/9872
[viii] Morgan, Tiernan, The Decade that Changed the Art World: Money, Media, and Brands in the 1980s: The Primary Takeaway of Brand New at the Hirshhorn is its Demonstration of How High the Stakes of Representation Became During the 1980s, a Decade of Proliferating Imagery and Technology.” Hyperallergic 2018, May 10