Given that The Thing is an accepted part of the modern horror canon, it's interesting that it wasn't a success when it was released. It did relatively poorly at the box office (blame for this is usually placed at the hands of E.T., the optimistic film that had opened a few weeks earlier). John Carpenter calls The Thing his favorite of his movies, and he says he was hit hard when the movie didn't perform. The critics didn't like it, either, although again, the film's reputation has improved over time. I've usually found Carpenter an oddly overrated director. I like most of his movies I have seen, but "like" is the operative word ... in my mind, none of the ones I've seen approach classic status. I remember liking Big Trouble in Little China quite a bit when it came out, but after I'd seen some of the HK films that influenced it, I felt Carpenter hadn't really met their standards.
The same can be said of The Thing. Carpenter loves the original ... some of this version is a clear homage to the 1951 Nyby/Hawks film. Carpenter is known as a Hawks fanatic. He doesn't let the homage go too far, though, because for the basic plot, Carpenter returns to the original story by John W. Campbell Jr. The thing changes form, so in any particular moment, it might look just like a person you know. Given the setting (men isolated in Antarctica), the paranoia sets in quickly ... as the title of Campbell's work asks, "Who Goes There?" This is an intriguing premise ... I don't blame Carpenter for wanting to explore it, even though it is unrelated to the Hawks' film, where the alien is just a giant carrot played by James Arness.
But, as I recall, when it came out, The Thing was known for its gore and its special effects. You might talk after the movie about the paranoia angle, but what got you into the theater, what impressed while watching, was the "ooooh" that accompanied the "best" scenes. Nothing wrong with that ... but ultimately, that's all The Thing is about. Alien, which had come out in 1979, had some similar shocks, but Ridley Scott built up to them. And while Alien and The Thing both share the "isolated working group" setting, the characters are much better defined in Scott's movie. In fact, this is the biggest reason the Carpenter remake isn't up to the original. I saw that original a few months ago, and thinking back on the cast of "hey it's that guys", I realize I still remember some of the character names, like "Scotty" the journalist. I saw the remake just last night, and I'm not sure I can remember any of the characters' names. Instead, I remember Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley and T.K. Carter and Richard Masur. The Thing is well cast ... Carpenter can use his actors as archetypes because the actors fit the parts ... but any character development would just get in the way of the next gory FX scene.
The Thing works because Carpenter effectively parcels out the scares. But he never lets the audience get beyond that feeling of dread ... what's next? ... and while that's a fine thing to pull off, it mostly stands on its own. The implications of the paranoia angle are only important in the film as a way of increasing the dread.
None of this means I don't like The Thing. It's one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. But over the years, I've decided that John Carpenter movies are never great movies. If you can make a handful of pretty good movies, you've accomplished something. But you aren't Howard Hawks. #314 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. (The original doesn't even make the list, which tells you what I think about TSPDT in this case.) 7/10.