Retrospective: 40 Years of John Carpenter’s Monstrous Masterpiece ‘The Thing’ By Shawn McKee

The makings of a good horror movie can be subjective. Within multiple horror subgenres exists a consensus of “greats ones” or influential classics that made an undeniable cultural impact. When trying to examine my own love of horror films, I’ve found excitement to be a prime motivating factor.

Danger, mystery, and suspense coupled with a dark, brooding atmosphere are perfect elements of any effective horror film. The creative ingenuity displayed in horror from the past hundred years is a remarkable testament to the human spirit. The sheer talent behind and in front of the camera throughout the twentieth century is overwhelming to consider. Today, we’re fortunate enough to witness horror from its infancy in the silent era to the movies of today.

Different things scare different people. Some people don’t like to be scared at all. I’m naturally drawn to the macabre, most likely due to the wealth of ‘80s horror films from my childhood. The 1980s were, after all, when horror was perfected. It’s a known fact. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the springboard of the preceding decade’s “New Hollywood” movement that saw a new generation of filmmakers shifting control of studio system to a more independent, artistically driven one.

Before such notable times, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) singlehandedly changed the suspense/horror landscape, and studios took notice. The ‘70s gave us The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975), and Halloween (1978), among others. These were serious films that made serious amounts of money, while leaving their mark as cultural milestones.

John Carpenter’s Halloween soon became the most successful independent film of its time. Carpenter followed with a string of hits that included The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981). His next and most ambitious film would later stand as one of the greatest horror films ever made and a movie whose initial failure and unfair critical dismissal soured his career for years to come.

Carpenter was heavily influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, whose prolific, multi-genre career spanned decades. In 1951, Hawks produced a film adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 science-fiction/horror novella Who Goes There? called, The Thing from Another World. This influence can be seen during scenes in Halloween, where black & white clips from the movie are shown on TV. Carpenter was initially reluctant to direct a new version of Campbell’s classic novella after being approached by Universal. But he soon realized the potential of updating the story for modern audiences and put his entire directorial forces behind it.

Much like the original story, John Carpenter’s The Thing takes place on an Antarctic outpost besieged by a shapeshifting alien monster unwisely unearthed from its frozen state by curious scientists. The alien has no known identify or feature. It simply consumes, absorbs, and replicates every living thing around it. Carpenter’s version focuses heavily on atmosphere, utilizing the isolated, secluded backdrop to its fullest. The ominous score by Ennio Morricone is also the first time Carpenter didn’t do the music himself, though he did contribute.

Kurt Russell leads a talented cast of twelve men as no-nonsense helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, based on meteorologist McReady from the original novella. He’s joined by the great Keith David as Childs and Wilford Brimley as Blair, the chief surgeon. Fear and paranoia overtake the men as they soon realize that the alien has infiltrated their ranks. Anyone of them could be the Thing, and there’s no way of telling. The alien is relentless in its objectives. It also has the added advantage of fully existing within in a single drop of blood.

The Thing’s groundbreaking special effects were dismissed by critics at the time as nothing more than a grotesque spectacle. Carpenter had tapped Rob Bottin, a young, ambitious make-up effects artist known for his work in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981). It’s said that Bottin spent an entire year creating the shape-shifting effects for The Thing. Such dedication shows, as the results remain some of the best and most horrific creations ever captured on film. Bottin would go on to work Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), among other films before strangely disappearing from movies altogether.

After years of struggling with its initial failure, Carpenter has said that he considered The Thing his personal favorite of all his films. I agree, and I’m grateful that it has received the recognition it deserves. It’s a serious horror film. There’s little to no humor, the threat is real, and the nihilistic ending remains legendary. It’s also a work of art, created by a filmmaker in his prime. If you’re looking for a good horror movie, there’s no better place to start than this 1982 masterpiece.

Interview with Actor Keith Coogan By Jesse Striewski

Chances are if you grew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s such as myself, you remember actor Keith Coogan. Not only did he appear in numerous commercials (his first acting job was a spot for McDonnald’s), and popular shows on TV at the time such as Knight Rider and Silver Spoons, he was also lucky enough to work alongside two of the most memorable bombshells of their time, Elizabeth Shue in 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting, and Christina Applegate in 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. Recently, I was able to sit down and speak with Coogan during a candid phone conversation about these experiences, and so much more.

I instantly wanted to start at the beginning and discuss what it was like making his first movie, a voice role in the 1981 Disney film The Fox and the Hound. He told me; “Yeah, no real huge memories of that! I came from a real big showbiz family with my great-grandfather in Vaudeville, then my grandfather in silent films and television, and my mother was a comedy writer, so they knew it’s a hard way to make an easy living. And I had worked my way up through TV, doing lots of commercials and guest appearances on great shows like CHiPS, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Eight is Enough, Mork & Mindy, and Laverne & Shirley. My mom, or “momager” was the one that took me around, and almost everything with a kid in it I auditioned for. And we got a voiceover job for Disney when I was eight; it was thrilling, but really only like three or four days of work spread over months and months. And they recorded the voices singularly…it wasn’t until Robin Williams was doing Aladdin years later that they decided to bring in whoever he was doing a scene with due to his improv nature.”

He continued; “We started in ’78, and of course the hound was played by Corey Feldman, who I’ve been friends with for decades now. And then Don Bluth left the production and took a lot of animators with him, and they had to shut down before hiring new people to finish the film. And by the time it came out in ’81, I was eleven and had been doing more TV and stuff, so it was kind of an after thought like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s out’ (Laughs). I know how grateful I am to be in a Disney movie, and some say it’s their last classically-animated film before they used computers full-blown on their next production. I think it’s a terrific, sweet film, and I think it made $64 million dollars at the box office, which was a record for them at the time, too.” He added one final thought; “And despite what it says on IMDB, Kurt Russell did NOT record his dialogue wearing Snake Plissken’s jacket (Laughs).”

I also wanted to get into some of those old TV roles he took part of, starting with working with the late Robin Williams on Mork & Mindy; “Oh gosh, working with him, and Jonathan Winters, and of course the anchor holding the show down, Pam Dawber, was so great! And this was actually the last episode to ever air, and they knew they weren’t necessarily going to get picked up for another season, so the set kind of had a dire mood to it. But there was still that spark of creativity there from Williams and Winters, although Jonathan was much more on his own planet (Laughs).”

Of course I had to ask him about Silver Spoons as well; “Rick managed a rock band called Splat, which I was the keyboard player for. And they were going to go on a Star Search kind of thing before their singer got sick, and so Rick had to sing, hence the title of the episode, “Rick Sings.” It was kind of a precursor to future roles I would play, but it was more surfer rather than stoner. I also got to work with Alfonso Ribeiro and Billy Jayne, and it was a welcoming, fun set with the video games and the train, and I think I got about ten feet into the house before three guys came up to me with their satin ’80s jackets (Laughs). And all of the video games on the set had unlimited credits, so you could just walk up and play any one of them! But they didn’t typically have the train out and lying around, so there was probably a ‘no riding the train’ rule!” He went on; “But the audiences on sitcoms used to throw me off. I probably did six or seven more of them, too, including Growing Pains and Just the Ten of Us. And they always were nerve racking in front of a live audience! I remember my entrance I did for the Laverne & Shirley episode I did; I opened the door and just cracked up, so we had to re-shoot it at the end of the night (Laughs).”

And aside from sitcoms, he was also on another favorite ’80s show, the previously-mentioned Knight Rider; “That was amazing! David Hasselhoff was particularity awesome and fun to work with, and I worked with my uncle Don Stroud, who played one of the biker gang members. We shot around southern California, and one of the coolest shots we did was at Mockingbird Square, which was Clock Tower Square at Universal Studios. And the bait shop we filmed in was the diner from Back to the Future. So that was fun to not only get to shoot there, but also ride around in K.I.T.T.!”

As far as his movies go, I asked if he felt Adventures in Babysitting is the one he will always be best remembered for; “It’s entirely subjective to people, but I think for me, it’s a split between that and Don’t Tell Mom...And regarding its 2016 remake, he said; “It was the one-hundredth Disney Channel original movie, and I went to the premiere when it came out, and it was great, lots of fun! The original was stretching the PG-13 and was limited to a certain audience, whereas the G-rated version was more for a younger generation. But it rings a lot of nostalgia bells with some of the little Easter eggs in there. But still, totally different story and tone, but I loved it! And Coogan even explained a little what co-star Elizabeth Shue has been up to recently (despite not having kept in contact with her); “She was involved with a recent article on all the things you ever wanted to know about Adventures in Babysitting answered, and it’s fantastic! They cover everything from the dance scene in the beginning, to the Playboy, to “Babysitter’s Blues.”‘

I also wondered if he had kept in touch with his former Don’t Tell Mom…co-star Christina Applegate, who recently announced a MS diagnosis; “We actually spent some time running in the same circles before shooting the movie, so it was a great pleasure to get to work with her, having already known how talented she was. She’s a total professional, and it’s interesting that both of these films kind of rest these huge budgets on the shoulders of teenagers! But I know that she’s gone through a lot, but she’s a trooper, and just fantastic, and I wish her all the best…sending out good vibes to her. And as far as how close Coogan was in reality to his character Kenny in the film? He tells me; “I was a nerd, a geek, and a “Dexter” as we used to call it in middle and high school (Laughs). So I wasn’t much like my character at all, I didn’t listen to the rock music like Kenny, or the punk music like Mitch in Cousins. But director Stephen Herek was very supportive in helping me find my character. But I loved it, and there was no way I was passing up the role of Kenny.”

One thing often somewhat forgotten about Coogan are his brushes with the action genre, such as the 1991 film Toy Soldiers; “I think they wanted to forget it when it came out (laughs), meaning it did good business, but you know, nothing to write home about. But Louis Gossett, Jr., what a legend, and Denholm Elliot, another legend! I had a great cast to work with, from Sean Astin to Wil Wheaton, and Shawn Phelan who has now passed. There was also Andrew Divoff who is pretty “method,” I don’t think I saw him smile once until we were done shooting (laughs). And the late R. Lee Ermey; at this point I had already done Adventures in Babysitting with Vincent D’Onofrio from Full Metal Jacket, but now I’m working with the Gunnery Sergeant himself, so I was just over the top! But it was an interesting mix-and-match movie…basically Die Hard meets Dead Poets Society (Laughs).”

In more recent times, Coogan even appeared as himself in the 2019 Kevin Smith film Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, and I asked him to briefly tell me about the experience; “Kevin had said something interesting along the lines of, ‘before I started making movies, I watched a lot of movies.’ So he really has a soft spot for nostalgia and for anyone that came before him. And having Chris Hemsworth at the end credits say – as Thor – “The dishes are done man,” I crapped my pants a little when I first saw that! (Laughs).”

While I could continue even further with more from our hour-long conversation, I’ll end things on this note due to time (perhaps I’ll get to the rest in future pieces), but those in the New Jersey area can actually catch Coogan at the Chiller Theatre Expo in Parsippany from the 29th-31st of this month. Regarding this event he stated; “It’s their anniversary for the convention, and it’s going to be a riot and a huge blowout! A lot of great guests, cosplay, and screenings, so it should be amazing!”