HORROR RETROSPECTIVE: John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ set standard for practical effects

By Luis Castilla

The amorphous mass of flesh in John Carpenter’s 1982 monster-mystery film “The Thing” was a miracle of practical effects and set the standard for the industry.

“The Thing” features an impressive array of practical effects, physical effects that do not require computer-generated imagery.

The ancient extraterrestrial monster in “The Thing” has no true form. 

It is a shapeless amalgamation of different organisms that takes the form of those it assimilates with the sole purpose of surviving.

The monster appears early in the film in the form of a dog and is able to infiltrate the research facility. 

As soon as the monster is provided food, in the form of other dogs, it makes its presence known. The dog’s face rips apart, revealing the grotesque, misshapen creature hidden within.

It is a spectacle of shock and disgust every time the monster appears.

The theme of the film is paranoia. The research team must hunt the creature knowing that any one of them could be it. Carpenter, however, gives subtle hints to the identity of the monster for eagle-eyed viewers.

Carpenter uses close-up camera angles and speech patterns to keep viewers guessing on who has been assimilated by the creature. He gives viewers just enough information to suspect everyone.

Because the monster has no true form, every time it appears, it is unique. This means that the special effects artists had to craft a different monster every time it was on screen, monsters that were capable of writhing, contorting and twisting in unnatural ways.

No film had done practical effects with such complexity until “The Thing.” The groundbreaking effects in the film were the result of special effects artist Rob Bottin’s around-the-clock work. 

Bottin worked on the different monsters so heavily, he had to be hospitalized due to exhaustion.

“The Thing” was a flop at the time of its release, just weeks apart from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” These days, however, Carpenter’s film is largely recognized as the pinnacle of practical effects and a classic among the horror genre.

Modern films rarely use practical effects to the extent that “The Thing” did. CGI has advanced to the point that it is indistinguishable from physical objects. 

It is undeniable, however, that the exceptional effects in “The Thing” are the best example of what practical effects are capable of.

“The Thing” is a gem of filmmaking, showcasing the incredible effort the special effects team put into their crafts.

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