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Why John Carpenter's The Thing Originally Received Such Bad Reviews

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John Carpenter’s The Thing is regarded as one of the best sci-fi and horror movies ever, but that wasn’t always the reaction to it, and it received very bad reviews during its initial release. John Carpenter’s career as a filmmaker began in 1969 with Captain Voyeur, a short-film about a bored computer worker who becomes fixated on a woman at work, but his big break came in 1978 with Halloween, which introduced a new slasher killer (Michael Myers) and helped develop and popularize the genre in the 1980s.

Since then, Carpenter became a widely-known name in the sci-fi and horror genres and went on to direct The Fog in 1980 and The Thing in 1982. Based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., The Thing follows a group of American researchers in Antarctica who come across a parasitic extraterrestrial life-form that assimilates and imitates other organisms. This makes way for a lot of drama, conflict, and paranoia between the group as any of them could be "the thing" pretending to be a human. The Thing has been praised for its special effects, the way it builds tension and a claustrophobic environment, and the performances of the cast, but it took critics and viewers a long time to appreciate the movie.

The Thing spent years in development hell and differents directors and writers were attached to the project. The producers’ goal was to make a faithful adaptation of Campbell’s novella after the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World, and after Universal acquired the rights to remake the movie, John Carpenter was approached, but the studio chose legendary director Tobe Hooper instead. However, Universal wasn’t happy with Hooper and his writing partner Kim Henkel’s concept, and after failing to find the right pitch, the project was put on hold. The success of Ridley Scott’s Alien revived the project, and Carpenter finally agreed to join. The Thing was finally released in 1982, and it was a commercial and critical failure, to the point where it was proposed as the “most-hated film of all time” by horror magazine Cinefantastique.

Critics weren’t kind to The Thing and called it all types of things – from “instant junk” to plain “boring”. Many reviewers criticized the plot and found the characters’ deaths to be meaningless, the pacing to be slow, the dialogues to be “banal”, and the story to be devoid of warmth or humanity. Others found the performances of the cast to be good, but the characters being “bland” and nothing more than stereotypes. When it comes to the special effects of The Thing, they were both praised and criticized – although they were impressive and added to the suspense and horror of the story, some critics felt the movie relied too much on them, and others simply found them repulsive and “excessive”. If that wasn’t enough, The Thing was endlessly compared to movies like Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and (of course!) The Thing from Another World, which definitely didn’t help the movie’s box office performance, which was already struggling as it was competing against E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner.

The initial failure of The Thing had big consequences in Carpenter’s career, as Universal canceled a multi-picture deal it had with the director and he lost many projects because of the bad reviews. Luckily, and just like with Halloween, time has been good to it and critics and viewers have changed their minds about the movie, with more recent revisions finding the story to be suspenseful, the characters to be interesting, and the special effects to be a benchmark in the area. The Thing has developed a cult following and has influenced other horror and sci-fi directors, and while it’s now among the best movies in the genre, all this can’t repair the damage the initial reviews did to John Carpenter’s career.
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