An 1982 article about John Carpenter’s reaction to The Thing‘s disappointing box office results has been making the social media rounds, with all the “what fools those ancients were” commentary one has come to expect on these occasions.
The gist of it is true. The movie — along with fellow Class of ’82 alums Tron and Blade Runner — got a lukewarm reception during its initial theatrical run, only to be hailed as a stone cold classic a couple decades down the line. It’s easy to spin that turn of events into an inspirational narrative about unrecognized genius (and how superior one’s tastes are compared to their clueless elders) but at the expense of historical context.
I was ten in 1982, old enough to appreciate the year’s unprecedented bounty of high profile sci-fi/fantasy/horror flicks yet not old enough to actually watch most of them. Besides the predominance of R-rated fare and distance to the local cineplex, I was also constrained by my belief that three dollars — on the rare occasions I possessed such a princely sum — was better spent on a new Star Wars figure than on a matinee show ticket.
As a result, I experienced most of those movies through the reactions they inspired — MAD Magazine parodies, hearsay from older kids, novelizations owned by teenage relatives, Sneak Previews clips, and printed reviews. The immediate goal was to sate my curiosity and pick up enough details to convincingly bullshit during playground discussions, but this “negative space” approach also gave me a rudimentary understanding of critical and other biases in the realms of geek-centric media.
Any review of a remake is going to be lensed through perceptions of the original version. It’s inevitable, despite the critical dictum about judging a work for what its and not what the reviewer thinks it ought to be. In the case of The Thing, the previous go-round happened to be one of the most acclaimed sci-fi/horror flicks of all time. Fucking Howard Hawks was involved in the production! My mom spoke about it as if it was a Ming vase or Van Gogh painting! Even if it reduced the cosmic-chimeric contagion from the original John W. Campbell story into Marshal Dillon as Frankenstein’s Carrot, it was held up as an example of how to do this type of thing (meaning sci-fi/horror) right.
And that notion of “right” held a significant amount of weight, even in 1982. “Genre” material — meaning horror, sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, and what have you — was seen as dwelling on a lower tier by default. Getting plaudits from mainstream critics meant proving itself twice over. Any rare words of praise were qualified by “…for a [genre] movie” or “more than just a [genre] movie.”
Among the critics within the scene, there tended to be a tone akin to “respectability” politics. Works which took a “highbrow” approach were held up in opposition to the vast seas of lurid trash. “Suspense not gore, Hitchcock not Hooper, and please don’t lump us in those splatter flick knuckledraggers.” The horror scene is where I first encountered it (thanks to Twilight Zone Magazine) but spans the entire geek spectrum. It also persists to the present day by way of arguments about “elevated” horror, whether videogames can qualify as “art,” or any time some dipshit comes up with an “edgy and mature” take on Superman.
Humanities programs are dropping sections on Alexander Pope to make room for symposiums about Secret Wars II, but god forbid a geek feels like their consumption choices aren’t constantly validated by the universe at large.
It didn’t help that The Thing or Blade Runner or Tron or Dark Crystal happened to drop into an incredibly crowded field for genre flicks. 1982 was to “genre” movies what 1979 was to pop music — a mind-boggling wave of outstanding and influential works hitting within a very short space of time. It was the year the seeds planted by Star Wars and Superman, and nurtured by Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark, went into full blossom.
“An outpouring of talent” only covers half of the equation. The other half was “an industry willing to bankroll these works based on perceived audience demand.” The volume of material wasn’t as much of an obstacle as the expectations set by those perceptions of demand. Stuff that would’ve normally been aimed at the drive-in market (or shelved for budgetary reasons) got pushed into the upper-echelon midlist or lower-tier blockbuster territory, with box office projections scaled to match.
The competition didn’t make things easier, but the truth is that the “decent” returns films like those could’ve realistically expected were no longer decent enough.
The general gist of 1982 reviews for the The Thing went something like this:
“How dare this guy remake a classic by a renowned filmmaker. It places too much emphasis on special effects and tries way to hard to be contemporary and ‘relevant.’ They should’ve put their talents towards creating something new instead of this pointless nonsense.”
Yep, those folks certainly were foolish and totally unlike the sophisticated breed of fans we have these days.