The Size Of The Thing's Cast 'Intimidated' Director John Carpenter

After all of the frightening things that John Carpenter has brought to life on screen, it's hard to imagine the filmmaker being intimidated by anything. But even doing things for the first time scared the "Master of Horror" early in his career. Carpenter caught Hollywood's attention in 1978 when he re-invented the slasher genre with "Halloween." After a couple of TV movies, he followed his massive success in horror with another thriller, "The Fog." But a few years later in 1982, Carpenter would tackle his first big-budget studio project, the sci-fi horror film "The Thing."

It was the first of three loosely connected films that would become known as Carpenter's "apocalypse trilogy." A remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks film "The Thing from Another World" and an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella "Who Goes There?" in "The Thing," a group of scientists stationed in Antarctica is stalked by an alien that can take the shape of anything that it touches. In the headline of its 1981 New Year's Eve review of the movie, Variety cleverly wrote, "If it's the most vividly gruesome monster ever to stalk the screen that audiences crave, then 'The Thing' is the thing."

Watching the monster mutate into a hybrid alien/human form is horrifying, yet it didn't seem to bother its filmmaker at all. So, what was it, exactly, that scared even John Carpenter when it came to "The Thing?" 

Carpenter found the size of the cast intimidating

The star of "The Thing" was a familiar face to director John Carpenter. The role of R.J. MacReady would mark the third time in three years that Kurt Russell would star in a John Carpenter film ("Elvis" in 1979 and "Escape from New York" in 1981 were the other two, followed by a fourth in 1996, "Escape from L.A."). Only this time, it wasn't just Russell in the starring role. The film called for an ensemble cast.

The group included Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, and Keith David. In a 2016 interview with L.A. Weekly, Carpenter admitted that he found the experience intimidating. The director, who had previously only worked on smaller productions, said:

"Sometimes I would encourage them to do what they wanted to do. [The scene where they discover the blood bags opened up] was also complex. I was intimidated by how many actors I had to work with. I wouldn't be intimidated today, but I was a young man then. Well, a younger man."

The filmmaker had plenty to be intimidated by. "The Thing" was his first true studio film, partnering with Universal Studios with a budget of around $15 million, his biggest at the time. The production involved a lot of special effects and because it was set in Antarctica and Norway, it was shot on two refrigerated sets.

"The Thing" did not perform well at the time of its release, but would eventually become one of the most revered films of its era. That ensemble cast that intimidated Carpenter gives the director all the credit for its legacy.

He almost didn't direct the film

John Carpenter was hesitant to direct "The Thing" at first. On the film's 40th anniversary, the horror legend confessed to Syfy that the Howard Hawks' 1951 original was one of his favorite films. "I really didn't want to get near it," Carpenter revealed. "But I re-read the novella and I thought, 'You know, this is a pretty good story here. We get the right writer [Bill Lancaster], the right situation, we could do something.'"

If you listen to the cast, you'd never know it was Carpenter's first large studio production. Veteran actor Wilford Brimley, who played Dr. Blair, reflected on working with Carpenter. He said:

"John's a wonderful man. Everything he did put us in the right frame of mind. He understood what a director is supposed to do, and that's his gift. He didn't say very much, which I think is the best way to be."

David Clennon, who played Palmer the station meteorologist, agreed, crediting the director for his performance. "I thought, 'I want to take a crack at Palmer. I don't want to play another white-collar science man. I want to be the blue-collar stoner,'" Clennon said. "I think it's a tribute to John's [genius] that he was willing to let me go against type and play the part."

Despite that poor initial reception, "The Thing" has aged incredibly well. It remains a seminal early 1980s classic lauded for its practical effects, foreboding narrative, and themes of paranoia, isolation, and losing control. The film stands with "Alien" as one of the best sci-fi horror films of its era. Despite working with an ensemble cast for the first time, "The Thing" is an early triumph for Carpenter and quite often ranks as his best film.