Of all the films buried in the wake of E.T., none suffered quite so much as The Thing. John Carpenter's remake of the seminal 1950s science fiction classic prompted the sort of response from critics that usually ends with public stonings. They didn't dislike The Thing; they wanted it purged from the face of the Earth. Leonard Maltin – as affable, intelligent and well-informed a critic as you're likely to find – actually proclaimed it worse than Megaforce which opened the same weekend. (And if you can somehow find a copy of that gobbling turkey, you'll understand the depths of that condemnation.)
What a difference thirty years makes. I use its initial reception as a cautionary example about how little we critics know sometimes. What once lay dying as a piece of cinematic filth now stands as – yes, I'll say it – the single greatest horror movie ever made. Carpenter took some visual cues from the original move The Thing from Another World, but largely stuck with the source material: a 1930s short story called "Who Goes There?" The Thing is an ironclad testament to the power of the practical, with real-life models and make up effects that haven't aged a day since we first saw them. The monster resembles nothing we've seen before, an ever-shifting doppelganger as apt to explode with writhing tentacles as grow fangs from a seemingly innocuous stomach. Carpenter invested his thrills with a Lovecraftian despair, hinting at a universe in which we are the anomalies and the monster among us the norm. For all the film's brilliant shocks, for all its "creature in the dark" roller-coaster qualities, that creeping sense of doom causes the biggest scares.
The heroes form an equally vital part of the equation, less in who they are than how they respond to the alien threat. Characterization arrives slowly, though it's clear early on that Kurt Russell's R.J MacReady is the go-to Alpha Dog. We get to know them gradually, hardly aware of how much we're rooting for them until the game's afoot and the monster is hiding within their ranks. They've been dealt a bum hand, but they play it with courage and heart, even as the terror turns them against each other. Without such figures to hold our sympathies , The Thing might as well have been the mindless geek show its detractors dismissed it as. With them, every element moves in perfect sync: combining Hitchockian suspense, Reagan-era paranoia, Nitszchien despair, and the greatest splatter effects ever put on screen to create the ideal horror cocktail.
Carpenter also understood that some questions need to remain unanswered, a concept that the well-intentioned prequel never grasped. We can infer what happened in the Norwegian camp, but the monster's true motives remain a mystery, as does its origin, its purpose for visiting Earth… and indeed who ultimately emerges triumphant in the end. Much has been made of the finale's bleakness – and there's plenty of interpretations of the finale that don't bode well for mankind – but it leaves the door open for more hopeful scenarios as well. Carpenter trusts his audience enough to let them make up their own minds, a trait as rare in 1982 as it is today.
For that, and so many other reasons, it was hounded to the ends of the Earth upon release. The passage of time liberated it, but the fact that so many people were so resistant to its vision stands as a black mark on the medium. E.T. is very special, and its heartwarming message fit right in with the times. But Carpenter saw something very different when he looked into the night sky, and I daresay his vision has ultimately proven Spielberg's equal.