Horror master

The good people at Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) have pulled off something of a coup for their 29th edition: a live chat, via a satellite from California, with writer-director John Carpenter.

Horror hero: Kurt Russell in the cult classic The Thing.
Horror hero: Kurt Russell in the cult classic The Thing.

The festival is screening a clutch of Carpenter classics. Alongside The Thing are The Fog, They Live and Escape from New York. But it’s The Thing that most fans will come and see, and for good reason.

A modest success on its release in 1982 – it was competing with Spielberg’s altogether cuddlier ET The Thing’s status as a unique shocker has developed steadily over the years. Much of its enduring appeal rests on its eye-popping special effects and a monster that defies description. That and the presence of Kurt Russell, a frequent Carpenter collaborator and the anchor for the story.

Carpenter, now 67, caught on quickly to the notion that it is unwise to remake a successful film. To avoid competing with Howard Hawks’ 1951 original The Thing from Another World he went back to the source material.

“I didn’t want to compete with the old film, which was correctly loved by myself and many fans. So I went back to the novella on which both films are based.”

The story Who Goes There? by Donald Stewart (aka John Campbell) is, says Carpenter, “a vastly different story”. The project was scripted by Bill (son of Burt) Lancaster. But the look, feel and identity of the alien life form that systematically wipes out an Antarctic science station came from special effects artist Rob Bottin. “There’s this cliché about it’s always better never to show the face of the devil. Never show the monster; always suggest it,” remembers Carpenter.

“I was struggling with that until Rob Bottin suggested the secret of the movie, which was that the thing can look like anything. It doesn’t have to look like one creature; it can look like every life form it has imitated throughout the universe because it’s been on its travels for a long, long time.

“So there was a chance to create a monster that was design-based. And based on the movement we could give it and based on some really crazy, offbeat ideas. I don’t know that there has been a monster done like this. But Rob Bottin convinced me and that’s the way we went.”

And it works – the emergence of the thing as it erupts from a victim’s chest is one of the many high points of a film that helped to redefine the notion of cinematic horror. Yet The Thing divided audiences on release. Its reputation grew via home video. Carpenter recalls with a wince the reaction he got from the studio, from critics and from fans.

“I made a really gruelling dark film and I don’t think audiences in 1982 wanted to see that. They wanted to see E.T. and The Thing was the opposite of that. What disturbed me about it was that the fans turned out hating it so much. I was pretty stung by it at the time.

“There was a famous magazine back then called Cinefantastique. They had a cover story that said ‘Is this the most hated film of all time?’.” Thirty-odd years later The Thing is set to play to a sell-out crowd in Leeds on November 6. How does Carpenter feel about that? And what message does he have for the LIFF crowd? “I’m very proud of the movie. I’ve always loved it. It still looks well and I hope you enjoy watching it.”

Leeds International Film Festival, November 5-19 www.leedsfilm.com