The Thing That Ate E.T.
By Daniel Kraus

In 1982 Universal Studios, the movie company made famous with their classic horror and science-fictions films like 1931's Frankenstein, 1931's Dracula and 1932's The Mummy, released two big-budget science-fiction thrillers at practically the same time. One was called E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial and featured a cute, wrinkly, pudgy little creature who drank beer and ate candy. The other was called The Thing, and it was a little darker.

The Thing was based on a famous sci-fi story entitled "Who Goes There?" and was first made into the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World. Although considered something of a mild classic, Hawks's film bore little resemblance to the original tale, and Universal thought a more faithful update was long overdue. Fresh from the successes of Halloween and The Fog, director John Carpenter was brought aboard the project after writer/director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) delivered two unsatisfactory drafts. Carpenter hired his buddy Kurt Russell for the lead, hired 22-year-old special effects genius Rob Bottin as the creature creator, and set to work on a film that, even today, stands as one of the most shocking, grueling cornerstones of special-effect thrillers ever made.

The story is blunt and simple, which fits Carpenter's muscular directing style perfectly. It's 1982, and twelve men stationed at a remote Antarctic base accidentally let loose an alien force that had been frozen in the ice for over 100,000 years. The alien has the ability to imitate any life form, and begins as a dog, then takes to people. Soon, no one is to be trusted. Who is really human and who is but an imitator?  

When Hawks's film opened in 1952, it had to slug it out with another competing film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which featured a benevolent alien quite the opposite of Hawks's Frankensteinian beast. Carpenter's The Thing had similar competition, and most of it came from its own studio. Universal attempted to promote Steven Spielberg's E.T., The Thing, David Cronenberg's Videodrome, Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal, and Paul Schrader's Cat People all at the same time, and the majority of the spoils went to E.T.  

Interestingly, the other four films all became cult classics, finding their true audience on home video. With its absolutely gut-wrenching scenes, The Thing was an instant hit with FX fans and gore hounds, but most audiences rejected it. This wasn't a surprise, considering that much of Carpenter's film would be all but un-releaseable today: intense, bloody dissections of charred human and alien remains; dogs and humans splitting open to reveal guts that had lives of their own; and, worst of all, an ambivalent ending that implies the freezing death of the two remaining characters.

Carpenter did, in fact, shoot an alternate happy ending, but refused to use it even after test audiences showed great distaste for the film. "There's a somber kind of inevitability to the film," Carpenter said recently, and it's true: from the very first sequence of a helicopter chasing an alien-infected dog across a glacier, The Thing feels like the beginning of the end; it feels like the apocalypse, but it is an apocalypse brought on not by weapons but by something more like a virus, eating us alive from the inside.

Given a choice between light and dark, audience will usually choose light. But it is not difficult to make the case that The Thing is superior to E.T. The Thing's view of technology was that it was ineffectual—nothing at the Arctic camp works, nor would it be of any help against the alien anyway. In E.T., technology is wondrous—from the toys that E.T. makes come alive, to his fairy-like spaceship. Behind the scenes, the story was much the same—E.T. relied more on new, computerized effects (especially in the newly released "digitally enhanced version"), while The Thing stubbornly relied on old-fashioned rubber prostheses, squirting tubes of blood, and 10-gallon buckets of gooey KY jelly used for all-purpose slime. While the character of E.T. was, in some senses, yet another "guy in a suit", the Thing broke that barrier, stretching and pulling itself into shapes never before seen and into combinations no one had ever really wanted to see (stomachs with teeth, severed heads with legs, dogs with hundreds of tongues).

E.T. possessed a classic Ray Bradbury-style science-fiction sensibility, taking pains to show that it is mankind whom repeatedly try to destroy E.T. Things were slightly more convoluted in The Thing. Again, mankind was the monster (this time literally), but the fault was only ours in terms of a genesis— once the evil was born and unleashed, it was all over for us. The Thing detailed the rise and fall of mankind, and did it in only two days.

It is not surprising that both films have found a success that spans decades. Both are the works of instinctive directors at the top of their game, and each one is over-the-top in its own stubborn way. Love them or hate them (most likely you'll like one or the other), E.T. and The Thing were two expertly crafted sides of the same science-fiction coin, and their power to move us remains untouched. Do yourself a favor: on the way home from seeing the E.T. re-release, while you're still misty-eyed, wondering, "Why couldn't E.T. stay with Elliot forever?" pull into the video store, pick up a copy of John Carpenter's The Thing, and receive a two-hour antidote. It'll hurt, but it'll be good for you.