John Carpenter had been on a roll of successful films that had started with 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 but it was 1982’s the Thing that arguably alongside his 1978 film Halloween would be regarded as his greatest despite the film bombing at the box office. It probably didn’t help that a film about a shape shifting alien eviscerating any body it inhabited was released shortly after the world had fallen in love with Spielberg’s ET. And whereas as Carlo Rambaldi’s little alien was loveable cute, effects maestro Rob Bottin had created what remains possibly the greatest ever on screen practical effects monster ever committed to celluloid. The scene that encapsulates just how extraordinary his work was where actor Charles Hallahan character Vance Norris was apparently dead and the his colleagues try to resuscitate him using a defibrillator
On the day of shooting the scene it almost ending in fatalities. Hallahan had had numerous casts taken of his body for this sequence even down to photos being taken of his chest hair pattern and now had to sit below the top of a prop table for hours on end whilst a full body prosthetic was set up and blended in with his head which was poking up above the table. The effect was so convincing that Richard Dysart (Dr Copper) was fooled into thinking that Hallahan had been lying on the table half naked for hours and insisted that he was covered up to preserve some dignity. Crew who weren’t part of the effects make up team were taken aback at the amount of KY jelly on the set in 5 gallon tubs. Bottin was concerned at the amount of light on his effects and wanted DoP Dean Cundey to lower the light so as not to reveal seams and eliminate any artificial aspects of his models. As far as Bottin was concerned this was a one take situation with an effect that had taken months to complete. Cameras roll and as just as the defibrillator is applied the chest opens and the actors arms holding the devib are severed. To achieve this Bottin hired a amputee who had lost both arms at the elbow and applied false arms made of jello, rubber veins and wax bones which would tear as they the chest opened up and bit them off. A prosthetic face mask was applied to the amputee. It was a sequence which in retrospect Bottin admits he‘d be afraid to do again today.
But it was the next part of the sequence which was to cause chaos. This was for Hallahan’s neck to grossly stretch, tear and eventually sever from the body. As the neck stretched the skin tore revealing the throat sinew which were to be made up of melted plastic, laquer thinner, bubble gum and frankly anything else Bottin could lay his hands on. All of this was pumped and stretched and manipulated by his team under the table. The stench of this was awful but it’s downfall was Carpenter insisting on a fire bar being lit at the bottom of the camera frame as the effect was shot. It occurred to no one as that the fumes stinking out the set were to prove highly flammable and immediately ignited when the fire bar was lit. The resulting fireball destroyed the prosthetic body and made the crew look like something emerging from a Wil. E. Coyote cartoon. Months of work went up in smoke.
The sequence would get ever more extraordinary with the now detached head’s tongue shooting out, wrapping itself around a chair leg and pull itself along the floor before sprouting legs and scuttling away which were all puppets effects.
‘You’ve got to be f**king kidding me!’ says one character something that the world’s audiences were thinking too.