d. John Carpenter / 1982 / USA / 109 mins
A few weeks back, writing about excellent Korean monster movie The Host, I included the mysterious creature from The Thing in my Official Top Ten List of the Greatest Best Ever Indeterminate Movie Monsters/Mutants/Beasties of All Time, Ever list. And John Carpenter’s remake of the Cold War short story adaptation is about as excellent as its monster is indeterminate (ie. very!). But I wanted to focus, this time, on The Thing‘s other ‘monster’, Kurt Russell’s gruff anti-hero character and his many manifestations in collaboration with John Carpenter.
Written by Bill ‘Son of Burt’ Lancaster, The Thing was Carpenter’s first major studio flick, having made a name for himself in the second half of the 1970s with increasingly successful indie outings Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978), with which he rather impressively converted a meagre $325,000 budget into a $47 million domestic box office.
Beginning his film career by kicking Elvis Presley in the shins in It Happened at the Worlds Fair (1963), Kurt Russell had a handful of feature film roles as a member of the Disney roster, but spent most of the 1960s and ’70s in a seemingly interminable television wilderness (with one-off walk-on roles in everything from Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space to Hawaii Five-0 and Charlie’s Angels), whilst also managing to maintain a creditable minor league baseball career until an injury forced his retirement in 1973.
The pair first came together in 1979, when John Carpenter was charged with directing a Dick Clark-backed television mini-series on the life of the recently deceased King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Kurt Russell was cast as Elvis, received an Emmy nomination and the rest, as they say is history. Of sorts.
Throughout the 1980s, Kurt Russell went from television bit-player (and Disney teeny-boy) to bona fide cult movie icon, largely with the help of a string of hard-edged, anti-hero roles in collaboration with Carpenter. Two years after Elvis, Russell donned Snake Plissken’s infamous eye patch for Carpenter’s dystopian science-fiction/action tour de force Escape from New York (1981), which was quickly followed up by The Thing the following year.
They teamed up again in 1986 for martial arts fantasy Big Trouble in Little China, with Russell playing a truck driver who gets caught up in an ancient oriental feud. But with that film proving a box office disaster (earning $11m from an estimated $25m budget), it would be another ten years before the duo would reunite. A tentative sequel to Escape from New York in development for over ten years, the production of Escape from L.A. (1996) was given added impetus in the wake the 1992 L.A. Riots and the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, and saw Snake Plissken slung back into a 21st century Los Angeles, now converted into a post-urban penal colony. Escape from L.A. would ultimately prove to be a box office bomb of epic proportions, however, barely managing to make back even half of its estimated $50m budget and effectively sealing the deal on the Carpenter/Russell collaboration.
Nevertheless, the importance of the John Carpenter / Kurt Russell partnership was recognised earlier this year, when Empire Magazine placed the pair at the top of their list of forty great actor/director collaborations. Their films might not have been blockbusters, but there is absolutely no doubting Carpenter and Russell’s immeasurable influence on cult cinema, an influence that will continue for years to come. And if you need any proof, you only need to look as far as the upcoming Universal-backed prequel for The Thing, which follows the fate of the Norwegian crew in the lead up to Carpenter’s film and may or may not hit cinemas sometime in 2011.