Forty years ago today, on June 25, 1982, The Thing was released in theaters. At the time, the movie was the furthest thing from a success. The grotesque sci-fi thriller about a shapeshifting alien was panned by critics and just barely made its money back at the box office. From that original response, you would have expected The Thing to fade into obscurity, but the exact opposite has happened over the past four decades.
Gaining new life on VHS, The Thing eventually came to be appreciated as a masterpiece, and just this past weekend, the anniversary re-release snagged the number nine spot at the box office. Its tension-filled story is a big part of this re-evaluation, but you can’t discount the remarkable special effects either, which depicted a creature that absorbed its victims in the most unique, horrific ways possible. Yet among the countless impressive sequences, none stands out quite like what happens to the character of Norris, played by Charles Hallahan.
When everyone is trying to figure out who might be infected by the alien, Norris appears to suffer a heart attack. After being shocked with a defibrillator, his chest pops open to reveal a set of giant teeth that proceed to chomp off the arms of the man treating him. Next, a disgusting, crab-legged alien bursts out of Norris’ body. Kurt Russell’s character, MacReady, blasts it with a flamethrower, but Norris’ infected head escapes by sprouting a set of spider legs and a new pair of eyes. The spider head then scurries away. MacReady, however, hits it with the flamethrower once more, seemingly killing it once and for all.
To make the sequence work, a great number of different techniques in practical effects were used. Here to break down each one of them is legendary makeup effects artist Ken Diaz, who served as the special makeup effects coordinator on The Thing.
Origin of the Scene
This sequence was special effects creator Rob Bottin’s idea. There was something vague in the script for this part, but he thought all of it up — he’s a genius. It was actually his idea that the Thing could be anything, which allowed us to do so much cool stuff in this movie.
Bottin was the idea man, then Mike Ploog, a comic-book illustrator, would do the storyboards. Once the sequences were storyboarded, we’d have conferences with Rob, me and Dave Kelsey, the mechanical effects coordinator, and we’d figure out how to execute these effects. We knew we had our work cut out for us with this particular sequence, but for a bunch of effects guys who were used to working out of our basements, we were really excited.
The Chest Chomper
The sequence began with Norris on a table, then his chest split open to reveal a set of teeth that bit off the arms of Dr. Copper, played by Richard Dysart. For this, Charles Hallahan was lying down on a slant board, with a fake torso attached. The torso and teeth that chomped off the arms were made of fiberglass, and the opening and closing mechanisms were controlled by pneumatic pressure. Over the top of the fiberglass form, there was a foam latex skin that blended off just below Charles’ neck. It was painted to match his skin color, and the hair was punched in to perfectly match his chest hair.
Dr. Copper had fake arms made of gelatin, with inner layers of muscles and fake bones, that were rigged to bleed when they were ripped off.
The next shot was Dr. Copper pulling back, screaming, with chopped, bloody arm stumps. For this, we used an actual double-amputee and put ripped flesh prosthetics over his arm stumps. Then we applied a photo-double mask of Dr. Copper to him.
We also had a fake Norris body with an open stomach cavity, with hissing hoses coming out followed by a large chunk of slime. The flopping action on the hoses was created by shooting high-pressure air through them, and the chunk of slime was shot out of an air cannon.
The Duct Monster
Eventually, the camera moved up Norris’ slimy entrails to reveal a creature with king crab legs, an elongated neck and a miniature, evil Norris head on it. We referred to this character as “The Duct Monster” because it was puppeteered by our smallest crew member who was hiding above the puppet in fake ductwork.
MacReady’s flamethrower was something that’s referred to as a “practical effect” — that is, it was done with a real flamethrower on a fireproof set.
After that, the Norris head started stretching longer and longer, with ripping flesh and pops bursting out of the stretching tendons. This was accomplished with another fake Norris body that was made with a fiberglass understructure and a fully detailed foam rubber skin. The body was rigged with a hydraulic piston to do the stretching, and the metal piston was disguised with painted sheets of latex and coral textured, foam latex webbing. Weaved into that webbing were four painted, textured plastic tubes with small slits cut into them. They were rigged to have liquid-colored plastic pumped through them, which formed green and yellow plastic bubbles. We did them in those more fantasy-like colors to try to avoid getting an X rating.
As the hydraulic piston stretched longer and longer, the skin on the neck started to tear in a pre-rigged pattern, while the face was puppet-controlled from puppeteers underneath it.
The Norris head traveled down the side of the examination table by having it slide along a hidden track operated by puppeteers. Once it hit the floor, the head shot this long, hose-like tongue out of its mouth, which attached itself to a desk. We shot this shot in reverse — the tongue was already attached to the desk, then it was reeled back into the puppet.
A puppeteer from below a raised set also pulled the head under the desk via a hidden track on the floor.
The Spider Head
Once the head was under the desk, it sprouted six legs and two eye sockets, transforming into what we called “The Spider Head.” This effect was done on a raised set as well, with puppeteers from below pushing spring-loaded, hinged legs — and eye sockets — through small channels in the head.
In the next part, the Spider Head scurried out from under the desk and headed out the door, into the hallway. This Spider Head was built and operated similar to a remote-control car, with wheels that could move the head in any direction, along with camshafts to move the spider legs up and down.
The second time MacReady fired up his flamethrower was another practical, fireproofed effect. To be honest, we were surprised that the flaming Spider Head car was still able to be controlled while it was on fire! That was pretty cool.
The Final Product
Even when we were still shooting, we put together a rough cut of this sequence and viewed it over at the Alfred Hitchcock Theater at Universal Studios. Let me tell you, seeing it on the big screen blew me away. Coming out of the theater, I was stunned. I looked at the guys and said, “I don’t know how anybody is ever going to top this.”
It was that moment when I realized that The Thing was really going to be something special.