If you ever get to utter the phrase "the day we shot the sequence of my chest exploding," you were probably involved in the making of a first-rate motion picture.
John Carpenter's "The Thing" was not well-received during its initial theatrical release 40 years ago, but its combination of bleak social commentary and psyche-scarring makeup fx quickly turned it into a horror/sci-fi classic. Rob Bottin reportedly ran himself ragged designing and executing the film's complex creature transformations, most of which blindsided audiences due to the unpredictable nature of the titular extraterrestrial. At any given moment, anyone could be hosting "The Thing." And there's no more jarring jump scare in the movie (or, for my money, in film history) than the sequence where Charles Hallahan's chest proves inhospitable to a pair of defibrillators .
A Most Dangerous Defibrillation
An instantly identifiable character actor best known for playing cops and coaches, Hallahan seemed too sturdy and flat-out real to succumb to the body-shifting alien. This was the perfect setup for Bottin, whose labor-intensive fx were obsessively detailed. As Hallahan noted in the film's making-of documentary, "You'd walk into their model room to see what they were going to eventually come up with … and it was incredible to see." Hallahan spent ten days with Bottin's crew, and they studied his body and physiognomy like they were planning to clone him. "They molded my face in a lot of different expressions, then my hands, my legs, torso," he said, adding that "they even took photographs of my chest without a shirt on, and they assigned one person to make the hair pattern match."
Hallahan's castmate and friend, Richard Dysart, occupied the unenviable role of the doctor who plunges his paddles into the character's chest, which opens up as a jagged set of jaws that bite the poor guy's hands off. When Dysart walked onto set and saw what he believed to be Hallahan in the bare-chested altogether, he was revolted. "[H]e said, 'Put some clothes on that guy for God's sake, disgusting!' And he came running over, and it wasn't until he was right on top of me that he realized that was fake."
Dysart couldn't have paid Bottin's crew a higher compliment. "When I see the picture," said Hallahan, "I know what my chest hair pattern looks like from looking at myself mirrored for 50 years. I'm shocked how accurate it is."
Hastening The Arctic Apocalypse
Ask today's horror and fantasy masters, and they'll likely tell you that Carpenter's "The Thing" represents the height of practical makeup fx. It's the closest we've gotten to a proper adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," an arctic vision of human extinction. The apocalypse is touched off by a bunch of stir-crazy men.
If that's how it comes to pass, let's hope we get to see at least one exploding chest, replete with ribbed teeth, before the curtains come down.
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