The Thing | The story behind Drew Struzan’s iconic poster

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Artist Drew Struzan created an unforgettable poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Incredibly, the artwork was conceived and rendered in a matter of hours…

One afternoon in the spring of 1982, Dylan Struzan drove home from a shopping expedition to see her husband, Drew, rushing awkwardly down their driveway. Despite the fair California climate, Drew was clad in gloves, boots, and a heavy parka jacket with the hood pulled up over his head. Dylan later recalled that her husband said, waving a still camera, “I need this by tonight!”

A few minutes earlier, Drew had received a call from Universal Pictures. “We have a job, but we need it really quick…”

By 1982, Drew Struzan – then 35 – was rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most respected commercial artists working in the United States. His technical and compositional skill had already illuminated the posters for such films as The Cannonball Run, The Muppet Movie and Star Wars. That same year, he would go on to produce two artworks that showed off his talent for portraiture: a poster for First Blood, featuring a haunted-looking Sylvester Stallone, and a smoky, evocative poster for Blade Runner, filled with uncannily accurate depictions of Harrison Ford and the rest of the film’s cast.

Arguably the most striking artwork Struzan created that year, though, doesn’t feature any actors at all. Depicting a human, parka-clad figure framed by an icy landscape, Struzan’s poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing is minimal, surreal, and filled with menace. Its brilliance is all the more surprising given that Struzan managed to paint it in a matter of hours rather than days.

Of that initial phone call from Universal, Struzan later recalled being asked, “Do you remember the movie The Thing from the 1950s?” and being given little else in the way of guidance. Where other productions might have provided set photos of actors or other materials for information, Struzan “had nothing”. All he knew was that he had to come up with some artwork for John Carpenter’s sci-fi remake, which, like its predecessor, 1951’s The Thing From Another World, was about an alien stalking victims in a remote Antarctic research facility.

“That was it – that’s all I had to create with,” Struzan said in the 2013 documentary, Drew: The Man Behind The Poster. “I couldn’t show an actor or a location or anything. I couldn’t show a monster. So I had to find a way of making nothing into something.”

Perhaps recalling the fur-lined parkas worn by most of the cast in The Thing From Another World, Struzan reached into his closet and dragged out his own winter gear. Not long after his wife had pulled up on the driveway, the pair had staged an impromptu photoshoot, with Drew posing unnaturally with his arms outstretched. Dylan then “ran into the laundry room, [developed] all the film, made prints,” she later said.

From those photographs, Drew picked one to use as a basis for an initial composition, which he then faxed over to Universal for approval. “Fine,” came the reply. “We need it by tomorrow morning.”

Struzan then worked all day and through the night on his composition, surrounding his hooded silhouette with shards of icy blue acrylic. The artwork’s focal point is that incredible, aurora borealis-like blast of light emanating from the figure’s hood; it’s both unlike anything in John Carpenter’s finished film, yet still nightmarishly fitting. Perhaps by accident, the image of a faceless figure sums up the movie’s unsettling themes of dehumanisation and paranoia. Echoing Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte’s 1937 painting The Pleasure Principle, the figure’s absence of a face creates an eerie sense of drama and anticipation.

Drew Struzan's The Thing poster and Magritte's The Pleasure Principle

Rene Magritte’s 1937 painting The Pleasure Principle and Drew Struzan’s poster for The Thing.

The work was what Struzan later called an “open-ended” picture – an image that is about “what you want to see or don’t see.”

“It’s just a guy standing there,” the artist told Slash Film. “He’s got on his snow outfit. He’s obviously standing in the cold and the snow and he has some lights coming out of his face. And that’s the thing you can’t understand. Hopefully the response is, ‘I’ve got to go see this movie and find out what this is about.’ And that’s how I paint open-ended pictures, to inspire people to want to go and find out what the movie is about.”

By nine o’clock the following morning, a delivery driver from the studio arrived to pick up the artwork, and was asked to wait while Struzan spent another hour adding the finishing touches. Struzan then handed the art over to the delivery driver and warned him, “be careful – don’t get anything on it.”

The artwork was so fresh that, after it had made the 100 mile journey from Struzan’s home in Lake Arrowhead to Los Angeles, Struzan remembers getting a call from the studio to say, “The painting’s still wet.”

“That’s how fast it left the studio,” Struzan later said. “So they had to wait for it to dry before they could put it under glass to shoot it.”

Released in June 1982, The Thing was famously greeted with a mixture of dismissal and outright horror; critics railed against its excessive violence and doomy tone, and audiences weren’t initially enthusiastic, either. These days, however, John Carpenter’s movie is rightly regarded as a classic, and many of the elements that critics saw as failings – the laconic cast, the nihilism, and Rob Bottin’s spectacularly graphic effects work – are now seen as triumphs.

Sitting proudly alongside the film itself is Struzan’s subtle, timeless poster. Like John Carpenter’s chilly opening shots of Antarctic wastes, or the murmuring bass of Ennio Morricone’s score, Struzan’s artwork hints tantalisingly at unearthly horrors to come.

In Drew: The Man Behind The Poster, director Guillermo del Toro also expressed his appreciation for Struzan’s work. “I saw that poster, and the sense of menace and madness, the dimensions of that thing with the light coming out of the head…  It doesn’t represent the movie – it makes the movie bigger.”

Read more: Why John Carpenter’s The Thing still resonates at 40

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