Sometime back in the early ’70s, I was sitting at home with my parents one Saturday afternoon; I don’t remember exactly when it was, but it was definitely close to Halloween (I remember that there was some kind of promotional for the holiday on a Frankenberry commercial). The afternoon flick on our local affiliate’s “Mystery Theatre” presentation was the 1951 classic, The Thing (full title: The Thing From Another World). Granted, I couldn’t have been more than five or six, but it was a ’50s movie, edited for television with cereal advertisements and Hot Wheels toy commercials, and my parents were fairly liberal with what I watched, anyway. I was rooted to the screen; I know now how much I didn’t appreciate about the film at that age, but that big, ugly Frankenstein-looking monster definitely had my attention. I was excited when the soldiers set the big lug on fire, hoping to see the good guys win…but there was a commercial interruption right after the baddie ran off into the snow. At that moment, there was a knock at the door; we lived in a small apartment at the time, and the front door was right next to the trusty old monolithic Zenith floor-model television. Habitually, I quickly jumped up to answer it…and instantly wished I hadn’t. Standing there was a giant, dark-garbed figure with glowing bug-eyes and a wide, toothy grin. Needless to say, I flipped out; I slammed the door whilst screaming, and ran like a bat out of hell to my room at the end of the hall. As it turns out, it was just a friend of my parents that had stopped by, wearing a leather jacket and a pair o’ those nice old 1970s mirrored sunglasses…you remember, the HUGE ones, roughly the size of a diving mask. I recall mom trying to explain all of this to me, but I was having none of it; I didn’t emerge from my room until she assured me he had left, and it would be several more years before I actually finished watching that particular movie.
Now, the reason I bored you lovely, patient Fellow Fans with that somewhat long-winded biographical intrusion was to illustrate that the flick I’m reviewing today is not only one of my earliest horror film memories, but also one that played no small part in making me the fanatic for the genre that I am today. The Howard Hawks produced, Christian Nyby directed (although rumor has it Hawks did the lion’s share of the directing himself) The Thing From Another World presented the unsuspecting movie-goers of the day with a whole new set of fears that related to the world political climate of the time. The film also managed to put forth concepts that continue to influence horror and sci-fi to this day, distinguishing itself as both a true classic of the horror and science fiction genres and one of my personal all-time favorite movies.
Captain Hendry and his U.S. Air Force crew are based in Alaska; not the prime choice for stations, but the tight-knit group (obviously all buddies from the very recent Second World War) make the best of it. Breaking the card-playing and cigarette-smoking monotony, a call comes out from a scientific research center near the North Pole where famed Dr. Arthur Carrington and his associates need assistance investigating a strange object that fell from the sky. Taking along Ned Scott, or “Scotty”, a reporter friend for one of the major wire services, Hendry and his crew saddle up for the trip north, carrying supplies and sled dogs for the upcoming investigative efforts. Approaching the base, they find that something is awry with their instruments, but upon landing Dr. Carrington quickly informs them that it’s merely a residual effect of whatever it is that crashed.
“Crashed?” Hendry had believed that they were investigating a meteor, but Carrington shows him film of how a glowing object had changed course several times during its descent to the polar surface, suggesting an intelligent control. Sure enough, when they reach the site, they find a large, circular object that could only be a spacecraft, buried in the ice from where it’s heat had initially melted through. Attempting to dislodge it with thermal explosives, an unforeseen reaction causes the flames to consume the entire ship. All is not lost, however, as near the site a hulking figure is found frozen, and is chipped from the ice and taken back to the center for study. A freak occurrence finds the being thawed out and loose in the facility, with its intentions quickly being revealed as murderous; it seems that it finds warm blood a tasty food supply. Tissue samples the creature leaves behind in its escape are analyzed by the scientists, and they discover that the being is of a plant-like nature, and besides feeding on blood, they determine that it can reproduce quickly and prolifically by shedding off pieces of itself; within weeks, an army of these ‘things’ could be marching on civilization. Reacting to the danger, the military men try to rally with the scientific crew to fight the menace, but Hendry and Carrington each have their own ideas as to how to deal with the creature, and the situation quickly threatens to become untenable. With the potential fate of mankind in the balance, the conflict between human and invader becomes entangled in the tug-of-war between scientific study and survival.
Based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (oddly credited by his real name rather than the name it was published under, Don A. Stuart), this film actually only borrows a few set pieces from the written tale. Screenwriter Charles Lederer chose instead to go with a more action-oriented tale, and (importantly) one that made the titular creature easier to create with the special effects of the time.* Essentially, this is one of the very first films to put the protagonists in an isolated location with no hope of rescue, pitted against a wiley, deadly opponent who is largely unseen except for when it kills. This, of course, is the obvious formula followed by Alien and a great many other horror films; although It! The Terror From Beyond Space is often mentioned as the progenitor of this motif (for which a pretty good argument can be made), The Thing From Another World hinted at the concept a full seven years before (and I swear; those doctors wanting to “preserve” the blood-drinking carrot from beyond “for science”…they must have been drawing checks from what would become Weyland-Yutani!).
The writing was tight and economical, but with a masterfully-done flair that made the characters real people with real problems outside of the main plot of the film. It’s extremely easy to believe in these folks; the exchanges between them are snappy, inspired little slices of life that are realistic, and often comical. As with any good film, the relationship built between the audience and the characters is integral to the success of the movie, and here it’s done very well; in fact, it was done here some sixty-three years ago far better than many modern films.
The acting performances of the entire ensemble are convincing and sympathetic, even grudgingly so in some cases. Kenneth Tobey shines as Captain Hendry, leader of men; he’s aware of his limitations, yet refuses to be bound by them. Margaret Sheridan, as the female lead Nikki, is a coy and capable woman, able to match wits with her masculine counterparts and be more than a simple damsel in distress. Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington provides a soothing voice of reason at first, but his desire to preserve the life of the homicidal creature at any cost soon leads us to find his zeal to be madness, but nonetheless he comes across as sympathetic in his perfomance; we feel for his quest for knowledge even as we condemn his methodology. This is best summed up by Ned Scott’s whitewashing of the doctor’s actions with his report later in the film, essentially erasing the good doctor’s sins. Speaking of “Scotty”, Douglas Spencer’s character was probably my favorite in the film, providing us with an ‘everyman’ present at the events detailed, saying the things we would say, and being smart yet funny at the same time. The setting of the lonely research facility is suitably grim, claustrophobic, and realistically-done; you have no trouble believing that it’s exactly what it’s billed to be. The creature itself, achieved through Frankenstein-like make-up and a simple coverall, may be seen as primitive by today’s standards; however, inspired direction and clever use of shadow combine with actor James Arness’ hulking frame to create a monster both fearful and memorable.
Besides being a fantastic horror/sci-fi flick, this movie broke a couple of other boundaries in its time, so subtly and cleverly that it probably slipped right under the radar of most viewers. Besides being an obvious allegory of Cold War paranoia (gotta watch out for those damned commies, you know; Senator McCarthy says so!), this movie touches upon a pretty controversial subject for a film of its era. The rapid-fire, overlapping conversations and deft direction form the basis of a realistic, kinetic storyline, but you just may miss out on the innuendo that is present; it’s obvious that Captain Hendry and Nikki have had a previous, premarital sexual encounter; to be frank, a drunken, one-night stand. Now you just didn’t talk about that sort of thing on film in 1951, but here it’s handled in such a way that you’re caught up in the moment and don’t realize what you’ve heard until later, perhaps even after repeated viewings. Although it’s not directly what makes the film frightening, this fact does ground the film in a real world, far more so than the Hollywood fantasylands that had pervaded movies to this point. By creating such relatability, it provides a richer, deeper catalyst for the audience to respond to, thus increasing the fear factor; this forward-thinking attitude also serves to contribute to the film’s value as an overall work in the medium. Also worthy of mention is the determined forebearance of the human characters; a general “can-do” attitude in the face of such a horrific threat is an indication of the times, with post-war optimism still riding high. True, many modern horror films may be more realistic with their dark, often nihilisic views, but every now and then, gimme a movie where the good guys stand and deliver; it’s refreshing from time to time, you know?
As I said folks, this one is one of my favorites of all time; not only is it effective as a horror film, but a milestone for movies in general. Inspiring generations of artists like Tobe Hooper, John Frankenheimer, Ridley Scott, and John Carpenter, our favorite genre owes quite a bit to this flick.
Over sixty years old, I find that this movie still delivers on the scare factor; the lonely, cold atmosphere of being the hunted and the terrifying “big moment” payoffs are as crisp now as I’m sure they were in those dark theaters of 1951.
If you’re one of those that haven’t had the pleasure, this Halloween season would be a great time to rectify that; as with every year, I’ll certainly be watching it.
Keep watching the skies, folks!
* For a far more literal adaptation of Campbell’s short story, see John Carpenter’s 1983 version of The Thing; one of those rare times you’ll hear me singing the praises of a remake (you can see my review here), it’s a damned fine film in it’s own right!
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