The Thing from Another World Review
Hi folks, and welcome to the first in what is going to be an occasional series of reviews looking back on some classic sci-fi and horror films from the genre's golden era. I make no bones about it and no apologies - I love these movies to bits, so don't be at all surprised by the high marks I award them. Quite simply, if I wasn't a devoted fan I wouldn't be reviewing them. In fact, you'll probably find that these are more appreciations than straight-forward reviews, anyway. And, whilst trying to be objective and pointing out faults and failings wherever I perceive them, the main mission here is to revel in the great atmosphere that they conjure, and the often groundbreaking ideas that they put forward, many of which helped form the template for hosts of movies that followed. I, like many of you, I suspect, caught up with these vintage masterpieces on late-night TV as a child, on scratchy prints that flickered away many a midnight hour, and they created within me an overwhelming passion for the genre and for movies in general, so I feel that their influence should not go overlooked. Also, there may be a whole generation out there who do not know these films at all - thus, it would be remiss of me not to, at least, attempt to acquaint them with the foundations of the very things they may be fans of today.
“Where he came from, they sure don't breed 'em for beauty!”
Whilst post-war America was tearing itself apart with anti-communist paranoia, movie-makers saw an opportunity to disguise this enemy-amongst-us threat by dressing it up in sci-fi or horror hokum. And so, in 1951, two of the most influential and political knee-jerk movies arrived. Robert (The Haunting) Wise broke the mould with an overt peace-maker about Man overcoming his innate hostilities to his own kind in the terrific The Day The Earth Stood Still, and, at the other end of the spectrum, Howard Hawks pressed the war-mongering, zero-tolerance button with do-or-die gusto with his adaptation of John W. Campbell's classic novella Who Goes There? in the unrivalled classic The Thing From Another World, directed Christian Nyby. Where science, spirituality and common sense won The Day, The Thing could only be conquered when the gutsy military elbowed the boffins and the peaceniks aside, seemingly striking a blow for the everyday, working class hero who, at the time, cared little for diplomacy or intellectual resolutions. And, as it happens, with this particular invader, they were right to do so. The Thing that terrorises the American research base at the North Pole regards us in the same way we would “a field of cabbages” as the film's boffin-supreme, Dr. Carrington, ultimately puts it. As nothing more than its nourishment, in other words.
“A few minutes from now, we may have the key to the stars. A million years of history are waiting for us in that ice.”
Summoned to this remote outpost at the threshold of humanity, Air Force Captain Hendry (the stoic Kenneth Tobey) and his small, but resourceful, crew of war-veteran greasy-Joes take a trip out onto the ice to investigate an unusual impact site, and the source of a high level of radiation that is whacking away at magnetic instrumentation on board their plane and back at the research base. The still-awesome sequence when they discover something buried under the ice and fan out to ascertain the size and shape of it truly makes the hair stand on end, the dialogue carrying the hopes and fears of life beyond our own planet into a spine-tingling new realm - “It is! It's round!” and “We finally got one. We found a flying saucer!” - while Dimitri Tiomkin's cult-classic Theremin score moans and wails like the Arctic winds all around them. The eeriness of this scene is near-faultless, and the fact that it was actually filmed in Cut Bank, Montana with a huge painted backdrop standing in for the vast frozen wastes is never betrayed. But proving that bumbling is indeed a highly-skilled practice, the scientists and the military both agree (and probably for the last time throughout the brain versus brawn clash that dominates the rest of the narrative) that using thermite bombs would be a good way to free the spacecraft from the ice, and the resulting disintegration of everything except the creature that has come to destroy them only foreshadows more stupidity when the unfortunate Cpl. Barnes hides the fearsome face of the Thing, in its iconic block of ice, beneath an electric blanket. That ethereal Theremin shrieks out a warning, as do the husky dogs outside, but once the Thing gets thawed, this tiny bastion of Mankind is to become its first and last line of defence.
“Kid said it was alive ... and I believe him.”
When the dogs claim the creature's arm, the humans retrieve it and discover that the enemy they face is actually composed of vegetable matter. “Far superior, far superior in every way,” thinks Dr. Carrington (played with fantastic arrogance by Robert Cornthwaite, in makeup to age him far beyond his years) and the moment when the arm regains life by ingesting the canine blood that smothers it is as wondrous as it is heart-stopping. Listen out for the jerky tremor of woodwinds and brass on the score whenever those horrific thorn-knuckled fingers rap against the tabletop. The standard technique from the era of having almost the entire cast in every shot really plays well here - just look around the screen and clock the many different reactions from the beleaguered roster of characters. It is a haunting segment, almost on a par with the discovery of the ship in the ice. The prop arm, itself, is quite convincing too - almost making you wish that the makeup for Gunsmoke's six-foot-seven James Arness, as the Thing, was a little more audacious than the relatively low-key Frankenstein's monster-in-a-jumpsuit image that Hawks eventually settled for. But, having said that, surely the point of the monster having a humanistic visage is to promote the notion of its supposed high-intelligence which, coupled with its undoubted savagery, makes it even more of a formidable threat. Arness, himself, who forever after seemed embarrassed at taking on this role, provides an immense presence of utter revulsion and awe. His huge stature often fills the screen, dwarfing the little men scuttling around the spooky corridors of the Arctic base. The sudden appearance of the brutish giant as the greenhouse door is opened is still a sure-fire trouser-filler, and his leering disdain for the foolish Carrington, as the mad doctor attempts to communicate, is akin to Brody's oblivious chumming for Bruce the shark in Jaws - man looking so feeble in the face of such towering menace.
“You mean it lives on blood?”
Anyone who thinks that fifties horror was all cosy, quaint and un-frightening should take heed of the above quotation. The afore-mentioned greenhouse - which becomes a kind of lair for the Thing - offers many shocks throughout the film, but by far the nastiest, and certainly one that lingers in the mind long afterwards is when Eduard (his spelling) Franz's wounded Dr. Stern staggers into the safety of the recreation room to tell of what he has seen hanging upside down from the rafters. The line “They were dead ... their throats were cut,” does not need the image to go alongside it, our imagination supplying enough ghastly visions to fuel many a nightmare. Again, the seed pods that the creature creates thrive on blood and grow rapidly to form what will become the Thing's brethren - literally the seeds of Man's destruction. A chilling moment comes when one scientist applies a stethoscope to the pulsing pod and hears a sound “almost like the wail of a newborn child, that's hungry.” The look of quiet dread upon his face is a marvellous piece of realism amid the fantasy.
“What if he can read our minds?”
“Then he's gonna be real mad when he gets to me.”
But the grim gallows humour of this handful of men at the top of the world is never short-changed, either. Capt. Hendry might be in charge but he still takes orders from his wily crew chief, Bob, played with a knowing amusement by Dewey Martin. Bob comes up with all the winning ideas - from cutting watch time in half to using electricity in a trap - and it becomes a running joke throughout the film that his quick-thinking and practical brain will outsmart his own leaders. In fact, the witty screenplay continually pokes fun at authority - be it Hendry's put-upon nature, Carrington's progressive buffoonery or General “Close-the-door” Fogarty's radio-transmission controversies. It is a sly subverting of the norm, letting the underlings save the day whilst belittling their supposed superiors. Yet, most of the humour is reserved for newspaperman Scotty, played by Douglas Spencer. A gangly, Ichabod Crane of a man, he blunders throughout the many skirmishes, doling out many wry criticisms of the futile military methods, their egghead cohorts' scientific babble and the cursed atmospherics that keep stalling his attempts to get the “biggest story since the parting of the Red Sea” out to the world. Thankfully, he becomes much more than the audience conduit - there to be our eyes and ears and have things explained to - by getting heartily involved in the battle. His continual efforts to gain a picture of the Thing are thwarted by machine-gun fire, falling over a bunk and then simply passing out - but these comical footnotes are always given a credible authenticity that lends his character a likeable, one-of-the-family quality.
“So what do you think you'd find up there, besides a good looking girl?”
The requisite love-interest, here essayed by Margaret Sheridan, isn't the conventional damsel in distress scenario, either. Proving herself more than equal to the macho men of war occupying her frigid domain, Sheridan's Nikki has some kind of history with Capt. Hendry, but their relationship is playful and full of tease. She's not going to give this sucker a break, that's for sure. The banter between the two is a coiled assault on the sexism of the time, with some neat feminist barbs thrown into the pot. That she, in fact, dreams up the final solution to dealing with the rampaging creature comes as no surprise. But, if you think about it, her matter-of-fact methodology of the Thing's disposal is, in itself, a sexist remark - “Fry it, cook it, stew it, bake it,” etc - clearly revealing that only a woman would think of a practical way of dealing with “an intellectual carrot,” as Scotty christens the monster. It's the clever screenplay, by Charles Lederer, that lifts this type of characterisation out of the doldrums of stereotype though, happily ploughing through genre conventions by being the very movie that created them in the first place. “Keep looking ... keep watching the skies!”
Famous words that were a clarion-call-to-arms for a nation to be watchful even after its citizens had left the cinema, and it's fitting that they came to typify the genre as a whole. The Thing From Another World couldn't have asked for a better epitaph. Although the debate still rages over who exactly directed the film - certainly Hawks' trademarks are stamped all over it, from the overlapping wordplay to the entire premise of men-of-action under siege - I still believe that Nyby was the man at the helm. He was, after all, the man that pruned away the fat from Hawks' own turgid Red River, editing it down into a much leaner, more coherent movie. Though, in much the same way that Spielberg's influence totally saturated Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, it would seem that Hawks oversaw the production with unadulterated hands-on zeal, his domineering presence shining through the movie like the title, itself, burning its way through the screen.
“Few men can boast that they lost a flying saucer and a man from Mars, all in one day.”
Some things to look out for, folks. Check out the wonderful touch that sees everybody's head whip around every time a door opens - the tension in the besieged camp becoming realistically cloying and tangible. Watch those huge splinters fly from the greenhouse door as the Thing's talons rip through the wood. And, for the eagle-eyed amongst you, see if you can spot the production crew and their tractor moving out of the aerial shot of the buried saucer early on. For my money though, the movie hits the high note with the Sgt York-style flare pistol and kerosene sequence. This is a true action set-piece that still looks terrific today and captures the entire essence of the movie in just this one scene - the indomitable resilience of simple folk to a barbaric, unstoppable foe. The Day The Earth Stood Still taught us to try to get along with our neighbours. The Thing From Another World preached that it was better to shoot them first.
A bone-fide classic, folks. It can't be denied. John Carpenter's seminal remake is a masterpiece, too, and cleverly he reverted to the original novella by having the alien a shape shifter. I can't help thinking that someone, somewhere will actually try to remake Hawks' version, though. Let's just hope that it isn't Wes Craven, or Stephen Sommers, eh?