“Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies! “
John W. Campbell’s sci-horror novella Who Goes There has provided ample fodder for monster movie film makers. The story has been adapted four times including 1972’s loose version Horror Express, John Carpenter’s celebrated 1982 film The Thing, and it’s 2011 prequel also called the Thing. Often lost in the shuffle is this Howard Hawks produced, Christian Nyby directed, 1951 original. Which is a shame, because the film is quite good. Known as the Thing from Another World, it’s a pitch perfect example of atomic age science fiction.
The set-up is simple, economic storytelling, United States Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry(Kenneth Tobey) is dispatched to a scientific base in the North Pole. Tagging along is his wise cracking reporter buddy, Ned “Scotty” Scott(Douglas Spencer). Its seems a strange craft has crashed in the ice, which later is soon revealed to be a flying saucer. The saucer is accidentally destroyed while trying to remove it from the ice. But the ship’s pilot is salvaged, trapped in a block of ice. The Thing(James Arness, under heavy make-up), as it comes to be called soon thaws out and naturally goes on a bloody rampage.
The movie is far more progressive than you’d expect from a 50’s movie. While the movie plays off post- hiroshima mistrust of scientists, embodied perfectly by Robert O. Cornthwaite’s Dr. Carrington. The station’s crew is also perfectly happy to disregard military orders if it saves lives and puts the human race out of the line of fire.
It also does right by women, despite having a heavily male centric cast. When things start getting really rough, many of the most sensible suggestions come from Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki, who is far from simply being a passive female typical of horror films. As this is a Howard Hawks production, it’s easy to see Nikki as part of the cinematic family of Hawksian women. Those unfamilar with the archtype, would do well to read up on it. Hawks believed firmly in subverting gender norms of the time, by having tough talking, sexually assertive women, who were part of the action, instead of merely damsels in distress. Despite not officially being the director of the film, it’s very easy to see Hawks’ influence over the Thing’s production here.
There is actually still a lot of debate over who actually directed the Thing From Another World. Many cast members citing Hawks as the real brains behind the movie. While we’ll never likely know the real answer, Hawks’ finger prints are all over the film. From the witty dialogue, to the chumminess of the film’s leads. It does very much feel like a Howard Hawks picture.
No matter who directed it, the movie is wonderfully atmospheric, playing heavily on the isolation of the North Pole. Our heroes are cut off, having to come up with solutions on the fly, even as the battle for their lives against an alien invader. As the tension is built up, they of course start fighting among themselves, making this just as much a human drama as it is a piece of cold war era sci/fi.
The Thing himself is an interesting monster. While not quite as showy, as the creatures created in Carpenter’s gruesome updated version, the “vampire vegetable” is visually very much a cousin to Frankenstein’s Monster, with his huge stature and flat head. Like all good 1950’s aliens, the Thing is here to eat us. He also plans on using our blood to grow more monsters like him. Making him a sort of bipedal relative to Little Shop of Horror’s Audry II.
By far, the best scene in this flick is when the Thing crashes into one of the bunkers, leaving the heroes with no choice by to light the beastie on fire. Now days of course, this would likely be done with CGI. But back in the fab 50’s, if you wanted to light someone on fire, you got yourself a stunt man and did. The result is extremely memorable and certainly the standout moment in the movie.
While not as over the top or even as scary as many of the films it inspired, the Thing from Another World is a lot of fun. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest you give it a go. If you haven’t revisited it in a while, do yourself a favor and do so as soon as you can.