October Horrorshow: The Thing From Another World

It’s snowing like nobody’s business here in the city, on October 29th. What better day to continue the October Horrorshow than with a legendary frozen monster film from sixty years ago.

Three years ago, I reviewed The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic. Earlier this month, a prequel/remake was released, that I also reviewed. Now it’s time to complete the trifecta. Rounding out the adaptations of Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, The Thing from Another World is the first effort, from 1951. Directed by Howard Hawks, or Christian Nyby β€” it isn’t at all clear who deserves the directing credit, although the production was definitely headed by Hawks β€” The Thing tells the story of a team of American researchers and military men at an isolated Arctic research station who discover and inadvertently resurrect a murderous alien.

Of all the adaptations of Who Goes There? to reach the screen, this Thing deviates the most from the original story. Whereas the original was set in Antarctica, this film is set on the other side of the world, near the North Pole. Where in the original the alien was a creature capable of propagating itself by consuming living organisms and imitating them perfectly, secretly replacing the research staff and their livestock one by one, in The Thing there is only one alien. It’s a bloodsucking superplant with a big bald head and huge hands, played by Gunsmoke’s James Arness. Brute force is this creature’s stock and trade, rather than patience and concealment.

In Campbell’s story, there were no women. Hawks saw fit to throw in a couple for broader appeal. They are little more than window dressing to the story.

Most of the paranoid tension of Campbell’s story has been whisked away by the toned down nature of the alien, but it’s hard to fault a film in 1951 turning away from a story about a shape-shifting alien and replacing it with a howling man-beast. Hell, even the 1982 production was beset with problems with creature effects, and the fact they pulled it off is a testament to their work. For that matter, the 2011 film had at its disposal CGI technology, and still laid an egg with its overwrought and overseen renditions of the alien creatures. Score another one for analog.

But that’s the end of negative criticism I have for The Thing. As far as monster fare from that era of cinema is concerned, The Thing is a classic. It has none of the campiness of a Bert I. Gordon flick, or the cheapness of a Corman film. Most of this has to do with Hawks. He was not a b-movie monster director. He was an accomplished filmmaker who ran out some of the greatest films of all time in genres ranging from film noir to westerns, comedy to classic crime. The Thing was his first foray into sci-fi/horror, and like some other successful filmmakers who took the plunge after spending their time elsewhere, he treated the material with respect and seriousness.

The cast operates as an ensemble, with Kenneth Tobey as Captain Pat Hendry taking the lead. Receiving orders from the unseen General Fogerty to fly to Polar Expedition Six near the North Pole at the request of the lead scientist on station, Dr. Carrington (brilliantly played by Robert Cornthwaite, stealing the show from Tobey), Hendry and his band of travelers discover that strange things have been afoot. The station tracked an inbound object on radar originating in outer space moving at a high rate of speed. Was it a meteor? That would be nothing new. Alas, it was not. The track of the object changed course, indicating it was a vessel operating under control of some kind, and it crashed within flying distance of the camp, hence the request for Hendry to head up with a plane and crew.

The assembled team heads to the crash site and discovers that a craft of some kind has indeed slammed into the ice and been buried as the ice refroze around it, leading to an iconic shot in cinema as the team traces the outline of the craft under the ice in an effort to determine its shape. When it turns out to be circular, the cast, along with the viewer, know the stakes have been raised.

Misfortune strikes as the team accidentally destroy the craft with thermite in an attempt to thaw it out, but mere steps away the team comes across the corpse of the ship’s pilot embedded in the ice, covered like it’s ship when it tried to crawl away from the disaster. This is it, folks β€” the discovery of life from another planet. One witness in particular is eager to get news of the discovery to the outside world. He is reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer, in another standout performance in the film). His character comes from a more innocent time, when reporters still had easy rapport with members of the military, before telling the truth about Vietnam made them persona non grata among much of the military, but that’s a different story.

Back at camp, a ludicrous misjudgment by a sleepy noncom leads to the creature being thawed from the ice and awakening, not in the best of moods. It proceeds to break through an outer wall into the Arctic night, coming across and attacking a pack of sled dogs. The dogs rip off one of its arms, and upon examination of the arm by the scientists at the station, they discover that they are dealing with animate plant matter of some kind, one that reacts positively and hungrily to warm blood.

From this point on, the film moves swiftly towards its conclusion. The monster is rarely seen, preferring to play a game of cat and mouse with the humans in the station. Sometimes it is the mouse, and sometimes it is the cat. When it decides to be the cat, more of the cast in winnowed down. Throughout all this, a debate begins to rage among the military men and the scientists. Those in uniform see nothing more than a threat to their lives, while the scientists, chief among them Dr. Carrington, see an opportunity to converse with a superior life form slipping from their grasps because of an inability to communicate or because of an escalating series of misunderstandings. The creature continues to isolate the team throughout the film, though, so Carrington’s position becomes weaker as the film progresses. The film’s climax is explosive and memorable, followed by a closing scene during which Scotty is finally able to send his story to the outside world, and delivers one of the most classic lines in all of sci-fi cinema. “Watch the skies.”

The Thing from Another World is a must-see for any film buff, much less a viewer who is into horror or sci-fi. The performances by the cast are quite dated, but not many films at the time were experimenting with realism in dialogue or delivery. They performed admirably, though. One aspect of the film I noted earlier was the misuse of the female characters. Glorified coffee girls, their treatment in the film grates today, but then again, so do all the n-bombs in Huck Finn. My gripe with the female characters is that they were so transparently unnecessary. They were there, but given no meaningful roles. Better to go whole hog like Campbell and Carpenter and just excise women from the story completely rather than have them contribute so little. But that’s the lens of time speaking, so who knows?

Hawks waited a long time before jumping into this genre. When he finally did, it was worth the wait. The Thing from Another World is a great film.