Howard Hawks’ production The Thing from Another World is a towering heavyweight within the landscape of 1950’s science-fiction. Its status as such is in fact highly contestable however because this was the first notable occasion that the tropes of the horror genre were melded seamlessly with that of science-fiction. Like the alien creature that terrorises the isolated Arctic outpost this is a product of hybridity, an example of generic interbreeding that evolved a new form. For this to succeed one requires generic expertise, and none were more savvy at delivering assured genre pieces than producer/director Howard Hawks. The notion of an alien invader intent on the destruction of the human race is now riddled with cliché, but in 1951 this was a narrative innovation for cinematic sci-fi/horror. Hundreds of invasion narratives ebbed and flowed from this one important example, their attitude and politics may have differed, but the template remained unshakeable. The source material came from acclaimed sci-fi writer John W. Campbell Jr. whose short story Who Goes There? first appeared in the August 1938 edition of Astounding Stories. It might be a surprise to some how little Charles Lederer’s screenplay resembles the story, preferring as it does to just adopt the basic premise. For a more rigorous and authentic adaptation one should look no further than John Carpenter’s 1982 remake.
The direction of this film has long been contested. The credit went to Christian Nyby who was making his feature film debut, but the film has an assured confidence which suggests that Hawks had a very active role. Other evidence stacks up in Hawks’ favour; the razor sharp overlapping dialogue, the efficient pacing, the humour, and male solidarity. Intriguingly though it is Nikki who alights on the idea to destroy ‘The Thing’, though this is somewhat undermined by the fact that the inspiration for it comes from time spent in the kitchen. Although the film lacks major science-fiction spectacle (save for an excellent scene in which ‘The Thing’ is set alight in a confined room) it does possess a wonderful sense of space thanks to location work in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The dependable score by veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin both enhances the claustrophobia and ratchets up the tension when ‘The Thing’ is present. Often the creature’s presence is indicated by the ticking of a Geiger counter, and tension mounts with an unnerving use of off screen space. In the past I’ve been accused of gleefully slaughtering the sacred cows of cinematic history, but I’m happy to let The Thing from Another World roam free in green and pleasant pastures.
© Shaun Anderson 2011