Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Country: USA

The Thing

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.

Instead the basic plot elements of Campbell’s story are utilised as a peg to hang a number of Hawks’ prevailing values and to flag up tensions between the oppositional forces of the military and science. The discovery of a flying saucer buried in the Arctic ice feeds directly into the prevailing UFO craze of the early 1950’s, and the unearthing of the spacecraft’s sole occupant adds another layer of anxiety. The creature turns out to be of plant origin, with a proclivity for blood, and possesses an ability to regenerate damaged tissue. Our few brief glimpses show him to be a brute, seen mostly in shadow, we are however witness to him throwing dogs hither and thither, indicating an impressive strength. The occassions when do get to see the creature are predictably disappointing. But we are still treated to the films greatest shock moment when it looms menacingly behind a door. The thankless role went to James Arness who quite rightly bitched about the inadequacies of the monster. But ‘The Thing’ is merely a plot device that propels the conservative agenda of the film. The real concern lies in the fraught and tense exchanges between military representatives led by Captain Pat Hendry (the excellent Kenneth Tobey) and the research scientists led by Dr. Carrington (the equally superb Robert Cornthwaite). The screenplay gives a luxurious amount of time to exploring their opposing positions and thus gives the film a well developed philosophical layer.

The military are the unbending conservative presence here. Hendry and his cohorts have no thought in their mind other than the complete destruction of the alien vegetable. Hendry is even willing to risk court martial to see to its annihilation. There is no curiosity and absolutely no hint of collusion for the purposes of research. Hendry is only comfortable when creating tactics for defence and plotting strategies of attack. Yet Hendry is humanised by the camaraderie of his colleagues and his romantic interest in Nikki (Margaret Sheridan). Much of this humanity is achieved through a warm hearted brand of comedy that offers a contrast to the bitter icy wasteland outside. Carrington on the other hand is a dandyish type - he strolls around in a silk dressing gown and sports a perfectly manicured goatee. His radicalism is as much indicated by his faint effeminacy as it is his scientific attitude. Carrington is desperate to communicate with ‘The Thing’ and is convinced the creature harbours a wisdom that sets it above mankind. His willingness to sacrifice human lives for the discovery of the alien’s knowledge is a shock moment and one which illustrates perfectly his extremism. The outcome of this struggle is entirely dependant on which position the filmmakers side with, and its not a huge surprise that a production led by Howard Hawks opts for conservative values and the electrocution of the alien interloper. Carrington’s position is found wanting, his attempts to communicate with the unthinking beast swept aside in an act of violence.

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


  1. Hey, the title sequence is extremely similar to carpenters! Interesting how this one is all about political stances, while Carpenter's simply concentrates on the suspense and the tension leaving out any political ramifications. Carpenter's is simply about survival. I wonder what sort of twist they are going to give this new remake thats coming up. Excellent review my friend!

  2. I really enjoy this film. It's resolutely of it's time (especially the Hawksian overlapping dialogue), but manages to rise above the rest of the paranoid 50s efforts despite a poor-looking creature. I prefer Carpenter's version, if only because the mouth-in-the-chest-cavity scene made my wife jump a mile.

  3. @ Franco - Yes the title sequence is virtually identical. Carpenter's film is a more faithful adaptation of Campbell's short story, which was published in 1938 and thus divested of the socio/political concerns endemic to 50's sci-fi/horror. The emphasis as you point is much more on the isolation, claustrophobia and steadily encroaching terror.

    @ Rich - The creature is a major weakness, but not a fatal weakness. Its appearances are wisely kept too a minimum, but one scene in which it is waiting behind a door is great scare. I prefer the Carpenter version as well, and it is one of the few remakes that improves on the original.

  4. Excellent write up, Shaun, one of your best, I'd say. I have a great fondness for this one and like it equally with Carpenter's version. One of the strengths of the original is its continued power to shock and surprise. The suspense still works all these years later. And the musical score helps this along wonderfully. As a kid, the monster was a disappointment to me, but years later, it didn't hinder things for me at all. The publicity shots of Arness in full make up and the claws gave a better look at his otherworldly qualities than what's shown in the film.

  5. Many thanks Brian, it really is appreciated. I do think that the incredible make up effects of Carpenter's film, and the wonderfully downbeat ending just nudges it ahead in my affections. But I have a lot of time for the original too.

    It doesn't help that that 'The Thing' is undermined in the screenplay as well by being constantly referred too as a carrot! The only aspect of the original that has always irritated me and continues to do so is is the character of Scotty, the journalist. His continual bitching at the military boys, despite the fact they have generously invited him along is annoying. He certainly doesn't deserve one of the best end lines in sci-fi history.

  6. I always saw that as differentiating the characters from the brawny types to the media types then the scientist type. Scotty being the journalist, he's likely not accustomed to being in the "trenches" so to speak as the other military men have been. I actually thought he was kind of funny, especially his reaction after the monster rips through that room! I haven't seen it in some time, but I recall he faints or something.

    And the scientist (you've gotta have one in these "things"!) is the stock character that remains in virtually all these movies--advancement of science supercedes saving human life, or as is stated in STAR TREK 2, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", or something along those lines. :)

    Incidentally, the British DVD is longer than the US release. More dialog only, I believe. I only have the R1 disc for this one.

  7. Yes exactly...he faints!! The film certainly has a good cross section of character types though. I do like Dr. Carrington though, especially when he's strolling about in silk pyjamas and slippers while everyone's fleeing in terror from the giant vegetable!


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