The wise-crackin’, chain smokin’ granddaddy of one of the best horror movies of all time.
Directed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby.
I’d worked my way through my backlog of movies, played a lot of Civilization VI, and figured I was due for another review, but I wasn’t sure what I should tell you guys about. I turned to my wife and said, “I’m not sure what I should tell these guys about.”
Without looking up from her iPad she said, “Shhh! I’m almost done with level 7,852 of Candy Crush.” After a flurry of lollipop hammers and chocolate bombs, she wiped the sweat from her brow and suggested I go back to my favorites. “Like The Thing,” she said. “Do that one.”
As if it were that easy.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) sits on a gilded throne at the top of my All Time Best Horror Movies list. Writing a review for something like that is like trying to write a review of your grandmother. “I’d have to give her four out of five stars. Sure, she always brings me cookies, but the whiskers on her chin kinda creep me out.” Really? C’mon, she’s your grandma. You automatically ignore everything but the good stuff. But, if you had to write a review of your gramma, how would you get away with your obvious bias? Write reviews for a bunch of grandmothers and hope nobody notices the lavish praise you heap upon your own! So, without further ado, I give you the first of a trilogy of reviews I’ll be posting all at the same time covering all three movies based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella, “Who Goes There?”
Campbell’s novella originally came out in 1938 and, in 1973, it was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America to be one of the finest sci-fi novellas ever written. Unfortunately for 1951’s The Thing From Another World, special effects and/or a studio’s willingness to pay for special effects innovation hadn’t progressed sufficiently to stay true to the story, but they sure gave it their all.
The movie starts off, in all of its black and white glory, with an air force crew and a newspaperman stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. Air force Capt. Patrick Hendry [Kenneth Tobey; It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)] is ordered to fly up to a scientific research station near the north pole to investigate the crash of some kind of hitherto unknown aircraft. The news reporter, Ned Scott [Douglas Spencer; Shane (1953), This Island Earth (1955)], goes along with them to cover the story… because the US military is nothing if not completely transparent in its dealings.
Keep in mind, this was only six years after World War II and the military could do no wrong. If anything, Science was the thing people questioned after witnessing the terrifying destructive power of the atomic bombs at the end of the war. From the beginning of the film, it’s Science vs. The Military. Dr. Arthur Carrington [Robert Cornthwaite; The War of the Worlds (1953), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)] leads the scientific contingent and subscribes to a “Knowledge Above All Else” philosophy. He even goes so far to say (out loud! with people around to hear it!) that everyone’s lives should be secondary to the advancement of SCIENCE (with a capital everything). The Thing From Another World is reckless science at its purest. Needless to say, Capt. Hendry and Dr. Carrington had trouble finding common ground.
The urgent matter that needed military attention happened to be a UFO that had crashed the night before. This was a departure from the Campbell novella where the craft was thought to have crashed twenty million years in the past, but the effect was the same. What did stay true to the story was the accidental destruction of the entire spacecraft when they tried to thaw it out using thermite bombs. Whoopsie. But, hey! We found a weird alien guy frozen in the ice. That’s gotta be worth something right? Unfortunately, this visitor from somewhere else [James Arness; TV’s Gunsmoke (1955-1975)] was extraordinarily cranky and had a definite taste for human blood.
As our own Scariest Eric recently pointed out in The Scariest Things Podcast episode #29, the dialog in this movie is quick and plentiful with characters often talking over each other. It can be a tricky style to get used to but, if you can keep up, you’ll catch a lot of fun jokes and references to things people were talking about back in 1951. For example, President Truman’s socialite daughter, Margaret, or the electric chair execution of Ruth Snyder in 1928. While the seemingly near-constant banter does occasionally dilute the tension of a scene (perhaps purposefully to spare the 1950s audience too much anxiety?), it’s well written and truly entertaining.
While Captain Hendry and Dr. Carrington were what you’d expect from a dutiful military hero and overzealous scientist, the leading lady’s character, Nikki Nicholson, struck a bit of a progressive chord for 1951. Wonderfully played by Margaret Sheridan in her film debut, Nikki captured the essence of the strong, independent woman who could take care of herself and hold her own amongst her male peers. Sure, she was still basically a secretary, but she was the Rosie the Riveter of secretaries. Her input was valued, she was right there in the mix with everyone else, and could out drink an air force captain while still being seen as a suitable love interest for the movie’s hero (on her own terms, of course). Sadly, even though Howard Hawks had signed her for a five-year contract, he was never really happy with her work after The Thing From Another World. He’d often lend her out to friends of his who were dabbling in this fairly new medium called “television” and she never got a chance to shine on the silver screen like she does in her first role.
Overall, it may not have stuck religiously to its source material. And, sure, the monster effects for The Thing itself may have been such an embarrassment to James Arness that he refused to attend the premiere. But, make no mistake. The Thing From Another World is a charming, well-scripted gem of a movie that influenced some of our favorite genre’s best directors. It will whisk you back to the glory days of the matinée creature feature and, in the immortal words of Newspaperman Ned Scott, remind you…
“Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”