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The Thing From Another World (1951)

July 31st, 2006 · 3 Comments

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A U.S. Air Force crew led by Captain Hendry (the great Kenneth Tobey) is dispatched from Anchorage to a remote research base in the Arctic Circle when reports come in that an aircraft has crashed in the area.

After much rapid fire dialogue, military and scientific jargon and the establishment of a romantic liason between Hendry and the team leader’s saucy secretary (Margaret Sheridan), the Air Force crew reach the crash site and discover that the shape of the aircraft is round. Using thermite explosives to melt the ice, the crew end up destroying the flying saucer, but discover a body frozen in a block of ice.

Returning the alien to base, the scientists want to thaw the specimen, while Hendry claims military jurisdiction and orders everyone to hold until they receive word from the Air Force. A sentry mistakenly covers the ice with an electric blanket, thawing the creature, which escapes, doing so without yet making an appearance for the audience. The scientists identify the thing’s cellular structure as being similar to a vegetable, except it walks on two legs and needs blood to reproduce.

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Directed by Christian Nyby, from a screenplay Charles Lederer adapted from the story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., The Thing From Another World is widely recognized as one of the best sci-fi flicks of the 1950s. Produced by Howard Hawks, what sets the film apart from the schlock of the decade is whip smart camaraderie of the team dynamic, a feature that populates many of Hawks’ westerns and action pictures.

Hawks once declared that what made a good movie were three great scenes, no bad ones. This movie achieves that. In addition to the sparing between Tobey and Sheridan, the first appearance of The Thing (James Arness) as it barges through a door is cool, as is a scene when the characters start to see their own breath and realize the Thing has disrupted the heating system.

Due to the state of special effects in 1950, there was no way for the filmmakers to remain faithful to Campbell’s story, or really, produce anything scary. Lederer changed the nature of the alien from a lifeform that could assume the physical appearance of any organism, to a somewhat goofy humanoid monster. Arness, who was apparently quite embarrassed by his role at the time, doesn’t even have a close-up because the filmmakers felt the makeup would not look good under scrutiny.

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This is a case, unheard of in the last twenty years, of a big budget remake actually being superior to the original. A favorite film of John Carpenter’s (clips appear on a TV during Halloween), his ferocious, no holds barred 1982 version conceptualized the Thing closer to what Campbell had in mind, generating thought provoking science fiction and true menace.

While Carpenter’s Reagan era characters were washed up truck drivers for the most part, the characters in the Hawks version are intelligent, stoic professionals who band together for the common good once evil is on the loose. The film is fast paced, clocking in at a mere 87 minutes, and will probably disappoint anyone raised on a steady diet of visual effects or gore.

I’m solidly in that attention deficient camp, but can still admire the film for building atmosphere and character in the absence of visual effects. On that note, I kinda enjoyed it.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill Schutt // Jun 22, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Superior to the original? You must be kidding. The 1951 version is a Classic. John Carpenter’s may be closer to the novella but that’s it – unless you get a kick out of the gory, imaginative (for its day) effects.

  • 2 Carson Jockell // Aug 23, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Yea! Far superior than most films of this genre.
    It is fresh even to this day in dialog and hanging suspense. In one scene they are in a disussion re the monster when the door handle moves a bit. All dialog stops and eyes turn to the door for a second…the viewers’ too.
    I get a kick out of watching time, after time, after time. I look forward to movies not as yet made that will be with us for multi-generations…what a treat.

  • 3 Alison Venugoban // Oct 31, 2009 at 6:03 am

    I watched the movie for the first time tonight, and I was laughing myself silly for most of it!

    One glaring mistake I noted was that this movie was set in the North Pole, where night lasts for the entire winter and daylight the entire summer.

    Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the movie makers, who filmed day and night sequences! My, the months just fly by when you’re being monstered by a giant carrot!

    It was a hoot of a picture, but I don’t think it was supposed to be funny when it was made. Still, gave me a good laugh!

    Alison

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