Sunday, February 13, 2011
Random Movie Report #86: The Thing From Another World
Remakes and adaptations aren’t a zero-sum game; to love one version of a story does not mean you have to love the other any less. But when it comes to both film versions of John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story “Who Goes There?”, it’s been an up-and-down affair. At first John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing was considered a gory retread, inferior to the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby original; now it’s generally considered the better picture, to the extent that The Thing From Another World is dangerously near obscurity. We just can’t have that.
A very early blend of science fiction and horror, The Thing From Another World must have seemed startlingly original at the time; the tale of men and women trapped at the North Pole and confronted with a violent alien monster was simply something that hadn’t been done yet, at least not on film. It still has a certain freshness to it; none of the cliches have been established yet, and while we see them formed, they arise organically and aren’t just forced in out of a sense of obligation. It’s a tight, well told suspense story that also lets itself breathe now and again, and is a more rewarding experience because of it.
The film takes place at an Arctic research base under the command of the US air force. Something has fallen to Earth nearby, and on investigating the military discover a crashed flying saucer frozen beneath the ice. An attempt to thaw the craft with thermite instead ends up blowing it to bits, but they’re able to recover one of the aliens, frozen himself. The block of ice is kept in a cold room on the base, but is accidentally covered with an electric blanket and melts- disgorging the living occupant, a hulking humanoid plant which feeds on animal blood and can fend off seemingly any attack.
It’s long been rumored that Howard Hawks was more the director of this picture than the freshman Nyby, and to be sure the picture contains a number of familiar Hawksian touches- overlapping dialogue, a sharp female love interest, etc. Of course, as a producer Hawks no doubt had a lot of influence already, but film being a collaborative medium, it’s hard to say just who did what.
It’s probably best to look at Nyby and Hawks, and screenwriter Charles Lederer, as partners; this is the kind of film that uses the old assembly line to good effect. The dialogue is superb, the witty banter between servicemen (and a smartmouth reporter) seeming strangely natural, a response to fear and tension. There’s especially a nice sense of joy and discovery when the crew realize they’ve discovered a flying saucer. At times the atmosphere almost seems too jovial, but it’s so enjoyable in and of itself that it doesn’t really matter that it’s not what you expect from a horror movie. We really get a sense of the men on base as individuals, their personalities shining through the confrontation with the unknown.
The creature itself is played by James Arness, for all we see of him. The filmmakers weren’t fully satisfied with the makeup design, and instead decided to show as little of the monster as possible. We see the silhouette, a towering bald creature in ragged black clothes resembling nothing so much as the Frankenstein monster, and there are fleeting glimpses of clawed hands. (Of course the DVD cover gives the entire game away.) Apart from a truly memorable alien howl, the creature’s main threat is in the explanation of what it does; a pure vegetable, the alien not only feeds on blood, but uses it to cultivate the seed pods containing its offspring. Even though this is mostly done offscreen, there’s something horrible enough in the idea to make the creature more than just a lumbering killer. (Some critics have observed a parallel with this film’s story of alien invasion in the onset of the Cold War, and while this is never hammered in, the echoes are there.)
Some really strong performances underlie this, most notably Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, the feisty love interest for the stubborn Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey). The obligatory romance is usually death to the sci-fi thriller, but here it’s treated as more than a pat obligation, and instead is real enough to be engaging. Douglas Spencer gets all the best quips as the reporter Scotty, while Robert Cornthwaite is nicely chilling as Dr. Carrington, the archetypal movie scientist who thinks the creature will be peaceful if we can just communicate with it. Ultimately I think one of the reasons I prefer this film to its remake is the far more colorful cast; we like these people, and want them to win over this soulless visitor. There’s a certain heart to it all that the more focused thrillers often miss.
Even after all the cliches and conventions have become familiar, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD feels fresh. There’s the thrill of unexplored territory to it. It’s not the kind of relentless suspense picture that never lets the audience breathe, but rather one that rises and falls, creating a place of comfort and safety in a hostile environment and then having that place invaded by a cold and remorseless terror. It’s a slick, keenly polished piece of work that stays vibrant in the imagination, and it’s too important a film in the history of the genre to let fall by the wayside. Hopefully both versions of the film can happily coexist in the science fiction canon; at least, we should figure this out before the third version comes out.
Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by Joseph W. Campbell, Jr.
Screenplay by Charles Lederer
Directed by Christian Nyby (with qualification)