Dir. Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks
A group of scientific researchers and military personnel discover an alien spacecraft frozen under the ice in the Arctic. Retrieving the alien pilot, they take it back to their outpost to conduct research. However when the block of ice it’s entombed in thaws, the creature goes berserk and sets off on a bloody rampage, killing anyone who crosses its path and feeding on their blood. The military personnel led by Captain Hendry decide enough is enough, and plot to destroy the creature before it destroys them.
Based on the short story 'Who Goes There?' by renowned sci-fi writer John W. Campbell, The Thing From Another World is one of the earliest, and most successful amalgamations of horror and sci-fi. A precursor to the likes of The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds and Alien, the film was produced during a time when the media was bombarded by reports of sightings of UFOs; a time that would become the Golden Age of sci-fi in Hollywood. It also came out early on in the Cold War Years, and at times it is impossible not to view the film subtextually as an allegory of America’s fear of communism. The paranoia rife throughout the short story, and indeed John Carpenter’s masterful, visceral and chilling remake, is sadly absent from this adaptation, however the film is not without its own moments of macabre genius.
An effective exercise in suspense and atmosphere, The Thing From Another World benefits from its isolated location, mounting tension and eerily effective atmosphere. Surprisingly, it also exhibits a rather cheeky sense of humour, too. When one considers it was co-directed and co-scripted by Howard Hawks however, this becomes less surprising. The camaraderie between Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his men, and indeed the Captain and Dr. Carrington’s secretary, Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) fizzes with all the wit and sharp delivery one would rightly expect from a madcap Howard Hawks’ movie. When one of the men is left to keep watch over the block of ice encasing The Thing, he says he’s going to read “A nice, quiet horror story.” While Nikki is still a far cry from Ellen Ripley, she is a robust heroine and more than holds her own amidst all the macho talk and alien-monster attacks; keeping herself together enough to ensure the other characters are never without coffee. They do like their coffee in this movie! She even ties up Captain Hendry in a sexually charged scene that helps flesh out the characters and give them some history.
While Dr Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) manifests a few characteristics of the typical horror movie mad scientist, he argues his beliefs articulately and presents a few convincing arguments about scientific progress. A number of compelling debates between him and straight-talkin’ Captain Hendry ensue; the latter wanting to destroy the alien creature, while the former insists they can learn from it. These debates would be echoed later on in the likes of George Romero’s bleak and bloody ‘scientists vs. military vs. zombies’ meditation on the dangers of martial law, Day of the Dead. Carrington muses that the human race knows relatively little about the universe and that we could benefit from communicating and studying the creature. He doesn’t seem to mind risking the lives of others to preserve the life of the bloodthirsty creature. This disregard for human existence over scientific research would ripple throughout Ridley Scott’s Dan O’Bannon scripted Alien, another film that was heavily influenced by The Thing From Another World, right down to the everyman characters and isolated locale. Another moment that was pretty much pilfered by Scott and O’Bannon is the use of a tracking system to locate the alien creature. It begins to bleep, signalling 'The Thing' is near, as the group huddle together, turn off the light and await the inevitable – all the while the increasingly frantic beeps herald the approach of the monster – before the door bursts open and we see the striking silhouette. Dallas in the air duct, anyone?
Reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) wouldn’t seem out of place in the likes of His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, and he struggles to be heard when the military personnel refuse to allow him to report on the discovery of the spaceship. He sees it as a historical landmark that the public have a right to know about; the military believe such a story could cause widespread panic. These debates and altercations still wield a high degree of resonance today, especially when one considers how much ‘news’ the government suppress in the interests of ‘public security’, as evidenced in the recent WikiLeaks debacle. His protests of ‘freedom of the press’ are ignored by Captain Hendry who wants to keep a lid on things.
For the most part, directors Nyby and Hawks adopt the Val Lewton approach and are suggestive in what they reveal to the audience in terms of the eponymous ‘Thing’; a glimpse here, a silhouette there. The more we see of the alien creature, and the more we learn about it from research conducted and concluded by the plethora of boffins situated at the lonely outpost, the less effective it becomes. Particularly when various characters start to draw comparisons between it and a carrot. After the alien thaws out, a prolonged game of cat and mouse bulks up the running time, with the creature sinisterly eluding the group at every turn, while picking off a few stragglers.
|“An intellectual carrot? The mind boggles.”|
An intelligent, witty and atmospheric movie that still retains its moody effectiveness today. "Keep watching the skies!"