Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on the science fiction classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), up now in the January 2014 edition of the HWA Newsletter.
And remember, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.
Thanks for reading!
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) is one of my favorite horror science fiction films from the 1950s. This one and THEM! (1954) are pretty much even in my book.
And while there are other classic horror science fiction movies from the 1950s, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD— which I grew up calling THE THING, because that’s how we referred to it back then— is certainly the creepiest.
I love this movie.
Of course, today the debate rages over which one is better, this original film version or John Carpenter’s graphic 1982 remake starring Kurt Russell. That’s a debate for another day, and another column. They’re both great movies.
One of the main reasons why THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is superior to so many other genre films from the 1950s is the quality of the acting. There’s no wooden or stilted acting here. The cast features an enormous ensemble of actors, led by Kenneth Tobey as Captain Patrick Hendry, and they’re all excellent.
And there’s a flow to the dialogue that is unmatched by other films of the time. Characters talk quickly and at the same time.
Of course, the famous story about THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is that producer Howard Hawks, one of the most talented directors in American film history, actually directed most of this film rather than the credited director, Christian Nyby.
Christian who? Actually, in spite of the fact that nearly everyone who talks about THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD refers to it as a Howard Hawks film, Nyby went on to have a very successful career in television, directing episodes from TWILIGHT ZONE (1962), GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1965), EMERGENCY! (1972-73), and ADAM-12 (1970-75), to name just a few.
So, getting back to my point about the acting and the dialogue, if you’ve seen other Howard Hawks movies, you’ve seen this rapid fire style of dialogue before, and so it validates that Hawks had his hand in the production.
And it’s a great script too, by Charles Lederer, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. Lederer had a ton of writing credits, including the classic Cary Grant comedy HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), an early Howard Hawks film that contains some of the fastest, snappiest, and funniest dialogue in a movie this side of the Marx Brothers.
The story is simple. A group of soldiers are sent from their station in Anchorage, Alaska to the North Pole to investigate what the scientists there say was a plane crash of some kind. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is only too happy to lead this mission up north because his girlfriend Nikki (Margaret Sheridan) is stationed there, where she assists the famous Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite).
Accompanying Captain Hendry and his men is reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott (Douglas Spencer, in a terrific performance), who gets most of the humorous lines in the movie. Sure enough, they discover the wreckage of an aircraft now underneath the ice, and when they fan out to determine the shape of the thing, in a now famous scene, they discover that the craft is round— it’s a flying saucer.
They attempt to melt the ice so they can examine their find, but the thermite charges prove to be too hot, and the entire ship goes up in flames and is destroyed. However, they do discover the body of an alien being frozen in ice, apparently frozen after he had attempted to leave his ship. They bring back the chunk of ice containing the frozen alien.
This being a horror movie, the ice melts, and the alien awakes, and lo and behold, we meet The Thing (James Arness) an eight foot walking vegetable who possesses superior intelligence as well as incredible strength. He also has regenerative powers, and so when he loses a hand early on, he grows it back. He needs blood to survive, and he quickly kills two of the scientists, hangs them upside down in the base’s greenhouse, and slits their throats, using their blood to feed seedlings so he can grow others like him to, in effect, take over the world.
The rest of the movie pits Captain Hendry and his men against this seemingly unstoppable and very brutal creature. It’s all very exciting and suspenseful. You won’t have many fingernails left.
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD includes some really neat and scary scenes. The Thing itself isn’t in the movie very much, but the film makes the most of his brief screen time.
The scene where Captain Hendry and his men, while searching for the Thing, open the door and he’s standing right there on the other side of the door, is scary as hell and provides a nice jolt, the kind of scene absent from most 1950s movies.
This scene also has one of the funnier moments in the movie, when Captain Hendry asks Scotty if he took a picture of the Thing. Scotty answers that the door wasn’t open wide enough and so Hendry asks if he’d like him to open the door again. Scotty quickly says, “NO!”
The scene where the Thing runs into the snow and fights off the dogs is another creepy one, and you can’t see THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD without mentioning the sequence where the soldiers try to kill it by setting it on fire. This scene is famous because supposedly Hawks used real fire and shot it in one take, so it’s about as authentic a scene using fire as you’re ever going to see. The stunt doubles earned their money in this scene. It’s a violent, raw, and intense.
Just before this flame sequence, as the Thing approaches the door, off-camera, and the soldiers track him with their Geiger counters, counting down the distance between him and them, is reminiscent of similar scenes used years later in ALIEN (1979) and its sequel ALIENS (1986).
The Thing itself has a great look, and it helps that we usually see him in shadow or with a strange eerie glow around his head. It’s one of James Arness’ first movies, and he does a nice job acting scary. He got to play the good guy in the other classic science fiction horror movie from the 1950s, THEM! (1954) as he plays FBI man Robert Graham in that one, who has to save the world from an invasion of giant ants.
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD has a great cast. It’s one of Kenneth Tobey’s best performances. Toby also appeared in the Ray Harryhausen movies THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), but he’s so much better here in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Tobey enjoyed a long acting career, appearing in movies all the way up to the late 1990s. He passed away in 2002.
Other than Tobey, my favorite performance belongs to Douglas Spencer as “Scotty” the reporter. He certainly gets some of the best lines in the movie, and his performance here is a nice foreshadowing of Darren McGavin’s performance as reporter Carl Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972).
Margaret Sheridan is also very good as Nikki, and Robert Cornthwaite makes a very effective Dr. Arthur Carrington, who’s constantly at odds with Captain Hendry, as he wants to keep the Thing alive at all costs, in the interests of science. Cornthwaite also played a scientist in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Like Kenneth Tobey, Cornthwaite also enjoyed a long acting career, acting all the way up to the 2000s, and he passed away in 2006.
Everyone in the cast seems so relaxed. Now, this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s incredibly refreshing not to have people running around screaming and overacting. They’re constantly trying not to attract the Thing, and so they’re frequently whispering. There’s lot of soft spoken crisp dialogue, and it’s full of humor throughout.
You also can’t talk about THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD without mentioning the powerful music score by Dimitri Tiomkin. It’s an amazing score, and it captures the strength and brutality of the Thing itself.
Howard Hawks only made one horror movie, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. After seeing it, you can’t help but wish he had made many more.