Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thing from Another World, The (1951)

... aka: Thing, The

Directed by:
Howard Hawks (uncredited)
Christian Nyby

Clearly one of the key genre titles of its decade, The Thing's influence and importance should never be underestimated. It, along with the same year's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, are the two hit titles that helped shepherd in a huge boom in horror and sci-fi flicks throughout the decade. By the middle of the 1940s, the horror genre was on its last leg. The impressive Val Lewton-produced psychological terror series was winding down, Universal exhausted its genre franchises with a series of inferior (though often still enjoyable) sequels featuring their signature Dracula / Frankenstein / Mummy / The Invisible Man monsters, the Poverty Row studios were chugging along (usually just shadowing what Universal was up to) and Sherlock Holmes had a good run, but it was time to hang up the deerstalker after several lackluster entries. Likely because of the real-life atrocities that occurred during World War II, horror films gradually fell out of favor with audiences. People were wanting more uplifting and escapist entertainment. Comedies were popular and musicals were starting to make a comeback, but terror was out. Almost no horror films were produced from 1947 to 1951 in America (or actually anywhere else for that matter) and those that were usually made light of the horror content, such as the Abbott and Costello comedies (ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, 1948; ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF, 1949, etc.) That all changed in 1951 with the release of The Thing, which pumped new life into a genre which hasn't sagged much since.

Based on the classic story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. (adapted by Charles Lederer), The Thing begins at a military outpost in Anchorage, Alaska. A scientific expedition at the North Pole has just sent in a telegram stating that an unidentified flying object has just crash landed near them and they want some men sent up. Air Force pilot Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), a handful of other militarymen and newspaper reporter Scott (Douglas Spencer), who's desperate for an exciting story, take a plane up to investigate. Upon arriving, Captain Hendry meets up with Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), who tells him whatever landed had enough weight ("20 thousand tons of steel") behind it to set off their seismogram from upwards of fifty miles away. Whatever it is also hurtled toward Earth in a pattern similar to that of an aircraft, not a meteor. And whatever it is is causing radio static interference and electrical equipment to malfunction.

Hendry, Carrington and the rest of the team fly on over to where the UFO is thought to have landed and discover a huge patch of ice that was once melted but has since refrozen. Underneath the ice is something completely circular and it appears to be made from some unknown metallic substance. Using thermite bombs to quickly thaw the ice turns out to be a huge mistake and blows up the spacecraft instead. However, an alien being about 8 feet tall frozen underneath the ice is salvagable. They use pick axes to cut away a large block of ice with the alien inside and take it back to their camp. Team members have a disagreement over what to do with it. Carrington wants to thaw it out immediately to begin examining it, but level-headed Hendry feels its best to leave it frozen until he gets orders from his superior about what to do. Since all communication to civilization is sketchy at best because of static interference and a bad storm, that might be awhile. The ice block is kept in a cold storage room in the meantime.

In 2 hours shifts, the men take turns watching over their discovery. One of the guys ends up throwing an electric blanket over the ice block, which melts it just enough so that the alien can escape. It seems unharmed by numerous shots, runs outside and immediately gets into a scuttle with some huskies; killing two before getting its arm ripped off. The arm is brought inside for examination, which unveils they've got an intellegent and unique creature on their hands. The alien - an unfeeling, blood-drinking being with a blockhead and thorned claws - seems to be made up of almost entirely of vegetable matter. "An intellectual carrot? The mind boggles." Seed pods are removed and, when fed blood plasma, grow rapidly and threaten to spawn even more beasts. The discovery splits the group into two factions; Carrington and his fellow scientists want to study the alien and try to find a way to communicate with it but Hendry and his fellow soldiers believe the creature needs to be immediately destroyed by any means necessary. After several deaths, the military gets its way.

John Carpenter's hugely popular 1982 REMAKE has sparked an ongoing online debate about which film version is better. Personally, I can't really take one side or the other. This original concerns itself more with ideas and concepts (mostly delivered via dialogue instead of being visualized) while the remake is a more visceral horror film that puts emphasis on action and special effects. Despite having identical settings and almost identical plots, these are two very different types of films from two completely different eras. Which one viewers prefer depends solely on personal taste. Historically speaking, the original is clearly the more impactful of the two and more crucial in the development of the genre as a whole. There's more humor and the protagonists seem to have more character to them. The remake is more exciting, much more violent and actually sticks closer to the Campbell story. The majority of viewers seems to side with Carpenter's film, but that's not surprising considering the higher budget and updated effects. Both movies do a good job capturing the feel of complete isolation in a remote area and both movies have some memorable jolts. The first clear sighting of The Thing in this original film is on par with the famous blood test scene from the remake if you ask me.

Margaret Sheridan "stars" as Nikki, Carrington's assistant and Hendry's love interest. Despite being given top billing, she doesn't have much to do aside from jotting down the doctor's notes and serving the men coffee. Tobey has stated in interviews that Hawks actually directed the film while James Arness, who plays The Thing, claims Nyby did. Hawks disapproved of the many looks of the creature offered up by the fx man and instead opted for a Frankenstein's Monster-look. All close-ups of it were removed from the finished film because he was unsatisfied with it. The cast also includes James Young, Dewey Martin, Eduard Franz, John Dierkes and Paul Frees.


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