When the 2011 remake of The Thing hit theaters, I watched the two preceding takes on the material leading up to it. However, when I rewatched The Thing From Another World in film class on Thursday, I realized I must have paid little attention to it originally. It holds little in common with the 1982 classic (that audiences generally consider the best adaptation), and really plays as a clone to The Day the Earth Stood Still, even though that film came out later than this one. It is the 1950s, so similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers there is a fear of Communism imbued here. Unlike the latter though, this version tells the audience to fear science, and creates a monster that appears to be an intergalactic vampire. The difference in symbolism of the period is intriguing, despite the rest of the movie being simply good. It’s a solid sci-fi picture that has a rhythm and momentum to it.
In a military outpost in the North Pole, a group of American Air Force pilots hear of a downed plane embedded in the ice. Upon discovery, they learn that the plane is really an alien spacecraft, and encased in the ice is an unknown creature. Once the group removes the creature, resident scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) wants to experiment. When the creature is let loose, and decides to take the blood from the inhabitants of the base, it becomes a battle between science and the government to stop the thing from another world.
It’s always weird seeing Howard Hawks‘ name attached to this because I would never associate the director of classic screwball comedies and gritty Westerns with a science-fiction film. Then again, you can see the director’s hands over. The script focuses on a group of people who share warmth and camaraderie with each other, and there’s the typical Hawks humor in the script. Amongst the horror and fear are cathartic moments of levity that allow the audience, and the characters to take a minute and find something worth living for. Sure, the lines read as incredibly cheesy, but the amount of inside jokes and other dialogue makes the audience feel as if these men have been friends for a long time. The first half of the movie feels a bit bogged down in all this friendship; it’s meant to establish the characters, but you can get antsy waiting for something to happen.
Yeah, let’s talk about the monster itself. The 1982 version plays on paranoia with the creature more than this film does. The original story, written by John W. Campbell, Jr. involves an alien that can turn into people or animals; leaving the group to figure out who is really human. It’s all explored deeper in the 1982 version. Invasion of the Body Snatchers wouldn’t come out for another five years, so it wasn’t as if using the story would be copying. I’m not quite sure why the original wasn’t used because as it stands now, the thing is weak sauce. He’s a large lumbering bloodsucker; the ultimate combination of Dracula and Frankenstein. Furthermore, outside of a dead dog, and slicing a few people off-screen, we don’t see any true menace; nor do we feel any sense of paranoia because it’s said that the monster is hiding in a greenhouse. The only time we know the invader is coming is when the radiation detector goes off, leaving several sequences where the characters are waiting for the creature to arrive. The acting and establishment of character helps the audience ignore this, but from a horror perspective The Thing From Another World doesn’t cut it.
The predominant feature, and the reason why this has been hailed as a classic of science-fiction filmmaking, is what it says about the government at the time. Unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we’re not meant to root for the scientists. Dr. Carrington is the prototypical mad scientist who feels that we need to keep the creature alive and learn from it. Obviously, this creature is far more advanced than us, so why not be taught what he knows in the interest of progress? Fordism, which focused on the need to believe scientific theory as the gospel truth, was a huge deal during the 1950s and it’s safe to say a lot of paranoia was born from it. The unseen head of the army base is willing to sacrifice Captain Hendry and his group for this creature, emphasizing the human life is irrelevant when technology could be advanced. Keep in mind, this is the period of the nuclear bomb.
Actor Robert Cornthwaite plays the character with an overabundance of classy elegance. He’s smarter than his peers, but we never see him do anything prior that would disprove he’s a mad scientist. The audience is meant to root for the heroes of America, the Air Force pilots. The cast assembled are all average Joe’s who never make us watching feel like they couldn’t exist in real life. Kenneth Tobey who plays Captain Hendry is a poor man’s Bill Holden, but he’s dominant and courageous in the role. He gets the love story of the movie, as well, opposite Nikki (Margaret Sheridan). They have a few cute segments to punctuate the horror, and it’s generally loaded towards the first half of the movie. Newspaperman Scotty (Douglas Spencer) steals scenes in his quest to get a picture of the creature. My favorite moment has to be when they first open the door to reveal the alien invader. One of the men asks Scotty if he got the picture, and if he didn’t they could just open the door again (pure Hawks)! Scotty’s determination to get a photo borderlines on insane at times.
Overall, The Thing From Another World is good; I prefer the 1982 original though. Both movies work on their own, but this doesn’t have the terror or the paranoia to sustain events. The cramped air base does make for some intriguing camera angles, and fosters a sense of alienation, but that’s it. The creature doesn’t come off as particularly horrific, and doesn’t hold up well against the earlier (or later) monsters. I recommend seeing it, as it sets up the entire sequence of events for 1950s sci-fi. Just don’t expect this to blow you away.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.