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The Thing (From Another World)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) (1951)

Starring: Maragaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, James Young

Written By: Charles Lederer Directed By: Christian Nyby (Uncredited: Howard Hawks)

The Short Version

This is the cornerstone for all of the alien invasion flicks of the 1950s.

It’s also one of the three best.

There’s some very memorable cinematography here.

Some of the stereotypes really stand out, as does the arguing.

The Thing is well remembered as a classic for a reason, and deserves to be seen even today.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

GARDEN VEGGIE CREAM CHEESE.

It sure is tasty when spread on a saucer-shaped bagel; just keep your eye on it in case the little bits of carrot get any funny ideas.


Pairs Well With...

CANADIAN CLUB.

Classic whiskey from the frozen North to go with classic horror set in the frozen North.

“Please, Doctor, I've got to ask this.  It sounds like, well, just as though you're describing some form of super carrot.”


And so he was.  That “super carrot” was the title creature from The Thing (From Another World), and once that carrot landed, movies would never be the same.

The Thing (From Another World), hereafter referred to the way most people do as just The Thing, is the movie that really kicked off the alien invasion revolution of the 1950s.  When Scotty (Douglas Spencer), the film’s reporter character, told the world to “Keep watching the skies!” at the end of The Thing, Hollywood listened, and spent the rest of the decade filling them with flying saucers.  Along with being the first, The Thing also stands as one of its time’s best, and also serves as an interesting bookend to another film that would come out later the same year, The Day the Earth Stood Still.  (Indeed, I highly suggest watching these two as a double feature, if you have the chance to do so; each treats the same subject very differently, in terms of both setting and politics.)

Our story begins at an Army Air Force base in Anchorage, Alaska, where Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew of cold weather rescue and recovery specialists are casually playing cards and waiting for an assignment.  Reporter Ned ‘Scotty’ Scott is also fighting off his own boredom, so when Hendry is called into the Base Commander’s office, he begs the Captain to take him along wherever he’s being assigned if there’s any chance at all that there might be a good story involved.

Needless to say, he doesn’t know that half of it.

As it turns out, Hendry and his crew are tasked with flying out to a research station near the North Pole, where the scientists have reported some sort of aircraft crash nearby.  Hendry is eager to take the assignment; after all, he’s got an old flame, Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), who also happens to be holed up at said research station.  The Base Commander, meanwhile, is himself eager to let Hendry take Scotty along for the ride.  He may not even be kidding when he lightly suggests that Hendry strand him up there.

Soon after, Hendry and his crew – along with Scotty – are en route to the research station.  They begin to suspect something’s not right even before they land; their compass seems to be off.  The people at the research station confirm that they’ve been having the same experience since taking note of the crash.  Little wonder; once they do get to the crash site, they discover that what came down from the skies was no airplane, but a flying saucer!  And one of its occupants seems to have been thrown clear and become flash frozen in a block of ice…

There’s simply no questioning the fact that The Thing is a must-see classic.  If you love science fiction or if you love horror (for The Thing qualifies as both), there’s simply no excuse to not see it. 

So much history begins here, not only for the 1950s, but for all the years that would follow.  Not only does The Thing kick of the cinematic alien invasion of Earth, but it also inaugurates many of the stylistic conventions that would follow.  You know those inescapable claustrophobic corridors to which a crew is confined while an alien stalks them?  Those started here.  (Can’t go out because of space, can’t go out because of an Arctic storm that would make you freeze to death in seconds; amounts to the same thing, really.)   How about people wanting to keep the killer alien alive for their own purposes while seeing it as perfectly acceptable to let everyone else die in the process?  That’s here, too.  And then there’s the now-classic go-to of setting the stuntman’s entire body on fire?  The Thing is the first movie to make use of that stunt.  (Given the fact that the stuntman was breathing a supply of pure oxygen, he’s lucky he didn’t get killed.)

There are also three of the most iconic moments in movie history to consider.  First is the scene wherein the group tries to figure out the size and shape of the craft they see just below their feet under a cover of ice, which ends up with them standing in a near perfect circle as they discover the craft to be a flying saucer.  (Fun trivia: this “ice scene” was filmed in 100 degree weather in California.)  Yes, it may sound simple, but truly, this is one of the most wonderfully filmed moments in all of cinema.  Then there’s the climactic encounter with The Thing (played by the recently deceased James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame), still one of the most memorable final confrontations with any horror movie monster ever.  And while I admit that the final broadcast delivered by Scotty had less of an impact for me than these other two moments, there can be no denying that his “Keep watching the skies!” speech is one the signature moments of science fiction history.

Less well remembered is a moment that I consider to be one of the more eye-popping parts of the film, considering when it was made.  As noted earlier, Captain Hendry wants to reconnect with an old flame, Nikki; or, better put, to try again after messing up the first time.  They joke about tying Hendry up, and in the next scene… Nikki does have him tied up to a chair, and is feeding him booze while he’s bound there.  Given the era, the fact that anyone even thought to put this in the movie is astounding, and it’s all the more so that it was kept.  I’m glad it was, though.  Despite the fact that Hendry’s obsession with his romantic interests sometimes seems to take a little too much primacy in the face of other things, this scene is very well done in all respects, particularly when considering the performance of Margaret Sheridan. 

Also extremely fascinating is the long sequence over the exam table wherein the scientists discuss the physical makeup of The Thing, which turns out to be evolved from vegetable matter, but must feed on animal blood to survive.  (Interestingly enough, the term “vampire” is never used, though that in reality is exactly what The Thing turns out to be.)  Even one soldier referring to The Thing as a “super carrot” – goofy sounding to be sure – cannot take away from the moment.

With all of that in mind, however, The Thing is certainly not without its share of problems and annoyances.

The Thing is often applauded for snappy dialogue and for the tension between its two primary groups of characters: the soldiers and the scientists.  One the one hand, the dialogue here is certainly better than you’ll find in most other films of its decade, but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call the whole thing “snappy.”  Of course, that may also be because I couldn’t hear half of it, since it is extremely common for every character to speaking right over the lines of someone else who hasn’t finished talking yet.  Having been in enough heated discussions and having attending far more meetings in my life than I’d care to consider, I can well understand how this adds to the realism of the picture.  However, the fact is that it is so pervasive throughout the film that it gets extremely annoying extremely fast.  Realistic though it may be, it tends to take the fun out of a movie when one wants to poke one’s head into the screen and yell “shut the hell up when someone else is trying to talk!”

But let’s have a look at why they’re arguing, shall we?  Tension in the abstract sense is generally a good thing, especially in a suspense picture like a horror movie.  Tension between characters is also often a good thing.  However, when the characters involved are stonewall stereotypes who just won’t step out of the cardboard outlines they’ve been cut from, it’s a little less fun.  The military types are single-minded, obey-orders types whose answer to anything is to either keep it locked down until further instructions arrive or to use explosives.  (They end up destroying the flying saucer this way, since they decide it’s better to use explosives to break it free from the ice than to wait out the approaching storm and do it, you know, sensibly.)  How Nikki is attracted to this, I don’t know.  The scientists, meanwhile, are a combination of every nerd stereotype out there.  (Right down to fashion sense; the arrogant one had a turtleneck sweater under a crested jacket; there’s also the pipe smoker with the English scarf, the guy with the slick hair and thick glasses, and Mr. Cardigan wearer.)  What’s more, their leader has so much intellectual tunnel vision that he refuses to accept a mortal threat even when it’s put right in front of his face.  For both groups, I find this pigheadedness to be infuriating.  Maybe I’m too modern in that regard, but it does again take away from the film’s overall experience for me, even as I continue to recognize it as a must-see classic.

As for how the argument turns out, there’s no questioning that for the entertainment value of the film – and sensibility within the confines of the story – the end result is exactly what it should be, and plays out in spectacular fashion.  It’s the philosophy that makes The Thing such an interesting contrast to The Day the Earth Stood Still.  The Thing is unabashedly jingoistic; The Day the Earth Stood Still just the opposite.  Had the people from this film been put into that one, the Earth would have been destroyed.  Different aliens, different storytellers, different stories.

Speaking of different stories, I’ll close with a few pieces of history here. 

The first set of conflicting stories involved who really directed The Thing.  Christian Nyby has official credit, and if you believe James Arness, he was the real boss.  However, just about everyone else says that Producer Howard Hawks did most of the real work, and gave Nyby credit.  All signs point to Hawks indeed having a heavy directorial hand, but in the end, the real answer probably lies somewhere in between.

The second set of stories involves the plot.  The Thing is based on a short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.  However, beyond the very basics, it’s really its own story and only uses Campbell’s work as a foundation.  Just over three decades later, John Carpenter would make his own version of The Thing that would prove to be much more faithful to Campbell’s story.  Not that Carpenter didn’t like this movie, though; indeed, when the kids are watching TV in his masterpiece, Halloween, The Thing is the movie that they’re watching.

And when all is said and done, if you haven’t already, so should you.

Bottom line, The Thing is one of the true classics of motion picture history; not just for science fiction, not just for horror, but for all time.  While not without its flaws, The Thing still stands up very well after sixty years, and deserves to be seen by everyone at least once.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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