When you think The Thing, odds are you’re thinking of John Carpenter’s skin ripping, tentacle whipping, exercise in masterful paranoia terror – or the orange, rocky member of the Fantastic Four, who knows – but there’s a slight chance you might not know that both were preceded by The Thing From Another World in 1951.
Like Carpenter’s remake, the original was based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There” but unlike the remake, special effects hadn’t yet matured to a point where the shape shifting, human duplicating, body absorbing alien lifeform could adequately realised and so director Christian Nyby and legendary filmmaker Howard was forced to reimagine the alien invader. However, what they kept was the novella’s unique location – an American research station at the North Pole – and a huge dollop of post-war tension to create a movie that may have been somewhat eclipsed by it’s more muscular remake, but is still a stonking classic in it’s own right.
Captain Pat Hendry is chilling out with his co-pilot Eddie and his navigator Ken at an Officer’s club in Anchorage when their breezy conversation about hot women is mercifully interrupted by story hungry journalist Ned Scott who is sniffing around for anything newsworthy. It must be his lucky day (sort of) because a call from remote research station Polar Expedition Six who claim that a strange aircraft has crashed into the ice near their location and Hendry and his team – plus an eager Ned – fly over to investigate.
After meeting with the staff, which includes obtuse scientist Carrington and Hendry’s old flame Nikki, everyone heads out to the crash site and so find out that it’s not of human origin but their attempts to dislodge it from the ice with explosives only results in the craft’s accidental destruction (smooth move, Ex-lax…). However, they eventually hit paydirt in the form of the UFO’s pilot who attempted to crawl out after the crash and promptly became an ALF-cicle in the cold and so they carve it out in a block of ice and haul it back to camp. The mood of the camp is excited but cautious, but that rapidly changed to crapped pants all round when the thing defrosts, revives and decides to repay it’s suspicious saviours by immediately going on a rampage that leaves a couple of sled dogs drained of blood and the camp’s inhabitants holed up and fighting for their lives.
However, while Hendry uses the power of common sense and a shit load of kerosene to keep the creature at bay, Carrington believes it must be protected in the name of science and that everyone’s lives comes secondary to whatever secrets can be gleaned from this thing from another world.
So, as not to keep stating the obvious, the ’51 Thing may not be a match for the virtually flawless ’82 monster-piece, but in the realms of 50’s sci-fi theatre it confidently stands a bulbous head and shoulders above the vast majority of it’s peers. The main reason for this is, as I mentioned before, it’s setting which is chillingly perfect for a movie where neither the humans or the monster can afford to stray too far away from one another in fear of freezing. The monster chooses to stake out in the green house, but is free to roam the surrounding area in search of yet more, hot blood to sustain not only its body, but to asexually reproduce to create others of it’s kind and the fact that both factions have to remain in such close proximity is a source for some great nerve jangling moments. Another thing that separates TTFAW from it’s more cheesier ilk is how natural the humans interract with one another with the film choosing to employ overlapping dialogue in order to counteract some of the woodeness of the performances you sometimes get with 50’s creature feature; as a result, the movie has some aspects that feel decidedly modern. Nikki’s contant needling at Hendry for a marriage proposal may initially seem a bit dated but the way she goes about it (while wearing an actual pair of trousers and even indulging in a random spot of bondage) is done in a way that puts them on something of an even footing and she’s even front and centre during some violently close encounters while not conforming to damsel conventions. Even some of the scare tactics the movie uses feel stunningly ahead of their time – a clicking Geiger counter signals the approach of the thing much like the motion trackers in Aliens and a jump scare where someone casually opens a door to reveal the Frankenstein-forheaded alien lunging at them may be the greatest cinematic “boo” of that decade. Plus certain shots stand out magnificently, such as the Thing standing silhouetted in a door way and one where it staggers out into the snow while roasting like a marshmallow are even iconic enough to be recreated wholesale in Carpenter’s redo.
Not all of the movie has remained evergreen however. While the alien itself may just be a tall dude with a big, veiny bonce (the claws are awesome though), its threat level is slightly marred by the fact that the boffins keep comparing its molecular structure to that of a vegetable, or, to be more accurate, a blood drinking carrot. While this might have been an acceptable thing to use to describe your unstoppable creature back in the day, it just rubs awkwardly against the established tension the film has so consistently built up.
There’s a fair amount of metaphor to unwrap here (the film’s iconic warning of “Keep watching the skies!” could easily be directed at communism as it could beasties from Mars) but possibly the most intriguing one is the inherent distrust it has scientists which might very well be a direct result of the recent invention and deployment of the nuclear bomb and Carrington’s insistence that human lives are insignificant in the face of learning the secrets of the universe from an eight foot vampire carrot is a distinct 180 from the usual, benevolent lab coat wearers these films usually feature.
Maybe not quite as rock solid a sci-fi as War Of The Worlds or as satisfying a creature feature as Creature Of The Black Lagoon, The Thing From Another World is still a prime slice of white knuckle UFO antics that provide the solid foundations to arguably the greatest science fiction horror ever made.
The Thing From Another World is a thing that’s still out of this world.