The Thing From Another World

US (1951) Dir. Christian Nyby

In the event of an alien invasion, whom would you side with – the scientists wanting to learn from these intergalactic visitors or the military who see them as a threat without evidence and want to blow them to pieces? Maybe there is a middle ground between these two extremes for the cautious?

Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) heading a small scientific expedition based at the North Pole reports an incident of an unusual aircraft crashing into the snow not far from the base. Carrington requests help from the Alaskan Air Command, who sends a team led by Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) to investigate, along with journalist Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) looking for a big story and thinks he has found it.

Buried deep in the snow and ice, the team find what they think may be something from another planet, but accidentally destroy it when trying to blow it out of the ice with explosives. However, they find a large body in the frozen wreckage and take it back to the base for examining. But as the body thaws out, it is soon discovered it isn’t human and it isn’t dead.

As film titles go, The Thing From Another World accurately sums up what to expect from this Howard Hawks produced sci-fi classic. Although most of you I’m sure will recognise this as the film John Carpenter remade in 1982 as just The Thing, which spawned a prequel in 2011. The source material is a 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell but with some changes, largely to the nature of the alien antagonist.

Even though Christian Nyby is the credited director, debate has raged as to whether this was the case or if Hawks himself directed the film; some say Hawks directed from the sidelines, others says he was in charge. Nyby himself denied this in 1982 but it seems memories would continue to differ among the cast, although he did admit he did try to emulate Hawks’ style as he admired him so much.

Regardless, this is another in the long line of seminal 1950s sci-fi flicks studios churned out as the world aimed to move further away from post-war malaise by looking to the stars and beyond. Interestingly, many of these films would have a subtle political subtext and this was no different – whilst some saw it as a fable for McCarthyism, screenwriter Charles Lederer was actually reflecting America’s mood post-Hiroshima, capitalising on the science vs. military dichotomy I referred to earlier.

With America being a very bellicose nation, the scientists are posited as the secondary antagonists after the alien invader, notably Carrington’s desire to study the creature and learn from it even after it kills some of his staff. I suppose we can’t really blame him since the opportunity to examine something from another planet doesn’t present itself on a daily basis, and it is natural for an enquiring mind to want to know more.

Meanwhile in the red corner, Hendry is only thinking about the safety of the people in this small base in the middle of the frozen north pole with a rampant killer on the loose, and these two ideals clash. This isn’t to say Carrington is a malevolent force but his thirst for scientific knowledge encourages his deceitful behaviour in growing what might be mini version of the alien from bits of its DNA in their possession.

Following its awakening, the creature (James Harness) breaks out of the base where it is attacked by the snow hounds which it defeats but not before one of them takes its arm off. During an examination the heat of the lights bring the arm to life again and starts to regenerate. Carrington concludes the creature’s cellular make up is akin to vegetation, except it feeds on blood; embed it in soil, expose it to light and hydration and like your average vegetable it will grow.

Leader’s alien concept is significantly different from Campbell’s, which was said to be a life form capable of adopting the physical and mental characteristics of any sentient being, something Carpenter returned to in his remake. Because a humanoid turnip would be bit a tad too kitsch, the creature is more humanoid but with fingers that sprout, whilst it lumbers about similar to Frankenstein’s monster. We never see its close up, but Harness’ 6’7” frame is shot in half-light to create a suitably menacing image.

Yet the most memorable aspect of this film, I would venture, is the opening credits, in which the words “The Thing” appear to burn through the black background, slowly taking form in an ominous fashion to forewarn the viewer of what is to come later on. It may sound simple but even today; it is impressively executed and still looks great, though it probably sets expectations a little too high in terms of the horror quotient.

Similarly, the film takes a while to find its groove, being quite dialogue heavy for much of its 82-minute run but Nyby keeps the pace constant and knows how to create drama at the right moment. The budget probably wasn’t much hence not having any elaborate make-up for Arness, but the snowy polar setting was convincing, and the explosion to free the buried spacecraft was quite spectacular.

Having not seen Carpenter’s remake, I am presumably relieved of disappointment those who have seen it or grew up with it might feel upon seeing this version, especially if they are expecting something similar. This is not the best approach should you be a fan of the remake and has yet to see this original; instead, take it for what it is – a product of its era with a story clearly capable of existing outside of this zeitgeist mentality.

The Thing From Another World is earnest, atmospheric, sturdily scripted and assuredly directed to provide entertainment as either a vintage curio or a venerated classic. And remember, “Keep watching the skies…”