by Eric McNaughton
“An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!”
The Thing From Another World is one of those handful of films I was exposed to at a tender age on late night TV. Along with Karloff’s Frankenstein, Them! and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, to this day it still excites me to watch it and it takes me back to being an 11 year full of wonder at the images coming from our black and white TV!
Who can forget the letters burning onto the screen spelling out the word T-H-I-N-G? So effective in fact that John Carpenter used exactly the same titles for his version in 1982. I’m sure Space Monsters readers are familiar with the story. A group of scientists and military types find a buried spaceship in the Artic, blow it up and recover the body of its pilot, which duly thaws out and creates havoc at the research station until it is eventually destroyed by electrocution. Sure there are plot holes. How on earth did they manage to get that block of ice out intact? It must weigh tons! But this is one fun, roller coaster ride of a film.
The film is based on a novella called ‘Who Goes There?’ written by John W. Campbell (under his pen name Don Stuart) in 1938 and published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It is a fantastic, fast paced story and if you get a chance do yourself a favour and read it! John Carpenter’s 1982 version is a lot more faithful to the story and the idea of a creature that can imitate life forms but back in the early 50s this was impossible to put on film, given the special effects available at that time. OK, it could possibly have been done with stop motion but that would have sent the budget sky-rocketing.
There is an ongoing debate about who directed the film, Christian Nyby is credited as director, but for decades rumour has it that producer Howard Hawks actually directed. There is no agreement on this even from cast members. James Arness who played the creature insists that Nyby did take on directors duties, whereas leading man Kenneth Toby insists it was Hawks himself who directed. Certainly the witty and intelligent dialogue is a Hawks trademark. One possible answer might be provided by actor Robert Cornthwaite who played Dr Carrington, who is quoted as saying “Chris always deferred to Hawks….maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it”. Nyby himself, speaking at a cast and crew reunion in 1982 had this to say “Did Hawks direct it? That’s one of the most inane and ridiculous questions I’ve ever heard, and people keep asking. That it was Hawk’s style. Of course it was. This was a man I studied and wanted to be like”.
Campbell’s novella was adapted by Charles Lederer with additional uncredited rewrites by Ben Hecht and Hawks himself. I think the dialogue is the key to this film. It really hasn’t dated at all and as already mentioned is very intelligent and witty with much overlapping dialogue and more than one person talking at once (another Hawks trademark). And it is a great ensemble piece. In my opinion it is Kenneth Tobey’s best role (he also appeared in Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea) and even the love interest isn’t as annoying or intrusive as it usually is in 50s scifi films (though for some strange reason the kissing scene was edited out of the original release). Robert Cornthwaite is outstanding as Dr Carrington, not really a villain, but a complex, misguided man. The Thing itself is played by James Arness (who was also of course in Them!), and midget Billy Curtis played the creature in the scenes at the climax where he is being frazzled by electricity and reduced in size. Incidentally the howl that the creature makes when he is injured is the yowl of a cat slowed down and amplified.
The creature itself is fantastic. Make-up artist Lee Greenway spent 5 months developing the make up only to be told by producers to put a Frankenstein type head on it! Hence the very Karloffian look of the alien. Nyby wisely keeps the creature hidden and in the shadows for most of the film. There is a great shock scene when we first see the creature. A door is opened and there he is! It’s totally unexpected and guaranteed to make you jump!
The movie was partly filmed at Glacier National Park and at a Los Angeles ice storage plant. Ironically the famous scene where the men form a circle on the ice around the crashed and buried spaceship was filmed at the RKO Ranch at San Fernando Valley in 100 degree heat!
The producers had approached the US Air Force for help but this was refused because the USAF felt that to co-operate with the film makers would compromise the US government’s official stance on UFOs.
It has to be remembered that at this time, 1951, the USA was in the grip of UFO mania. Starting in the summer of 1947 there had been increasing waves of these sightings. In June 1947 a businessman flying near Mount Rainer, Washington reported seeing 9 objects flying in formation “like a saucer would if you skipped it across water”. Within hours the name “flying saucer” had entered the universal psyche. In fact the first film to tackle the subject was made in 1949 and simply called The Flying Saucer.
Along with the fear of the atom bomb and communism, UFO sightings became the big paranoia of the fifties. The Thing From Another World brilliantly took all these fears and mixed them together in a film sure to prey on the minds of paranoid Americans.
The film has an eerie haunting theme by composer Dimitri Tomkin, in which he makes much use of the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer. It was also used to great effect by Miklos Rozsa for Spellbound and Bernard Herrmann for The Day the Earth Stood Still. I believe that this is Tomkin’s only venture into the world of horror and scifi, with the exception of his score for Mad Love.
The film had a brilliant pre-release publicity campaign with magazine ads proclaiming “You can’t kill The Thing with a gun!” and asking “What is The Thing?” The Thing was released in April 1951 and was a huge success. So successful in fact that it was re-released in both 1954 and 1957. Reviewing the movie for the New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther wrote “Adults and children can have a lot of old fashioned movie fun at The Thing“. Time magazine named The Thing From Another World “the greatest 1950s sci-fi movie”. And in 2001 the US Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not bad for a 50s B movie!
And it’s influence is far ranging. An isolated group trapped with an alien creature and fighting for their lives. Sound familiar? I’m convinced that The Thing From Another World was a big influence on Alien (along with It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires). And it leaves us with THE best final line from any scifi film “Keep watching the skies”.