Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: the North Pole gets even chillier than usual in The Thing From Another World.
The Thing From Another WorldDirector: Christian Nyby
Cast: Kenneth Tobey, James Arness, Margaret Sheridan, Douglas Spencer
US Release Date: 1951-04-29
Alternative titles: Vampire Carrots from the Unknown; The Best Movie of the Decade (Maybe).
* Well-paced, intelligent thriller.
* Terrific dialogue with plenty of snappy banter.
* Isolated Artic locale, complete with sled dogs.
* Science vs. military vs. journalism tension throughout.
* Good suspense and action sequences.
* Well-made movie has few things to make fun of (though the requisite goofy "romance" is tempting).
SYNOPSIS: A strange flying object crashes into the Arctic ice, and it's up to USAF pilot Captain Henry to check out what's happened. Fortunately (or not) there's a scientific outpost nearby, led by testy Dr. Carrington—you can tell he's a scientist by his Lenin-esque beard. Fortunately (or not), Carrington's assistant Nikki is there, and a past romance with Captain Henry is duly rekindled. Ace reporter Scotty is also on the scene, commenting wryly on the goings-on, as ace reporters are wont to do. Before long the whole crew is off and searching for the mysterious once-flying-now-fallen object.
Fortunately (or not) they soon find it: a strange frozen object trapped uner the ice. Some genuinely spooky scenes ensue out on the tundra as the men plod around the horseshoe-crab-shaped stain in the snow, trying to figure out the shape of the "aircraft" below. After inadvertantly blowing up the vessel, they discover a body frozen in the ice, which they remove and bring to the base. Here it's locked up and kept cold. The men guarding it need to keep themselves warm, of course, but fortunately (or not) they have an electric blanket. Oops.
When the Thing starts clomping around the place, sowing seeds—literally—of destruction, the movie ramps up another notch. Adding to the tension is the frisson between Dr. Carrington, who wants to thaw/study/communicate with/start a collective-farming commune in Bimini with the creature--notwithstanding the fact that it seems to be some sort of ambulatory, sentient root vegetable--and Captain Henry, who's awaiting instructions from the generals. Lousy weather keeps messing up the radio, though, so instructions aren't forthcoming. With Henry and Carrington pulling in opposite directions, wise-ass reporter Scotty gets all the best lines, providing commentary on both sides.
Ultimately, the body count in this film is low—unlike the 1982 gore-fest remake starring Kurt Russell—but what it lacks in overt violence and splashing entrails is made up for in creepy suspense and, especially, snappy dialogue. Maybe more than any other sci-fi film of the 1950s, The Thing From Another World overcomes genre limitations to become a genuinely great movie.
Best line of dialogue: "Sorry, we already pulled one boner out there on the ice." (Ouch! That must've been painful.)
Did you notice? When Scotty walks onto the ice to view the spaceship, he stumbles and almost falls on his butt. (It's in the shot where the airmen are gathering around the ship's tail fin.) Maybe that almost-spill was written into the script, but somehow I doubt it.
What gets demolished: A flying saucer; three sled dogs; two scientists; one vampire space carrot. And a silly scientist gets knocked around a little, but he deserves it.
Did you know? Thing producer Howard Hawks was the director of such highly regarded films as The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not (both starring Bogart and Bacall) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe). His hallmarks were overlapping dialogue and snappy pacing—both of which are very evident in The Thing. Hawks himself is rumored to be the real director, but didn't want his name associated with a low-brow sci-fi movie. Credited director Christian Nyby's only other theatrical effort is 1967 war film First to Fight. He did direct plenty of TV, though.
Moral of the story: Vegetables can kill you too, under the right circumstances.
This reminds me of… John Carpenter's 1982 remake/sequel The Thing, starring Kurt Russell and lots of splashy special effects. Not a bad movie, but relying as it does on gross-out moments, it lacks much of the moodiness and earnest sincerity of the original. It must be credited for its unfashionably bleak ending, however.
Somehow their careers survived: Kenneth Tobey (Henry)'s illustrious trifecta of 1950s monster flicks would include The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and 1955's It Came From Beneath the Sea. His rugged looks may have typecast him as a military man, but he played the part well. James Arness (the Thing) would star in 1954's giant-ant drama Them! and a pile of westerns; This was the first role for Margaret Sheridan (Nikki), who would go on to appear in 1952's Korean War drama One Minute to Zero and I, the Jury (1953). Douglas Spencer (Scotty) had supporting roles in Trouble Along the Way (1953) with John Wayne, and This Island Earth (1955) alongside Jeff Morrow.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the all-time great 1950s movies, of any genre.
NEXT WEEK: Atomic Submarine (1959)