"Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"
1950s America produced a sci-fi and horror movement that was unique in the history of cinema. The films came from a fear of Communism, the fear of Nuclear disaster and subsequent radiation poisoning. The mass destruction of the planet seemed but hours away. During this time there was a glut of glorious movies including The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and From Hell It Came. These movies are creature features by design but their social commentary was overt and it is often this that makes them still interesting to modern viewers. Perhaps the best of these features is the wonderfully titled The Thing From Another World.
The Thing From Another World was based on an original story by John W Campbell Jnr called Who Goes There? It was nominally directed by Christian Nyby, however the driving force behind the movie was producer Howard Hawks. Hawks' trademark concerns are all over the movie. There is a small bunch of competent men who in a tough situation have a job to do, and it will get done. For other such examples see El Dorado, Rio Bravo or Only Angels Have Wings. Howard Hawks was a legend of The Hollywood studio system; he made numerous stunning films as a writer, director and producer. His style is perhaps best known for the "Hawksian Woman", his portrayal of female characters as tough talking and capable.
The Thing From Another World, released in 1951, capitalised on the beginning of the Korean War, increased fears of the Red Menace that was brought to the forefront of a nation by the whirlwind activities of Senator Joe McCarthy. The Thing From Another World begins in the Artic circle where a group of scientists and airforcemen find a flying saucer buried within the frozen wasteland. Within the flying saucer they find a life form. He is accidentally thawed out and goes upon a rampage. The monster, like the Russian Communists portrayed at the time, was a killer without conception of humanity. It could not be reasoned with, pleaded to or begged mercy of. The Thing From Another World is no plea for respect between cultures, understanding of others different from yourself. This is simply “they are different; lets get them”. The film also has intriguing disdain for scientists, those who stumble into uncovering dangerous items without the thought for the rest of the world. Today this message seems very strange as it is often science we turn to in our very modern fear of religious fundamentalism and zealotry, however in the years after Hiroshima and the nuclear testing it is not surprising how audiences and artists felt.
The subtext brings a lot to a modern viewing of the movie, however the film stands well as a straight ahead sci-fi horror movie. The acting is strong by a cast of almost unknowns although there is no stand out performance, as an ensemble cast each member does a tremendous job. Having the majority of the film shot on one location gives the film a sense of claustrophobia that would be a staple of the horror genre for the next 60 years. The direction is solid, if unspectacular, but the dialogue, given the traditional Hawksian spin, is overlapping, fast paced, witty and arch.
Admittedly the movie has aged, the romance between Margaret Sheridan and Kenneth Tobey that is a significant sub-plot within the film may grate upon some who are looking for a leaner horror movie. However, the love scenes are played with such enjoyable flirtation that these moments are often a joy to watch, if a little inappropriate for the tone. It has to be mentioned that the monster itself is far from scary; it is in fact a large man in a suit. And not a particularly good suit. For those who have seen John Carpenter's beautifully judged remake, The Thing, the monster within the original cannot change shape, nor morph into people and hide in plain sight. No it remains a man in a suit. But to hold special effects against the effectiveness of the movie is a poor excuse when presented with such a glorious plotting, dialogue, acting and story.
The Thing From Another World’s influence can be felt strongly throughout the subsequent history of American Cinema. The most notable effects can be seen within Alien which took the claustrophobic plotting and the unfriendly antagonist storyline and created a wonderful haunted house in space, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind whose working title was Watch The Skies. Spielberg an admitted fan of the movie paid homage in his own way. However, the most of obvious, and greatest, influence the 1951 film had was on John Carpenter’s The Thing.
John Carpenter has spent a successful career remaking Howard Hawks classics. Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter’s 1976 feature, was an almost direct remake of Rio Bravo, so it came as no surprise to movie lovers that Carpenter decided to remake Hawks' best sci-fi horror film, a genre in which Carpenter was an acknowledged great. However, this was no mere reproduction of the original, Carpenter went back to Campbell’s original story and attempted to re-craft his version to be more in keeping with the writer’s original vision. However, the basic premise of both films remains much the same. A UFO crashes into the Artic, and there is a group of scientists who accidentally free the alien and subsequent havoc ensues.
Carpenter's film opens with a glorious sequence where a helicopter chases a dog across the icy wasteland with Carpenter’s camera capturing the action. It is a beautiful opening to the movie, it is thrilling and spectacular. From this incredible opening Carpenter’s film does not put one foot wrong, it removes the inappropriate romantic sub-plot that upset the pace and tone of the original, making this film solely about the men who are trapped in the Artic situation. Hawks would have approved. The acting in The Thing is a wonder, Kurt Russell has never been better than playing MacReady, he is laconic and tough but not a superhero. The rest of the supporting cast do an incredible job of making a large ensemble cast not in the least confusing, each member has a deliberate character and all the characters feel like real people and the group feels like an actual group. The dynamics of a group that has been stuck together for months really jumps out from the screen. Ennio Morricone brings depth to a score that sounds influenced by something the director John Carpenter would have created. It is wonderfully brooding music that fits perfectly with the action that unfolds onscreen. Where The Thing From Another World was not scary, The Thing is terrifying. It has numerous set-pieces that will cause any audiences to jump out of their respective seats, have nightmares when they get home and think twice about the next person they meet. There is paranoia in The Thing that few movies can come close too, the premise that the alien can morph, shape-change, into any person that it kills is beautifully simple. It could be anyone; the audience is never sure whom they can trust. This is The Thing’s masterstroke and produces the defining scene of a generation of moviegoers, the scene involves a series of blood tests taken in painstaking detail, a flame thrower, metal wire upon glass and some of the finest horror special effects ever committed to celluloid. The scene is a masterclass in tension and it should be required viewing for any future director. And to solidify its majesty further the scene ends with one of the most quotable lines in all cinema “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!”
Carpenter created not only his masterpiece with The Thing, but also one of the finest horror movies of all time. It has been rarely matched and never surpassed. The Thing looks into the dark heart of the abyss, it is a nihilistic American horror film where one’s anxieties, fears and paranoia are reflected by an unknown monster which looks identical to us. John Carpenter’s The Thing was not born out of the threat of Communism nor Nuclear destruction but rather an equally terrifying prospect for 1980’s America, the fear of the Aids virus. Much has to be made of the solely male cast, the complete absence of women, and an invisible killer that seems to infect the person rather than destroy them outright. The oblique ending of the movie only reinforcing the feeling of paranoia and distrust that the media portrayed during the height of the aids epidemic. The make-up from Rob Bottin seems an attempt to visualise a disease that so little was known about at that point. Carpenter deals sensitively with such a controversial subtext, highlighting, criticising and exploiting the fears of a whole new generation to scare them senseless.
It is an interesting prospect to consider if The Thing could be updated for another generation. What is our great fear to compare with Communism or Biological Disease...?
“Why don't we just wait here for a little while... see what happens...”