Viking Night: The Thing from Another World
By Bruce Hall
February 15, 2018
I complained a bit last week about how having to sit through the B-movie classics of the Fifties and Sixties. To be sure, the jingoism, sexism and just plain awfulness of some of these films could put you off cinema forever. But hey, every decade and every genre has its highs and lows, right? Amid all the trashy dreck about space Commies and fleshy headed Martians trying to steal our women, there were some gems. And lest anybody think last week’s grousing was for anything but comic effect, I’ve decided to prove this with the beloved classic The Thing from Another World.
If the title sounds familiar, it’s because this was later remade into John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), before again being revisited a 2011 prequel which should not be mentioned by anyone, ever. The original film is based on the novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell. I’ve never read a review of this movie that didn’t mention that, so there you go. It’s also important because the book was written in 1938, so I question how many of these people have truly read it.
I haven’t, and probably never will. But it you don’t mind me letting you in on a little secret, a confidential source (i.e. common knowledge) has informed me that The Thing from Another World deviates somewhat from the source material, which no doubt makes me sound really smart.
You know what else is really smart? This freaking movie. It starts out not entirely unlike the remake, with a mysterious craft coming down at a remote science post, this time in the Arctic Circle. Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his team are dispatched to assist with the investigation. Since it’s 1951, the Cold War is in full swing and the Military wants to take no chances with the situation.
That’s kind of funny, because Hendry and his team don’t exactly arrive locked and loaded. Being just a few years removed from saving the Free World, these guys arrive a little cocky. But hey, they’re called the Greatest Generation for a reason, and even heroes have needs. So who wants to guess the first place Hendry heads after landing? It’s not to investigate the potential Russian spy satellite outside in the ice. Its to mingle with his ex-flame Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), who is both the outpost’s no-nonsense bookkeeper and, it would seem, very much her own woman.
Also along for the ride is Ned “Scotty” Scott (Douglas Spencer), mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. The station’s head researcher is the eminent Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), a mildly arrogant genius who favors turtlenecks, Navy-style blazers and old school monologues.
Despite the rocky start the team is able to locate the downed craft, and quickly determine it to be of alien origin. Unfortunately, they also blow it up when they try to extract it. Luckily the body of the pilot is retrieved intact and immediately put on ice. It’s unmistakably alien and the science team is eager to analyze it. But Hendry’s instincts remind him that he is a character in a horror movie. And the last thing you want to do when you’re in that position is to defrost the terrifying eight foot tall alien who has knives where his fingers should be.
Oh, and did I mention the raging storm that conveniently cuts off communication with the outside world?
What I love is that this doesn’t feel like a horror film until very late in the going. More than half the story is spent world-building and establishing character relationships before anything remotely “scary” occurs. Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) is said to have directed this film (Christian Nyby is unconvincingly credited), and he’s put together what at first feels like a light hearted military recruitment flick. The most shocking moment in the first half hour is when one soldier wakes another soldier up to offer him coffee.
Why the hell would you wake someone from sleep to see if they want something that’ll keep them from sleeping? Like they were doing just before you bothered them?
And by the way, there’s a lot of coffee consumed in The Thing from Another World. And when I say that, I mean the characters never stop offering it to each other, like a bunch of trendy millennials. Someday I’ll go back and count, but it feels like somebody asks somebody else whether or not they want coffee about every three or four minutes.
Come to think of it, that might have been real. Many scenes were filmed on a refrigerated set and it’s obvious. This lends a degree of realism that again, you just don’t expect out of a movie like this. But damned if all that world-building doesn’t pay off when things get real later in the film. The relationship between Hendry and Nikki more than just tawdry B-movie fluff. And let it be known that neither of the women in this film are there for window dressing. Each has a far more significant role in the story than you’re used to seeing in movies of this type, and neither of them scream or cower in fear, even once.
And damn, is this a well constructed, well shot film! The script is bursting with well written dialog, and it’s delivered believably. The characters act naturally and their dialog is allowed to overlap in the mildly unorganized way people speak when they’re not in a movie. There are a TON of supporting characters, and yet everyone always seems to have something to do.
It’s just so refreshing when a genre film strikes out on its own without relying on lazy tropes to propel the story!
This is not the kind of movie where people open doors they shouldn’t, or stand paralyzed and squealing when they should be running. Nor do characters clash needlessly. Hendry and the Doctor don’t dislike one another so much as they simply have competing directives. One is a little too eager to make scientific hay of a potentially dangerous situation without having all the facts. The other is part of a chain of command that’s perhaps a little too proud of itself and its ability to confront the unknown. But thankfully, they’re allowed to behave like realistic professionals. It’s only when the creature inevitably comes to life that they butt heads, and not until it begins to display its abilities that they end up at odds.
“Knowledge is worth more than life”, says the good Doctor, at one point. His words reflect the suspicion many felt about the wave of new technology sweeping the world in the wake of the war and for many, that was scary enough. If The Thing from Another World is an effective film (and it is), the real “horror” might be the paralyzing fear that often comes with a changed world.
Until about a year ago, I’d have had a harder time putting that in context.