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October 13, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #93 - The Thing From Another World

Though it's about to be further concealed by a prequel to its famous remake - which is one of the best flicks ever in its own ridiculously awesome way and was voted FMWL's 2010-2011 Midnight Movie of the Year - The Thing From Another World still makes my socks rock sixty years after the fact.  The 1951 film shows it age at times, but that charm that once inspired John Carpenter and a whole generation of horror and sci-fi fans still shines through in plenty of ways.
One of the first studio examples of the flying saucer genre that would dominate movie screens in the 1950s, The Thing From Another World is also a movie that represents some of horror's best traits.  Adapted loosely from Joseph Campbell's novella - whose monster resembles the shapeshifting terror of Carpenter's Thing - the elder version of the story gives us a straight-laced military crew, a few scientists, one wonderful broad, and a hulking stalker from outer space. 
While this Thing certainly plays to the strengths of its era - the characters definitely present themselves with that "aw shucks" charm our generation expects from classic cinema - there are a lot of interesting things going on inside the film.  One of those things is probably not the male characters - the slightly comedic reporter character is a little fun, and the doctor looks like what you'd expect a super science guy to be these days - who are one note cliches.  I once argued that Carpenter's version of The Thing needed characters who we don't know too well so they could be interchangeable within a tale where no one can be trusted, but the original takes a much straighter approach to its characters.  The Captain's a captain, the doctor's a doctor, the reporter's a reporter....and everyone else is just pretty much there.
But there is one wild card in The Thing From Another World's hand - female station hand Nikki Nicholson, played by Margaret Sheridan.  First glance might present her as your average Jill Friday in an old movie, but there's an edge to the character that reeks of producer/possible-director Howard Hawks' involvement.  We're introduced to her via a discussion of her embarrassing the romantically interested captain during a previous affair, in which she apparently outdrank the heroic soldier AND managed to not have sex with him.  Their relationship throughout the film evolves into smoking together, drinking together, and even a small dose of bondage - and I don't think I need to tell you that that wasn't exactly commonplace in 1950s cinema.  So yeah - I kind of love this tough chick character who was randomly thrown in to the movie.  She's literally decades ahead of her time.
Actually there are two wild cards in the film's hand, because you can't really ignore the nearly seven-foot tall man beast that is loosed upon the Alaskan military facility in the film's second act.  Though the title creature is kept off screen for much of the film, he's always near the film's proceedings.  Some sort of device that's kind of like that alien detector from Alien comes in handy in a few scenes, and other moments obscure our view of him using the elements.  One of the best examples comes when the newly unthawed Thing battles with the sled dogs outside the camp, and the viewer only sees flailing limbs as the dogs make the kind of noises you never want to hear from dogs.  Dogs played a different role in Carpenter's version, but both films use them as a tool to make the viewer concerned about The Thing and just how brutal it is.
Though some of the sciency talk has always gone over my head - seriously, I couldn't tell you the difference between a zygote and orange marmalade - I kind of like the original Thing's monster.  Though it only comes in one shape (that of future Gunsmoke star James Arness), the weird connection between this alien lifeform and plants adds something to the proceedings.  There's that weird scene where the doctor listens to a bunch of bulbs with heartbeats using a stethoscope and lots of talk of cell structure and other sciency things, which creates a unique kind of alien that hasn't been matched often in horror or sci-fi cinema.  I think the message of the film is that this lumbering beast is kind of a cross between Little Shop of Horrors and Frankenstein, and I dig that.
That's another thing about this Thing - the script is both smart and sharp.  The adaptation by Charles Lederer is alleged to have been "touched up" by both Hawks and famous screenwriter Ben Hecht (whose amazing Hollywood career simply can not be summed up by me naming only one movie here), and it features some of the coolest moments in sci-fi.  I've already discussed Nikki - who seems to have come right out of Hawks' epic comedy His Girl Friday - but other parts of the film provide interesting nuggets of dialogue and surprising doses of humor.  The most famous call from the film is the final "Keep watching the skies!" commentary from the reporter - which has been a sci-fi staple ever since, but there are other bits and pieces of explanation that really strike a chord, even with modern audiences.  Perhaps my favorite random moment in the script comes when the Doctor proclaims "At 12:10 AM, the hand became alive" while reporting his findings while working with remnants of The Thing.  It's such a simple moment, but it shows where The Thing's writers - whoever they were - had their heads.  And it might even show how much they wanted to surprise us.
I know we're supposed to look back at The Thing From Another World as simply a template that led to Carpenter's classic these days, but I'm sitting here and thinking there's a lot more to this bit of sci-fi monster mania than people often remember.  Comparing Hawks' production (which I should mention is credited to director Christian Nyby) to Carpenter's film isn't really a valid move in my book, as these two films are unique in many ways.  So when you're considering Carpenter's film and the newfangled prequel/remake/premake that's hitting screens as I type - don't forget where things started.  Because The Thing From Another World is a classic too, and I think it still has a lot to offer the genre fan today.

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