Sunday, November 26, 2006
The Thing from Another World
Posted by Octopunk
This movie's Horrorthon appearance may come as a bit of a surprise, since I myself have often said, while trying to define what would be an acceptable contest entry: "the Thing remake counts, the original doesn't." Then during this year's contest my father sent me the following story.
"I think this original with James Arness as the 'Thing' made back in the early 1950's was one of the scariest movies of the time. I probably told you the story, but here goes:
They didn't allow kids to attend an evening movie unless accompanied by an adult and the last showing was coming up and I wanted to see it. It was at a time when UFO's were in the news (much before Sputnik was launched in 1957, when I was a freshman in college), so the public was excited about the possibility of space travel and more so if an alien was orbiting earth. My Uncle Roger said that he would take me after dinner. The movies repeated themselves then, so if you missed the beginning, you could stay to see it when they played it again. There was a song popular at the time called The Thing in the Hat, sung by a comedienne Phil Harris, so Roger thought the movie was going to be a comedy. We came in late and just as we are sitting down, for the first time the audience sees the 'Thing' on the screen and everyone screams with the terror of the moment. Roger almost has a heart attack and says, "What the hell did you bring me to watch?"
It was a great flick back then and the opening shot of the scientists making a circle on the ice to estimate the size of the object( the saucer) under the ice was most memorable. The remake was also well done, but the first one was a grabber for a kid in junior high. Try to catch it if you can."
So I was thinking of submitting The Thing from Another World before the council when I noticed that both Netflix and Imdb had it listed as a horror movie. "Screw the council!," I thought, tossing my goblet of brandy in the fire. I promptly made my plans to view both versions as a Halloween double feature, and then very un-promptly forgot to figure the Netflix turnaround time and had to rent a VHS copy at the last minute. See my C.H.U.D. II review for that story.
Pay attention here's the thick of the plot: Hearty American Air Force guys investigating a crashed "plane" find instead a flying saucer, trapped beneath the ice that melted on impact and then re-froze. Trying to free the craft, they accidentally destroy it, but get the consolation prize of the pilot, frozen in his own block of ice nearby. Once they get him back to the arctic science base, a debate ensues: Snooty intellectual Dr. Carrington wants to wake him up and rap, sure that any being advanced enough for space travel would be a source of limitless wisdom. But the even-tempered Captain Hendry is more cautious, ordering the ice block kept frozen and under constant guard. The second man on watch dislikes the creepy gaze of the visitor, and covers the block with a blanket, which naturally turns out to be the first watch's electric blanket. And the beast is loose!
I read that this is actually the first movie to ever portray an alien arriving on Earth (beating The Day the Earth Stood Still by several months), and it is deserving of the honor. Much like the original Halloween, it displays an almost puzzlingly high level of quality when viewed against the films that followed in its wake. In your typical 1950's horror/sci-fi flick, there's the obligatory "boring part" that often takes up half the movie, laying down the clunky pseudo-science and stiff character relationships before we see the good stuff. Sometimes there's a booming narrator for this part. The Thing from Another World doesn't ever feel that way; it's got sharp, snappy dialogue that's briskly layered, the characters often talking over each other in a staccato patter. This isn't Robert Altman's "point the camera at three simultaneous conversations" method, this stuff flows together perfectly. It's a signature technique of Howard Hawks, who is considered an uncredited director on the movie. I'm not an expert on his work, but he directed such classics as Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Far more sophisticated fare than the flying saucer movies that were to come.
With this engaging direction going on, the film emerges as a great horror flick. The Thing itself gets very little screen time, but it never fails to be a menacing presence on the compound, as our heroes try to track it with geiger counters and guess its next move. I've heard that there were unused close-ups of the Thing that were shot and then cut because they diminished the creature's fright factor. That's one of those decisions that makes the horror fan in me jump up and down -- such an early example of the "don't show too much monster" technique (as seen in Jaws, Halloween, and Alien to name a few), and they didn't overdo it, either. With the shadowy shape comes some inspired sound design; the Thing's deep howls ring across the snow, telling of a brutish rage that belies its intelligence. Of course nutty Dr. Carrington, bless him, believes in the Thing's wise benevolence right up until it patonks him on the head.
The Thing also used one of my favorite features this year: good guys who aren't nigh-useless in a crisis. You couldn't ask for a more sympathetic portrayal of the military: Captain Hendry with his smooth, effective command of his men, each one of them capable, adaptive and brave. It's 1951, so even the nerdy journalist can brag about being shot at in Europe. The sense of post-war comaraderie is palpaple, it's all "We won! And we'll do it again!" It's very Cold War, of course, with the implication that we'll whup those commies just as good as we did that spaceman...but I found the whole thing infectious. I mean, it's hard not to like a movie that's got one of these on the front of it:
The Thing from Another World comes highly recommended. It won't scare you like it did my great uncle Roger, but it will surprise you.
For more good chitchat on this movie, check out And You Call Yourself a Scientist's excellent review here.
at 11:38 PM