[box cover]

The Thing from Another World

Warner Home Video

Starring Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite,
Douglas Spencer, James Arness

Written by Charles Lederer,
Howard Hawks (uncredited), and Ben Hecht (uncredited)

Directed by Howard Hawks (mostly),
though credited to Christian Nyby

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

In 1951, moviegoers filled their popcorn bags for two influential films destined to define science fiction movies into the 21st century. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a Christ-like man from space, on a mission to save us from our "petty squabbling" and "strange, unreasoning attitudes," is besieged by trigger-happy, paranoid militarists before appealing to the superior minds of Earth's scientists, then flies away having given us food for thought. Meanwhile, all namby-pamby First Contact niceties were torched to the ground in The Thing from Another World, where the worst way to deal with its flying saucer pilot is to let the eggheads trump our men in uniform in the name of some fatally wrongheaded "communication" and "understanding." This taut and entertaining thriller is to The Day the Earth Stood Still what Alien is to Star Trek, or the Rolling Stones to the Beatles.

Although it hasn't aged quite as robustly as the nostalgia surrounding it, The Thing from Another World remains on many Top Ten favorites lists and still stands tall as one of the seminal influences in genre cinema. It's the prototype for most subsequent SF-horror hybrids, from It! The Terror from Beyond Space to Alien, Predator, and, naturally, John Carpenter's The Thing, which revisited the same source material — John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella "Who Goes There?" — with memorably unnerving visual effects.

Christian Nyby received the director credit, though it's an open secret that the man at the controls was the film's producer, Howard Hawks, whose Hollywood creds at the time included Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York (which a soldier in this movie makes a joke about), To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep. Nyby had been one of Hawks' editors and needed a directing credit for union reasons, so Hawks gave Nyby — who directed only one brief scene — the marquee spot. As the plot's scientists and military men are picked off by an intelligent, blood-draining monster with no interest whatsoever in interspecies relations, the film's strengths are pure Hawks — the snappy pace, strong scenes, rat-a-tat overlapping dialogue, and relaxed, natural performances from actors playing well-delineated professionals who must work together to get the job done. The women are smart and competent, namely shapely firecracker Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), whose burgeoning romance with two-fisted Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey, now forever associated with Fifties SF) is handled with startling wit and ease. The script is peppered with crackling quotables. "What if it can read our minds?" asks a soldier, to which another replies, "He'll be real mad when he gets to me." The sum total gives us a film that still displays greater panache than most of its contemporaries, sci-fi or otherwise, not to mention a good many films since. Ably assisting Hawks was screenwriter Charles Lederer, whose skill with smart dialogue dated back to the first screen version of The Front Page in 1931.

The story starts with the discovery of a crashed flying saucer buried in the Arctic. Members of Polar Expedition 6 and a newly arrived Air Force investigation team locate the spaceship's lone pilot frozen in the ice. They sled the body, encased in ice, to their isolated research base nearby. After a careless soldier accidentally thaws it, the hulking seven-feet-tall Thing terrorizes the camp, with results that are appropriately lethal. Led by Hendry, the dwindling band of humans learn that the humanoid Thing is intelligent and powerful, its single-minded purpose to survive and perhaps colonize the planet. Resistance is, as if one has to ask, futile. The Thing is neither animal nor mineral, but vegetation. "An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles!" quips a newsman (Douglas Spencer, who gets plenty of good lines) along for the scoop of the century. Therefore bullets just bore right through it without spilling a drop of chlorophyll. In the greenhouse, two scientists are found (offscreen) suspended like slaughtered cows, their throats cut to feed the Thing's need for blood. Worse, it's capable of seeding planet Earth with fast-growing, pulsing, pod-like offspring, a situation offering either a boon to science or a harsh redefinition of "plant food."

The tweed-jacketed torch-bearer of Science is Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), an austere, goateed Amazing Stories stereotype, his high-domed brow barely big enough for his cold intellect. Driven only by the quest for Knowledge, his desire to protect the monster, even to the point of sacrificing his fellow humans, comes off as murderously naive. When he says admiringly of the Thing, "Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors," we suspect that Carrington's was.

The military flyboys are likable wiseacres in leather jackets and jaunty caps, the scientists a bunch of squares led by a dangerous obsessive. Such easily drawn archetypes and blast-first-ask-questions-later mentality helped shape the wave of anxiety-ridden Cold War invasion paranoia films that followed. 1951 was just four years after Roswell. Both the UFO craze and reactionary McCarthyite fever were on the rise. So the theme of Invaders From Above fit the fear of Enemies Among Us like red on Twizzlers. The script's concluding sentiment is voiced by the reporter radioing a first-hand battlefield account back home: "Keep watching the skies!" he famously catchphrases. It was an admonition as applicable for Commie bombers as alien marauders.

In its day, writers and critics of science fiction blasted The Thing from Another World. Some voiced concern that just when literate science fiction might be finally emerging from its shabby old ghetto toward respectability, here stomped Hollywood to pull it right back down again. (In this regard, the naysayers were correct; Fifties SF is remembered for the giddy thrills of rampaging Things far more than the coffee-klatch philosophizing of beneficent Klaatus. Star Wars did it again 26 years later.) The film's conservative stance was criticized as pro-martial law and anti-science, countering The Day the Earth Stood Still's more high-minded aspirations. Such an argument forgets that the film presents both the Military and Science camps as working pros who join together to defeat the unquestionably deadly Big Bad. The soldiers bungle when they follow "standard operating procedure" and verbal barbs fly at the expense of military bureaucracy. Finally, it's the pretty civilian woman, Carrington's secretary Nikki, who out-thinks all the men by coming up with the concept that eventually leads to the Thing's destruction. If the film is "anti" anything it's rigid dogmatism. The scientists and the military men defeat the Thing only when both throw out their respective rule books and act from situational common sense.

The only weak link is the appearance of the Thing itself, which might as well have doubled as a Hammer Films Frankenstein's Monster. Wisely, Hawks keeps it in the shadows or framed snarling in doorways. It fully reveals itself only at the climax, where the crackle-pop of the moment prevents its cheapskate looks from disintegrating the tension and atmosphere. "Starring James Arness as The Thing" now trumpets the unforgivable DVD box art. The man who in just four more years would become a household name as Gunsmoke's Marshal Matt Dillon was obviously unsuccessful in his attempts to distance himself from his second most well-remembered role.

*          *          *

Warner's DVD release of The Thing from Another World brings us a very good unrestored print of the uncut 87-minute version in its original full-screen aspect ratio. The transfer is sharp with fine definition and black-and-white contrast. Some dirt, scratches, and minor wear are visible throughout, but it's nothing serious.

The DD 1.0 monaural audio displays the limited range of its vintage, but it's clean and clear and quite strong.

The theatrical trailer, very much worse for wear, is the only supplement. For those looking for "extras," try this: While watching the film, keep your eyes and ears open for two uncredited, yet oddly familiar, actors: George Fenneman, Groucho Marx's foil on You Bet Your Life, as "Dr. Redding," and one of Hollywood's most familiar voice-over artists, Paul Frees, as "Dr. Vorhees."

—Mark Bourne

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