Wednesday, October 12, 2011

October 10th: The Thing From Another World (1951)

Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) of the U.S. Air Force is sent by his superior, General Fogerty (David McMahon) to take supplies to Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) at Polar Expedition Six, a research outpost in the North Pole, where Carrington and his team of scientists, including Hendry's on/off girlfriend Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) are researching sightings of a falling meteor.
Upon their arrival, Hendry, Lieutenant Eddie Dykes (James Young), Crew Chief Bob (Dewey Martin), Lieutenant Ken McPherson (Robert Nichols), Corporal Barnes (William Self), and news reporter Ned "Scotty" Scott (Douglas Spencer) learn that Carrington and his team have discovered a recently landed UFO and its pilot (James Arness), an advanced form of plant life that lives by absorbing blood from other creatures.
Frozen in a block of ice, Hendry and Carrington have the Thing brought back to base; Carrington wants to examine it immediately, but Hendry orders it undisturbed until he receives orders from Fogerty. As the crew relaxes and Hendry spends time with Nikki, the ice block melts and the Thing awakens. Despite Carrington's stubborn claims that their visitor is peaceful and knowledgeable, the Thing proves malevolent and violent, forcing Hendry and his crew to find some means to destroy it.
When it was released in 1982, John Carpenter's The Thing flopped, deemed repulsive and upsetting by film critics and ignored by moviegoers in favor of E.T. In the ensuing years, fans of horror and science fiction have come around to praising The Thing as one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made, thanks to Carpenter's stylish direction, Bill Lancaster's tense screenplay, Dean Cundey's gorgeous lighting, intense performances by a cast headlined by Carpenter regular Kurt Russell, and Rob Bottin's nightmarish special effects.
But what of The Thing From Another World? Released in 1951, this often forgotten film, directed by Oscar nominated film editor Christian Nyby and produced by legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks, was the first adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr's Who Goes There?. Unlike Carpenter's film, limited budget and cruder technology resulted in a loose adaptation, featuring a completely different cast of characters and a very different version of the Thing played by future Gunsmoke actor James Arness in Frankenstein-esque makeup.
It certainly doesn't come close to Carpenter's film in terms of visceral horror and unbearable tension, but The Thing From Another World fits perfectly in the era of '50s sci-fi/horror films where one can find such gems as The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Blob, Tarantula, and Them. Like those films, The Thing From Another World is an example of the unfairly maligned b-movie; that is, a type of film that is usually made on a low-budget, stars relatively unknown actors and is designed simply to provide cheesy, harmless entertainment. While they were often derided and discounted by snobby film critics, these movies have a place in film history and this first adaptation of Campbell's story is one of the best.
The keystone to any good movie is a good, well-developed screenplay and The Thing From Another World boasts an impressive script, written by Charles Lederer with uncredited re-writes by Hawks and frequent collaborator Ben Hecht. Wasting no time, the script gets right to the point. The air force characters are established and sent on their way to meet with the scientists, the whole team discovers the Thing and its ship, the Thing is brought back to base and then escapes. It's efficient screenwriting at its finest. It's quick enough to move the plot along and keep the audience intrigued with what's happening, but it never sacrifices storytelling and atmosphere.
As far as the characters go, they're admittedly pretty generic b-movie people. You could make a checklist of  '50s sci-fi/horror characters and this one would fill nearly every column. Tough guy hero? Check. Nosy reporter? Check. Mad scientist? Check. Attractive female love interest? Check. Greedy authority figure? Check. Rag tag team of guys? Check. It's nothing a dozen other movies haven't done, but what's more important is how these standard cliches are executed and it's in that way this film exceeds.
Headlining this cast is character actor Kenneth Tobey. As a huge fan of Joe Dante growing up, I recognize Tobey for his cameo roles in such Dante films as The Howling, Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It was unusual to see Tobey not only youthful, but in the lead role. Too bad he didn't do it more often; Tobey is a great anchor to the fantastical elements of the film. Coming off as a more relaxed John Wayne, Tobey makes the most of this role, presenting a screen presence both entertaining and commanding.
Other actors worth mentioning are Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite and Douglas Spencer. As Hendry's love interest Nikki Nicholson, Sheridan bucks the cliche of frightened, defenseless female. Instead, while not exactly Ellen Ripley, Nikki is a fairly tough cookie, displaying confidence, smarts and sex appeal to this otherwise all-male cast. As stereotypical mad scientist Dr. Carrington, Robert Cornthwaite is appropriately sinister, but manages to give the character an aura of good intentions; it isn't until the finale that he truly becomes the mad scientist. As Hendry's good friend Scotty, Spencer is pitch-perfect, providing witty sarcasm and humor to the proceedings.
Let's not forget TV's Marshall Dillon himself, James Arness, in one of his earlier roles as the titular villain. Arness was openly embarrassed about his participation in this film, claiming the Thing looked like a giant carrot. In all fairness, I can understand Arness' negative feelings toward the film. Arness is best remembered for starring in one of Television's longest running shows and made four movies with Hollywood's favorite cowboy, John Wayne. Furthermore, from an acting point of view, Arness gets little to do beyond stalk dark hallways from a distance, as Hawks kept his screentime to a minimum in an effort to hide the makeup effects. While the Thing might not have been much of a character, Arness is nevertheless imposing and intimidating, which is exactly what the Thing needed to be.
I'd also like to compliment Christian Nyby's directing, or was it Howard Hawks? To this day, it remains unknown who really directed the film. Nyby was Hawks' editor at the time and The Thing From Another World marked his first time as a director, whereas Hawks was already established. Even the people who were there can't seem to agree; Arness claims Nyby was the director, whereas Tobey cites Hawks as being in control of the production. Regardless of who was behind the camera, the film looks phenomenal; the director makes great use of camera angles, knows how to make lengthy scenes of exposition engaging to listen to and keeps the pace moving quickly. Kudos.
Now look, I know this is a cheesy b-movie and nothing more. Sure, the actors are clearly on sets. Yes, I know most of these people (Arness notwithstanding) went on to do nothing of importance. Fine, I'll admit the Thing looks like a Frankenstein knock-off. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. As I've made crystal clear throughout my review, b-movies are not about creating intellectually stimulating pieces of art or telling subliminal storytelling. They're down, they're dirty and they're just trying to have fun. That's exactly what the '50s sci-fi/horror genre was all about; I grew up loving these films, so for me the obvious sets and low-grade effects aren't the least bit problematic. Rather, they make me smile and enjoy the film more, because they remind me of a time when everything wasn't about CGI or product placement or star power. The Thing From Another World reminds me, if nothing else, of a time when filmmakers, largely unappreciated by their peers, set out to have fun with their films and this film succeeds wonderfully at that.
I give The Thing From Another World 4.5 out of 5 Stars. For those who love a good, cheesy '50s blend of sci-fi and horror, this film has it all. Stellar cast, snappy dialogue, intriguing exposition, fast pacing, imposing monsters, heroic soldiers, crazy scientists, beautiful women, and groovy music. No, it's not arthouse filmmaking and, in all honesty, it can't compare to what John Carpenter did with the source material 31 years afterwards. However, if you're willing to put aside your pre-conceived notions of science-fiction/horror films and b-movies, and to forget about Carpenter's The Thing, you'll be delighted with a superb film.

Next Up: October 11th: Chromeskull: Laid To Rest 2 (2011)

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