October is the time for scary movies, so this month’s Sci-Fi Saturdays films have a horror bent to them, starting with the original The Thing From Another World.
Welcome horror fans. This post may be titled Sci-Fi Saturdays, but fear not, it’s another entry in the continuing series of 31 Days of Horror, which looks at a different horror film every day for the month of October. Saturdays this month will therefore focus on horrific science-fiction movies from the 1950s through the present.
For a modern fan of the John Carpenter version of The Thing, it’s hard to go back to the 1951 version without any expectations. The trailer is entirely lackluster, telling the audience that a group of scientists discovers an alien – which looks very humanoid. Fire doesn’t seem to kill it, so how will they defeat this monster? There’s not much to go on here, but modern audiences should be able to guess the beats.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
At the Air Force officer’s club in Anchorage, Alaska, newspaper reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) stops in to see if he can pick up any information on a story. He meets his friend Eddie Dykes (James Young) and is introduced to Dykes’ Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), and Navigator Lieutenant Ken “Mac” MacPherson (Robert Nichols). They have received orders to fly to the North Pole to assist in checking out a mysterious crashed “aircraft” reported by the scientists at the Polar Expedition 6 base.
Upon arrival the first thing Hendry does is hustle upstairs to say hello to Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), a former one-night stand of his. He apparently is a little hazy on the details as she bested him in a drinking contest. She introduces Hendry to Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) who tells him about the downed “aircraft.” Hendry gathers a team together of his staff and the scientists to go out and investigate.
The team discovers a crashed object, melted into the ice that appears almost entirely circular. Using thermite they attempt to melt the ice away but manage to breach the engine causing an explosion. Thinking all is lost they are about to leave when they discover a body (the pilot) a short distance away and extract the chunk of ice for future study.
Hendry believes that the appropriate action is to leave the creature frozen while Carrington presumes that science trumps all. It ends up being a moot point, as the Thing is accidentally defrosted and escapes, killing some sled dogs and losing an arm. Studying the torn appendage reveals a vegetable type structure which begins to return to life having fed off of dog blood covering the arm. Carrington takes a sample and begins growing his own creatures using plasma from the infirmary.
Realizing the Thing is stalking them, having killed two scientists off-screen, Hendry sets a trap to burn the alien. Splashing it with kerosene and setting it ablaze doesn’t seem to do any damage, other than collateral damage to the team and buildings. Carrington continues to argue that the scientific advancements of saving the alien outweigh even their lives, which agrees to some extent with Hendry’s sporadic orders that get radioed to him in between storms.
Hendry would rather face court martial than sacrifice his team and makes a unilateral decision to fry the monster with electricity. Setting another trap for the Thing they race against the clock as the heating system has been sabotaged. Carrington tries to reason with the Thing but is attacked. Hendry and his men fry the alien vegetable with electricity reducing it to ash. Scott sends one final radio message, his story to the press corps in Anchorage, warning everyone to watch the skies!
“There are no enemies in science……only phenomena to study.” – Dr. Carrington
History in the Making
This film is a little out of order in the overall scheme for Sci-Fi Saturdays, but The Thing From Another World, plus the next films featured this October were just too good any other time. For an early science-fiction film, this would have been the third film in this series, after Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon. And what a leap this film is. It’s one of the earliest full-on sci-fi/horror films. While it may not seem like much by modern standards (the body count is ostensibly zero) there’s plenty of dark corners, tense moments, and partial sightings of the Thing to keep people on the edge of their seat.
In fact, you can see the seeds (pun intended) of the two remakes in this film, as well as many others. An isolated team being hunted by a creature that they don’t know how to kill is the basis for any number of horror films, sci-fi or not! What the 1982 sequel does that increases the terror over the original is the use of another good sci-fi staple from the 50s, body snatching. Adding in the paranoia of replacement people as Invasion of the Body Snatchers did turns the story from a standard ‘thug’ monster (like Frankenstein) into a truly scary idea.
The Thing From Another World also showed that a monster didn’t have to be a mutated animal, or an alien with a ray-gun. While still humanoid in appearance, the Thing being made of plant material, having seed pods that could be hatched using mammalian blood was a fresh idea at the time. Genre fans can probably see the germ of the idea for stories like Day of the Triffids or Little Shop of Horrors.
All of the October Sci-Fi Saturdays films this year feature a similar theme, partially because three of the films are all inspired by the same story, but also because it’s a popular theme. That theme is the isolated man or group versus aliens. The Thing From Another World introduced the concept in a sci-fi setting, but other horror films also had the same idea. Films like Forbidden Planet, Hush, The Mist, The Shining, and of course, Alien. Whether sci-fi or horror, being trapped with a creature/killer is a very popular element from cinema dating back decades!
The other element from this film that people remember is Ned Scott’s final lines from the film, “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!” Audiences may be familiar with this phrase even without having seen The Thing From Another World, because post-1977 the phrase was everywhere. This line influenced Steven Spielberg so much that it was the working title for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. UFO’s were popular in the 50s and even still popular in the 70s and 80s, encouraging everyone to “watch the skies” is almost as iconic as the “I want to believe” poster that Fox Mulder had posted on his wall in The X-Files, itself a horror/sci-fi television series..
Probably the most interesting theme of the film however is the fact that the military is working for the good of mankind and the scientists appear reckless and thoughtless. I say this as a child of the 70s and 80s, who’s films taught me that the military and the government were evil, and scientists were trying to save us. Seeing this film turned everything topsy-turvy! Besides the quote above, Dr Carrington makes another more chilling exclamation that “knowledge is more important than life,” when Hendry plots to kill the Thing.
Seeing scientists in reckless pursuit of the truth without context is one of the more chilling aspects of the film, for an adult. It speaks to the question that many a horror film with ‘mad science’ does, just because we can do something, should we? This attitude painted by screenwriter Charles Lederer probably stems from the backlash of the atomic bombings from the end of World War II some 6 years prior. This fallout to the roles scientists played in the destruction caused by atomic testing is introduced early in the film when one character asks if someone else knows Dr. Carrington. “The fellow who was at Bikini?” That’s Bikini atoll, as in the island that was a nuclear testing site between 1946 and 1958.
Carrington takes it upon himself to see what science can learn, believing that the understanding is greater than himself. He is willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good, whether that ideal is really for the benefit of mankind. As one of the Air Force pilots points out, one of these creatures loose in a populated area could decimate the population of the Earth. But the film doesn’t completely shut Carrington down. In his final speech, Scott informs the reporters that “Doctor Carrington…is recovering from wounds received in the battle,” giving him a pass on his megalomania, and hoping, potentially, that he has seen the error of his ways, as should the audience.
The Science in The Fiction
While the film might go a little overboard in presenting explanations for things that the teams are doing, such as the nature and use of thermite, or explaining why there’s ice over the top of the alien ship, it does try to present a plausible explanation for the advent of vegetable based life forms. Even though Ned Scott trying to cut through the scientific mumbo-jumbo, comes off as contrived and stiff, it’s a film from 1951! We need to cut them some slack! It provides all that it needs to in terms of scientific plausibility and leaves it at that.
The Final Frontier
As with many other films of the era, several actors are linked with other sci-fi films. Paul Frees, who plays Dr. Vorhees (no relation to Jason), is most notably known for his voice work. He provided the alien voice in Earth vs The Flying Saucers, plus additional background voices in The War of The Worlds. Disney fans may also know him as the “Ghost Host” from the Haunted Mansion ride. Kenneth Tobey has done tons of work including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and It Came from Beneath the Sea, plus 1983s Strange Invaders and cameos in most of Joe Dante’s work. Robert Cornthwait also played a doctor in The War of the Worlds, and a scientist in Colossus: The Forbin Project. Douglass Spencer played aliens in both This Island Earth and an episode of The Twilight Zone, while James Arness (The Thing) played the hero in Them! but is probably better known for his work on Gunsmoke.
While Christian Nyby is listed as the director for this film and Howard Hawks the producer, but Hawks actually directed the film. Director John Carpenter (of the 1982 remake) has stated, “the movie was directed by Howard Hawks. Verifiably directed by Howard Hawks. He let his editor, Christian Nyby, take credit. But the kind of feeling between the male characters – the camaraderie, the group of men that has to fight off the evil – it’s all pure Hawksian.” Whether he actually directed, or was a director-by-proxy – as many claim George Lucas was on Return of the Jedi – there’s many elements that definitely point to the influence of Hawks.
Make sure to stay tuned to this series in October for both the 1982 remake of The Thing plus the 2011 ‘prequel’. As an extra added bonus please enjoy the infographic below or your next viewing as a guide to the characters.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.