Growing up, I watched a multitude of films that terrified me: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. made me question the safety of my own dreams, JAWS (and PIRANHA) kept me out of the water, and SILVER BULLET gave me a healthy distrust of dark, woodsy areas (and eyepatch-wearing clergymen). But many times, it was moments from non-Horror films that scarred my fragile psyche. While “Silent” Steve and I have already thoroughly covered this topic in our Terror Recall podcast last year (also available on YouTube), one movie I failed to touch upon was THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.
Adapted from Joseph W. Campbell Jr.‘s novella Who Goes There?, Howard Hawk’s THE THING is one of a handful of black and white classics that managed to give me the heebie-jeebies when I was a child. Set during the early years of the Cold War, the film begins with Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) being sent to a base in the Arctic to investigate a possible plane crash.
Upon arriving at the U.S. research station, Captain Hendry is greeted by the pompous Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite ), and his assistant Nikki (Margaret Sheridan). After being brought up to speed on things, Hendry and his crew fly out to the crash site. When they arrive at the refrozen patch of tundra where the craft went down, the men fan out to figure out its shape and discover that it’s a perfect circle! Egads, they’ve just found an honest-to-goodness flying saucer!
They attempt to thaw it out with Thermite, but end up destroying the prized artifact. However, they don’t leave empty-handed as they do find the alien craft’s pilot entombed in ice nearby. The creature is chiseled out and flown back to base, and ordered to be kept frozen, much to the chagrin of Carrington and his fellow scientists. Eventually disaster strikes when the humanoid being (James Arness) comes out of suspended animation, thanks to a poorly placed electric blanket.
The remainder of the film pits the “Thing” against the understandably frightened humans. Bullets, fire, and a savage attack by sled dogs all fail to stop the alien menace, but a method must be found once they learn that the plant-like creature can reproduce using soil and blood! (Dead bodies + the station’s greenhouse = An army of angry James Arness clones!) Despite the danger, Carrington wants to try to reason with the alien, while everyone else agrees that the creature must be destroyed!
Will Carrington have his way? Can he reach out to the Macrocephalic monster, or will he get his colleagues, and some of Hendry’s fellow airmen, killed? And if attempts to communicate with the Arness Monster go south, will the military find a way to stop the Antarctic invasion of planet Earth?! Watch this sci-fi classic to find out!
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. I first recall watching it on the Disney Channel late one night (back when Cable TV was a novelty), and being utterly spooked by it. It got under my skin so badly, that I built a fortress of pillows and blankets around myself before I slept that night. What scared me so much about it? Well, honestly it was the way the intentions of the film’s villain were explained by the characters. You see, THE THING is not a very effects-heavy film, and the monster design is kind of hokey (more on that in a bit), so the script is what carries things along.
Accomplished screenwriter Charles Lederer crafted a brilliant screenplay for this Howard Hawks production. (Though some credit must also go to Hawks and Ben Hecht, who both contributed rewrites.) With the exception of Carrington, the characters are all likable and exchange witty banter at a speedy pace. (It’s almost as if Shane Black wrote the dialogue, and then someone else edited out all the cuss words.) More importantly, the true horror of the film’s antagonist is realized through the intelligent script, and performances by the talented cast.
You see, James Arness’ “Thing” makeup consisted of clawed hands, thorny knuckles, and an oversized head. Even by 1950s standards the design was not very frightening, so the filmmakers took a “less is more” approach, and it works! In the brief moments you actually see “The Thing” in action, it’s either at a distance (usually obscured by snowfall), or a lightning fast glimpse before someone slams a door. And when you finally do get to see the creature in all of its glory, its typically in a dimly lit room or hallway, which helps hide the bad makeup and take full advantage of James Arness’ imposing silhouette.
Another trick they utilize in THE THING is relying on exposition to build the monster’s rep while he’s lurking offscreen for most of the film. For example, later in the movie, Hendry comments on how the alien has murdered several scientists in the greenhouse. The creature reportedly slashed their throats and hung its victims upside down from the rafters, just as if they were in a slaughterhouse. (We have to take his word for it because the audience never sees this.) Coupled with Carrington’s scientific findings of how the creature procreates, and the alleged infant-like cries emanating from a young batch of alien-seedlings, and you’ve got some truly eerie elements in what would be just another typical 50s sci-fi offering.
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD boasts a great cast, led by Kenneth Tobey (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, STRANGE INVADERS), who is perfect as the good-humored, but tough-as-nails Captain Patrick Hendry. (A role he’d reprise in 2005’s THE NAKED MONSTER!) He always seems to be a step ahead of the military brass, and puts the lives of red-blooded Americans before the pursuit of scientific advancement. He’s also a smooth operator with the ladies, and is as level-headed a leader as you’d want in any situation.
His foil in the film is Robert Cornthwaite’s Dr. Arthur Carrington, a man obsessed with learning the secrets of the universe by making first contact with a being from another world. While I can understand Carrington’s drive to try and develop peaceful intergalactic relations, you’d think he’d finally step aside once it was learned that the alien life-form was aggressive, and had designs to literally grow an army. He’s so blinded by his lofty ideals that nothing short of an Arness pimp slap eventually helps Carrington see the error of his ways.
The remainder of the main players consist of a news reporter named Ned “Scotty” Scott, Captain Hendry’s love interest, Nikki, and the dreaded “Thing!” Douglas Spencer’s “Scotty” serves as the film’s comic relief, and suffers a recurring gag where he keeps missing out on major photo ops. He proves to be a fun (and cynical) character that never overstays his welcome, and he provides the most memorable line of dialogue in the film. (“Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”)
Margaret Spencer portrays Nikki as a spunky research assistant that proves to be more than just eye candy. Not only is Captain Hendry putty in her hands, but Nikki also inspires some ideas on how to ultimately defeat the alien invader. (“Boil it, bake it, stew it, fry it.”) On top of that, she blows the whistle on Carrington’s experiments with his own personal little cabbage patch of horrors, effectively stopping her boss from becoming a veritable mad scientist.
The titular THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is portrayed by Peter Grave’s brother James Arness (best known for his role as Marshall Dillon in GUNSMOKE), and he honestly doesn’t have much to do here. However, when Arness is on the screen, he proves to be a formidable presence that commands your attention. Though he only gets to growl, swipe at, and loom over the other cast members, he does have bragging rights for one of the earliest “jump scares” in cinematic history!
To sum it all up, I adore THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD: It’s got a fantastic cast, a smart script, and is ably directed by Christian Nyby (though some contend that producer Howard Hawks actually did most of the work). Toss in an atmospheric soundtrack composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, and you’ve got one of the greatest sci-fi gems of the 1950s! I highly recommend this classic film Vault Dwellers, and gladly award it with: