Welcome to volume 4 of my series on the very best of the alien invasion films of the 50’s. This entry is for one of the all-time best films of this type…THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD), from 1951.
Though this movie may seem tame by today’s standards, especially when compared to John Carpenter’s remake, it still manages to pack a punch and is a perfect movie to watch in the dark at night. The story is great, the acting is wonderful, the black and white photography is perfect and the soundtrack, with its use of a theremin adds just the right amount of creepiness to an already fantastic film. So, can you tell that I love this film?
The movie, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, JR, starts out with the movie title burning into the screen. To me, the fact that the extra effort was made just for the title, shows how great the ensuing movie is going to be. Right away we are introduced to some of the main characters including Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), a newspaper reporter. Tobey also appeared in other great genre offerings such as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955). The air force is notified by a scientific expedition in Alaska that they believe a strange aircraft has crashed in the area and Hendry, his men and Scott are sent to investigate.
Upon arrival we are introduced to the rest of the key players including Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), the love interest of Hendry and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). The situation is explained to Hendry and they are off to investigate. When they arrive they find a section of the ice, circular in appearance, that had melted and re-frozen, with what looks like the tail of a plane sticking out of the ice.
Because the ice is too thick to chop the saucer out, thermite it used to melt it. A chain reaction causes the craft to explode, to everyone’s disappointment. Radiation readings lead the team to something away from the ship; a being from another planet! Using axes they chop the body out to bring back to base camp. The ice-encased body is kept in a store-room, where it accidentally thaws out allowing the Thing to escape.
There are just so many things to like about this film. To start, the acting is top-notch and the chemistry between the characters is very natural. You believe that they have known each other for quite some time. The sets are also really well done and though much of the film was filmed on soundstages, you do believe that they are someplace that is not only very cold, but also very isolated. Attention to detail is present throughout, including a lot of set dressing in the various rooms and even the ability to see people’s breath when the temperatures drop.
The special effects in this film are also really good, especially for the time. Though the design on the Thing (played by James Arness) is simplistic, it is still interesting and I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with it if it was real. When Hendry and his men come face to face with the Thing for the first time, the Thing swings at them with his arm. In reaction they slam the door on the Thing catching its arm. As the Thing pulls his arm through, the thorns on the back of its hand shred the door jamb. When the men then shoot at it through the door, bullet holes actually appear in the door. The severed arm of the Thing is very realistic looking and when it starts to move on its own, it is genuinely creepy as the thorns on the back of his hands tap against the table.
The seed pods grown by Dr. Carrington are equally creepy as they slowly pulsate and when it is said that with a stethoscope they sound like a newborn baby crying, it’s enough to send shivers down your spine. A scene that looked extremely dangerous was the one where the Thing is doused in kerosene and lit on fire. From all appearances this is exactly what they did, with the actual actors in the room. At one point, Margaret Sheridan’s character is holding a mattress in front of her to protect herself (from what I am unsure as it doesn’t seem like great protection from anything). The Thing swipes at her and not only shreds the mattress but causes it to light on fire. Then, more kerosene is thrown at it while he is near her, igniting him further AND the wall that she is pinned against! I would love to find out exactly the details on how this scene was shot and if any actual injuries occurred. The destruction of the Thing is also a great scene, and a great way to end the film.
When it comes to science fiction films of any time period, it just doesn’t get any better than this. It stands up to repeated viewings and is just so much fun to watch. My uncle, who was a child at the time of its release, was fortunate enough to see it on the big screen and recounted to me how when the Thing is first seen in the doorway with Hendry and his men that it scared him so much he ran out of the theater! Movies just do not have that kind of punch anymore. THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) also ends with one of the most famous science fiction quotes of all time, spoken by Scotty, the newspaper reporter. “I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice. Tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”