The Thing from Another World (1951)
A tidy little horror thriller helmed by Howard Hawks’ production company (rumors maintain he directed most of the film, uncredited), The Thing from Another World is generally known in sci-fi circles as the original movie that inspired John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Both films are based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (writing under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart), a sci-fi thriller particularly lauded for its suspense.
Briefly: a team of North Pole scientists calls for visitation from a small military group based in Anchorage. The scientists want help exploring an anomalous craft recently crashed in the Arctic ice. Their concern: the metal vessel is so large it is likely not to be of terrestrial origin. The group makes their way to the craft. Three minutes after declaring it’s no metal they’ve ever seen before, the men plant thermite explosives, steps a few feet away, and blows ‘er up. While this plan ends up backfiring (you don’t say?) they do manage to secure one of the ship’s frozen crew: an 8 foot tall bipedal being. They haul the frozen alien to their outpost and – oops! – unthaw him – at the same time they lose contact to the mainland.
Despite some silliness like the thermite and a few other incredulously careless decisions, the next hour of the film is a relatively engaging “cat and mouse” game between the team of scientists and soldiers against the malignant alien. This isn’t as exciting as it sounds: we don’t see even a tiny bit of action until at least forty minutes in. Even after the alien starts bashing things up, most of the film regards the relationship between the men – military and academic – confronting their problem and working together (or sometimes, working against one another).
The film is interesting; today, there could be no thought of this large a cast assembled without a significantly higher body count and greater degree of gore (the Carpenter remake handles both of these very well). The plot ends up being more about professionalism (or lack thereof) and leadership under duress, rather than a true horror story. Which is a shame, as several elements of the film edge us to the truly creepy (again, Carpenter capitalized on this beautifully). The film also retains the era’s rather imperialist, gladhanded review of military operations and in particular the leadership of a handsome, charismatic boy scout (Kenneth Tobey as Captain Hendry). But any tension we might experience is significantly diluted as the cast themselves seems to not be very scared, despite circumstances that would terrify anyone.
The film’s strength is primarily in the competency of the ensemble cast and the conversational writing, involving several character actors and steadfast Western and noir players: Dewey Martin (a World War II POW), John Dierkes, Robert Nichols, Robert Cornthwaite, William Self (who went on to a production and directing career), Eduard Franz, Paul Frees (known primarily as a voice actor), Douglas Spencer, and George Fenneman (who mostly did radio and television). James Arness, amusingly, plays a role we’ve not seen him in before – or since. Only two women get any screen-time: romantic interest Margaret Sheridan and scientist’s-wife Sally Creighton, both of whom had short film careers.
A must-see for any fan of the remakes, including 1979’s Alien which parallels the story premise.