The first thing (er…) you have to remember when watching The Thing From Another World is that it really does seem like a film from another world itself. Much of the language of cinema has changed so much in the past sixty four years since it was released that if you go in to The Thing From Another World purely with modern eyes then you will struggle with it. This can be true with many old films to modern audiences but The Thing seems particularly old fashioned with its old fashioned characters and creaky dialogue. However, like many films from that era the trick is to put yourself into the historical context of when it was released and what kind of audience would have watched it and suddenly it’s charms will be revealed to you.
I’m sure I don’t need to say all that to a lot of people. Myself and my contemporaries were brought up with endless seasons on BBC2 of the old horror and sci fi classics from invaders from Mars to Quartermass and the Pit. When you’re a seven year old boy with a choice of three channels on a good day then these old classics were like a shot of excitement right to the eyeballs. Looking back at them now I don’t seem to remember them being so talky, it’s only the images of strange invaders and ancient monsters that stuck in my head, not the constant need to explain every single thing that’s happening on screen. However when The Thing From Another World came out in 1951 there was an awful lot to explain.
Back in 1951 everyone was settling down to a nice, long Cold War and I don’t need to explain how the scifi boom in that era reflected the fear of the Reds under the bed and terror at the idea of a nuclear holocaust. But it was also a time of huge scientific leaps forward, not just in labs and Nevada deserts but also in homes with TVs, hoovers and other wacky appliances everywhere you looked. Movie audiences, especially American ones, were fascinated by the possibilities that the future held for them. When The Thing From Another World came out there weren’t many films that had dealt with what science could teach us, only a couple the year before like The Flying Saucer and Destination Moon. So The Thing had a lot of explaining to do. And boy does it do that.
We get explanations of everything from what kind of research station would you have in the North Pole to how do plants grow. One soldier gets attacked by the Thing itself and then lies there telling everyone else about it, who all patiently listen before acting on it. There is one particular scientist, a Doctor Carrington, who is a massive know-it-all snob who is constantly telling people how much he knows about some old shite or another. When one guy, talking about what The Thing is probably made from and says the immortal line “an intellectual carrot… The mind boggles” Carrington replies “it shouldn’t,” and then goes on about how it’s obvious that plants are intelligent and blah blah blah. What a total wanker. It comes as no surprise that when people die it’s mostly his fault and he almost ruins the big plan to beat The Thing because he wants to make friends with it. Also he has a terrible collection of trousers and clothes in general: why would anyone wear a smoking jacket at the North Pole?
Anyway despite the over stuffed dialogue the plot is legitimately great even though, again, sixty four years later it seems hackneyed. At the time how many other movies were finding aliens buried in the ice? There’s a great sense of atmosphere as the soldiers and scientists form the circle of where the crashed ship is under the ice and realise they are making a saucer shape. The monster itself does suffer from being a big bloke in a suit who stomps about like Frankenstein’s monster’s disco-obsessed cousin but he still has some good frights. There’s s fantastic moment when the main hero, square-jawed Kenneth Toby, opens a door and The Thing is right there wailing in his face. Everyone, from the cast to the audience seems to shit themselves, even The Thing seems a bit freaked out. There’s also some other creepy images, the ice block The Thing is entombed in slowly melting, the monster murdering the huskies as a storm whips around him and, most impressively, when they set fire to The Thing and it bursts out of the burning camp screaming into the night. That last scene has a real sense of danger as the whole set goes up in flames and the actors cower behind fire blankets as the monster flails about, itself a walking column of fire.
This being a Howard Hawks production there’s a lot of banter amongst the men, but also some screwball comedy type chat between Toby and Margaret Sheridan who wears a pencil skirt and blouse like she’s working in Manhattan in the spring rather than the North Pole. They must have had a damned good heating system going on there.
Despite there being no denying that it is really dated I did really enjoy The Thing From Another World. It has a strong sense of time and place, a post-war America that is both confident in its ability to take on strange new enemies and environments, but one also in fear of a greater universe it doesn’t quite understand. There is a LOT of chat between the moments of horror but it doesn’t feel like padding so much as the interest isn’t always focused on The Thing as it is about the characters in the North Pole and explaining how science works. This is all fine and good, and was probably expected by the audience of 1951, but modern audiences have come to expect something more visual and maybe even visceral from their stories about things from other worlds. If someone remade this Thing I wonder if they would bear that in mind…