"An intellectual carrot? The mind boggles...."
Okay, let me make something clear from the very start - not that it wouldn’t be glaringly obvious within a few of these columns in any case.
I have a deep and abiding love for sci-fi movies of the fifties. I guess it might stem from the fact that the fifties era movies were what I used to watch in the sixties when my tastes for such things were set in stone. The first fifties sci-fi movies I can remember watching were Them, War of the Worlds and It Came from Outer Space - all of which I’ll be taking a fond look back at in this series.
But another, which as I recall, I was about 12 when I saw it in a late night movie slot on the BBC (back when the BBC actually provided a decent service) was The Thing from Another World.
And boy, it made an impact.
Released in 1951, the film takes place in a US research station close to the Arctic. A disturbance has been reported by the scientists there and a team which includes a reporter is sent to investigate.
As a storm, which cuts off communications, is about to hit, they discover a ship buried under the ice which they try to get to by detonating thermal charges around its perimeter. Sadly, this causes the ship to explode - however they find a body buried in the ice nearby and take it - still frozen in a large slab to the base where a hapless soldier inadvertently causes the ice to melt by placing an electric blanket over it.
From then on, it’s a game of cat and mouse between the assorted scientists, the military men and the Thing.
There are several things about the movie that make it work above the average B movie level. The sets themselves are claustrophobic, the dialogue is noticeably "realistic" in the way that several characters’ speeches overlap and people talk across each other as they would in real life.
The scientists are a shifty lot, to say the least. Rather than be the sympathetic saviours they would be in the usual run of alien movies, this lot are more than happy to sacrifice their colleagues’ lives in the course of furthering their knowledge. They’re a cold, calculating lot.
The soldiers are probably the most identifiably likeable characters in the film, good naturedly trading typical fifties "tough guy" speeches while trying to keep the Thing at bay and preventing the scientists from serving the Thing their heads on a platter.
Then there’s the Thing. He has no name, we don’t know where he’s from, we have no idea whether he’s here on purpose, serving a mission or whether he crashed accidentally. We know he’s vegetable based, lives and feeds off blood. He can regenerate parts of his body - when a sled husky tears his arm off, he grows another. The severed arm found by the scientists is still alive and twitches - making me wonder if it was growing another Thing (so to speak). Played by James Arness pre his long success in Gunsmoke, the alien menace seems to have a squared off head and a heavy brow - a bit like the Universal Studios "Frankenstein" make-up. This head appliance accentuated the already above normal height of Arness. He wears some kind of flight suit - and has clawed hands with bony growths out of the knuckles. Until the end of the movie, we only see him in sudden jump shots, adding to the sense of mystery and menace.
Speaking of menace, I think this was the first movie of its type to make me jump.
There’s a scene where the Thing is thought to be hiding in a storage compartment, but it turns out to be a dead husky he’s thrown in there, and there’s another where they’re tracking it by using a Geiger counter and know it’s behind a door. When they open the door and it’s standing there and lashes out with a clawed hand - still comes as a shock - despite the fact we knew he was there.
There are also some unnerving scenes where they’re tracking the Thing coming closer, which inspired similar scenes in Alien (1979) - though that was a remake of a totally different thing, "It - The Terror from Beyond Space (1958).
The film closes with one of the most quotable and best remembered lines from this era of cinema history...."Keep watching the skies". Within months, aliens would drop out of the skis with stunning regularity, and all forms of creatures would walk, crawl, slither, fly, slide, and lumber across the screen as the "flying saucer" craze took America by storm, fuelled by fears of Cold War "Reds Under the Beds" and uncertainty over the Atomic Age. We were entering a brave new world, with no idea what was waiting for us there. It was a Golden Age of sci-fi cinema (at least until Star Wars, 26 years later)
I remember watching John Carpenter’s Halloween on TV for the first time and was struck by how similar the plotlines were from a structural point of view. Isolation. An powerful and seemingly unkillable intruder is outside trying to get in. I’ve always felt that Carpenter had the iconic scene of the saucer being found play on the TV as an in-joke, and wasn’t surprised in the least when he chose to remake the Thing in 1982.
The Carpenter version might have the eye popping effects, and it’s much closer to the concept of the shape shifter in John Campbell’s original short story, "Who Goes There" but my heart is firmly in the camp of the original, black and white, cold war paranoiac sci-fi fantasy.
Copyright © 2010 - 2011 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.