Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Thing from Another World (1951)

By Orrin Grey

The Thing from Another World (1951). Director: Christian Nyby (& Howard Hawks?). Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, & James Arness.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Difficult as it may be to believe, this was actually my first viewing of tonight’s film, in spite of the fact that John Carpenter’s 1982 remake (simply titled ‘The Thing‘) has the distinction of being one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m very glad that I finally got around to checking out the original.

Since I came at the movie from the wrong way round, the first thing to do, I guess, is to compare it to Carpenter’s remake. But that’s not really very fair. In spite of their basic similarities, the movies are actually pretty different. Not just because Carpenter’s remake is much gorier, but because it’s got a very different focus. Carpenter’s version is really less a remake at all than another (and more faithful) adaptation of the same source material: John W. Campbell’s famous novella Who Goes There? (The Thing from Another World even changes the setting from the story, swapping Antarctica for the North Pole).

So, laying aside Carpenter’s version for a moment (We’ll pick it up briefly a bit later), I think The Thing from Another World really is a masterpiece in its own right. Running on an engine of post-Hiroshima paranoia, it has the crisp, sharp look of a film noir, probably mostly thanks to the contributions of producer Howard Hawks. Though Christian Nyby is credited as director, one of the great apocryphal questions of The Thing from Another World‘s production is just how much of it was directed by Nyby and how much directed by Hawks? The answers range from “almost all of it” to “almost none of it,” depending on whom you ask. It certainly has the look of a Hawks film down and Nyby’s own take on that is: “If you’re taking painting lessons from Rembrandt, you don’t take the brush out of the Master’s hands.”

In this version of the story, the Thing itself is a sort of sentient plant person, a very different take than the one in the original story, or Carpenter’s later version. It’s certainly an effective one, though, in spite of the merely-okay rubber suit that James Arness (who would go on to fame in Gunsmoke) inhabits to play it. But the real enemy – in true 1950s movie fashion and with the specter of the atomic bomb still looming fresh in everyone’s mind – isn’t the alien, at all, but Science! Science being here represented principally by Dr. Carrington, as played by Robert Cornthwaite (The War of the Worlds, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), whose performance was really the standout one of the movie for me, though he never gets first billing anywhere.

Returning to the Carpenter version for a moment, in spite of its gruesome set-pieces, it does a generally better job of capturing a sense of almost Lovecraftian cosmic horror than The Thing from Another World ever manages. The crashed alien ship is fresh in tonight’s film, rather than ancient in Carpenter’s, and the threats in The Thing from Another World are mostly of the usual 1950s alien invasion/science-run-amok paranoia fare. There’s one place where The Thing from Another World hits the Lovecraftian horror buttons even better than Carpenter’s version, though, and that’s in the way that the characters react to the Thing.

You don’t see much of the creature itself until near the end. Instead, the tension around it is generated mostly by the reactions the various soldiers have to seeing it, even when it’s still frozen in ice. Some of the best scenes of the movie involve characters trying to explain to other characters the horror of what they’ve seen, an effect that is very Lovecraftian, indeed.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but join us next time when we tackle a more obscure sci-fi monster film with a contentious directorial byline and an “immortal” monster. And until then, “keep watching the skies!”