Got into the Halloween spirit last night with a double bill: The Thing From Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, The Thing. Despite its schlocky title, lumbering Frankenstein monster and mad scientist, I was surprised to find how well the 1951 movie has held up.
Based on the novella Who Goes There? (a much better title) by John W. Campbell Jr., the story focuses on a group of military officers and scientists at an Arctic research station who accidentally release a malevolent alien from a block of ice. It’s a Cold War allegory with the creature (played by Gunsmoke star James Arness in monster drag) representing the threat of communism in America in the 1950s. But it probes deeper than that by portraying chief scientist Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), a man willing to sell out his fellow humans to partner the alien, as the real menace.
With almost no special effects, The Thing From Another World generates plenty of thrills and chills with its tight plotting and fast pacing. Snappy pacing and clever dialogue—also seen here in abundance—are trademarks of producer Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not), and some claim Hawks directed many of the movie’s scenes, allowing his protégé Christian Nyby to take screen credit.
A bit of trivia: In the 1978 slasher film Halloween, the teens and the kids they’re babysitting are watching The Thing From Another World. And Halloween director John Carpenter went on to make another adaption of Campbell’s novella in 1982, titled—guess what?—The Thing.
The Thing is set in another icy outpost, this one a research station in the Antarctic, but it’s a very different movie. It is super visual, starting with a wonderful opening sequence in which a dog is chased by a helicopter over snow-covered tundra. Unlike the 1951 film, it is shot in colour and revels in gory special effects. But the real tension is generated by the high-stress situation: this alien is a shapeshifter that assumes the appearances of its victims. One by one, it devours the men on the base. Fear and paranoia mount as survivors wonder who among them are aliens.
The Thing bombed at the box office in 1982, and was denounced by critics. Roger Ebert called it “a geek show.” Vincent Canby of the New York Times dismissed it as “instant junk.”
But times and audiences have changed. The Thing’s gruesome special effects aren’t horrifying today; they’re camp. Suspicion and uncertainty are well understood. And the gay rights movement has noted a queer subtext to the all-male movie, claiming it’s about the straight community’s paranoia about gays and AIDS.
The Thing is now a cult horror classic.
It won’t scare you out of your boots, but it’s good entertainment for the Halloween horror season.