Howard Hawks was known for a great many genres from Romance to Westerns to Dramas... but one genre that he wasn't necessarily the first, last and only word in was Science Fiction. Perhaps that's why when it came time to adapt the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella "Who Goes There" he handed the directing reigns over to Christian Nyby and went on to be credited as Producer.
If, indeed that story is true. For almost as long as The Thing from Another World has been in existence critics and fans have speculated that Howard Hawks may have been the actual director (or co-director) of this film. Hey, fans and critics have debated who directed Poltergeist, so this film serves to remind us that such speculation is nothing new. However, in this case it's true that Hawks also went uncredited as the co-writer of the screenplay adaptation along with Ben Hecht and the actually credited Charles Lederer. The question continues. Who knows... perhaps Hawks wore more faces in his production than the title character from Campbell's original novella.
The creature in the movie, however, is a different story. See, in the novel the monster was a shapeshifter, able to take on the form of any of the human beings trapped in their remote scientific research station. This feature of the creature was exploited to great effect in Carpenter's excellent 1982 version The Thing. Here, however, the The Thing (as portrayed by James Arness) is a frightening humanoid beast with a forehead even bigger than mine and a serious hunger for human blood. While this version doesn't shape shift, it is made out of vegetable matter and has a remarkable method of turning injury into self-replication!
He's also a real jackass.
Either that or he just woke up grumpy as hell after a long-ass sleep rivaling even that of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms!
We start out with a U.S. Air Force supply mission to Polar Expedition Six, a North Pole research facility led by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). While reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) tags along because he's looking for a Scoop in the snow, Captain Patrick Hendry Kenneth Tobey) leads the mission for a completely different reason, namely because Carrington's secretary Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) is really hot and TOTALLY into the Hendrynator. Strangely, Nikki both seems to be smarter than most of the dudes around chez Santa and remarkably over-qualified to be doing little more than offerring everybody coffee and then offerring everybody coffee and when she's finished doing that she offers everybody some coffee.
Actually, coffee sounds pretty good right now... but I digress!
But the fascinating part of this nutritious breakfast isn't the coffee, or even the sugary secretary who keeps hawking it! The fascinating thing is that the Popsicle Gang has found evidence of a bonafide UFO crash-landing nearby with sensor proof that this was no meteor.
Considering the long, dark shape in the ice (with a tailfin just peeking out of the snow) this is most assuredly something from another world. And once they manage to chip the pilot from his icy resting place they seem to have both the story of a lifetime for Scotty and the scientific discovery of a lifetime for Carrington.
It's when the frozen corpse becomes remarkably unfrozen that it proves itself not to be a corpse... and The Thing RISES! Soon the scientists and even the military men become so much Purina Alien Chow (chow, chow, chow) as The Thing proves itself to be a Space Vampire and a super strong and resilient one at that.
How can the members of the outpost possibly survive against this insurmountable foe... and will Pat win over Nikki before they both become Coffee for the thirsty Super Carrot Man?
A lot of the best Howard Hawks motifs are found in this film (including inside jokes like a reference to Hawks' own Sergeant York) and the film itself is nothing short of a landmark in science fiction. It's also considered to be one of the best films of 1951... and it really is quite good. The stark black and white photograpy makes the expanse of the tundra look more like a western desert. The closeups are just as well handled and Nyby's direction works well with the dated, yet interesting dialogue.
On the other hand, the dialogue isn't the only thing that feels dated here. There is an over-expressive nature to the acting that, while not bad, always feels like acting. There are some very natural moments here, but also many scenes in which every actor sounds like an old time radio announcer just seconds away from telling us which sponsor is responsible for this segment of The Thing from Another World.
This is also very much a sign of the times, very in touch with its zeitgeist. This isn't just indicative of Cold War Paranoia (which is at the core of this story), this goes also for the similarities this shares with many other films of its time. The Thing often feels like a variation of (or inspiration for) contemporary films like IT! The Terror from Beyond Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Planet of the Vampires... all of which, in turn, went on to influence Alien! There was something in the H2O (frozen or not) in the Sci-Fi of the 1950s.
Back on the dark side, however, the film is light on the character development for most characters beyond the romantic leads and occasionally rushed in its execution of its interesting story. The film seems to slowly build up to the revelation of Arness' creature and then moves super fast to its quickly resolved finish, heavy with message.
That said, it was remarkably groundbreaking for the time and managed to be both scary and fun at the right moments. The action tends to make up for ths slow parts (which are there) and the revelation of the monster is quite the keeper for sci-fi horror fans. Sure there are similar films, but this one was one of the first to tell this kind of story... and it tells this story quite well.
While not quite the Thing from Campbell's novella, Arness' title monster is a dark and frightening alien with a penchant for showing up when he's wanted the least. We usually don't see much of him, but what we do see is just human enough to be familiar and just alien enough to be more chilling than the facility's frozen surroundings.
The Thing from Another World went on to influence a number of films, both directly and by way of other productions that drew inspiration from this film. Its 1982 Remake carried the story even further and the tight confines and desperate and remote location of both films led to a lot of And Then There Were None-style sci-fi, up to and including a very similar episode of The X-Files! True, it's not without its flaws or, dare I say it, frozen-in-time status, but it still manages to earn Three and one half Stars out of Five! Yes, folks, the Science Fiction Horror Flick from the Oscar-nominated Howard Hawks about the invading Alien "Super Carrot" Vampire frozen in a big block of Ice manages to be much more than "Pretty Cool". In fact, it's actually invaded the very cool and exclusive list of Culturally Significant list of films in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry... that's far from being left out in the cold.
So until I crash my Cruiser into a Glacier and wake up grouchy only to be covered in Kerosine, shot at, shocked, dismembered and fed to dogs, I'll see you Thingies in the Next Reel!
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Thanks for being a real douche today, JACK!
Ah... but you're still my puppy, man... You're... COOL!
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