The Thing today is probably best viewed as a historical document, its shock value having been diminished through time and repetition.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

I couldn't have been more jealous.

My older brother and his wife were visiting my parents and me for dinner one evening in 1951, and they were raving about the great new horror movie they had seen the night before, Howard Hawks' production of "The Thing From Another World." My brother was twenty-one. I was seven. My parents, rightly so, forbade me to see it until I was older. It wouldn't be until years later that I finally did get a chance to watch it--on TV. I was disappointed.

Understand, at seven I considered myself a seasoned horror-movie buff. Didn't my mom and dad realize I had seen "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"? Because "The Thing" helped usher in a whole new era of sci-fi horror flicks, most of which I would see, and because it wasn't for an another decade that I finally saw the movie, by the time I finally did see it I was thoroughly conditioned and immune to the terrors Hollywood could offer. "The Thing" had only one or two good frights in it and was much too talky for me. It never occurred to me that watching it on a blurry old television with constant commercial interruptions didn't help the situation.

Anyone who has seen John Carpenter's 1982 remake will recognize the basic layout of the movie. Based loosely on a story by John W. Campbell, Jr., "Who Goes There?," the film recounts the experiences of a group of scientists and military personnel at an Arctic outpost who discover a crash-landed flying saucer. With typical military efficiency their attempts to extract the craft from the snow results in their destroying it completely. However, they do find a recent occupant of the spaceship nearby, apparently thrown out during the impact and now frozen in the ice. They chop it out in a huge block, bring it back to their base camp, and wait for it to thaw. When it does, the creature within goes on a rampage with the inevitable consequences.

Christian Nyby is listed as the director, but it's said Howard Hawks, who produced the film, also contributed to much of the directing (indeed, it's even rumored Orson Welles had a hand in it). Certainly, one can detect some of the trademark Hawks touches in the characters' banter, the women in the background story, and plot line's rough-and-tumble masculinity. It was Nyby's first big-screen directorial job, and he went on to do mostly TV work. Hawks, on the other hand, had already done such classics as "The Dawn Patrol," "Scarface," "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday," and "Red River," and he would go on to do "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Rio Bravo," "El Dorado," and "Rio Lobo." Let's just say that any success "The Thing" may enjoy is probably more attributable to Hawks than to anyone else.

"The Thing" came along at just the right time. By the late 1940s the viewing public was pretty much fed up with traditional monsters. Frankenstein's creation, Dracula, the Wolfman and their ilk had run their course, and by 1948 Abbott and Costello were parodying them, a sure sign they had hit bottom. But the dropping of the atomic bomb and the development of atomic energy, the alleged real-life sightings of flying saucers, the Roswell incident, and the government's sudden interest in UFOs spurred Hollywood to merge their old-time monsters with new science fiction-based ones. "The Thing" is really "Frankenstein From Outer Space," and in this regard it works. With the exception of a few conventional horror-movies from Hammer Films in England and Bill Castle in Hollywood, the fresh rage in the 50s was for sci-fi monsters: giant, mutated insects and malign space aliens bent on world domination. It was "The Thing From Another World" that was most responsible for this incoming wave of creature features.

One of the more salient points about the story is that the creature is nowhere human but a thinking vegetable that lives off blood. Bullets can't affect it; it can only be cooked to death! Wonderful stuff. The creature is played by James Arness, before his long-running tenure as Marshal Matt Dillon on TV's "Gunsmoke." Arness displays his 6'5" frame but little acting talent. No matter; acting was hardly required, and his screen time, in any case, amounts to less than a few minutes.

The star of the film is Kenneth Tobey as Capt. Pat Hendry, the officer in charge of the investigation. He's appropriately stalwart, hesitantly kidding with his men when needed, serious when required. Most of the time he's rather stuffy and serious to a fault, the no-nonsense kind of guy you hope will be on your side in a crisis but who doesn't make for a very colorful leading man. Tobey continued in B movies, incidentally, many of them typecast horror flicks like "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and "It Came From Beneath the Sea," right up until his death in 2002 when he made "Attack of the B-Monster Movie."

Also in the cast are Douglas Spencer as Scotty, a cynical newspaper reporter; Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington, a scientist who pleads with Hendry, unsuccessfully, to let him communicate with the creature; Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, the beautiful romantic interest for Hendry and eyeful for the audience; and George Fenneman, Groucho Marx's longtime announcer, as the nerdy Dr. Redding. Equally important is the eerie musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin, music very reminiscent of that which Bernard Herrmann composed for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" the same year.

Among the drawbacks of the film, however, is its setting. We have only one, unchanging monster, and he's confined to a small, lackluster army base surrounded by nothing but ice. Unlike, say, "Aliens" and Carpenter's remake where the monster was constantly altering its appearance, this static monster has nowhere to go, literally or figuratively, in the film. Once we see him (and he's not particularly ugly or grotesque), there isn't a lot to terrify us anymore. It means the film takes a long time to get around to its thrills, and when it does, there are precious few thrills to be found. "The Thing" is mainly a mood piece, which is why, perhaps, its black-and-white photography works so well.

On a trivia note, Hawks could not get the cooperation of the U.S. government for the making of the film because, the government said, they didn't want to foster the belief that they might actually believe in flying saucers, even though they were openly investigating them at the time. Go figure; governments never change.

This 1951 movie is presented close to what it must have looked like over half a century ago, in a standard Academy ratio, here cropped slightly to accommodate 1.33:1 televisions, a black-and-white picture, and monaural sound. The image quality does not indicate a digitally restored copy, some few lines and age flecks are noticeable, but Warner Bros. obviously had a very good original print to work with. Most of the delineation is sharp, there are fairly good B&W contrasts, no transfer grain to speak of, and few moiré effects or shimmering lines. It's a pleasure to watch a well-made black-and-white film with its emphasis on deepening shadows and its play of light and dark; and this film, set as it is in the cold, white arctic, brings out some of the best of these counterpoints.

The sound is a very ordinary single-channel mono, but reproduced via Dolby Digital it does have good definition. There is, understandably, little of the frequency and dynamic range we might find in one of today's blockbusters, but there is enough breadth to convey the thrills of the moment. Clarity is fine for dialogue, especially, and backgrounds are free of extraneous hiss or noise.

Nothing much here to speak of. The only real "extra" is a theatrical trailer. Otherwise, there are twenty-five scene selections, English as the only spoken language option, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
While I admit to a partiality for Carpenter's campy remake, and while Hawks' "Thing From Another World" may be more a character drama and social document than an outright horror thriller, there are still moments to enjoy. Ignore some of the corny banter and political rhetoric, and you get a decent suspense flick with an intriguing premise. There are probably civilizations in our universe far older than our own by millions, even billions of years; I imagine they would regard our planet as we do an anthill (or as Dr. Carrington says of the creature, "He has the same attitude toward us as we have toward a field of cabbages"). It's an idea that has propelled any number of sci-fi movies since this one in the early fifties. So "The Thing" today is probably best viewed as a historical document, its shock value having been diminished through time and repetition.

In the meantime, heed Scotty's warning: "Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"


Film Value