Thursday, 23 July 2020

The Thing From Another World


The Thing And I

The Thing From Another World
USA 1951 Directed by Christian Nyby
HMV Premium Collection Blu Ray Zone B


The Thing From Another World is based, somewhat loosely (although not as loosely as many believe, by all accounts... in many ways it’s more faithful on story progression and mechanics than the remake), on John W. Campbell Jr’s novella Who Goes There? And I’m going to make some very clear statements to start off this review by way of caveats which may well put some of you off from reading on but I’m going with what I see as the facts on this one.

My least problematic point is that I’ve not actually read the original novella (although I do intend to at some point... just saw a free copy online). So I can’t tell you blow for blow how great it is as an adaptation other than what I can gather from the comments of others, which I’ve encapsulated in the paragraph above. My next two statements might anger some, though.

The Thing From Another World was not, as people seem to want to believe these days, directed unofficially by auteur Howard Hawks. Sure, he had a hand in it as he produced it and turned directing chores over to one of his editors but any good producer makes suggestions on the set and I suspect Nyby directed it just as much as Steven Spielberg directed the Indiana Jones movies with producer George Lucas on the set making suggestions (remember, it was Lucas’ wish that Temple Of Doom starts off with Indy in a tuxedo, which is something Spielberg really didn’t like the sound of). There are varying conflicted reports by actors and crew members as to how things went... including from Hawks himself who originally said he just made a few suggestions on set but, over the decades, his perceived involvement in it seemed to grow. So, yeah you may think that some of the signature, directorial flashes come from Hawks but, then again, people often don’t credit the work of a close collaborator when it comes to picking up on certain stylistic similarities (take Ennio Morricone’s famous, early scores, for example, which were orchestrated by Bruno Nicolai and vice versa).

One of the reasons that Hawks chose Nyby was that, as his editor, he knew that he was familiar with the kinds of cuts and rhythms that were synonymous with the visual language that Hawks used. In fact, it was apparently Nyby who came up with the suggestion of using damn near no close ups in the film whatsoever because, as a former editor, he knew that the film could easily change shape in the cutting room if they were not careful so... he decided to go more for master shots or mid range shots so that it couldn’t be cut any other way. Hawks agreed with the idea and that’s why there are very few close ups in the movie... and it really doesn’t hurt it at all.

So in terms of responsibility for the movie... let me say I think it’s time we gave Nyby his due as the man listed as the director on the credits. It’s my belief it’s him to whom the ownership of the film belongs... as much as a collaborative venture like the piecing together of a major motion picture could be birthed as anything like the work of an auteur anyway, that is.

Lastly, and many people are really going to disagree with this one too... of the three adaptations (or two adaptations and one prequel, if you prefer) of this story, this 1951 version is by far the superior version. Yes, I do love John Carpenter’s remake, The Thing... I think it’s an utterly brilliant movie and, although he threw out a lot of the story points (he kept a couple of nice homages to this one in, more on those when I review that version), his version addresses the shape shifting nature of the alien. In this original version it’s just James Arness (future Sherif Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke) in a pseudo-Frankenstein monster suit. However, as much as I absolutely adore Carpenter’s version with it’s gory and surrealistic, body horror tone and paranoia... I find this 1951 version much more entertaining on every other level. The Carpenter version is an absolutely brilliant, classic piece of sci-fi horror... and so is this one. They’re just very different and, for me, the 1951 marginally scrapes to first place for the win in terms of sheer watchability.

The film starts off with a slowly materialising piece of typography saying The Thing (followed quickly by From Another World once it’s done it’s... err... thing). Carpenter’s version totally echoes this typography and the way it materialises in his version. The first of a few very blatant homages to this original. Here’s it’s underscored by Dimitri Tiomkin’s fine score, which was the first of two very important science fiction films in this year to make use of the infamous electronic instrument the theremin (the other would be Bernard Herrmann’s score to The Day The Earth Stood Still, which used a whole bunch of them). This popular 1920s musical instrument (which has a whole story of intrigue and 'long game' espionage attached to it in its own right, due to the antics and shenanigans of the musical inventor from which it takes its name) was popularised in film by Dr. Miklos Rozsa, who used it in two of his scores for 1945 movies, The Lost Weekend and Spellbound.

Then we get to meet some of the main players. Kenneth Tobey as Captain Hendry and some of his men are sent to an Arctic research station to check up on an unexplained air crash and some strange magnetic field readings. He takes with him his new acquaintance Scotty, played by Douglas Spencer, who is a newspaper reporter he meets in the opening scene, while playing poker with two of his men. There’s a terrible cut in this scene, actually. I’ve seen this film maybe five times now in my life and this time I noticed that Hendry deals out two rounds of cards for a hand and then it cuts to them picking up five cards each. So what went on between cuts (or retakes or alternate cuts) I guess we’ll never know. It’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment because the conversation continues over the cut as normal.

We then follow these people as they fly to the arctic and meet the team... including lead professor and ever-so-slightly human villain (misguided by science, I guess you would say) Professor Carrington, played by Robert Cornthwaite and, in her debut movie, Margaret Sheridan as his assistant Nikki. Actually, she didn’t make that many movies or TV show appearances after this but, somehow, she is first billed in the cast list and, all I can say is, good job too. I can’t believe this lady didn’t make major stardom because she’s an absolute hoot in this movie. Her personality really shines through and, although a female presence was not in the original novella, she is not just a fifth wheel here. Asides from an early BDSM reference where she ties Hendry’s arms behind him to a chair to have a drink with him... it’s she who comes up with the idea of what you do to a vegetable when the creature of the title is found to be an advanced form of humanoid plant life (it even grows a new arm back after one of the husky dogs it kills bites one off). She’s just amazing and I wish she’d been in many more movies.

After more introductions and slow burn character enhancement we get the scene where the crew find the crashed saucer and, in a famous moment, determine its size by circling the shape under the ice (another thing Carpenter homages on a video diary of what happened to ‘the other’ base camp in his version). After inadvertently destroying the saucer, the crew chop a block of ice carrying ‘the thing’ free and take it back to base. Then, the inevitable happens and a mistake with an electric blanket accidentally thaws the creature out and it wants to conquer the earth, using the blood of two hanging, slain scientists (a visceral image we never see but hear described) to feed some native vegetation the plasma to create an army of creatures like itself. From then on it’s humans versus thing as the alien enemy tries to freeze our heroes out from the base while they try to defend and destroy.

And it’ a really great film. Most especially because of the razor sharp, witty dialogue which has a lot in common with some of Howard Hawk’s screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s such as the excellent Bringing Up Baby (on which Nyby didn’t work but, then again, Hawks didn’t write this script either, okay?). The dialogue in this film is very slick and the other thing... and I’m always impressed with this each time I watch it because it’s a trick which has always been attributed to what Robert Altman was doing in film in the 1960s and 70s... is that there’s lots of overlapping dialogue in the movie as different groups of people in the same shot hold different conversations. It’s absolutely brilliant for giving the scenes a naturalistic feel and it really helps to ground a film which, in the words of Scotty, involve the bloodthirsty, rampaging shenanigans of ‘an intellectual carrot’.

And because of the way the characters are built up and, additionally, because they’re all such nice and pleasant people who you would happily hang out with in a bar (even Dr. Carrington), it really helps you to identify with them and root for them against the title villain as the film accelerates to its electrifying climax. It really is one of the best science fiction/horror movies of the 1950s and I think more people these days, especially those who worship the Carpenter classic (which is also a good thing to do), should check this out because it’s fun, doesn’t outstay its welcome and is just so expertly crafted. Even Dimitri Tiomkin’s B-movie style score, which nobody could ever accuse of being subtle (not a term I’d ever associate with this composer), works towards unsettling the viewer and even ramps up some red herring moments which are totally created by the music to sow unease where they wouldn’t be seen as such by another composer, maybe.

So, yeah... that’s my take on a film that, with it’s much quoted ‘Watch the skies!’ end monologue from Scotty, has become so well loved and so influential to other directors... you can’t get to Ridley Scott’s crew of the Nostromo tracking down the Alien by counters recording micro changes in air density without the main protagonists here using a Geiger counter to track down the creature, I suspect. Yeah, I know, a Geiger counter to an H. R. Giger counter, for sure. But there you have it, The Thing From Another World is still one of the greatest sci-fi/horror movies of the 1950s and absolutely one I will continue to watch over the years as death approaches. A masterpiece of cinema monster movies... as is the remake.

The Thing at NUTS4R2

The Thing From Another World (1951)
The Thing (1982)
The Thing (2011)

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