The Thing from Another World
For the most part, I’ve forgotten where I was or what I was doing when I watched movies. The experiences just never took hold in memory. Yet, I can remember the first time I watched The Thing from Another World. I was in high school and it was school night. One of my parents, probably my dad, changed the channel to this movie. I remember lying on my stomach on the floor watching the movie, but keeping an eye on the time because it was late. I was reluctant to leave when it was time to go to bed because I was really digging the movie, but I left when my parents told me it was late; I was such a good kid and oh what a hellion I’ve become. Perhaps this memory sticks out because it’s one of those moments when my love of 50s sci fi started to develop. It’s a moment when I felt a kind of child-like rapture, in part because I was watching the film like a kid does, belly down on the carpet, but also because I drawn into the film so much I didn’t want to break the spell. I may be an egalitarian viewer of film and I do get drawn into films easily, but there was still something special about watching The Thing from Another World for the first time, never knowing that it was the start of a long love affair with old sci fi flicks.
The film takes a significantly different tack than the source material. The general concept from the story is retained. A group of scientists and military personnel at a remote research facility in the North Pole, instead of the South, detect a strange magnetic field. When they investigate, they come across a flying saucer trapped beneath the ice. They accidentally destroy the ship when trying to dislodge it using thermite, but come across an alien beneath the ice, which had apparently been frozen while trying to escape from the ship; in the story, they pull up the alien first before they accidentally destroy the ship. Here’s where things really start to differ. Captain Hendry, the main character, orders the scientists to wait to thaw the alien out and study it until they’ve received orders from the general. Although the scientists go through the same arguments for and against thawing out the creature as in the story, don’t because it could come to life, do because it’s an extremely important scientific discover, in the movie the creature is thawed out by accident, whereas the in the story they felt no obligation to wait for orders. The characters are also all different and they form factions differently. Instead of the every man for himself mentality or the nominally human versus the suspected aliens, the characters divide into the military personnel and other civilians who want to destroy the monster and the scientists who want to preserve it for study. The reason for this divide is because of the most radical change in the story, which is that the Thing is just the preserved alien and not the shapeshifting infectious menace of the original story. Instead, the alien is a plant that is really tough to kill because it can regenerate its cells and it feeds by drinking blood. Although the scientists demonstrate that the creature could multiply because it has seeds, the horror is dramatically reduced because there’s a single Thing threatening them and there’s no worry about fellow humans except for Dr. Carrington who puts the others in danger in an effort to capture or reason with the Thing.
I’ll admit that a vampire plant monster from outer space sounds silly, even sillier when you realize that the plant monster is a tall guy with a kind of Frankensteinesque cylinder head and thorny hands; it also doesn’t help that one of the characters, a reporter brought to the base to get the story on the magnetic disturbance, jokes that the creature is a like a big carrot. I’ll also admit that by throwing out the story’s central premise about a shapeshifting creature and the paranoia of wondering whether your fellows are really human The Thing from Another World fails to capture the horror and originality of the source material. However, the film is actually quite good, probably because Howard Hawkes produced it. The dialogue of the film is fast-paced and sharp, which is characteristic of the time period but it’s a step above standard B movie dialogue. The film isn’t special effects heavy, but they’re quite good when they are used, ignoring the alien costume. The scenes where the creature’s severed hand begins to come back to life and the pulsating pods growing in dirt, watered with blood, are both pretty cool. Most impressive however is a scene that doesn’t appear to be using any special effects at all. When the group finds out that bullets won’t stop the alien, they lie in wait for the creature and douse it with kerosene then ignite it. The man in the costume is clearly on fire, which can be done fairly safely with certain precautions, but the scene shows the actors throwing real kerosene, which ignites and travels from the burning stunt man back toward the actors. The burning kerosene gets all over the room and I’m pretty sure the actors trying to put out the fire with blankets and an extinguisher were doing so for their own safety as much as for the scene. A particularly scary moment occurs when one of the men throws kerosene at the monster and the flaming kerosene goes past and sets fire to the mattress Nikki is hiding behind; Nikki is Hendry’s love interest.
Speaking of Nikki, she’s a welcome addition to the original story, which featured no women; the film only has two women and they don’t play a large role in the plot, but Nikki still wins brownie points with me because of a couple of scenes in which she flirts with Captain Hendry. We only get a little bit of their back-story, but apparently he met her and got drunk; she says he was like an octopus because she says she never saw so many hands. In some off time between the discovery of the alien and its rampage, the two have a little date in Hendry’s office. Now I thought it was a little kinky when she joked about tying Hendry up, but I certainly didn’t expect to see Hendry sitting in a chair with his hands tied behind is back, while Nikki holds up a glass of liquor for him to drink from. She even kisses him a couple times, putting her hand around his head and pulling him in for the kiss when he tries to dodge it. Hendry slips the bonds pretty easily and when she asks how long he’s been untied he says long enough. I thought this was kind of racy for a film made during the production code era, but if I’ve learned anything in my years of reading books and watching movies from the 50s, it’s that the 50s was never as buttoned down as we make it out to be. Nikki is also fairly witting and seems to keep Hendry on his toes. Even if she doesn’t have a lot of screen time, Nikki’s wit and her forward and frank sexuality make her a fun character and broaden the horizons of an otherwise exclusively male story.
Although The Thing from Another World is a pretty lousy adaptation of “Who Goes There?” it’s a great sci fi film in its own right. One advantage the film had on the story was its ending lines. The reporter urges other reporters over the radio and by extension the viewer to “keep watching the skies.” Although The Thing from Another World is not as dark as “Who Goes There?” the final lines of the film are more forbidding and more memorable than the ones in the short story.