Margaret SheridanKenneth TobeyDouglas Spencer
The Thing from Another World
Medium: film
Remade as: The Thing
Year: 1951
Director: Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks
Writer: John W. Campbell Jr., Charles Lederer
Keywords: The Thing, horror, SF
Country: USA
Actor: Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, James R. Young, Sally Creighton, James Arness
Format: 87 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 7 January 2003
Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, the wonderful play upon which Hello Dolly! was based, was itself based upon an earlier play. To quote Wilder himself...
"I have already read small theses in German comparing it with the great Austrian original on which it is based. The scholars are very bewildered. There is most of the plot (except that our friend Dolly Levi is not in Nestroy's play); there are some of the tags; but it's all 'about' quite different matters. My play is about aspirations of the young (and not only of the young) for a fuller, freer participation in life. Imagine an Austrian pharmacist going to the shelf to draw from a bottle which he knows to contain a stinging corrosive liquid, guaranteed to remove warts and wens; and imagine his surprise when he discovers that it has been filled overnight with very American birch-bark beer."
Both adaptations of Campbell's "Who Goes There" are important horror films, among the best of their era. They have superficial similarities, but when it comes to theme and intent they're looking in opposite directions. John Carpenter's Thing was a bleak, nerve-shredding study of paranoia and isolation. This 1951 version by Howard Hawks - ahem, Christian Nyby - is downright charming, portraying a good-natured, disciplined community pulling together to defend itself from the enemy. There are dissenting elements (those danged scientists) but even they operate as a group rather than as squabbling individuals. Military authority is an unquestioned good and there's nothing we can't overcome if we just pull together!
Of course this is a post-WW2 film, as opposed to Carpenter's post-Vietnam version. The Western world's worries and fears did a 180-degree about-turn in the thirty years in between. (Note how alien invasions have practically disappeared from SF movies despite being ever-present in the fifties and sixties, unless done ironically (Starship Troopers) or as deliberate retro (Independence Day).) Furthermore Hawks couldn't create the shape-changing alien of Campbell's story, which would automatically eliminate almost all of the original's paranoia.
Nevertheless, as with my Thornton Wilder example, Howard Hawks et al have taken the germ of someone else's story and turned it into a completely different tale. Which I think is cool!
Everyone talks fast. I like the overlapping dialogue (apparently a Howard Hawks trademark) and the relaxed, kidding relationships between most of the characters. I like the pretty girl, though not as much as our hero does. Romance in The Thing! Just try imagining that in Carpenter's version. There's even a comedy moment where Kenneth Tobey appears to be suggesting some gentle bondage. Hey, I laughed.
Robert Cornthwaite as Dr Arthur Carrington is effectively playing the villain, and he's pretty good at it too. He's the Bad Scientist, the misguided figure who's so obsessed with science that he's prepared to risk the world and everyone's lives. (Insert your own atom bomb comment here.) 'Twould only take an extra scene or two to make him evil instead of misguided, in which role I think he'd be chilling. It helps a lot that the scientists may be wrong-headed, but at least they're quick, clever and good at their jobs. Dr Carrington defends his point of view eloquently, when he could so easily have been turned into a dumb-ass strawman.
And then, on top of all that, The Thing From Another World also has some great shocks and spooky moments. You couldn't quite call it scary, but it comes closer than almost anything else I've seen of its time. I loved the dead dog, the door-opening, the kerosene fight... the set pieces all work. James Arness may be playing a vampire carrot from outer space, but he's a pretty damn dangerous carrot. The film's threat to the world is always 100% plausible, which is a tougher trick than it looks.
The geiger counters are like the Aliens motion detectors before their time. And I loved the moment where the camera pulls back and we realise that the saucer is a circle... that's a nice shivery moment, methinks.
At the end of the day, I think I prefer Carpenter's Thing. It's scarier, full of Carp-y goodness and more faithful to the John W. Campbell Jr. original. However this Hawks movie is sufficiently different for a straight comparison to be unfair; this isn't even trying to be the same Thing. It charmed me.