Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
Longtime Redmangoreaders will know that our Horror Head Writer Sommer’s favourite horror film is 1982’s The Thing, and it is a personal favourite of mine as well. The film is an adaptation of the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There. The novella was previously adapted in 1951’s The Thing From Another World, though the 1983 version is a much more faithful adaptation.
The original film turned 70 on April 6, so it is the perfect time for a retro review. With a UFO-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s get into it:
The Thing From Another World tells the story of an Arctic base where US Air Force members, scientists, and a reporter encounter a crashed alien ship. When they remove a block of ice with a survivor they unwittingly unleash a deadly threat to not only the expedition but the entire world. Right off the bat I gotta say I loved the title card. The phrase “The Thing” breaking through and shining light ominously is a pretty powerful image, and really sets the tone for what’s the come.
Another thing (no pun intended) I noticed was the size of the cast. This is one packed base. You have the captain and all the soldiers, all the scientists, and affable reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott (a scene-stealing performance by Douglas Spencer) who brings a lot of the humour and can deliver a snappy comment but can’t snap a photo in time. Rewatching it recently I noted the film is a lot funnier than I recalled, with my favourite scene when one soldier rattles the super long military designation for debunking UFOs and the other soldier replies, “Oh that one.” You also have the romance between forthright Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and witty and lovely Secretary Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) with all the cute banter between them and the good-natured teasing by the other airmen.
If there wasn’t a giant plant-like humanoid alien roaming around this would make for a lighthearted comedy. The characters are all serviceable and solidly acted though dogged scientist Dr Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaithe) was way too one dimensional. His fixation on preserving the alien to the detriment of everyone’s lives, including his own, comes off cliche and somewhat forced. When he said “There are no enemies in science” my eyes immediately rolled. I was hoping the alien had killed him rather than just knocking him out.
And speaking of the alien, James Arness, who would go on stardom in the massively popular Western series Gunsmoke, plays the mysterious and little-seen “Thing”. His height and imposing stature do come off as intimidating and the alien is pretty creepy. Sure the makeup is not the most inventive and he clearly looks like a guy in a suit with a weird, bulbous head (like a plant bulb I guess) and claw-like hands, but Arness’s menacing posture combined with that unearthly growling sound and some trippy and intense music makes for terrifying encounters. And I also thought the idea of a regenerating, plant-based organism that feeds on blood was unique for the time and remains so to this day. Sure the shape-shifting, people-mimicking alien of the novella and the 1983 film is much, much creepier, but bulb-head still gets the job done.
Director Christian Nyby does a splendid job of building tension and dread as well as delivering on the action set pieces. The use of the Geiger counter to track the alien’s movements felt like a forerunner to the motion tracker of the Alien franchise. The scene where they discover the alien vessel is one of the film’s best, with great cinematography paired with an unsettling theme courtesy of Dimitri Tiomkin, who is best known for his Western scores.
The alien encounters are just so well done. The first attack when the alien is not seen may not be novel now, and was developing as a trope of horror even back then, but is effective in building the mystery. The door jump scare is a lovely gut punch. The fire attack on the alien showcases some wonderful practical effects. And the final encounter when the alien is bathed in shadow is just gorgeous.
There is not much violence and no gore here, which is not surprising for a film of its time. The scene where they discovered the dead dog was particularly disturbing though. Poor doggie. And we get a description of the two scientists being hoisted up and their throats cut, but I don’t think 50s-era censors would have let a scene showing that fly. The imagination of it was probably worse than whatever they could have shown any how. And for a base under siege by a deadly alien being seemingly bent on global conquest the crew seem quite relaxed and still find time to have friendly chats with realistic overlapping dialogue (thanks to one of my readers for reminding me). It makes for an odd mix of tones, and I think if they had started with this but then switched to the dark, foreboding atmosphere once the alien threat was revealed it would have been more effective.
And while the film may not be the Sci Fi horror perfection that is The Thing (and then again, what is) The Thing From Another World is still very good and worth watching seven decades later. And remember—watch the skies! Watch the skies!
Editor Jules’s Score: 8 out of 10
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. I can also be found posting about TV and movie memes, news and trailers on Facebook at Movieville. And to stay on top of all Redmangoreviews articles you can like and follow us on Facebook here.