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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Hawks’

Come back with me now to the Earth Year 1987 and a place on the South Coast called Littlehampton. We had gone on holiday there for a fortnight (‘we’ being my parents, my sister and I) and were having a fairly pleasant time. One particular evening lingers in my memory, though: I had been left in on my own for reasons I can no longer recall. It may be simply because I wanted to watch the film that this post is about, which even then was 36 years old.

It was, as you may not be surprised to learn, an old SF movie: The Thing From Another World, to be exact. I had seen many examples of 50s SF even by that age and found them either amusing or interesting, but The Thing… there’s a scene about half-way through this movie where the characters have learned that the monster is on the loose somewhere in the camp and set out to look for it, and I found myself suddenly very conscious of being alone in a cottage on a very dark night. Even back then, only very rarely did a movie genuinely scare or unsettle me, and this 36-year-old ‘antique’ managed it (the startling shot in which the creature first appears also made me jump and make embarrassing yelping noises).

The original 1951 Thing has really been eclipsed in the popular imagination by John Carpenter’s visceral 1982 remake (in turn, a prequel/remake is due this autumn), and while I’ve seen and admire both films my loyalty will always be with the older one, simply because I think it takes more skill to frighten than to nauseate.

The plot of the original movie has been hugely influential (and while John Campbell’s short story Who Goes There? is credited as the source, it seems to me to be ultimately derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness, but that’s by the by). Reports of a crashing plane or impacting meteorite draws an Air Force crew to a scientific outpost at the North Pole. Working with the scientists there, they discover an alien craft buried under the ice – attempts to retrieve it fail (the manner in which the ship is destroyed, as presented on screen at least, doesn’t really make sense: one of the few holes in The Thing‘s plot) but they do get second prize: one of the ship’s occupants is discovered buried in the ice, and transported back to their base.

Needless to say the resilience of the alien is grossly underestimated and a mishap leads to the creature being freed from its icy prison. The true nature of the being becomes apparent: it’s a carnivorous humanoid plant, which has come to Earth intent on propagating itself…

James Arness plays the Thing itself. He plays it as a brutal snarling monster, which is a little at odds with the script’s depiction of it as a dangerously intelligent being – he doesn’t look much like a plant-man, either – but the truth of the matter is that he only gets about five minutes on-screen. The Thing From Another World isn’t a traditional monster movie, in that it isn’t particularly interested in its monster, and one of the reasons it’s so effective is that it isn’t afraid to strictly ration the creature’s screen-time.

What this movie does seem to be interested in, to me, is the relationships of a group of guys in a very tight spot. Kenneth Tobey is the ostensible leading man, Margaret Sheridan his love interest, but The Thing is really an ensemble piece: scene after scene is packed with characters, mostly painted in broad strokes, but all still recognizable human beings. And, compared to the stilted and often crummy and/or pretentious dialogue bedevilling so many genre films of this decade, The Thing‘s script zips and crackles along, and it’s genuinely funny in a laconic sort of way: you could argue that this is The West Wing of classic SF films.

More traditional genre elements make an appearance in the nature of the monster – which is pleasingly bizarre – and in the tension between the Air Force characters and the scientists as to how they should handle the creature. Needless to say, the chief scientist (Robert Cornthwaite) is a rum cove, wont to produce such dubious utterances as ‘Knowledge is more important than life… [The Thing’s] development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors… we owe it to the brain of our species to stand here and die without destroying a source of wisdom‘ and overlook the Thing’s innate blood-lust. 50s SF was certainly often ambivalent towards science, but on the other hand there are so many movies featuring scientist heroes and wise old boffins – The Thing From Another World is unusual in that it comes out and depicts scientists as out of touch with common values and Not To Be Trusted.

On the other hand, if this is a piece of anti-communist propaganda, as many have argued, then it’s one which operates on an almost subliminal level. I suppose you could say that the depiction of the Thing as a product of a totally alien way of life is an attempt at political allegory (plant vs animal = communism vs capitalism) but to me this is stretching a little: the Thing simply isn’t interested in political or conventional military conquest.

Subtext is only really of interest in hindsight, anyway. The Thing From Another World has a well-deserved reputation as one of the very first truly great SF movies – but this is a case of film-makers shaping genre conventions to suit themselves, rather than feeling beholden to the constraints of the form. There’s a solid core of human drama and emotion to this movie, which is what provides it with such vitality and tension, and gives the genre elements their bite. As a piece of SF, The Thing From Another World proves that less can definitely be more.

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