Posts Tagged ‘The Thing From Another World’

Well, it promises to be a gribbly few days here at NCJG as a new version of The Thing arrives in UK cinemas imminently. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of the 1951 version of this story, and I do appreciate that the 1982 iteration has qualities of its own. This seems like a good opportunity to take a look at John Carpenter’s version, which I haven’t seen in over a decade, but before that I thought it would be interesting to look back at the heritage of this story.

Three adaptations (we can quibble about whether to talk in terms of prequels, remakes, and suchlike) mark The Thing out as a bit of a banker as far as stories go – but we also have to take into account the legion of homages and other variations the different films have received. One way or another, there are a lot of Things out there of different kinds, some rather more obscure than others.

So, deep-frozen aliens under the polar ice. Back we go – where did this story originally come from? Which was the first Thing? Passing over the new version and moving back through time, in 2004 we encounter the possibly unexpected form of Alien Vs Predator, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. An intruder from a different set of franchises entirely, you might say – but this film qualifies. The main difference from the Thing movies is the inclusion of a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times – but even this, as we shall see, only confirms that this film is part of the same lineage, albeit something of a distant cousin.

Proceeding back to 1993, we meet our first small-screen Thing-offspring, acknowledged as such by its creators: the first-season X Files episode Ice, in which defrosted parasitic organisms infect a human research station in Alaska, resulting in much paranoia and carnage. The Carpenter version seems to have been the main inspiration here, with infectious sled-dogs and icky body-horror much in evidence. The parasites are discreet and unassuming little Things, but none of the others in the family could really fault them for their attitude.

Innocent Looking Things (ice parasites from The X Files).

Passing over other marginal candidates such as the 1988 War of the Worlds episode The Raising of Lazarus, we arrive in 1982 to find John Carpenter’s famous version of the story waiting for us. This is probably the highest-profile member of the clan , probably on the strength of the eye-popping visual effects.

80s-style Blobby Thing (an iteration of Carpenter’s take on the monster).

This is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten films, which may explain why it has always had such a polarising effect on viewers. It has such a strong identity of its own that it’s arguably less available as a source of story ideas and images than some of the other versions.

We encounter a botanical addition to the Thing lineage in 1976, in the form of the Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom. Typically, this story wears its sources openly on its sleeve – scientists in Antarctica uncover an alien pod, which infects one of them and initiates a shocking transformation from human to alien.

Green Thing (a Krynoid).

This story – amongst the very best of the series – is interesting in that it seems to be both looking back to the 1951 version of the story, with its hostile, humanoid plant, and forward to the 1982 one with its grim tone and emphasis on body horror. I suspect that to focus too much on this would be a mistake, as the metamorphosis in the story seems largely derived from that in the original Quatermass Experiment – although John Carpenter himself is on record as a fan of Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale.

(It may be worth mentioning in passing a number of other references to The Thing in the history of Doctor Who – most obviously in the 1967 story The Ice Warriors, which is based around the concept of deep-frozen and hostile aliens being defrosted with inevitable results.)

In 1972 we meet one of the more obscure and distant members of the family, in the Spanish horror movie Panico en el Transiberiano. No-one, to my knowledge, has made the connection between this film and The Thing before, but to me the similarities are too significant to be ignored.

Really Obscure Thing (wearing its ape-man body).

The Thing in this movie initially appears to be nothing but an ape-man, frozen in ice for thousands of years, but as the narrative progresses the startling truth is revealed – the ape is merely the latest host of a body-hopping, brain-draining alien, stranded on Earth for millions of years. The mutability of the Thing is psychological rather than physical here, but it otherwise behaves in a very similar way to its cousins elsewhere. The narrative waters are muddied somewhat by the ill-judged addition of supernatural elements to the story, but otherwise this is a fun movie which deserves to be better known.

Moving on back to 1951 we meet the first of the true Things, in Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ superb The Thing from Another World. This is really the source of the Thing archetype and nearly all the elements are here: the remote polar location, the frozen alien defrosted by mistake, the desperate battle to survive.

Black and White Thing (James Arness from the 1951 movie).

All that’s really missing is the paranoia and threat to identity which are present in most of the other versions. James Arness’ malevolent plant is rather more of a lumbering, snarling monster than most of its descendants, but the film remains a classic for all sorts of reasons.

Surely, then, we are getting close to the source of the Thing? The 1951 movie is credited as an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the most significant change being the nature of the alien itself. Campbell’s Thing is no vegetable but the amorphous, assimilating horror familiar from Carpenter’s adaptation and beyond. So the origins of the Thing as we know it really lie here in Campbell’s story.

Dog thing (Campbell’s monster in mid-transformation).

Or do they? Published two years before Campbell, and written five years before that, was a story in which an expedition to Antarctica discovers frozen aliens, which are not as dead as they first appear. Later in the story the protagonists barely escape from an amorphous, protoplasmic horror.

Original Blobby Thing (a Shoggoth).

The story in question is, of course, HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – which, incidentally, also features a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times. The question of whether Campbell was deliberately drawing on Lovecraft or not is an open one, and one could of course go further back and look at Lovecraft’s own sources for this tale (Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allen Poe amongst them), but in terms of the recognisable story we’ve been tracking, this seems to be the beginning.

And the final, poetic touch? Lovecraft’s aliens – the ones that are uncovered in the ice, wreak havoc amongst the humans, and thus set the template for everything to follow – are presciently named as Elder Things. You can’t argue with something like that.

Elder Thing.

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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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