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The Thing From Another World (1951)

April 26th, 2010 by unkle lancifer · 10 Comments

I’ve always felt a bit of a stony disconnect with 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. It’s not because it’s in black and white, me and black and white movies are prone to secret late night rendezvous all the time. Is it because I saw JOHN CARPENTER’s remake first? That never stopped me from getting completely entranced with the original CAT PEOPLE or INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. I’ve said before that I’m not the type to give up on a film just for not putting out on the first date. My love of JOHN CARPENTER’s THE THING is enough for me to own the film it’s based on and the other night I gave it another go with happy enough results. It ended up being a fine film to help me put old man winter to bed and watching it with the conscious eyes of a CARPENTER fan delivered some rewards previously missed.

I’m thinking my problem has always been that the film steers clear from the emotional and psychological aspect of horror. It’s a stiff upper lip, often times jocular man’s man flick whose tone seems closer to that of a war film or western. Most of the characters crack wise throughout the running time and the worst terrors seem readily cured by a hot cup of joe. There’s never a real sense of chaos as all involved (save for a wigged out watchman whose bullets have zero effect on the creature) approach the problem at hand with steady, rational aplomb. Moments after the monster gets his arm ripped off by a dog we’ve learned just about everything we would want to know of the being thanks to some scientists and a couple microscopes. Maybe a little too much even, personally I’d advise a “Don’t ask don’t tell policy” if my film’s main threat was conceived as an “intellectual carrot.”

As much as I’d like to shake the whole phlegmatic affair up like a snow globe, I have to admit that some of the stark desolate photography is winning and that there’s a few good workable jump scares. I know that’s faint praise for a renowned classic but I’ve always found the unflappable a bit dull. It’s certainly entertaining; I just feel I should want to squeeze its cheeks a bit more than I do.

Although the listed director is CHRISTIAN NYBY it’s widely known that CARPENTER’s hero HOWARD HAWKS cracked the whip on this dog sled. Just as AUNT JOHN has taught me to appreciate, if not love, some films I’ve neglected, knowing that CARPENTER holds this film in such high regard makes it that much more interesting to me. There’s a mismatched group facing an unknown foe just like in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (and THE FOG), There’s a dark shadowy giant with a habit of crashing through hallways just like “the shape” in HALLOWEEN and the final sky gazing moment that warns of future possible terror was lifted directly for THE FOG’s elegant epilogue. I also think I understand why NANCY LOOMIS was cast in so many of CARPENTER’s films, her girl Friday quip-banter is a chip off of TTFAW’s MARGARET SHERIDAN’s block. In fact, I’d say in some ways this film resembles those early CARPENTER flicks a bit more than it does his official remake.

Oh boy, you know, I started this post thinking I’d keep talk of CARPENTER’s remake to a minimum but that’s kind of impossible. I admit it, the whole time I was with the 1951 version I was thinking of it’s younger sibling (you can take the Unk out of the eighties but you can’t take the eighties out of the Unk.) Who am I kidding? I guess the ultimate truth for me is that nothing can really stand up to CARPENTER’s take on JOHN W. CAMPBELL JR.’s WHO GOES THERE? Those other remakes I mentioned, CAT PEOPLE and INVASION, add modern nuances to the films they spawned from (to debatable effect, personally I enjoy them all) where CARPENTER’s version just blows the previous take absolutely out of the water and renders it nearly obsolete.

Ugh, I said it. I know not everyone will agree with that but I doubt I’m alone. CARPENTER added the paranoia, the distrust, the believable human aspect that’s needed as an appropriate flip side to the alien menace. The original takes on a rather surface issue of invasion and can be seen as a “red scare” parable of us vs. them. CARPENTER tackles something a bit deeper, the very real fear (and this should scare you) that we ARE (or are becoming) “them.” The threat may still come from outer space but the territory it marks as a landing pad is the human body, it conquers from within. Ultimately traditional heroics have little effect in the remake as we are left wondering if even our star player MacReady (KURT RUSSELL) is corrupted. The ultimate fear is a global dehumanization, a very profound and real social worry that continues. I ask you, in 2010, is man still “the warmest place to hide” or is the alien menace likely to get more mileage hijacking a laptop?

The ‘82 version may have gotten gaff for relying too heavily on special effects but artist ROB BOTTIN did a bit more than throw blood and prosthetics about. He made it seem that anything was possible and that anything could happen at any moment. His conjurer’s hand added yet another significant layer of unease and distrust to the happenings. Suddenly, all bets were off and the audience had that rare experience of not having a clue as to what to expect. Cautious critics can cry “leaves nothing to the imagination!” as much as they like, we now know the reverse was true. BOTTIN’s beautiful work in fact, lit the fuse of imagination. He had many of us pondering what shape “the thing” might take next and the possibilities were simply endless. Let’s hear it for coloring outside the lines.

Can I just say I hate the cliché of “leaves nothing to the imagination” because it assumes to know the perimeters of my mind? I get the slavish love for subtlety, I think it’s great to allow the audience to fill in the blanks when it’s done well, but the gall of suggesting that audiences can’t expand upon what they have seen just seems like lazy rhetoric to me. It’s sad that so many critics in 1982 could mistake legitimate, inspirational artistry for sensationalist gore. Mr. BOTTIN, Mr. CARPENTER, you left a hell of a lot to my imagination, thank you very much. You still do.

Honestly, do you know what’s a way bigger imagination killer than visceral, in your face special effects? I’d say it’s having your monster be a carrot. Heads with spider legs are not the enemy my friends, walking vegetables are!

Oh no, I’ve jumped the rails again (and perhaps I’m preaching to the choir), please enjoy my mania while it lasts. I don’t mean to disrespect a film that made so many of my favorites possible. The earlier version (maybe it’s not even fair to compare the two) really does have a snug, affable atmosphere even if its thrills feel limp. I guess THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is never going to satisfy this viewer completely. It’s not that it’s dated and as dispassionate as a distant patriarch, it’s because I have no real need to dance with someone so frigid when I know I can just as easily, for the same quarter, have my mind blown.

Tags: General Horror




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Tim Tylor
Tim Tylor
10 years ago

My feelings too. It’s a while since I’ve seen either, but the ’51 film seemed tame and unoriginal after seeing Carpenter’s.
I can’t resist a push for Peter Watt’s take on Carpenter’s take.  It loses some of the film’s mystery and menace – Watt’s scared self-justifying creature is very human at core – but it shows how strange and dismaying the basic facts of human existence could be through alien eyes.

TheMike31
10 years ago

Great write-up.  I’ve actually never gotten through the 1951 version, because I’m so used to Carpenter’s that I just lose focus on it.  I hope to try again someday, but it’s near impossible for me to shake Carpenter’s version.

shoggothkeeper
shoggothkeeper
10 years ago

This.  The remake is the very best horror film ever made and no one will convince me otherwise (I’m looking at you, Exorcist fans).

Jeff Allard
10 years ago

I love the original Thing – it used to be a staple on the 4 O’Clock Movie when I was a kid – but I understand that it doesn’t play that well for many viewers today. My wife and I just recently rewatched Carpenter’s Thing and we couldn’t stop talking about how terrifc it was and how it really hasn’t aged a bit. Then she mentioned how she had never seen the original Thing. I have it in my DVD collection and told her to give it a look but when she watched it on her own a few days later, I asked her what she thought and she just shook her head. It did nothing for her and she found it boring. It’s still a magical film for me but I guess you had to have seen it at a certain age or a certain time.

Chuckles72
Chuckles72
10 years ago

I dig carpenter – Prince of Darkness is one of my all-time favorite horror films.  I think Carpenter’s “The Thing” improves on the original in every way possible.  The acting is much better, the tension infinitely higher and I also think that film just looks a lot better – those burning flares against the blackness of the antarctic night…..
Spoiler alert!:
The only bit that drives me nuts is the scene towards the end where they are getting ready to blast the Thing into oblivion and they go down into these tunnels and split up!  No way, no how are these guys gonna start splitting up once they know that they are all human.

Grokenstein
Grokenstein
10 years ago

Never got into the original either, and I wanted to see it for ages before I finally got the VHS. First, not one of the bland human characters interested me; second, I had serious trouble accepting that the humanoid pilot of an interplanetary craft, alien or not, would start immediately killing other humanoids without provocation.
(As completely rotten as they are, I’ll give “Species” credit for making its monster a walking viral bomb sent by potential invaders, and even the abominable “Star Crystal” surprised me by turning 360 degrees once the creature gained “enlightenment.” It still isn’t a good movie–oh, HELL no–but that was unusual.)
Unfortunately, when the characters in Carpenter’s version aren’t bland, they’re annoying. There isn’t so much a sense that these men are on the verge of breakdown because of their prolonged isolation, as that they’re just obnoxious assholes.
I remember when the movie pushed me away, and it was way too early on. Kurt Russell. Pours booze. Into a computer. Because he lost a game. He’s not Angry German Kid or anything; he’s only mildly pissed off. No, he’s just a jerk who breaks things when he doesn’t get his way, a man-baby. Booze and computers aren’t easy to replace when you’re in Antarctica. WHAT’S SOMEONE THAT STUPID DOING THERE? And he lasts as long as he does only because the script makes everyone else even stupider (see “let’s split up!” above).
While the monster is not exactly humanoid this time around, I’m still uncertain why something of its adaptable and savage nature would conceive of travel into space to begin with, let alone develop the means to do so. I’m just not feelin’ this, regardless of the wild effects (that unfortunately run out of steam just in time for the climax, falling back on a Big Ugly that looks like a rejected design from “Prophecy” or “Leviathan.”).
Hell, I’ll even give relative props to the silly “Phantoms,” in which the proverbial Primordial Ooze gains sentience, suffers a little Biblical misunderstanding, assumes itself to be Satan, and acts accordingly. (It’s the philosophical opposite of “Star Crystal!”) Both versions of “The Thing” come down to this: it wants to kill us…um, just because? That’s generic. Plain flavor. I like to see a version someday that tries a little harder than that.

theverysmallarray
theverysmallarray
10 years ago

It was just a crappy T.I., Chuckles. BTW, it wasn’t so much interested in killing us as making us  just like it. A Republican, in other words. Jeez I remember before the movie came out one of the fancier theaters in my town had a huge standee for the film, and part of it was a still of that gruesome scene in the Norwegian camp, with the guy who cut his throat, and all the frozen blood. Freaked my young mind out. 

theverysmallarray
theverysmallarray
10 years ago

Sorry, Chuckles, I was referring to Grokensteins post.