7.26.2011

Original vs. Remake [Part 1]: The Thing From Another World (1951)

DIRECTED BY
Christian Nyby
Howard Hawks

STARRING
Kenneth Tobey - Captain Patrick Hendry
Robert Comthwaite - Dr. Arthur
Carrington
Douglas Spencer - N
ed 'Scotty' Scott
Margaret Sheridan - Nikki Nicholson

James Arness - The Thing


Genre - Science Fiction/Horror/Aliens/B-Movie

Running Time - 86 Minutes


When trying to think of this month's Original vs. Remake post, there was no other choice but to tackle 1951's classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and its 1982 highly-regarded THE THING remake. These two films have been heavily requested by a lot of peeps who drop by on this blog, especially since I started the whole Original vs. Remake segment, so it was an easy decision. Plus the timing couldn't have been better, with the trailer for this October's THE THING prequel, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, being released a few days ago to a mixed reaction from horror fans.

So I took the time to watch both films the past week after many years of having not seen either one of them. And after watching both, I realized that reviewing both films in a single Original vs. Remake post wouldn't do either of them justice. Why's that? Well for starters, even though both films are based on John W. Campbell's story, "Who Goes There?", both films adapt from the source material in very different ways. Also, both films are held to such high standards [and rightfully so] that it would be unfair to group each film inside a single post. So THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE THING will receive their individual review posts so I can discuss them in fair length.

Still the question remains: which version of "Who Goes There?" is superior? Is it the 1951 original or the 1982 John Carpenter remake? In part 1 of this special Original vs. Remake, we'll take a look at the influential Howard Hawks produced [and allegedly directed] THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and how after 60 years later, it's still a must-see film for science fiction and horror fans.

PLOT
A group of Arctic researchers working for the United States Government believe a meteor has crashed nearby in a frozen tundra. To their surprise, the group realizes that they've stumbled upon a flying saucer with an alien (James Arness) frozen inside. After the saucer is accidentally destroyed, the researchers manage to maintain the alien, digging it up and taking it back to their camp. One of the researchers stands guard, being a dumbass by putting a heat blanket over the block of ice holding the alien, releasing this unknown lifeform within the facility of the camp.

Warned about the alien's escape, the researchers encounter this Thing killing their sled dogs and some of their officers. After gathering some DNA from The Thing, scientists discover that the alien is a humanoid vegetable whose spores will create new Things through other life forms. Will these researchers stop The Thing from spreading its seed like a cheap whore?

REVIEW
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is one of the most cherished, influential science fiction films ever made. It was one of the highlights of the 1950s B-movie sci-fi cinema era, as well as influencing directors to create their own epics like John Carpenter and Ridley Scott [THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was highly inspirational in the creation of the ALIEN franchise]. While some may consider the film a bit hokey due to being made at a different time for a different audience, it's still a very watchable and fun film to watch.

Like I mentioned earlier, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was adapted by John W. Campbell's story, "Who Goes There?". Unlike the 1982 remake, which is a very faithful take on its story source, the original 1951 is very different from "Who Goes There?" due to budget constraints. While the film does keep the concept of having a group of men in an Antarctic base being killed by a mysterious alien, the alien of "Who Goes There?" [an organism that can replicate whatever it devours to hide itself while reproducing more organisms in other creatures] is replaced by a vegetable that looks like a man. While it's completely understandable as to why this was changed, it still feels kind of lame to see James Arness in make up fighting dogs and staring at the protagonists who want to kill him and experiment on him. Should this be held against the film because it couldn't do what the bigger budget THE THING could? I really don't think so. In fact, the screenwriting uses The Thing character quite well in keeping him off-screen for majority of the film and only having him appear to create much needed tension after some lighthearted and character-driven moments. In fact, a lot of The Thing's appearances, regardless of knowing he's just James Arness with make up, are pretty eerie. In a lot of ways, the way The Thing comes across in the film was obviously influential to horror filmmakers later on, who used some of the character's scenes to create jump scares, especially in the slasher sub-genre. So while the look of this "creature" is kind of disappointing compared to what the actual story illustrated, at least he's used really well to drive the story forward.

In fact, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD shouldn't be judged by its hokey title character. It should be judged by its social commentary that has stood the test of time. The Thing itself is based on the fear of the Nuclear Age, the rise of UFO sightings, and the fear of strangers taking over what's considered normal and right [i.e. the fear of Communism]. The Thing is a new threat that none of these characters are really able to understand, even Dr. Carrington, who sees The Thing as a project that could explain life beyond Earth. Unlike in some films, like FRANKENSTEIN where the monster is clearly a sympathetic figure, The Thing is nothing but a device for evil and destruction. It doesn't have remorse. It just wants to kill everyone around him to spread more of itself around to conquer Earth. It wants to take away everything we understand and know, which back then was a huge no-no. The film doesn't hide the fact that the researchers are the heroes here, as they do everything they can to destroy this alien before it causes major damage. The fear of the unknown is still an issue that many people even today struggle with, building that wall of ignorance brick-by-brick. The Thing is bad because we know nothing about it other than the information Dr. Carrington gives out. With that fear, acceptance is not that easy to grasp to.

Another concept THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD does well is also that fear of being alone in a strange place, especially with something or someone that could cause imminent danger to those involved. It's bad enough to be isolated with an alien from another world that wants to kill you. But to be trapped in a frozen area where no one can see, hear, or save you with a dangerous unknown presence is a stuff for nightmares. It completely works in this film. It still works in other films where the concept was recycled, such as 1979's ALIEN. I think that's why this film really stands the test of time - the film may be dated but its ideas are still relevant even today.

The screenplay, written by Charles Lederer, is also well-executed. Unlike the remake, which focused more on the paranoia, atmosphere, and tension, the original is more of a character piece. The title character is never the forefront of this film, even though it's the catalyst that drives the film. For majority of the movie, we're focused on the human characters as they bicker, support, and enjoy each other's company in midst of this alien invasion. In fact, the film feels like a Howard Hawks movie but in a sci-fi/horror setting, which gives credence to many believing that Hawks was the true director of this film, but I'll give to that soon enough. But for a horror film, there's a lot of wit and slapstick comedy going on that may turn off some viewers, even though I think it's why the film is still charming after all these years. The characters seem to be making fun of the situation they're in quite a bit while taking it seriously at the same time. Moments like when The Thing is called a "giant carrot" after finding out its a vegetable, to one of the men saying he's going to read a "nice, quiet horror story" while guarding The Thing, to the sexually charged scene [that was cut out of the film for many years] where Nikki Nicholson has Captain Hendry tied up in a chair while seducing him. All these moments flesh out these characters and even provide some sort of background about them. It makes them interesting to watch and has the audience favoring them over the monster.

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD also showcases the thought process of how the military and scientists were perceived at the time. The military were seen as heroes after World War II, where their actions were always considered the right actions. Scientists were still seen as men and women who tried to play God [and going against God] by changing the thought process of the world and going against what was taught in Church. In the film, the military are the level headed characters who always have a plan in action to destroy The Thing, while the scientists are loose cannons who want The Thing alive to experiment on it and learn from their research. And while Dr. Carrington does give off certain vibes that fit well within the mad scientist archetype, his character is fleshed out enough for the audience to realize that his actions are slightly justified. He's not afraid of the unknown - instead, he's excited about the prospect of learning something new. The quest for knowledge is within all of us, so it's understandable as to why he feels the way he does. However, the fact that he would risk human life just experiment on The Thing makes him more of an antagonist than the alien itself. His want for learning isn't a job anymore, it's an obsession. He's not evil, just misguided in his actions. This issue of military vs. scientists would later be huge in other films like ALIEN and George A. Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD, where the scientists were more heroic than the military in a strange turn of events.

In fact, the military issue has an effect on the Ned Scott character. As a reporter, this discovery of The Thing makes Scotty excited enough to want to report on it. However, the military stops him because they were government clearance first, believing the story will cause worldwide panic. This is an issue that still exists today. While we do get a lot of news about events all over the world, we're never sure is all of the news is being told to us. The Government tries to limit what the world should know due to what they call 'public security' - only releasing certain information that they feel the public can handle, even though it goes against the First Amendment. For a 1951 movie, it's held up quite well due to still maintaining relevant issues that effect people today.

The direction by Christian Nyby, or Howard Hawks if you believe in the strong rumor, is excellent. Now before I get into the actual direction, I must comment on the director issue. While Nyby is credited as the director, many feel that Hawks used Nyby as a placeholder to maintain his A-list status in Hollywood. After all, a man like Howard Hawks would lose his reputation for directing a low budget sci-fi B-movie. Nyby, who was an editor for many of Hawks' films, was believed to have given director credit so he could be part of the Director's Guild, while Hawks was really the driving force behind the project and directed most, if not all, of the film. It doesn't help that THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD has many of Hawks' trademarks scattered throughout [like the witty dialogue, quick pace, understanding the conventions of its particular genre, etc.], making the argument stronger.

Regardless of who directed the film, he should commended for how they treat the subject matter. The way The Thing is presented throughout the film is fantastic, as it's mainly in the shadows until the end. We see glimpses of it here and there, mainly in silhouette, until we learn more about it [making his presence more visible because of it]. This creates a bit of tension and suspense as this cat and mouse game plays out between The Thing, the military, and even the scientists who have their own agenda. The lighting and the isolated sets manage to conjure up a creepy feel, especially with those shots of really long corridors that seem to be swallowed up by shadow. It reminded me in some ways of a Val Lewton production, where the shadowy set locations and dim lighting would create the fear rather than the monster itself, due to budget constraints. The editing is excellent, the print still looks great after all these years except for a few scenes that look washed out, and the music works well to build the feel of danger that surrounds these characters. The pacing is quick and the film never wears out its welcome. And scenes, like where the researchers form a circle in the tundra to reveal the size of the flying saucer [which would be recreated in THE THING '82] and the fire attack on The Thing inside the corridor are great and memorable for all the right reasons. I'm one of the many who believes that Howard Hawks was the true director of this film, as his trademarks are all over the place here. But whatever the truth is, the film is excellently directed period.

The acting is great. Kenneth Tobey comes off great as Captain Hendry, bringing a commanding presence to the film while handling the more comedic moments well as well. Robert Comthwaite as Dr. Carrington was believable as the misguided scientist. A lot of actors could have played this role in a really over-the-top manner, but Comthwaite gives the character's kookiness some subtlety. Douglas Spencer was the comic relief as Scotty, as well as being the voice of the public when his urge to reveal the news of The Thing kept getting rebuffed. Margaret Sheridan played Nikki Nicholson as a strong female who can handle her own rather than a weak woman to serve the men around her. In fact, she comes across stronger than most of the military personnel, which is something not seen in films back in the 1950s. I'm sure the Ellen Ripley character from the ALIEN franchise was inspired by Nikki. The Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the 2011 THE THING prequel is based on this character, from what I read. And James Arness, who would go on for 20 years playing Marshal Matt Dillion on the television classic, Gunsmoke, does his thing [no pun intended] as The Thing. Not much I can really say about his performance. He fights off dogs, bursts through doors, and tries to look intimidating in his costume. This probably scared people in 1951 but it sure doesn't in 2011.

THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE WONDERING IF EATING THE THING WOULD HELP IMPROVE MY VISION

- A bunch of researchers are having a convention at the North Pole. Santa Claus and his elves always have the best parties with the top supply of ho, ho, hos.

- The military crew enjoyed coffee on their airplane. Even though it was frowned down upon at the time, I'm sure one of the crew members liked their coffee black, like their men.

- The military and scientists spotted a giant something frozen underneath them. The fact that this Thing is trapped under ice means two things: he's a Metallica fan and hates Napster.

- The Thing was throwing around and killing dogs. Looks like there is some Asian influences on his home planet.

- The Thing is considered a "giant carrot" that feeds on blood. Ben Grimm considers the description a bit rocky, yo.

THE FINAL HOWL
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is still a relevant piece of science fiction cinema after 60 years of its release. While some of the film may feel slapstick to some and The Thing itself won't frighten a fly, the film did a lot for horror and science fiction that ought to be respected and appreciated. While I do prefer the remake, which I will discuss in the next post on this blog, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD still stands tall and fans of either sci-fi or horror should check this gem out if they haven't already. Now where's my V8?


SCORE
4 Howls Outta 4


8 comments:

  1. Fred, You know the scene where The Thing bursts through the door and they set him on fire and then chuck a bucket of kerosene over him to increase the flame level, well that scene would still grace a modern gore-fest or special effects extravaganza TODAY ! ! !, its incredible how well that scene still holds up 60 years on, primarily of course because it was a real geezer being set on fire, it wasn`t CGI bullshit.

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  2. I totally agree with you. It's still a scene that could occur in today's horror/sci-fi cinema without question. It would probably be done with CGI now, but I'm sure there are stunt people who would do it the old practical way. This film really changed how horror and sci-fi was presented. I could see how a lot of later films and even the slasher era took so much from how this movie was presented and put together. Still an amazing classic piece of cinema.

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  3. Its such a shame that Margaret Sheridan snuffed it just a few weeks before the release of Carpenters masterwork, i wonder what she would have thought of Bottin and Winstons incredible special effects in the remake ?.

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  4. steve prefontaineJuly 26, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    Fred, do you recall that story about a few of the original cast members from this film (i cant remember which ones) attending a special preveiw screening of Carpenters movie ?, when asked what they thought of the film they said "its certainly a great advert for J@B scotch whiskey" ! ! !, i could never understand why they would have been so sarcastic and cynical about such a great movie. I doubt if Kurt Russell will be dis-respectful in the same way when people ask for his opinion of the new Mary Elizabeth Winstead version.

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  5. jimmie t. murakamiJuly 26, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    Your reveiw of Carpenters film should be one of the greatest ever posted on this site.

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  6. While it's hard to fathom why anyone would dislike the remake, it's easy to see why the original cast would be displeased with it. They probably felt the story didn't need to be retold. They also felt the SFX were gross and that the film was more style over substance [which isn't true at all]. They had an old school mentality about THE THING and probably felt that their film didn't need an update.

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  7. jervaise brooke hamsterJuly 27, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Fred, i think theres a DVD out there of this movie with a com-girl-tary track by Carpenter giving his opinions, i just wondered if you`d seen or heard that one ?, it would be great to hear Carpenters opinions every step of the way (as it were) on the film that (perhaps more than any other) inspired him to become a film-maker.

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  8. No, never seen or heard the commentary by Carpenter. It would be a treat to hear though, seeing how huge of a Howard Hawks fan he was.

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