‘The Thing From Another World’ or — Who Goes There, Indeed?
I’d heard of Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951) for years although had never seen it until las… GOD DAMN IT! I keep doing that! You see, unlike Carpenter’s version, the real case of identity deception here seems to be going on behind the camera.
‘TTFAW’ is credited as being directed by Christian Nyby but I had always heard it referred to as a Howard Hawks film (he is credited here as producer and co-writer) so was a little confused when the credits rolled. After now having seen the film there’s no doubt that this is, 100%, a Hawks film as his fingerprints are all over this in every possible way. This is unmistakably Hawks. And thank goodness for it.
The Hawksisms (what an ugly looking word! I think it’s all those ‘s’s and that ‘m’ in such close proximity) are all present and ready for duty: there’s the group of men confined together; women in slacks; the overlapping dialogue (discussing alien creatures at breakneck speed is almost as much fun as talking rapidly about sex); the strength of the group; camaraderie and, finally, good old fashioned story telling with strong pacing. So, from now on, ‘TTFAW’ is a Hawks film.
My other pondering thought was — how would this stand up to Carpenter’s masterpiece of a remake? For me, ‘The Thing’ (1982) is one of the finest practical effects movies ever made so how would a sci-fi flick from 1951 featuring a guy in a monster suit compare to that? The good news is that ‘TTFAW’ not only compares well to the ’82 remake but you can sense its influence reaching wider than just Carpenter. Much wider.
The basic story structure is, essentially, similar where a group of guys (the emphasis is more on the air force than a research team this time) discover a crashed flying saucer in the Arctic, bring the frozen alien pilot back to their base where it unthaws and runs amok causing death and destruction. The group knows it has to destroy the monster as failure to do so will result in the end of the World. Eek!
What’s interesting is that there’s less of a sense of paranoia and group disintegration here. This maybe shouldn’t be a surprise as I can imagine the thought of group disintegration would most likely make Hawks balk. Also, the creature doesn’t shape shift so the unease of who is who etc isn’t here either. Instead the monster is a humanoid, sentient vegetable with the threat of multiplication replacing impersonation. And, amazingly, it works!
The idea seems daft on paper, and even when spoken out loud (the “intellectual carrot” line made me laugh), but the threat is palpable. Plus, even though it is a guy in a suit the judicious editing means we see much less of it than I feared; it’s nearly always obscured in some way, usually by flames or snow. In short, the monster is suitably scary and provides a great catalyst for the group to start interacting together to deal with all the alien surprises.
Although the biggest surprise was not the connection between ‘TTFAW’ and Carpenter’s remake (indeed, watching the two you can actively sense Carpenter wisely pulling away from Hawks’ film) but the massive influence the original obviously had on a whole raft of other sci-fi movies. This includes everything from ‘Close Encounters’ (“Watch the skies”) to ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’ (the radiation scanning devices alerting us when the monster is getting closer), ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ (carnivorous plants) and even ‘Predator’ (the TFAW also hangs its victims upside down by their ankles in a shockingly violent off-screen image). Yep, there’s no doubt many a young filmmaker must have impacted by this growing up. I can see why.
I think it’s the economy of storytelling, the tightness, the compact nature of it all contained within a taut 87 minutes that’s the thrill as well as the chilling rush of possible global destruction (we all have a little dash of Thanatos in us). It’s also got a great score by Dimitri Tiomkin. The result is fantastic.
If you’ve never seen ‘The Thing From Another World’ because you felt it might pale compared to the remake then don’t worry because although it might not have the visceral kick of the ’82 version it’s got its own thing, literally, going on. It is its own unique monster entirely so comparing the two would be like comparing apples and oranges… or, more accurately, carrots and metamorphosing huskies.