Of all the science fiction/horror movies of the 50’s The Thing from Another World is perhaps the most seminal of all. Its success stems from depicting a unique alien menace that is memorable and uniquely frightening, and the setting it takes place in.
There are many science fiction tropes out there, but few are as popular with genre writers of movies and television series as the idea of being isolated in a remote frozen outpost with a hostile alien organism. This trope has been used, and used again, many times, maybe more than any other in the sub-genre of sci-fi/horror, that comes to mind at the moment. Alien (1979) is a version of this trope, that relies on claustrophobia as part of its horrifying effect. It all started with this classic 50’s film.
The Thing from Another World (often referred to as The Thing prior to its 1982 remake) is a 1951 American black-and-white science fiction/horror film produced by Howard Hawks’ Winchester Pictures Corporation, released by RKO Pictures, and directed by Christian Nyby. The film stars Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite, and Douglas Spencer. James Arness played The Thing, but he is difficult to recognize in costume and makeup, due to both low lighting and other effects used to obscure his features. The film is based on the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell (writing under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart).
The story concerns a U. S. Air Force crew and scientists who finds a crashed flying saucer and a body frozen nearby in the Arctic ice. Returning to their remote research outpost with the humanoid body in a block of ice, they are forced to defend themselves against this malevolent, plant-based alien when it is accidentally revived.
This film is an excellent example of creating suspense, tension, and its horrific terror before the widespread use of CGI or other types of special effects. It creates its effects by the good old fashioned use of masterfully manipulating light and shadow, and good acting, to achieve its results without the depiction of graphic violence, or dwelling on the portrayal of the bloody results of the alien’s uninvited arrival at the party in the frozen setting the story takes place in.
The film is populated by stereotypes of characters, caricatures really, often seen in movies of the type in the atomic age of the fifties, a decade that gave birth to a plethora of science fiction films. The heroic military officer, Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) the logical scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) whose curiosity overrides his common sense, and representing the ladies is Carrington’s secretary, Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), who is depicted as being pretty smart and helpful for a woman in a movie made in the chauvinistic era it comes from. Also along for the ride is reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), who tags along for the story.
Long story short, the scientist calls the military when an object from outer space crashes near the research outpost occupied by him and small group of other scientists. Investigating the crash site, it is discovered to not be the meteor it was assumed to be, but a spacecraft that is circular in shape buried in the ice.
When thermite bombs are used to try to free it from its frozen prison, the thermite ignites the ship, destroying it. Afterwards, the crew discovers what appears to be a tall humanoid body frozen in the ice which they take back to the outpost. This is a classic science fiction cliche of people messing with stuff they don’t understand without taking any precautions, but we might find ourselves without any science fiction stories at all without this trope being used over and over again in genre stories.
The thing is accidentally thawed by an electric blanket (no kidding) left on it by the careless humans in the movie, it comes back to life and escapes into the storm that has gotten worse (of course).Things escalate when the group tries to set a trap for the creature which has now returned to life, but it escapes by jumping through a window into the frozen arctic outside.
The creature is attacked by the sled dogs outside, and loses and arm in the encounter which is brought back inside for study. Its composition turns out to resemble plant tissue more than animal tissue, and is shown absorbing the dogs blood it is covered in. So here we are in a remote outpost with an advanced plantlike life form that lives on a diet of blood.
After discovering seed pods in the hand of the dismembered alien arm Carrington, in an incredibly stupid move, decides to plant the the pods, and and give them blood to encourage their growth. The pods respond well to this and begin growing rapidly into plants. Carrington is an arrogant idiot who deserves to die a horrible death.
Nicholson notices that the temperature inside the station is falling; a heating fuel line has been sabotaged by the alien. The cold forces everyone to make a final stand near the generator room. They rig an electrical “fly trap”, hoping to electrocute their visitor. As the thing advances, Carrington shuts off the power and tries to reason with it, but is knocked aside. An airman throws a pick axe along the floor at the creature, forcing it to step on to their grid-trap.
On Hendry’s direct order that nothing of the thing remain, it is reduced by arcs of electricity to a smoldering pile of ash; Dr. Carrington’s growing seed pods and the thing’s severed arm are then destroyed. When the weather clears, Scotty files his “story of a lifetime” by radio to a roomful of reporters in Anchorage. During his report, Scotty broadcasts a warning to the reporters: “Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies”.
This film is a true classic of the sub-genre it belongs to, and gave birth to an updated version that is also widely considered a genre classic with graphically portrayed practical effects, with the title shortened to simply being called John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Justifiably still considered one of the greatest movies of its kind. Another CGI version was released in 2011. One thing is for sure, this is one story that’s not going away anytime soon.