The Evil Chaos Carrot
The Thing from Another World
I don't think there's any horror fan alive that argue against John Carpenter's The Thing being an classic of the genre. It's such a perfectly crafted, well made, horror creep show that works effectively even when you've seen it before. It's unnerving and unsettling and still manages to scare on your fourth, fifth, sixth watching and beyond. Although it was a bomb when it was released in 1982, making only $19.6 Mil against it's $15 Mil production budget, and was lambasted by critics at the time, the cultural reevaluation of the film has lead to it landing on most "best of" lists for horror and sci-fi.
The Thing was an adaptation of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella Who Goes There?, but it wasn't the first. 1951 saw the release of The Thing from Another World, Christian Nyby's directorial effort about an alien come to the arctic. When watching the film you can see the bones that inspired Carpenter's 1982 masterpiece, the ideas that would go on to influence that classic of the form. But, on it's own, the 1951 effort just isn't that interesting.
Now, I say that knowing I'm in the minority among critics. There are plenty that hail The Thing from Another World as one of the best horror films of the 1950s. And, well, I won't deny that in some ways that's true. It had a lot of solid ideas, and even a few tense moments that feel a cut above the sci-fi and horror being cranked out in that era. At the same time, though, the film really hasn't aged will, and it's hobbled by some choices that really hold it back from being great. Some may hold this film in high esteem, but it does feel very much like a work of its era that isn't worth seeing unless you want to explore every nook and cranny of The Thing.
The film opens with Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), who meets up with reporter Ned "Scotty" Scott (Douglas Spencer) in Anchorage, AK, at the Alaskan Air Command. Hendry and his crew, including Scotty, are called out to Polar Expedition Six when an unusual object comes crashing down into the ice. They pack up and fly out, grabbing the scientist, including lead specialist Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), so they can investigate the crash site. What they find is, without a doubt, a flying saucer embedded and flash frozen into the ice.
Attempts to free the ship only cause ruin when the explosives blow up the saucer, but the crew is able to free a body from the ice. They cut the block out, with the body in the middle, from the ice and transport it back to the polar base. But when the ice melts, and the body wakes up, the men discover they might have just brought back and unstoppable killing machine dedicated to one thing: spreading its spores all over the world and stealing the Earth from its human population. The Captain and his crew have to find a way to destroy the beast before it's able to complete its mission, its drive, and wipe away all life on the planet.
Before we get into what works about this film I do feel it would be fair to at least go over what I do appreciate in The Thing from Another World. For starters, the concept of the alien is actually pretty interesting. The beast is basically vegetable matter (which does lead to some pretty goofy lines, such as equating the alien to a "giant carrot" which drains much of the mystique away), and when parts of it that are lopped over are planted, spores and blooms come up from the ground within hours. This is discovered when the men successfully chop of an arm from the alien and then the lead scientist, Carrington, decides to plant it to see what happens. Science, folks! Sometimes its just planting arms in the ground for the sake of it.
Also creepy is the fluid the alien needs to survive: blood. This weird, vampiric plant-man uses blood and plasma in its growth cycle, meaning it literally lives on the life of its victims to survive. For the era this came out, that had to seem positively horrifying, and even now the concept does lead to a certain gross-out factor. Sure, the film isn't really able to show much of this disgusting process (because of the required norms of the film for film), but the idea of it is certainly potent all these years later.
With that said, the film has some serious failings that are hard to ignore. Chief among them is that its pace is absolutely abysmal. The film takes forever to get going, with men sitting around and talking in one scene after another before we even get into a plane to head out to the Arctic. And even once the alien is introduced, and the men know the danger they're facing, far more time is spent on talking about the beast than showing the creature. I think we really only see it three times in total, and while those times are effective, it does lead to a lot of down time that has to be filled somehow.
Worse, the characters constantly info dump at the same volume and with the same, near-monotone delivery. It's just a constant speeding through of fact and ideas, as if the script writer had so much they wanted to detail, from every character's motivations, to military procedure, the life cycle of the alien, and more, none of which could be cut out or left as just ideas. The dialogue moves really fast, and at a low volume, and it is hard at times to keep up or, worse, care. We're here for an alien, not a discussion about the cellular make up of the beast with diagrams and notes. Please just get to it and stop boring us.
But then, the alien isn't really that scary when we do see it, which doesn't help the pace either. It's basically just a big, hulking guy, almost Frankenstein-like in his appearance. There's one effective section where the beast is on fire and the men keep dousing it with kerosene (all practical effects, of course, which had to be super dangerous at the time) but beyond that one effective sequence (which was certainly lively) the beast is a snore, in shape and delivery.
I want to be charitable to this film, to see it the way other critics see it so I can understand why they rave about it so much. In comparison to other 1950s horror, yes, this film does stand a cut above. But then, most 1950s horror is sub-par at best, better watched when viewed through the lens of Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix.. The bar, in short, is so low as to be on the ground. But when it comes to good horror, from any era, this film simple doesn't make the grade. Slow, tedious, and without a lot of life in it, The Thing from Another World can't get past the limitations of its era to elevate its own ideas. That's why a remake was eventually needed, and why 1982's The Thing was able to take those ideas and do it right.