Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.
So brace yourself, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Director: Christian Nyby
Starring: Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer, Robert O. Cornthwaite, James Arness
“Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
Horror might have been firmly out of favour around the turn of the decade, but by 1951, Hollywood had caught up with the changing tastes of its audiences once more.
Post-World War 2, nobody was interested in gothic monsters and old world legends. Who was going to be scared by a man in a cape when the entire world was living in the shadow of the atomic bomb?
With the Cold War hotting up and the spectre of “Reds under the bed” instilling a climate of fear and paranoia across America, the new direction of horror had to reflect that. Fear of The Other was the new horror and it was a theme that would be mined for years to come.
First out of the traps and still undoubtedly one of the finest examples of the genre ever made was Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World.
Based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, it would be a masterclass in tension and become one of the most important films of the decade and beyond.
Stationed at a remote Alaskan Air Force base in search of a story, reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) joins Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his airmen when they are despatched to investigate a report of a suspected crash by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), chief scientist of a North Pole scientific outpost.
The crew discover a flying saucer buried in the ice, but accidentally destroy it with thermite bombs while trying to release it, but then discover a body (James Arness) frozen in the ice way from the crash site, which they take back to the research station.
Hendry is given orders to keep the body frozen, but when it is accidentally thawed, it’s revealed to be a giant, humanoid vegetable, one that needs blood to survive and is now rampaging around the base in search of it…
God, I love this film.
Right from those most dramatic of opening credits where the logo burns through the screen (so effective John Carpenter retained them for his faultless remake three decades later), The Thing From Another World is relentlessly entertaining.
It’s not all horror though, as a good portion of its early minutes are taken up with establishing the ensemble cast as a believable, appealing bunch of real human beings who interact with each other in the most natural of ways. Conversations overlap, talk is fast and relationships seem as if they happen off screen, particularly the wonderfully playful pairing of Hendry and Carrington’s secretary Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan). Considering it’s 1951, she’s gloriously liberated. Far from a token female, or mere eye candy, she’s totally in control of not just herself but Hendry, teasing him about his octopus hands and drinking him under the table. She’s bright, sexy and sassy, while completely stealing every scene she’s in that doesn’t have a burning alien in it.
Humanity established and Nyby (or producer Howard Hawks depending on who you listen to) waste no time in reminding us of the hostile world that they are trapped in. Even the plane they travel in is claustrophobic and cramped, while outside the wind howls constantly, a reminder of oppressive and alien environment – they don’t belong here.
Neither though does The Thing. Its introduction when the crew find the saucer is a absolute cinema gold, their wonder and excitement at realising they “finally got one” as they stand in a wide circle is as thrilling for the viewer as it is for them, with Dimitri Tiomkin’s music rising to a huge dramatic crescendo at the discovery of what the crew hope will be “the key to the stars, a million years of history are waiting for us in that ice”
The Thing himself is a holy terror in his rare appearances. He’s a huge, lumbering presence with more than a little of the Frankenstein’s Monster about him, but is also a very modern updating of the vampire trope, being a creature who needs blood to survive. It’s not Satan that humanity needs to fear anymore though, it’s science.
Smartly, Nyby uses his creature sparingly for maximum effect, appearing on the other side of thrown open doors, filling the space not just with his bulk but with sheer alien intensity, while the scenes where it’s set ablaze or electrocuted are brilliantly realised and really being home how dangerous this first contact is.
At the end of the day though, the real conflict in The Thing From Another World isn’t man vs alien, it’s between the press, the military and the scientists. It’s about information and knowledge, who is allowed to have it and what can they do with it?
It’s the kind of film that could only have been made post-Roswell, to be shown in cinemas who had seen newsreels of atomic bombs and communist witch hunts on their big screens. It’s a film that announces the arrival of a bold new era, where man is suddenly made aware that they are not alone in a cold and unfriendly universe. What could be more terrifying?
Keep watching the skies…
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy