Since it's Bela Lugosi's birthday today (see post below), I was going to talk about DRACULA, but decided that possibly it might be a case of too much of a good thing.
THE THING From Another World, produced by Howard Hawks' and directed by Christian Nyby (with Hawks, uncredited) is possibly my favorite of the 1950's outer space monster films. Certainly I never get tired of watching it. As with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (the two films previously included in my October Movies series), there is a strange sort of comfort in these vintage b/w films. I view these and other films of that era with a great deal of nostalgic affection.
I suppose when I was a young these movies frightened me, but not enough, obviously, to make me swear off watching them over and over through the years. Maybe they make me feel like a kid again.
And being that Halloween is just around the corner, this is the perfect time to indulge in an evening with a monster from outer space. Popcorn on the side.
THE THING begins with a terrific opening title sequence, simple but effective and includes the recognizably ominous music by Dimitri Tiomkin which is kind of other-worldly screechy, but perfect for the film.
Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew (who are on leave) are sent on an errand by a very grumpy General Fogarty (David McMahon) who appears to have little patience for error and/or the cold, in response to a radio request from scientists at an icy Arctic camp.
In the plane, alongside the crew and sled dogs - as a sort of sidekick - is the newspaper man, Ned 'Scotty' Scott (veteran character actor, Douglas Spencer) who's riding along looking for a big story - he is about to get the biggest story in the history of the world.
A bunch of scientists - all varieties - headed by the brilliant but emotionally rigid Dr. Carrington (another veteran character actor, Robert Cornthwaite), are camped at the North Pole (I think it's the North, could be the South), working on all sorts of experiments. When an unidentified flying object shows up on their radar screens, they rule out the idea of a meteor and send a request down to Army headquarters in Alaska, asking for a plane and other assorted military help.
They want to investigate.
Up at the Arctic camp, along with the scientists and on-going experiments, sits and waits Doctor Carrington's fetching secretary, Nikki Nicholson (the stylish and sylph-like Margaret Sheridan who makes fatigues, plaid flannel and boots look chic). She and Captain Hendry have had an awkward escapade while on leave and he is eager to take things further. She is hesitant. But not really.
Whatever is going on or is going to be going on between them has to be set aside until Hendry heeds Carrington's summons. Science must not be kept waiting.
Dr. Carrington explains the anomalies which make the moving dot that showed up on their radar the day before, so peculiar. He is convinced that whatever is moving out there is not a meteor.
Carrington and the Army crew immediately take off into the wild blue, frozen yonder.
From overhead they can see that something has indeed crashed on the ice. When they land to investigate, they find a ship - encased in the ice, it's tail fin sticking out.
They gather to try and gauge the shape of the ship and lo and behold, it's a saucer!
No getting around it. It's round.
They make the mistake of trying to rapidly melt the ice away with some sort of bomb and wind up destroying the ship. Situation Normal All...well, you know Army jargon.
But all is not lost. The ship's occupant has been thrown free. The men cut out the block of ice which contains the 'thing' and fly it back to camp. But when Scotty wants to radio the biggest news story of his life back to headquarters and the world, Captain Hendry won't let him.
He's already pulled a bone-headed maneuver out on the ice and doesn't want to do anything else to worsen the situation. He is Army through and through. Scotty must wait for General Ferguson to give the okay for the release of his story.
Scotty isn't the only one grumbling, Carrington and several of the scientists are eager to melt the ice and free the occupant for study. They're sure it must be dead. Hendry prevents them doing so by breaking the glass in the store-room windows to make sure whatever it is stays frozen. He also sets one of his men to keep watch. Unfortunately, the man on second watch rigs up an electric blanket.
Sometimes you just have to roll your eyes.
When the blanket gets tossed over the ice - you guessed it.
James Arness as The Thing. Though he never appears this clearly in the film.
The ice melts and the creature, impervious to bullets, rises from the deep freeze to cause all sorts of havoc - the first of which is going mano-a-mano with the sled dogs, tossing them hither and yon out in the snow.
When the men sent to search for the creature find a severed arm, they bring it back for show and tell. Carrington is fascinated and from then on, he won't sleep until he finds out what this thing is about. Especially since, a few hours later, the arm begins to move on its own. Uh-oh.
As the night goes on, communications with headquarters is disrupted, so the camp is temporarily on its own. By studying the severed arm, Carrington discovers it's composed of vegetable matter AND feeds on mammal blood. Well, you knew that was coming.
Did you notice he's grown another arm?
The Thing begins rummaging around camp looking for egress and finds it in the greenhouse where the scientists are growing strawberries and other plants. Carrington finds the carcasses of two dead sled dogs stored there in a bin. A snack for later on.
Not thinking clearly because of fatigue and other character oddities, Carrington doesn't let on that he knows where the creature has been hiding. Soon he is rearing little monster pod creatures in the lab, feeding them plasma, behind Captain Hendry's back. (He took seedlings from the arm.)
Soon as Hendry finds out he fries the little darlings.
It sounds like the wail of a newborn child.
Carrington's excuse: He will claim that they owe it to science to die rather than destroy a source of knowledge. (Why he apparently is convinced that the creature is a source of wisdom, wiser that humans, is not made clear.)
"What can that thing teach us besides another way to die?" is Hendry's reply. And damn if he doesn't have a point.
When two of his scientist co-workers are killed, hung on hooks in the greenhouse, like haunches in a butcher shop, Carrington still refuses to change his mind. Science is no hero in this story. (The funny thing here is, that no matter how many times I've seen this movie, I still can't spot who disappeared from the cast of characters. I mean, which two scientists died? They name them, but try as I might I can't tell who's missing. The cast still appears intact. Oh well, maybe there are things we are not meant to know.)
From then on it's the Army, the reporter and the scientists (except Carrington who appears more and more frazzled) against the monster as they realize that the thing can think and plan and has, very smartly, turned off the generator which powers the heating system. Uh-oh. Obviously he intends to freeze them out.
When burning the creature by dousing him with gasoline (a very harrowing and realistic scene) and setting him on fire doesn't work. It's time to get really clever.
The added appeal of this movie is not so much the story, which is a good one and the cast of actors, which are excellent, it's the way that the story unfolds. The mounting tension. The pragmatic sense of calm desperation. The direction, either by Hawks or Nyby is really exceptional. The actors are allowed to talk over one another, no one has to wait until the other has finished speaking, it's all very natural and relaxed. The scenes of terror are not histrionic as was occasionally the norm back then. The editing is just right, the story flows from one scene into the next. And best of all, there are no screaming women to jangle the nerves.
There are some memorably tense scenes as these men go about defending themselves as best they can in a smart, matter-of-fact way.There's no real soul-searching, no blame game - it's obvious they know they've brought this on themselves. These are the sorts of people you'd want around you if you were ever in a similar fix. Well, except for Carrington.
There is one moment of understandable hysteria earlier in the film when the creature rises from the block of ice and the man on watch starts jabbering as he tries to explain what's happened. (One of the men splashes him with cold water.) It is very well done. Kenneth Tobey is excellent as the guy everyone turns to for leadership even if he doesn't have all the answers. Hendry very wisely relies on his men's individual expertise to save the day.
Actually, there is one scene that didn't need to make the cut but did in the slightly longer version now available on Netflix. This is the scene earlier in the film, when Nikki and Hendry are bantering back and forth and she has him tied up (?!), feeding him something in a cup. To my eye, this scene is totally unnecessary. I've seen the film without it and it works fine, flows more smoothly. But this is a minor quibble.
On the whole, THE THING is an unbeatable mix of inventive movie-making, terrific writing, good old-fashioned story-telling with a not unexpected touch of xenophobia stirred into the mix.
Xenophobia brought on, as in most films of this sort in the 50's, by a fear of communism and what lay behind the Iron Curtain.
Which is why we get an end shot of Scotty the newspaperman sending a message to the world to keep looking to the skies. Keep watching.
Keep watching the skies. Keep watching...!