Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Movie Review: The Thing from Another World

With the Space Age coming into its own during the 50s, more eyes than ever before were looking toward the sky, and not always with expectations of joy and salvation.  There was fear.  We were, if only in the smallest way, coming to terms with our place in the universe, and our relative unimportance.  The cosmic vastness that Lovecraft wrote about in his work, that mind shattering, soul searing knowledge of human insignificance that could drive a man mad.  A manifestation of this revelation, and of the fear it brought, was the alien invasion science fiction horror film.  Chariots of the Gods, man!

A fairly common movie plot, with fairly typical anti-science mentality, was the ‘guy gets shot into space, sees/touches something he shouldn’t, comes back to Earth and turns into a horrible killing machine.’  In other words, it’s dangerous up there, and shouldn’t we just not try?  There were a lot of variations on the theme, but the general idea echoed the fear of the Tower of Babel, strive and you will be doomed.  I never really like those stories.  I can more easily stomach, and enjoy, the ‘creature from space invasion’ movies.  There are, of course, many of those as well.  The drive-ins were littered with teenagers getting menaced by hulking carpet monsters or aliens that looked like Renaissance fair refugees.  Occasionally, a movie would rise above the rest, eventually becoming a classic.  Though, sometimes, really good movies fell through the cracks to become forgotten or mocked.  The Thing From Another World is an example that achieved classic status, later getting one of Universal’s early 80s remakes that then went on to become a classic in its own right.

The film takes the action to the Arctic Circle, where a group of scientists are onto something.  And what they’ve found could be the greatest discovery of all time, or the end of the world.  The isolated setting is a simple, but effective way of ramping up tension without saying much.  And we’re quickly introduced to a group of friends, exchanging good natured jabs as they explain the situation to the audience.  The characters are instantly likable, which I find to be an important aspect of a good horror film (most films, in truth).  Even the annoying reporter is sarcastically fun.  From there, the cast expands to the scientists and folks at the research station, each with a distinct and interesting personality.

I like that while mentioning the Soviets, the film never becomes a Cold War propaganda piece.  Or, if it does, it was far too subtle for me to pick up.  So many films of the era, even some of the really good ones, quickly descend into blatant allegory or extreme preachiness (The Day the World Stood Still, anyone?), so it’s a welcome change of pace.   The dialog is snappy and fun, with lots of layers and quick jabs, so you’ve got to pay attention.  Even the exposition works without feeling like a lecture.  The scientists start tossing facts at our military hero (and thus, at us), but the use of multiple speakers and information sources keeps things from getting too bogged down, and it doesn’t take long to get our players back into a plane on and their way to some action.

While the creature, the Thing (James Arness), isn’t the shape-shifting horror of the 1982 remake, it still manages to carry apocalyptic potential.  While some want to reason with it, others believe it too inhuman to be reasoned with.  And, if it gets out of the cold, its spawn could cover the Earth.  As the film progresses, there are plenty of powerful and effective sequences.  One of the coolest is when our heroes try to burn the thing.  Lots of fire and yelling, and stuff getting broken.  All in stark black and white.  And as things heat up, our intrepid, sometimes aggravating reporter picks up a butcher’s knife to go along with his camera.  That’s my kind of reporting.  (And where’s my butcher knife wielding reporter action figure/statue?).

The Thing from Another World is an excellent example of the alien invasion subgenre of science fiction-horror of the 1950s.  Deserving of its classic status, if anything I think it’s kind of fallen by the wayside in recent years due in large part to the major success of its remake.  I don’t sing its praises as any kind of attack on that 1982 John Carpenter classic, either.  Both movies are very good for very different reasons.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out.  If you only vaguely remember it from The Creature Double Feature, or Joe Bob Briggs, or something, give it another go.


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