When it’s on: Monday, 8 June (9.30 am)
‘Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!’
BBC2 has a lot to answer for when it comes to my love of classic science fiction. Back in 1983, when I was eleven years old and a mere cineasteling, the channel screened a series of flicks over thirteen weeks in its early evening slot. I was hooked, my family no doubt grateful as hell for my insistence that the household’s single television set was taken over by paranoia-fuelled thrills from years ago. Alongside newer entries like Silent Running and the rarely scheduled The Forbin Project (the latter’s a really interesting story about two supercomputers, one American and the other Soviet, which insist on being linked and then together take charge of the world), the bulk of the schedule was 1950s Sci-Fi. It was a golden age for the genre, these films playing on the public’s real life fears of invasion from a largely unknown enemy by replacing the forces of the USSR with alien attackers. From those set on the straight destruction of humanity (The War of the Worlds), to invasion by more insidious means (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and those that were more interested in teaching us a lesson about our troublesome ways than killing us (The Day the Earth Stood Still), these films were a brilliant formative experience, and I try to cover them here whenever they put in a reappearance.
I’m entirely unapologetic about the pleasure I receive from watching these movies. They’re real documents of the contemporary mood, and very entertaining to boot. I should add that feelings weren’t so very different in the 1980s, as Reagan’s USA administration jacked up the level of antagonism against the Russians, albeit artificially as all the intelligence was suggesting that the superpower behind its iron curtain was by now crumbling. That didn’t stop a new slew of entertainments from chilling us all over again, though the focus then was more on the terrors of a nuclear strike, as seen in such films as When the Wind Blows and the terrifying TV movie, Threads. Both are recommended, especially the animated former, with its lovely old couple voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, trying to prepare themselves against the horrors of the bomb. Great title track also by David Bowie.
The Thing from Another World wasn’t shown as part of the BBC series, but it might well have been, and by 1983 it had already been remade by John Carpenter. The updated version diversified from the original in a number of fascinating ways, indeed it’s probably in my personal list of top horror movies, but its basic premise remains the same. A group of people are stuck in a research base near the North Pole and find themselves coming into contact with an alien visitor that is far from friendly. It was made by Howard Hawks’s production company, Winchester Pictures, which added genuine credibility to the title as science fiction was seen by many at the time as a childish, derided genre, one not to be taken seriously. The Thing from Another World is an intelligent piece of work. Its focus is on air force crew and scientists collaborating (most of the time) against the threat; there’s humour, banter and good-natured teasing going on, but mostly practical discussion about the decisions they need to make in resolving the crisis they face.
The military is led by Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), who’s dispatched from Anchorage to the Arctic in order to help uncover a mysterious crash landing in the ice. He’s joined by a news reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), who’s there to cover the story. At the base, Hendry comes across Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), a former love interest who is on hand to assist the scientists, led by Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). They arrive at the crash site and realise a saucer-shaped object is buried in the ice. Their efforts to blast it out result in the vessel being destroyed, but not its pilot (James Arness), an eight foot tall humanoid that is returned to the base trapped in ice. With communications with Anchorage disrupted, the idea is to keep the being contained until they can receive advice, but thanks to the ill-judged use of an electric blanket it’s thawed out, comes to life and begins making attacks against the people. Carrington, coming to the conclusion that the ‘Thing’ is an intelligent life form, indeed far cleverer than human beings, believes it can and must be reasoned with. Hendry sees it differently. As the assaults continue, the Thing apparently using its victims’ blood to create offspring, he decides that they must fight back, even though bullets appear to have little effect and fire causes no lasting damage. Then the Thing destroys the base’s generator, robbing it of heat, and the fight becomes a ‘do or die’ situation.
This being the 1950s, the Thing isn’t the shape shifting, obviously alien being that rampaged through the Carpenter remake, but rather a tall man wearing make-up that leaves him looking a bit like Frankenstein’s next monster. Arness, who played it, would go on to be better known as the strong-jawed hero in countless episodes of Gunsmoke, yet here he’s certainly imposing, very strong and undeniably dangerous. A good impression of its strength comes early, when an early tussle with the team of dogs leaves it with a severed arm, a grisly souvenir for the scientists to investigate. Not only does the arm grow back, but Carrington finds that the body part has no nerve endings, making it more like a plant sample than a humanoid appendage. At that point, a collective ‘what the hell?’ is the untold question on everyone in the room’s lips.
Despite the credited director being Christian Nyby, rumour had it that Hawks did a lot of the daily work himself and indeed the film bears many Hawks trademarks, notably the scenes with characters working under considerable pressure. There are things happening here that you don’t normally see in a film from 1951, mundane things like characters speaking over each other, the spark of chemistry between Hendry and Nikki that ensures the talk of their ‘previous’ makes sense. The tension, of which there is plenty, comes as this group of natural professionals begins to break down into sides, one led by Hendry, which is all for destruction, the other Carrington, who thinks the Thing can be reasoned with. No prizes for guessing which of the two factions is correct. Commendable is the systematic, trial and error method they have of working out how to kill it, after bullets, axes and fire don’t work. The solution is reached in a logical and intelligent way, and crucially at a point when all looks doomed. A word on the North Pole setting, which is great, RKO’s soundstage and Ranch with fake snow creating an authentic looking set. It’s very claustrophobic, this feeling of being cut off from the world, miles from anywhere and needing to work together in order to survive.
The story is told more or less from the perspective of journalist, Scotty, who is on hand to make a string of pithy remarks as the team go about their business. At the end of the film, contact with Anchorage is restored and Scotty takes to the mic in order to tell the world about the exploits he’s witnessed and increasingly become a part of, ending with the iconic lines that form the quote at the top of this piece.
The Thing from Another World is now very old and has been remade a couple of times (I’m yet to see the most recent version, from 2011). The 1982 update ramps up the paranoia as the largely co-operative team of people from the original film is overhauled with a dissolute group of selfish losers for the most part, ready to turn on each other at a moment’s notice regardless of the Thing’s presence among them. It’s uncomfortable to watch and very frightening, based more closely on the source material (John W Campbell’s short novel, Who Goes There?) by turning the Thing into a shape shifter that can blend in by taking on the identity of a dog or one of the people. But that isn’t to say this 1951 film isn’t worth it. At less than 90 minutes’ running time, the story moves fast and keeps piling on the tension, and its influence on later genre entries is transparent. It’s difficult to watch a modern classic like Alien and not see many shades from this film, particularly its emphasis on people in an isolated setting as they attempt to deal with a malevolent presence.
I like The Thing from Another World a great deal, mostly its optimistic message about humanity banding together when it needs to. Even Carrington – who almost dooms everyone due to his efforts to understand the Thing and ensure its survival – is cast ultimately not as a villain but as a valid scientific mind. He doesn’t get his comeuppance by paying for his errors with his life, neither is he derided as an idiot, which is a nice way of making sure that all opinions among the team matter. It’s a great film.
The Thing from Another World: ****