Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Thing From Another World (Film Review)

To say that 2011’s prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing was a disappointment would be underselling its failure.

The writer didn’t understand what made the story it was supposed to precede so effective and it completely lacked the sense of paranoia which made the first film frightening. It felt like a glorified direct to DVD cash in and the CGI paled in comparison to the physical effects of the original. It was heavily flawed and seemed very underwhelming due to its link with one of the greatest horror features ever produced. Thankfully for anyone wanting to see more action involving frozen extra-terrestrials, there is in fact a third Thing film.

Few people seem to realise that John Carpenter’s film was in fact a remake of a classic horror film of the 1950s, cheerily titled The Thing From Another World. Which is itself an adaptation of the book Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. While the horror aspect present in the novel is visibly toned down and lacks the alien’s shape shifting abilities, the film preserved a lot of what made the novel effective. There is distrust between the personnel on the artic station, they are facing something much more powerful than themselves and a lot of the characters behave so competently it’s astounding to contrast them with some in modern day slashers.

The story of TTFAW has more in common with Campbell’s tale than Carpenter’s film. A resupply crew led by the film’s protagonist, Captain Hendry, is sent to a scientific station in the North Pole at the request of its leader, doctor Carrington. They were requested as Carrington spotted a meteorite falling through the atmosphere and repeatedly changing direction like a manned craft, requiring a long range aircraft to seek out where it landed.

The craft is revealed to be a flying saucer, buried below the ice and while unsalvageable, the crew find its pilot, similarly buried, nearby. Cutting out a block with it in it, they bring the frozen creature out and take it back to the base, only to have it accidently thaw out not long after arrival. The creature then begins lurking outside the base, stalking the humans as it is highly resistant to the cold and has no trouble adapting to its environment.
Well, not entirely as the artic lacks one thing which only the humans can provide: food. It needs an abundance of blood plasma to survive. The film follows the heroes’ attempts to fight off its repeated attacks and their unity begins to fracture due to internal conflicts.

Probably what makes this film worth watching the most is that the director, the famed Howard Hawks, seemed to actually realise how unthreatening the monster looked. Even by 50s science fiction standards it looked like a villain which would have been laughed off of any set, and resembled Dragonball’s Piccolo more than it did Space Dracula.
As a result the film almost never shows it directly, frequently obscuring its face and having it appear after the station’s lights had cut out. The audience is never shown close ups of the Thing and in only two instances is it ever seen directly. This, combined with devices used to build up tension like the slow clicking of Geiger counters heralding its approach on the base, makes what should have been a laughable villain into something genuinely frightening.

Oddly enough though, the creature’s semi-human design did help the film in another way: it made the actions of the film’s token evil scientist seem somewhat more reasonable.

From the very instant he appears on screen it is clear that Carrington is going to be an antagonist within the film. Robert Cornthwaite’s slow, methodical and detached performance seems reminiscent of Christopher Lee’s more famous performances and clearly marks him as a villain.

Despite this he does make some very reasonable arguments about the alien. When it breaks out it is in fact the humans who attack it first, driving it out and causing it to be attacked by the station’s team of dogs. The audience never sees if it was going to attack them and in almost every situation it is the humans who attack first upon it appearing before them. He continually tries to reason that they should talk to it, convince it to stand down and try to communicate with what is clearly a sentient being he considers to be acting out of fear.
Carrington does spout some very villainous lines. Most notably praising the creature’s lack of emotional weaknesses but he seems to genuinely believe that it can be talked down without further bloodshed. Even during the conclusion, when the Thing is advancing upon the remaining protagonists, Carrington is nearly killed cautiously walking up to the creature and trying to convince it that they don’t want to harm it. While still very much a 50s evil scientist he is written with much more depth than you would find in science fiction characters of this era.

Similar surprising details are found in almost the entire cast. I mentioned before how the humans behaved with surprising competence during the film and this even goes for the small background characters. When a guard is assigned to keep an eye on the frozen creature shortly before it breaks out, a guard who had only spoken a scant handful of lines, I immediately assumed he was dead meat. Instead, to my utter amazement, the guard survives the encounter, doing the smart thing and legging it rather than being slaughtered like in many modern films. The Thing From Another World is dotted with moments like this which contradict all normal horror clichés and makes watching it a very different experience to modern science fiction horror films.

The Thing From Another World is by no means perfect. While it is a classic there are some shortcomings which it suffers from. Due to the censorship laws time, and the changes to the villain, it lacks the intensity and gore of John Carpenter’s film. The soundtrack seems very average, a few performances seem phoned in, and while Hawks’ signature cinematography is very effective in many scenes he seems to have trouble working around the tight confines of the aircraft early into the film. A big problem is that many secondary characters lack individual personalities, most of their lines consisting of the sarcasm and deadpan humour Hawks was known to love. These merely weaken the film though, rather than ruin it, and it’s still definitely one worth watching.
Watching The Thing From Another World is like watching a story of classic Doctor Who. It has some very visible flaws, fails when it comes to special effects and the story seems tamer than what you'd find today; but it's still very fun to watch. The problems it has you can put down to it coming from another era and only help to highlight how far ahead of its time it was.

1 comment:

  1. For the record, 2011's The Thing did originally have extensive practical effects just like Carpenter's. The cheap CGI was pasted on by the studio afterwards.