The Thing From Another World (Special Edition) Review
Snowed under in Anchorage, a US Air Force crew receive orders from their general to fly north at the behest of a Dr Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), a scientist at the remote Polar Expedition Six in the Arctic. General Fogarty has a report from Carrington of an aircraft having crashed nearby and fearing that it might be a Russian spy aircraft, he orders Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his men to investigate. Taking a reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), with them, Hendry leaves that day but what he hears from Carrington shocks them - 20,000 tons of metal had crashed nearby. Whatever it was, it wasn't Russian. In fact, at that weight, it's not from Earth at all and would be a meteor but for it changing direction during its fall into the ice. The next morning, Hendry loads his plane and takes his own crew and the scientists of Polar Expedition Six to the crash site.
What Hendry finds is only the tip of a wing above the ice, the rest of the plane having submerged in the ice that melted during the crash. Walking about on the ice, the Air Force spread out and stare at one another, amazed at what they see. Looking about, they're standing in a perfect circle...a flying saucer! Looking more carefully into the ground, they make out only the blurred edges of the craft but then the flashing lights on the Geiger counter reveals something else, something that they can't quite believe. There, thrown free of the flying saucer during the crash, is a body trapped in the ice, proof that life exists out there in space. But life that, here on earth, might have a bloody thirst for mankind...
The Thing From Another World is directed by Christian Nyby, or so it says during the title sequence. This has been debated since the film was first released in 1951 as it bears all the hallmarks of a Howard Hawks film, notably Rio Bravo, in which a handful of men under siege stand firm against an outside evil. All the while, they wisecrack, fall in love and enjoy themselves as few have done so before, dragging the audience along with them in such a manner as to make it wonderfully entertaining, as much of a treat at eight as it is as eighty. It doesn't much matter if Christian Nyby directed The Thing From Another World, whether he collaborated with Hawks, whether he simply paid homage to his producer in the shots he called or whether he never actually made it onto the set at all, leaving Hawks to direct alone. It doesn't matter because The Thing From Another World is a Hawks film and it is as enjoyable a science-fiction film as Rio Bravo is a western and as tense and as terrifying as anything that has ever been produced in horror.
"An intellectual carrot - the mind boggles!" It does indeed and not only at the suggestion of The Thing being a creature that has evolved from alien plant life. Skipping some of the plotting of The Thing From Another World, it soon becomes clear that when the scientists and Air Force pilots defrost the alien, they find that its intentions are not wholly in keeping with their own. The alien is no more a carrot than it is a turnip but it does have some origins in plant life but any accuracy in Scotty's summation of events ends there. Any intellectualism in the Thing (James Arness) ends with it flailing its arms about wildly at a passing man or woman with it showing scant regard for anything to do with one's mind unless to eat it, preferably whilst still wet with blood. The Thing From Another World wastes no time in getting back off the ice and into the presumed safety of the Polar Expedition Camp but with the monster defrosting and clumping across the snow in search of warm blood, the Air Force barricade the doors, watch the light that flickers on their Geiger counter and finger their guns in anticipation of using them.
As a horror film, the pleasure in it belies its years. Dimitri Tiomkin's score rallies to the aid of The Thing From Another World and prods the audience at its more shocking moments. The circle formed by the discovery of the flying saucer is accompanied by a creeping note from Tiomkin's horns. The wail of the monster as it is attacked by the sledge dogs is matched by one from Tiomkin's orchestra, whilst its roar at being discovered at some fresh bloodshed urges Tiomkin to be at his most thrilling. The discovery of the monster's arm in the snow, bitten off minutes before by a dog is strong for its time, no less so when, on the table before the scientist's eyes, it begins moving. The setting the monster alight is as intensely scary as it is brief whilst the slow approach of the Thing along Polar Expedition Six's corridors will have younger eyes shut tight in fear of what is coming.
And what is coming? Well, not just an intellectual carrot as Scotty describes it but something of a metaphor for the post-war era. The scientists in The Thing From Another World are a giddy lot, described by the no-nonsense Air Force crews as acting like a teenage girl on a prom date at their excitement at seeing the alien, with any sense of the preservation of human life being disregarded in favour of leaving the Thing unharmed. Unfortunately, the atomic bomb did not cast scientists (nor politicians) in an altogether flattering light and Howard Hawks doesn't spare the rod in his chastisement of them and the folly of their decisions. But worse was to befall the creature, a being that no one can reason with, which exists only to feed and which has no sense of morality. Which might well be how one might describe a communist, a more human type of creature then stalking the eastern half of Europe and the battleground of Korea. These metaphors certainly aren't overplayed - Scotty makes light of the advances in science that accompanied the dropping of the atomic bomb - and it's perfectly possible to enjoy The Thing From Another World without thinking about its substance but they're in the film nonetheless, even as Scotty urges the audience to, "Watch the skies!", as much for flying saucers as for threats from the Soviet enemy.
But such things are often mere distractions to the excitement that comes from watching The Thing From Another World, which is surely the funniest science-fiction film you'll see or the scariest comedy. The dialogue is often marvellous, being snappy, overlapping and delivered at such a pace that the cast appear to be holding their breaths throughout each scene. I'd quote more of it here but 2,000 words would quickly grow to 3,000 such is the stream of great lines in the film and the amount of which cuts over and under what is being said by other characters. Hendry's Air Force crew take the piss throughout, not only at the ways of the military but at the romance that blooming between their captain and Dr Carrington's secretary, Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan). There are long but very well told tales of past exploits in the Carribean, Scotty's growing frustration at being refused the right to tell his story - "Tell them if I don't get permission to send a story out, I'll shoot myself!" / "Better comb your hair first" - and the laughing in the face of a menace from space. "This is no joke. What if he can read our minds?" "He's gonna be mad when he gets to me!"
Best of all, there are so many great asides in the film that one's favourite scenes can have little to do with the action. When Nikki attempts to warn Hendry about the failure of the central heating, she follows Hendry's crack about Scotty's hair, to which Hendry says, "He's sensitive!" Trying to explain, Nikki says, "No, no...your breath!", which is met with a laughing Hendry telling her, "He's sensitive about that too!" And that's only the half of the dialogue in those seconds, which also has Scotty insulting Hendry, Nikki calling the pair of them ninnies and Scotty explaining away his poor health.
The Thing From Another World becomes, in its end, a classic of science-fiction and of horror. Look very carefully and the cracks in the filmmaking are obvious - Arness is no better a monster than was Boris Karloff many years earlier and the keeping-the-costs-low use of background set paintings is clear - but it overcomes anything that one might criticise it for in favour of being frightening, hugely entertaining and, most of all, memorable. From that cracking open of the titles to reveal THE THING and Dimitri Tiomkin's thrilling score to the arcs that, as Scotty reminds us so too did Noah, save the planet, The Thing From Another World is an unforgettable experience. I can think of few DVDs that I would rather have more because I can think of few films that will be terrifying, funny and thrilling as this one is, not once mattering who it was behind the camera when all that's great about it is there in every second it's there on the screen.
If you've ever wandered around the upper reaches of the EPG on Sky, at least below where the point where the movie channels begin, you'll have come upon Classics TV, which sadly isn't there anymore but was notable for sourcing the worst prints of everything it ever broadcast. It is said, likely by those who have Radios 3 and 4 burbling in the background of their days, that radio has better pictures than television and in the case of Classics TV and the first two versions of the film in this set, that's certainly the case. And it's the problem with this set, which includes three complete versions of the film, two black-and-and, one of which has been restored for this DVD release, and a colourised version done, as the preamble explains, without the consent of anyone involved with the original production of the film. I don't know what the point was in including the two versions of the film on the first disc other than to show the audience how awful this film could have looked, perhaps in preparation for the restored treat that awaits them on Disc 2.
The three screenshots below show, in order, the black-and-white unrestored version, the colourised version and, lastly, the restored black-and-white version. The differences ought to be clear even from what has been included. The colourised version is, of course, a travesty and I only watched it for the sake of this review. The odd moment in the palette occasionally makes sense but, as with all colourised films, the faces are too orange, the ice too blue and if you coloured it in yourself on the original film cells you couldn't have done a worse job. Next is the original black-and-white version, which is only a little bit better, being blurry and put through with obvious print damage. At one point I had to remind myself that I was watching a DVD after the picture started becoming jittery and, instinctively, I reached for the tracking button on the video remote. Lastly, the restored cut is a beautiful thing indeed, sharp, clean and with a lovely depth to the image, helped immeasurably by the crisp black-and-white picture. One wouldn't actually recommend you throwing out the first disc in this set given that it includes the John Carpenter commentary on the black-and-white version of the film but once you've listened to it, there is no further point in ever going near that disc again.
The audio track is the original mono but is, for this DVD presentation, spread across the front two channels via a DD2.0 source. The Thing From Another World does sound good, much more so on the restored version of the film on Disc 2, which is cleaner and with a lot less background noise than either of the two versions of the film on the first disc. And it's that hissing in the background that is the problem on the first disc, which, when you've turned the DVD up enough to hear the dialogue, that noise becomes distracting. As before, one wonders why these versions were included as the restored version simply sounds so much better that it will be the one you will be watching again and again. Finally, there are English subtitles on all three versions of the film, with Carpenter's commentary also being subtitled.
The only extra in the set is a Commentary from John Carpenter, perfectly placed here from being a huge fan of The Thing From Another World and for it clearly influencing many of his later films, not only The Thing but also Assault On Precinct 13 and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. And Carpenter is good. He clearly knows the material and has a deep love of The Thing From Another World but, equally, he's not afraid to point out that an audience laughed at the dialogue when he showed it as a film school science-fiction festival. However, what is best about Carpenter is that he clearly knows Howard Hawks' films and talks about this feature as one amongst many movies that feature sharp dialogue, a siege, some politics of the time and decent men working together against an alien, a very literal one in this film. But as anyone who has ever listened to a Carpenter commentary before, he is, above all else, entertaining, knowledgeable and acutely aware of what makes a good listen alongside the watching of the film.
I watched The Thing From Another World with the older two of my three children (aged seven and four) the other night, as much to see if it would frighten them as to see if they'd enjoy it. They've already watched Rio Bravo, twice over in the case of the oldest, and assumed this would go down just as well. Being proved right in the case of The Thing From Another World is a wonderful thing indeed, even to seeing them terrified, hiding-behind-me terrified, at all the right moments. But did they enjoy it any more than I? It's hard to say as much of The Thing From Another World only comes with understanding the dialogue, which often moves so fast that one needs a couple of watches to keep up with it all.
Either way, The Thing From Another World is one of my very favourite films and over the twenty-five years or so that I've been watching it in various forms, I have enjoyed every single viewing of it. And now, finally, with this DVD, I can finally retire one of my most cherished VHS tapes, an E-240 containing this, I Walked With A Zombie (DVD from The Val Lewton Collection) and Carnival Of Souls (Criterion Collection). That videotape has given me a good deal of enjoyment over the years since taping everything off the BBC and UK Gold but so will this DVD. Or at least one disc of it will.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 02:55:50