The Archivist #102: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

Ed compares and contrasts this film to its remake by John Carpenter

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

*Spoilers for both The Thing From Another World and The Thing abound.*

John Carpenter’s The Thing is my favorite horror film of all time, as officially decided upon right here at Cinapse. It’s always bothered me, however, that my favorite horror film of all time is a remake of a film I’d never managed to take in, myself. So, thanks to the Warner Archive, I finally decided to remedy that situation and enjoy the Blu-ray release of 1951’s The Thing From Another World (which is itself an adaptation of the short story Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell Jr.

Howard Hawkes and Christian Nyby directed, under Hawkes’ production company, this classic monster movie. And there are a fascinating number of similarities between this iteration and Carpenter’s. In both the creature threatening the planet are aliens carried to the planet on UFOs, and in both the cast of characters forced to do battle with the creature are stationed on a remote arctic research facility. Because these elements are quite central to the overall story, it is very clear that the films are related and ripe for comparison. Both also feature sequences in which researching the creatures reveal the profound biological threat which the creatures present to the wider planet if our intrepid cast of characters can’t contain the monster. For some reason I’ve always been obsessed with the biological elements of creature features, and the more fully the origins and practical realities of a creature are explored in a film, the more enthralled I become. It’s the creature-feature version of lore or mythology, I guess, and it always clicks for me.

It’s for that reason that I’d say my favorite overall element of The Thing From Another World is the biological explanations for its physical capability to continue hounding our characters no matter how many bullets pierce it. Due to budget restrictions, the physical manifestation of the creature here is very “man in suit”, as portrayed by James Arness (Gunsmoke). It’s not uniquely threatening at all — he mostly just lumbers and recalls Frankenstein’s monster. But it’s the rapid fire old fashioned dialog from screenwriter Charles Lederer that explains to us that the creature’s biological makeup is closer to plant-life than human genetics, and therefore a bullet simply isn’t going to stop this creature. I like the old school implementation of a good idea simply being read off the page and planted into our minds which increases the threat of the character without having to spend big bucks creating something to visually dazzle us. The Thing looms and threatens our characters; he’s off screen the vast majority of the time. He’s not shown in close up, and it becomes the few terrifying details we do know about it, combined with what we never really see and have to create in our own minds, which results in the most thrilling terror of this classic film.

Of course, Carpenter’s version takes the exact opposite track, giving us stomach churning and mind blowing visuals that result in one of cinema’s most iconic and amorphous monsters of all time. The biology and the limited understanding our characters are able to come to of the threat they’re up against still bolster the terror of Carpenter’s creature (resulting in the infamous blood test scene which is equal parts smart thinking on the part of our characters and a nail-biting stress fest of a thriller sequence), but the gooey and gory details are what send the 1982 version into the creature feature pantheon.

Another big difference between the films is that the limited budget and execution of the monster in Another World prevents the creature from being a shapeshifter (something which was apparently a part of the original short story). While Another World does a great job of mining terror from their version of this creature, all of the humans are able to band together in order to fight off this other worldly monstrosity. Another World allows for science and heroism to win the day against a clearly identified threat. It’s more of a “crisis averted” situation. Carpenter’s gross and gooey shape shifter can become anyone and anything — it has no limits of expansion. This adds the characteristic paranoia element to The Thing which not only allows more interpersonal drama to be mined from the script, but also increases the existential threat of Carpenter’s film and results in an ambiguous and bleak ending much more befitting at least this writer’s sensibilities.

Hawkes and Nyby’s film feels ahead of its time for 1951, no doubt. But it simultaneously feels dated here in 2019. It must be acknowledged that we wouldn’t have much of the great horror of the modern era without such boundary pushing science fiction horror as Another World. And it’s a pretty effective film in its own right, turning its limitations into its biggest strengths and offering no apologies for its far out concept and creature. But viewed through the lens of Carpenter’s remake, a film which flirts with absolute perfection in a way most works of cinema never even come close to approximating, Another World can’t really hold a candle to what came after it.

And I’m Out.

The Thing From Another World is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

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