'The Thing From Another World' (1951) Movie Review
The Thing That I Didn’t See!
Recently I came to the realization that I never actually got around to watching the original 1951 horror, The Thing from Another World, famously adapted into the 1982 remake that was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Growing up watching Carpenter’s iteration, I always knew about the original film though. Ever since seeing the opening title pop up on a television set in a scene during John Carpenter’s Halloween. I knew of it, for some reason though it took me reaching the age of 27 to finally sit down and watch it in full. For the sake of this review, I will do my best in limiting the comparisons between the ’51 film with the ’82 remake and the 2011 “prequel”. My thoughts on those await in the future, for now, all I want is to talk about the merits that reside solely within The Thing from Another World. No more, no less.
Set in a remote arctic outpost in the middle of a terrible snow storm, a group of scientists and soldiers discover the find of a century when they come across an spacecraft and an alien frozen within a block of ice. After waking up from its icy slumber, the bloodthirsty alien begins terrorizing the team in an attempt to clone an entire army and take over the Earth. It’s up to our heroes to stop it before it’s too late!
The Monster Genre
Before getting into my in-depth discussion on The Thing from Another World, I think it may be important in sharing my standpoint on monster movies from this era of film during the thirties through the early sixties. I know that this is technically an ‘alien invasion’ movie, but for the most part it treats the Thing like a movie monster, so I feel that is the more appropriate launching point. Which, generally, I dig them. I do. I have a soft spot for the old Universal monster flicks and even a few horror B-movies from those specific decades. 1941’s The Wolf Man and James Whale’s Frankenstein movies are some of my favorite of the genre. I find the old Hollywood, black and white aesthetic to be pretty cool. Every year around Halloween, I go back to some of those older examples of horror and I have a blast every time. Most horror and sci-fi flicks from the old Hollywood era typically have stylish cinematography, interesting and uniquely creative effects, and the classic style of acting I find to be fairly charming. Whether the product of that time turns out to be cheesy or genuinely scary, I tend to enjoy myself.
The setup is a fantastic idea; a group of people that have to fend off against some sort of killer creature in the middle of a snowy wasteland. That is a genius idea for a horror movie, presenting a vast number of terrific possibilities to scare the audience. The monster design itself was actually pretty intimidating with its strange features combined with the massive size of the actor in the role. Plus there was a couple of pretty good thrills to be had with the Thing. I thought that the ideas that were presented for the setting and the monster worked decently together. The special effects used in the film were well crafted and added a good amount of believability of this scenario. The on-set practical effects are convincing and the post-production effects work were definitely decent for its time.
In terms of the cast, everyone does a solid job in their roles; there isn’t a single actor that falls flat among the rest or feels like a weak link in the group. Everyone shows rather impressive work honestly with how much dialog they had to memorize for this film in every scene. This is quite the dialog heavy movie, which I’ll touch on more soon, but the whole cast seemed to carry some relatively long-winded conversations in rather long takes for the amount of dialog they needed to get out. So I definitely have to give all of the actors proper acknowledgement on that and say I was definitely impressed. I’ve had trouble remembering a single line for a take, let alone the seemingly multiple pages of dialog these actors had to memorize for each scene.
All the Damn Talking
Everything that I mentioned before, I want to reiterate, still holds true. It really does. But wow, this movie is really focused more on ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’. In some cases that can work effectively and be fine. Take almost anything written by Quentin Tarantino, or to bring it back to more of the horror genre, William Peter Blatty is another writer that loves to create terror through heavy amounts of dialog. However, the majority of their movies still kept a good balance of colorful dialog with visual storytelling. The Thing from Another World I don’t believe strikes that balance very well at all. It’s not a bad film, not at all, but I sat there for about eighty-six minutes pretty damn bored because most of the movie is about a couple dozen characters talking. Not even talking in any sort of interesting or engaging way, it’s simply every actor speed-reading through all of their lines with one another. Sometimes about topics that could have easily been cut or at the very least trimmed. Because there is so much dialog being jammed into this movie, sometimes it feels almost superfluous that the alien is even there. I don’t get any sense of tension or fear from their situation for 99% of the film because it’s almost like the characters don’t care all that much about the thing trying to kill them.
The Thing doesn’t really come into play for about forty minutes worth of the runtime, that’s nearly halfway through the whole movie before its officially introduced as a threat. Then immediately disappears and we are left with the characters talking about everything under the sun for another fifteen to twenty minutes before the Thing ever shows back up. That is basically the structure for the second half of the movie. The Thing shows up for a two-minute scene, maximum. Then back to meandering for another fifteen to twenty minutes again, with the characters talking about the Thing and its possible plans for world domination, bickering from the scientists and soldiers about keeping it alive or killing it, constant exposition, talking about the weather, asking permission from the government via telegraph if the reporter can print the story, playing poker, shooting the breeze about dames, a romantic subplot that amounts to nothing between a couple of the co-leads; there’s just so much excess fat on the script here that is so unnecessary because it adds nothing to these characters while taking away from the suspense that could have been had here.
That was an aspect about the ’51 flick that drove me nuts, after a while I was getting somewhat antsy for it to end. I became bored with it all. I never felt like the Thing was an actual danger to our characters, even when it does finally attack, almost no consequences result from it. When people supposedly die in the movie, it’s never shown, but rather described by someone who saw the dead. Sometimes that can work in a film’s favor. Like what I had mentioned before with Blatty using his dialog in contributing to an unseen horror. In this, because the characters have already spent so much time non-stop talking, it holds no weight when someone says that Thing has cut a man’s throat. Especially when the characters immediately forget about whoever was killed ever existed. It just feels like the filmmakers were more determined to talk about what’s scary, or just have their characters talk in general, rather than show us what to be afraid of. Even in the climax, the group is constantly talking. Deflating any sort intensity because the mood isn’t allowed to settle in. Film is a visual medium, I say that movies need to take advantage of that and ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Maybe I’m biased because of which version I grew up watching, but that’s the experience I came away with unfortunately.
Who Goes There?
Every character is basically the same exact character. Everyone has the same line delivery, the same attitude, the same vernacular, the same personality, everything. There isn’t much of an apparent difference between one character to the next. With the exception of maybe Dr. Carrington, played by Robert Conthwaite, as he’s a little more ill tempered than the rest of the cast. Really not by much though. The entire cast delivers their lines like someone hit the fast-forward button on them. However, I don’t think that this is a case where the actors are to blame, I think that this was the direction given to them. Or maybe because of the massive abundance of dialog and exposition within the script forced the actors to speed up their line reads. Regardless, because of that stale and redundant line delivery, I never feel any sort of pressure being applied to the characters as they are seemingly unphased throughout the whole situation. It was another factor that left me slightly frustrated with the film as it kept me from receiving any thrills from the narrative.
Visually speaking, the Thing has a good look to it. Basically he’s more or less a pointier version of the Frankenstein monster, but I liked that. Maybe it’s because of my fondness for this era of monster movies, but I did like whenever the Thing was onscreen. For the very brief moments it was present, things did start to liven up. Sadly, the amount of screen time that the Thing has is probably no more than ten minutes. That’s me being generous. Not to say that a horror film absolutely needs to have the monster present at all times, but when the creature barely feels relevant to anything going on because we spend the whole movie watching a bunch of guys sitting around chit-chatting instead, that begins to diminish the creature’s presence.
To an extent, I did appreciate that the characters were explaining how this strange organism worked. The comparisons it made to vegetables with how the Thing functioned was a neat touch. I will give the movie some credit there, but it still goes overboard with explaining every single thing about it. To the point where I practically know every single thing about the Thing. There is no mystery or terror to be had anymore because I know all about it. The effects work done with the Thing’s sequences were pretty good, such as the severed arm and the electrocution scene. Although, with the severed arm, I feel like the filmmakers were too afraid that it would freak audiences out because it is obscured for most of the time that it is present in a scene. Someone’s head or something would always be standing in the way between the arm and the camera. The film almost never wants the audience to get a decent view of what we’re supposed to be seeing. Again, making it a bit more frustrating as we are still constantly listening to the characters talking about what we’re supposed to be witnessing.
Climaxing… You Read That Correctly.
There is some particularly stupid sh*t that happens in the climax of this movie. To setup the scene; Dr. Carrington (Robert Conthwaite) has been adamant in his support of preserving the alien and trying to understand it while Capt. Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) has been on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, wanting to kill it because he deems the Thing dangerous, understandably so. In the last act, the soldiers have set a trap for the Thing in order to kill it. When the Thing finally shows up, Dr. Carrington turns off the power and holds everyone up at gunpoint. Which in most films would probably be a big deal and there would be a lot of tension from the situation. Not so much the case here, within literally seconds, the team quickly disarms the doctor and turns the power right back on while the Thing just stood around and waited. Oh how scary that was not.
Then the doctor breaks free to run right in front of the Thing and go off on this minute long diatribe about how the Thing is so much more intelligent than humans and he only wants to understand it. The Thing just stands there and listens until it also gets bored, then simply punches the doctor in the arm and he falls down while somehow getting knocked out. Well, that was a close one… I guess?
Then it turns out that the Thing wasn’t walking on the platform that they needed in order to spring the trap. So someone throws a pickaxe on the ground towards the Thing and the Thing jumps straight up in the air, landing directly onto the platform. Problem solved.
There really were just a number of dumb, little things that could have added to the suspense, yet they all failed. They were kind of stupid and lame and pretty meaningless when you break them down. I have no clue why that was even written in with the doctor turning off the power when within seconds the issue is resolved, not exaggerating. It didn’t even give the movie enough time to create something scary out of that because it was over before it had a chance. It was pointless padding.
The score is solid. Although it sounds like most of the musical scores that could be heard from around that time period. There’s not too much differentiating it from anything else. However, I will say there were times it got overbearing. Scenes with practically nothing happening, characters are simply standing around out in the snow while the music is blaring for no reason at all. It’s not a huge issue, but that was something I kept noticing throughout the movie. Sometimes it would be perfectly fine and set the mood, other times it would be this loud and bombastic score during the most mundane moments. At this point, I’m probably nitpicking, but when it comes to critiquing a film and I find something to be distracting then I try to acknowledge that. That’s exactly what the score ended up doing a lot of the time, distracting me from what was going on because it was causing so much unneeded attention drawn onto its presence.
The Thing from Another World isn’t bad, but I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it anytime soon. It is interesting to watch where the inspiration came from for John Carpenter’s The Thing. From that perspective, it was fascinating to draw correlations to what later became a horror classic of the 1980s. On its own, however, I didn’t find much enjoyment out of this. The acting is good, there are times when the characters would make me laugh and I could find something to latch onto temporarily. After an hour of it though, I was ready to call it quits. Especially when the Doctor Carrington character started making some idiotic decisions to spite the soldiers. There are some cool effects and extremely brief action involving the Thing, but that amounts to a few minutes out of a whopping eighty-six minute runtime. That isn’t a whole lot to hold one’s attention. If you have a soft spot, like I do, for the older monster movies or Carpenter’s The Thing, then maybe you can find some entertainment value here. If you aren’t a fan of either then I don’t see much reason in checking it out.
I know that’s bad to say seeing how it is considered to be an important film and pretty influential in the decades that followed, but I don’t want to lie and say something that I don’t feel. I can certainly appreciate the film, but I can’t say that I loved the film. I know that John Carpenter absolutely adores The Thing from Another World to this day. Sadly, I didn’t fall madly in love with this movie. If someone who is reading this loves the flick, that’s totally cool. Right on. I will never take this away from you. And I can totally understand as to why you dig it. Me personally, I was bored for a large portion. My mind kept wandering elsewhere as my leg was shaking like crazy in anticipation for the ending credits. Maybe it was just something that personally did not resonate with me only, but might for others. For film purists and horror lovers, this is something to watch in order to experience and put a notch under your belt. For everyone else, I don’t think it has much to offer. Although, I could be wrong. I suggest that if this sounds like something you might be interested in then try seeking it out. If it doesn’t then I’d say it’s probably safe to skip.
I’ll be talking about a remake that I actually love very soon…
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What's Your Favorite Thing?
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