Watch the Skies

Christian Nyby’s 1951 American film “The Thing from Another World”, has long been one of my favorites from the atomic decade’s science fiction crop. Witty, rapid-fire dialog sets an immediate likable calm, opening with the comrade-bro ambience of a USAF ready room, and continuing with the friendly, sexually-charged banter between the Air Force commander and the obsessed scientist’s attractive assistant. I am reminded of the choice repartee in “His Girl Friday”, the Front Page adaptation with the unparalleled team of Grant and Russell and also directed by Howard Hawks.

But wait, you say, “The Thing” was directed by Nyby. But it was produced by Howard Hawks’ Winchester Pictures Corporation. Tellings vary, but the hand of Hawks in “The Thing”’s direction is delightfully apparent. Nyby himself admits to Hawk’s mentoring.

That aside, “The Thing from Another World” is a loose adaptation of John W Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?”. Elements of the two stories match nicely: Arctic isolation, sled dogs, a flying saucer submerged under the ice and a rampaging alien. What differs is substantial. Still, this doesn’t take away from how the unwanted guest stirs tension between the scientists and the military. It’s the 1950’s, with the simultaneous emergence of the military-industrial complex and the realization among ordinary Americans of possible instant annihilation. At the end of this scary, entertaining romp the airmen win, and science is shown to be what it is: a practice of evil geniuses with a God-complex.

The first time I saw John Carpenter’s 1982 remake “The Thing” in a San Francisco movie theater, I thought it was a pretty good job. Kurt Russel was becoming the king of anti-heroes, and his version of the actual Campbell hero McReady was apt—even with the comical cowboy hat. Carpenter takes great joy in shocking horror, and his embodiment of the “Thing” is prime Carpenter gooey repulsion. Seeing it again a few days ago in preparation for this blog, my high opinion failed until I read about Campbell’s novella.

I have to hand it to Carpenter. Characters, plot, the alien itself—or themselves—came straight out of the book. Not having read the book, I can’t comment on the ending—Hawks’ version has few casualties. Carpenter’s ending (spoiler alert!): 100 percent casualty count.

In the novella, written in 1938, an alien crash lands into the Arctic. By absorbing itself into first a sled dog, and then transitioning into different station members, the threat devolves from alien-chasing to paranoid suspicion among the staff as they begin to suspect their closet comrades. Murder ensues, with the alien destroyed by fire—the execution style preferred in the two films as well.

While the Hawks version can be classified as boilerplate science fiction, Carpenter’s film deserves a look during Horror Month. I rather doubt that the novella made ample use of gore to describe the parasitic monster, but Carpenter’s movie certainly does. Therefore, the science fictional trope of crash-landed alien is painted thickly with the elemental horrific theme: grotesque, repulsive monsters with the single-minded goal of human-destruction.

I recommend both films with this in mind and with high rates of ripe tomatoes. Carpenter’s version is not for the squeamish, and Hawk’s version will please those seeking the feel-good vibe. Both are dated—not a problem for me because I also am dated. Science fiction and horror books and films of the day use current themes to either thrill or message their viewers. I have enjoyed many of them, and avoid more.

Next week, I tackle The Stepford Wives. Appropriate for the current times, I think.

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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