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Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Thing -- From Another World

This is one of the major classics of 50s sci fi movies. Released in April of 1951, it was the first full-length film to feature a flying saucer from outer space, which carried a hostile alien. The budget and the effects are typical B-grade stuff, but the acting and pacing are well above the usual B levels. Kenneth Toby and Margaret Sheriden star. James Arness (more known for his westerns) plays The Thing.
You really don't notice that the sets are all a few crude rooms. Outdoor shots were few. The pacing is good to, and keeps your interest throughout.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Experts are dispatched to a remote post in the arctic to investigate a mysterious explosion. They find a disc shaped craft buried in the ice. They mistakenly destroy the craft while trying to extract it, but they find an occupant, still frozen in the ice. The crew take the stranger-on-ice back to the base. The alien accidentally thaws out. It and goes on a killing rampage. The alien, a plant-based life form, needs human blood for nourishment AND to nurture its "seeds". So, it stalks and kills several of the besieged crew. Bullets are no use. Even a severed alien limb retains some life. The only force it doesn't like is fire. The crew finally kills the alien by luring it onto an electrified grid. This burns it to a shriveled crisp with electrocution. While everyone is happy, the reporter captures the gist of the reality. We must always "Watch the skies!"

Why is this movie fun?
The Thing was the first to feature film to have a hostile alien that was not simply an ordinary human in funny clothes (ala. Ming the Merciless and The Purple Monster -- both of which were in serials). It was also the first movie that hypothesized that alien life might be very different from human. This was the first look at an alien alien. Granted, he was still a humanoid (played by James Arness in the rubber suit!) but he was big, ugly and menacing -- not just a plain guy in a hooded leotard. A pace setter for future aliens.

Cold War Angle
The Thing is also the first movie which shifted fears of invasion by Soviet hoards (or missiles) onto an invader from outer space. The monster alien in The Thing is a surrogate for human invaders, but has all the classic villain qualities. The plucky Americans confront the deadly invader menace. Invasion story themes in fiction go back to the early 1800s when the English worried about Napolean's armies invading England. The Thing fits the classic invasion story pattern well.

Notes
The Slow Reveal --
The monster gets very little camera time for most of the movie, which helps it seem all the scarier. I've read that the original cut had more close-ups of the monster, but these were edited out to keep the suspense. By the time you see more of him at the end, there is sufficient tension that the alien does not comes across as just a really big bald guy. Through scene cuts and climactic tension, you're more engaged with the story. Lesser directors would make the mistake of showing too much of their monster and too soon.


Budget Saucer -- For the flying saucer, all they had to fabricate was the tip of a tail fin (it was frozen in the ice, you see), and have a ring of men each standing over the presumed edges, to define the sizable disk. The journalist characters proclaims "We've found a real flying saucer!" This is a neat solution for having no budget to build a full sized flying saucer prop.

Happily Ever After? -- Even though the story ends with the monster destroyed, the question lingers -- what happens if more of them land? The Thing doesn't wrap it all up with a happy ride-into-the-sunset ending. Instead, the news reporter radios in his story with the cautionary advice, "Watch the skies!" We won that round, but the threat remains. This was the mood of the nervous Cold War era. You might win a battle, but the war loomed over you forever. Eternal vigilance was required. We're never really safe, even when we win.

Bottom line? The Thing is one of the famous classics of the 50s. It's formula would be copied many times in various ways. The story would even be remade in 1982, but with a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers spin to it. The Thing of 1951 should be on the must-see list for anyone delving into 50s sci-fi.

6 comments:

Mgl said...

A true gem.
From an era when less could be more.
The atmosphere, tension and ensemble acting create a movie worth seeing over and over.
You can use your imagination and enjoy.

mgl said...

This movie is a gem.
The atmosphere, tension and magnificent ensemble acting all make a movie that can be watched over and over.
A movie that inspired many to follow, you can sit back and allow your imagination to enjoy this wonderful science fiction classic.

Anonymous said...

I think the greatest thing about this movie is the crisp dialogue that's very adultly handled. Ken Tobey did his usual great job, and no one can ever forget Robert Cornthwaite as the maddest scientist, Margaret Sheridan as the sex interest, and the ensemble cast that actually could act (including Paul Frees)!

Keep an eye out for when TCM shows it. They have a special longer edition with previously unseen scenes.

Photovoltaics said...

Hello,

I have seen this movie at least twenty times.

The interaction between the characters and the overall
mood is great.

The music really sharpens the emotions of the movie.

It is a sci-fi classic.

Photovoltaics

John Drake said...

Howdy,


As I had commented before - this is a great movie.


I also saw a colorized version - not so good.


Being shot in black & white, like many other films, the shadows
and nuances only work in the original medium.


Don't forget the microwave popcorn and "sody" pop.


John

John Drake said...

Howdy


As Bob (Dewey Martin) would say, "I think you're right captain."


As Scotty (Douglas Spencer) would say, "Look to the skies."


John