After an interminable spell of inaction with this series, we once again ascend the mountain of the movies that my mother enjoyed while she was still with us.  As we climb, be sure that you have a good set of pitons, some excellent rope, and a flag representing whatever nation gave you the most endorsement money to plant on the peak when we’re done.  

I personally will be cheering you on in spirit while I’m at the base camp that is conveniently located at the lodge below, warming myself with a hot toddy and then another hot toddy.  (For those of you playing at home, a “hot toddy” is in reference to a drink and sadly not to the late, great, and admittedly hot Thelma Todd.)

Yes folks, this is Thelma Todd. 
This is yet another reason I’m angry that it isn’t 1932 anymore.

When it comes to film, I was raised in a household that enjoyed many genres.  My father loved a good action movie and was fond of the Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers.  My brother enjoyed watching Clue and The ‘burbs and…well, that was about it.  My mother watched practically everything aside from almost all musicals and sci-fi/horror related movies.  Then again, I always found it odd when she admitted that she went on a date with my dad and saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in theaters.  For her to see Chain Saw in all its raw and fresh 1974 glory on the big screen was quite atypical for her.

Come to think of it, Chain Saw was a weird choice for my dad too.  The most horrifying movie he ever watched, at least in my presence, was Dances with Wolves.  Oh, so you don’t think it’s that horrifying?  Pretend you’re an eleven-year-old boy sitting in the theater watching a movie that isn’t Batman, stuck with your parents who never bothered to tell you that the movie was about 4 hours long, and getting bored as soon as the army deploys KevCos on his way with Eldin from Murphy Brown to talk to the buffalo.  Argh.  

Kids were just clamoring for this tie-in! 
Forget Space Invaders, Dad!  We’ve got Leatherface!

Now just maybe all these hundreds of years later, I might be in a better mindset to appreciate Dances, but every time I might watch it, I just cringe and cannot press play.  I still have my late father’s DVD copy as a terrifying reminder of that chilling day.  (Oh, and I like to think that while KevCos made A Perfect World, Clint Eastwood smacked him down saying, “I’m the f*cking High Plains Drifter.  Go ahead, make my day, Robin Hood.”  Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

Sure, it looks noble until you remember how KevCos used
the Lakota Sioux to finagle getting his very own casino.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, my mother sometimes pulled odd choices as her movie favorites.  But I think we all enjoy that one film, that one book, that one album, that one show, that one whatever, that others might not like, but so what?  I hesitate to use the term “guilty pleasure” because for me, it’s a misnomer.  I don’t feel guilty about many of my film choices, as I own and watch what I like regardless of critical acclaim, box office returns, or lack of both.  

As this soapbox emerges, allow me to stumble onto it and say that I think the Academy Awards are self-congratulating nonsense, regardless of however many nominees are added each year.  To that end, I also mourn the loss of mom-and-pop video rental stores where a cool VHS cover held a better possibility for your evening’s entertainment than whatever pandering, review manipulated garbage is temporarily allowed by the studios to stream right now.

Again, as I stagger back to the reason why you’re hopefully still reading this: my mother, even after sitting through Chain Saw with my father, regarded an entirely different movie as the scariest movie she ever saw.  Like Dances with Costner made a dent in my fragile psyche at a young age, there was a movie that made a similar impression on my mother: 1951’s The Thing from Another World.

It got here in a spaceship! Hah! Take that, you spoiler alert needers!

Knowing my mother as I did, it is still weird that she ever saw this movie in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a classic of the sci-fi genre, but she never really indulged in other similar pictures from that era like The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds for instance.  Even when her eldest son was jumping headfirst into other horror or sci-fi franchises such as Friday the 13th, Alien, or Halloween, she never said that she wanted to join me in watching them.  (To her everlasting credit, she never curbed my genre loves either.)  

Nevertheless, when Mom told me that The Thing from Another World was that scary, I gave it a whirl.  While not as over the top as John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, the original movie does have plenty of moments that still work to this day.  There’s even one bona fide jump scare that still gets me every time even upon repeat viewings.  It is not a scare-a-minute thrill ride filled with suspense and terror, but The Thing from Another World manages to hold its own.  

By the way, this movie will be hereafter abbreviated as TTFAW because I’m tired of typing the whole title.  Also, I do not want to unnecessarily confuse the reading audience with the title of the remake or the title of the prequel to the remake.  Hopefully, one day there will be a sequel to the prequel that takes place after the reboot but before the reimagining of the original.

This picture represents how I feel when
there’s yet another reboot of anything announced.

 Ah, the 1950s!  When scientists were portrayed in film as pontificating poindexters who were more concerned with whether they could do something that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  (No, thank you, Dr. Ian Malcolm!)  On the opposite end, the military response roared forth as being the only path for successful resolution.  TTFAW is a product of its time, no different in its basic plot elements.  And speaking of which, spoiler alert for those of you out there who need one for a movie that is over 70 years old.

A flying saucer from another planet crash lands in the Arctic and is quickly frozen.  An alien passenger is recovered from the ice, brought back to the military base, and is accidentally thawed out.  The alien then proceeds to start killing off the base personnel.  The Thing, being vegetal in nature, is using the human blood to nourish its “seeds” to reproduce. 

This lead story in Better Scientists & Gardens was soon redacted.

Most of the scientists wish to observe this creature’s life cycle, even using blood plasma to kickstart the reproductive process of the species with some of the creature’s seeds that were obtained.  The scientists also wish to attempt to communicate with the Thing in the hopes that it can teach them about the otherworldly science they don’t know.  The military solution is clear: wipe the Thing out and destroy the seedlings that could be an unending horror for humanity. And there’s your impasse and conflict!  Being the 1950s, I can let you guess who wins the argument.

Along the way, this little film still manages to be quite entertaining.  The Arctic setting is quite claustrophobic and a perfect setting to show the stakes involved.  Also, since there are no real stars, it certainly adds another layer to the realism.  Frankly, the only real name in front of the camera wasn’t even a star yet.  

James Arness, who played the Thing, had a couple of years to go before becoming Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke for two decades.  However, at this point in his career, Arness was buried under some great makeup that you couldn’t even get a good clear look at because they didn’t want show too much of the Thing.  (Granted, it isn’t as bad as when there was that beautiful make-up for Karloff in 1932’s The Mummy which was onscreen for 6 seconds.)  Besides Arness, the cast is made up of reliable non-marquee character actors that did a wonderful job while keeping the budget low. 

Here the Thing infiltrates this group of Western folks and stays in hiding for 20 years.

Behind the camera we have the biggest name associated with TTFAW, the producer Howard Hawks.  Of course, Hawks is better known as a director, giving the world movies such as To Have and Have NotOnly Angels Have WingsHis Girl FridayBringing up Baby, and Rio Bravo.  And yet Christian Nyby, Hawks’ editor on other films, received credit as director for this movie.  

Seeing as how Nyby’s own directing career led to nothing notable and that TTFAW is full of typical Hawksian qualities such as strong male leading characters and fast-paced dialogue, I will join the ranks of those far smarter than me, like John Carpenter, who state that Nyby didn’t truly direct this picture.  In fact, I like to think that Hawks gave Nyby the chance to direct and then stood behind him the entire time saying stuff like, “Oh, you think that shot is a good idea, hm?  No, no, that’s fine, you go right ahead with your ideas, which I’m sure you think are great.  I mean after all, I only made The Big Sleep and Red River, but what do I know?  Tell you what, later we can look at what you did and then we can look at the better choices that I would have made.  Sound good?

Turns out that the Thing just really wanted to play Jenga.

The running time is short, the plot gets cooking right away, the characters speak at the speed of light, and before you know it, this little sci-fi movie manages to become a tight well-done event.  Even the overall creepiness of the Thing’s blood farming is conveyed so quickly that you don’t stop to think how gruesome it truly is.  

Now, contrast that with the 1982 version’s admittedly well-executed special effects that leave nothing to the imagination and the 1951 version is an exercise in self-control.  It is what you don’t see that frightens you in this movie.  As wonderful as special effects can be, they often pale in comparison to the imaginations of the viewers.  Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the tighter censors of the day and a smaller budget certainly played a part in the decisions of the filmmakers too.

The Thing from Another World still stands as one of the pioneers of the sci-fi genre.  It has a simple story that was well executed and holds up well even when compared the bigger budgeted great sci-fi film of 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still.  The alien in that movie had movie star good looks, was charming and well spoken, and was filled with benevolence for humanity.  Also interestingly enough, the military solution, filled with faceless trigger-happy troops, was depicted as definitely not the correct path to understanding.  The lead scientist, portrayed by kindly Sam Jaffe, is nothing but empathetic and considerate.  Science should rule the day according to TDTESS.  (I love abbreviating!)

Mysteriously, there weren’t a lot of promotional
plush dolls to cuddle with from this movie.

Conversely, the Thing was brutal, savage, and wanted nothing more than to harvest humans.  The lead scientist is so concerned with the study of the creature that he doesn’t care about the human cost.  The research is more important and anyone getting in his way is an impediment to attaining more knowledge for the greater good.  By contrast, the military are given human faces, ordinary Joes stuck in an extraordinary dilemma.  Ultimately, they are going to band together to destroy this Thing and tell science where to stick it.  The audience likes these guys and gals and wants to see that bloodthirsty walking vegetable fried as soon as possible.

Two pillars of the sci-fi film with two very different outlooks. But I think it is kind of obvious where my allegiances rest.  For me, TTFAW is the better entertainment dollar.  Nothing against director Robert Wise or star Michael Rennie, but TDTESS at times plays like the “message” movie it is, a movie you are told to like because the movie says you should strive to be better, always be improving yourself, you close-minded dink!  TTFAW on the other hand plays like the more fun alternative that you’re sneaking peeks at while being forced to watch the lesson from the other movie.

Although, if Michael Rennie had Julie Newmar
along for the ride, I’d pay closer attention!

The final message from TTFAW comes from Scotty, a reporter that has witnessed firsthand the entire story as it played out.  Relaying his report over the radio, he famously tells his fellow reporters as well as the audience watching him in the theater to “Watch the skies.  Keep looking!  Keep watching the skies!”  Well Scotty, I have kept watching the skies and have kept watching The Thing from Another World too.  Hopefully you’ll all keep watching it as well and when you do, think of a scared little girl who eventually told her son that she thought that it was the scariest movie she ever saw.  Her son thought it was scary…until he sat through Dances with Wolves.  

Now, that was petrifying!

Published by benjaminawink

Being at best a lackadaisical procrastinator, this is purely an exercise in maintaining a writing habit for yours truly. This will obviously lead to the lucrative and inevitable book/movie/infomercial deal. I promise to never engage in hyperbole about my blog, which will be the greatest blog mankind has ever known since blogs started back in 1543. I won't promise anything other than a few laughs, a few tears, and maybe, just maybe, a few lessons about how to make smokehouse barbecue in your backyard.

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