Monday, September 8, 2008

DECADE BY DECADE, PART 12: "Keep Watching the Sky!!"

In 1938, John Campbell published a novella titled "Who Goes There?" in Astounding Stories magazine. It was a wonderfully creepy story about an alien loose in an isolated Antarctic research station. The alien has the ability to assume the shape and memories of anyone it devours. By the time the humans figure out what's going on, they have no idea which of them is still human and which isn't. Eventually, the humans are able to think their way out of the situation (a common theme in Campbell's stories), figuring out a way to tell the humans from the aliens.

When this story was made into a movie in 1951, pretty much all that was retained was the idea of an alien loose in a remote scientific outpost (now in the Artic rather than Antartic). The shape-changing stuff was dropped--instead, the alien becomes a virtually unkillable (but intelligent) monster that feeds on blood.

Superficially, it may sound as if the movie makers had made a bad decision--dropping Campbell's nifty paranoia-inducing plot for a more standard monster-on-a-rampage story.

But The Thing from Another World turned out to be a classic, using the narrow corridors and crowded rooms of the research station to generate a remarkable level of suspense. Solid acting by Kenneth Tobey (as an Air Force pilot forced to take charge of the situation) and Robert Cornthwaite (as a scientist who believes individual human life is less important that scientific advancement) also adds to the tension and gives the film a little bit of philosophical depth as well. A brief scene near the movie's climax, when Cornthwaite's character encounters the monster and begs it to share its knowledge, is key to the movie. Even those who have dismissed Cornthwaite's views as nuts for the entire film pause and wait for a few moments in the vain hope that he will succeed.

But there's really nothing that can be done about the creature other than destroy it and, despite the sympathy doled out to Cornthwaite at the end, the movie supports this view whole-heartedly. Tobey and his men make plans then modify these plans as the situation changes, desperately trying to save not only themselves, but perhaps all of mankind. Despite the departures in plot from the original story, Campbell's theme of men using their intelligence to solve dangerous problems remains.

The credited director is Christian Nyby, but most histories of the film claim that producer Howard Hawks actually did most of the directing. The rapid-fire and overlapping dialogue used throughout the film is certainly a Hawks trademark.

That dialogue is another strength of the movie, helping to make all the human characters seem real to us and allowing the interjection of a fair amount of humor without distracting from the scary stuff.

The Thing from Another World is a classic of the 1950s. It's scary without being gross. It's fun without losing its capacity to scare.


  1. The creature was portrayed by James Arness, which ties in with the previous "Gunsmoke" post.

  2. That's true. Gee whiz, I was following a James Arness theme without even realizing it!!!


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