Friday, September 28, 2012

Veggie Tales from the Crypt

The Thing from Another World: adapted by Charles Lederer, Howard Hawks, and Ben Hecht from the novella "Who Goes There?" by John Campbell Jr.; directed by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks; starring Margaret Sheridan (Nikki), Kenneth Tobey (Captain Pat Hendry), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Carrington), Douglas Spencer (Scotty) and James Young (Lt. Eddie Dykes) (1951): I suppose it's a measure of the contempt the producers and writers had for the source material that almost nothing remains of that source novella except the temperature (it's still cold) and the general idea (crashed UFO with an angry survivor).

The Thing from Another World nonetheless remains one of the minor science-fiction classics of the 1950's, but it's amazing how much is changed from John Campbell's 1938 original: not even the original names of characters survive in the screenplay.

Anyway, a UFO crashes at the North Pole near a U.S. experimental base. Some Air Force guys, led by the wooden Kenneth Tobey, arrive to help investigate. Soon, an alien with remarkable recuperative powers and an unquenchable thirst for blood starts rampaging around the experimental station. As he's a giant carrot, shooting him does no good, and unlike later versions of The Thing, there aren't a lot of flamethrowers lying around the base.

The movie's quite tense, with the hulking, monosyllabic alien -- who turns out to look like a bald Frankenstein's monster in a jump-suit -- kept offscreen most of the time, possibly because he looks like a bald Frankenstein's monster in a jump-suit . Campbell's paean to the resourcefulness of civilian scientists and engineers here becomes a paean to the resourcefulness of the Air Force. The chief, Nobel-winning scientist is an idiot who keeps trying to make peace with the alien even as the human body count mounts.

Though Professor Quisling really does have a point -- who wouldn't be pissed after crashing on an alien planet, getting frozen in a block of ice, and then almost immediately getting one's arm ripped off by a sled dog when one awakes? This has to be the worst first-contact scenario ever. Especially since the Air Force accidentally blows up the guy's UFO with some thermite while trying to excavate it from the ice. I'll be damned if I know why there were in such a hurry, and I'd hate to see them at a major archaeological dig.

It's fun to chart the differences between this film and John Carpenter's later, much more faithful adaptation of Campbell's novella. Only the giant carrot is a justifiable change -- visual effects of the early 1950's weren't up to a shape-changing alien. Watch the skies! Recommended.

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