If you grew up in the 1950’s then you were a first-hand witness to probably the greatest decade of monster movies ever produced. It was during this ten-year period that so many classics were made. This is the decade that introduced us to Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the reinvention of the classic Universal Monster movies, this time in color, by Hammer Studios and of course countless alien invasion films, many of which to this day are some of the best ever made. The subject of this review is one that has stood the test of time (67 years and counting at the time I am writing this) and remains one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made.
On April 6, 1951, RKO Radio Pictures released a film that would set the standard for all science fiction films to come. In fact, this movie was very influential to future directors such as John Carpenter, who later remade the film in 1982. Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, and produced (and some say directed) by Howard Hawks with a budget of $40,000, this film took the fear of isolation to new heights creating a film that is stylish, fun and terrifying all at the same time.
Growing up I was not fortunate enough to have seen this film, but read about it in magazines such as “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” I never saw it on Saturday afternoons on the Creature Double Feature and never was able to catch it during late night showings in the early 70’s. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when the film came out on videocassette that I finally got to see it for the first time. It quickly became one of my favorite films of all time and I try to watch it at least once a year, especially around Halloween. This annual viewing was influenced by the scene in the 1978 film Halloween where Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) were watching this film on tv on Halloween night. The story is great, the acting is wonderful and very fluid, the black and white photography adds so much atmosphere and the soundtrack, with its use of a Theremin, adds just the right amount of creepiness to an already fantastic film!
From the opening scene, where the movie’s title literally burns into the screen, you know you are in for a treat. Right away we are introduced to some of the main characters, including Captain Patrick Hendry (genre regular Kenneth Tobey) and Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), a newspaper reporter looking for the scoop of the century. The Air Force is notified by a scientific expedition in Anchorage, Alaska that they believe a strange aircraft has crashed in the area and Hendry, his men and newspaperman Scott are sent to investigate.
When they arrive in Alaska we are introduced to more of the key players, including Hendry’s love interest Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). They explain that they filmed something that looked like a meteor falling from the sky that then leveled out, as if under control, before crash landing. When they arrive at the location they find a section of the ice, circular in appearance, that had melted and re-frozen very quickly, with what appears to be a vertical stabilizer sticking out of the ice.
Due to the thickness of the ice, thermite is used to melt the ice hoping to expose the ship below the surface. A chain reaction between the thermite and the ship causes the craft to explode, to everyone’s disappointment. After checking radiation levels after blowing the ship up, they are led to something else not far from what is left of the ship, a being from another planet that was thrown from the ship when it exploded. Using axes, they chop the body out to bring back with them to base camp. The ice-encased body is kept in a non-heated store-room, where it eventually thaws out due to a misplaced electric blanket, allowing the Thing to escape. The remainder of the film is spent with the crew not only trying to survive, but trying to capture the Thing on orders from the military brass.
There is so much to love about this film. The acting is top notch, with many conversations overlapping each other, as often does when a lot of people are involved in a discussion. The chemistry between the characters is very realistic and it is easy to believe these people have known each other for awhile, making their plight even more stressful for the viewer. You care about these people and their survival. Though most of the movie was filmed on soundstages you do believe that they are someplace that is not only isolated but also very cold. The sets are very realistic and little details, such as being able to see the actors’ breath from the cold, add to the believability of where these people are.
The special effects in this film are also really good, especially for the time. The special effects era of the 50’s had not really taken off at this point and what they accomplished was simply amazing. Though the design of the Thing (played by James Arness), is simplistic, make-up artist Lee Greenway created something interesting and at the time, quite terrifying. When Hendry and his men come face to face with the Thing for the first time, the Thing swings at them with his arm. In reaction they slam the door on him, catching his arm. As it pulls his arm through, the thorns on the back of his hand shred the door jamb. I always remembered my uncle telling me of how he saw this film in the theater as a kid when it came out and that this very scene scared him so much he ran out of the theater!
In one scene, where Hendry’s men shoot at the door that the Thing is behind, bullet holes actually appear in the door in perfect timing of the gun firing. Later, the severed arm of the Thing is shown and as the scientists examine it, it starts to move on its on and as the thorns on the back of the hand gently tap at the table it is on, it creates a chilling scene both visually and audibly. The seed pods grown by Dr. Carrington are equally creepy as they slowly pulsate as though they are breathing. When it is said it sounds like a newborn baby crying when you listen to them with a stethoscope, it’s enough to send shivers down your spine!
One scene that looked extremely dangerous to film was the one where the Thing is doused in kerosene and lit on fire. Even though it is obvious at times that there is a stunt man in an asbestos suit playing the Thing while on fire, none of the supporting cast had the same protection. At one point, Margaret Sheridan’s character is holding a mattress in front of her to protect herself (from what I am unsure as it doesn’t seem like great protection from anything). The Thing swipes at her and not only shreds the mattress but causes it to light on fire, all while the actress is holding it! Then, more kerosene is thrown at it while he is near her, igniting him further AND the wall that she is pinned against! I would love to find out exactly the details on how this scene was shot and if any actual injuries occurred. Unfortunately, even with the release of this film recently onto blu-ray, no documentaries or commentary were included (and I am not sure if any even exist).
When it comes to science fiction films of any time period, it just doesn’t get better than this. Even though John Carpenter did a great job on his remake, it is this classic, in black and white, that still stands out to this day and is so much fun to watch. This movie also ends with one of the most famous quotes ever spoken in a science fiction movie, spoken by Scotty as he is sending his article over the wire for the anxious world to hear. He says, “I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice. Tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!“