John W. Campbell's novella, "Who Goes There?" appeared in 1938, but the first adaptation is very much a film of the early 1950s. The Thing From Another World has a simple plot: a visitor from space gives the personnel at a remote arctic base a thing or two to worry about.
It's helpful to see this films and the ones which followed in historical context. During World War II, pilots on both sides reported sightings of Foo Fighters or Feu Fighters, saucer-like flying objects which have never been adequately explained. In June 1947, pilot and entrepreneur Kenneth Arnold observed nine crescent-shaped objects moving like a "saucer skipping across water." The sighting received widespread coverage and led to the coining of the term "flying saucer." A month later, the Roswell incident occurred, although the more bizarre claims surrounding that event came decades later.
In short, the space age was underway, the modern UFO movement was being born, flying saucers were on many people's minds, and this film felt more immediate and real in 1951 than it might now.
Director: Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks
Writers: Charles Lederer, John W. Campbell, Jr., Ben Hecht, and Howard Hawks.
William Faulkner may have also contributed to the script.
Kenneth Tobey as Captain Patrick Hendry
Margaret Sheridan as Nikki
Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington
Douglas Spencer as Ned "Scotty" Scott
James Young as Lt. Eddie Dykes
Dewey Martin as Crew Chief
James Arness as The Thing
The personnel interact at the base. Then, something unknown comes crashing from the skies. Its occupant, a mewling, gigantic vegetable humanoid stalks the base, searching for prey while breeding others of its kind. If the humans cannot stop the monstrous extra-terrestrial, an invasion force will sprout at their base. Further complicating the plot is Dr. Carrington, a researcher willing to sacrifice other humans in order to study the alien. Both the original novella and the movie adaptation borrow heavily from the conventional horror story: a group of people in an isolated setting confront a murderous monster. However, the sci-fization of this plot plays as fresh in the context of 1951.
The style of the film bests nearly every one of the invading alien flicks that followed. The characters, for the most part, act like human beings and not b-movie clichés. They're given believable, quirky interactions and more-or-less realistic overlapping dialogue. The monster may be hokey, but the film takes itself seriously as a drama.
In contrast to the other characters, however, Dr. Carrington comes across too much like a b-movie mad scientist. Some might argue that his adds an anti-intellectual element to this film, but ultimately, I consider a low point because I found him distractingly artificial.
Despite its alien origins, the Thing looks suspiciously like Universal's Frankenstein Monster. In this conception, the film departs dramatically from the original story's unearthly visitor. John Carpenter's 1982 remake comes closer to the source and does a better job with visuals, but this Thing impresses with its low-tech approach. Instead of lingering on an unconvincing rubber beastie, as later 50s SF films would, the visitor appears briefly in underlit scenes. The approach helps sell James Arness in conventional monster make-up as an invading horror.
The Thing From Another World has a few sloppy moments, but overall it holds up, more than a half-century later. It stands as one of the landmarks of cinematic SF, the film that warned audiences to "Keep watching the skies!"
I originally wrote a variation of this review for Bureau42's Weekend Reviews.