The thing itself

Last night we watched the 1951 film The Thing from Another World. We’d all seen the remakes, but not the thing itself, er-hem. And a drama about a bunch of people under lockdown running around with axes felt about right.

So we settled in, and all in all liked it a lot, with a few caveats. Here’s a point by point response (in no particular order, because I must admit I became a little deranged, and had nightmares, and at this point who cares):

1: The Title. The Thing from Another World. I think the remakes were right to drop the subtitle. It’s clunky. You may as well call it The Thing (It’s Not From Round Here). Like the producers were scared you wouldn’t watch it if you thought there was a chance it was just the kind of Thing you’d see in a MAGA hat buying duck tape at the thrift store. To cut them some slack, though, and put it in context, I think UFOs were an expanding market in the 50s, what with the Russians and everything, so maybe it was just a marketing ruse that hasn’t aged well. We’ve had so many aliens since you can’t move for them. I could name fifty right off, and that’s not even touching the box sets

2: It’s mostly guys. Guys in big coats, guys in big trousers. Guys in flying hats and cute leather jackets. Guys holding guns, axes, Geiger counters, hands of cards. Guys smoking or talking very very very quickly with no punctuation or pauses for intonation or inflection and talking over each other too because there doesn’t seem to be time for anything other than guys saying guy things and giving and receiving orders and taking care of business. Or talking about wild nights in Singapore. Or blowing shit up.

3: Even the alien turns out to be a guy. Except he’s the logical extension of ‘guy’, being 100% vegetable – but not in a wholesome, Vegan way – and only able to communicate through irritable grunts. How Grumpy Alien Guy ever got round to building a sophisticated space ship and making the trip in the first place we never get to know. You just have to imagine back on his planet everyone’s like that, 100% vegetable and just enough brains to run when they’re attacked by dogs or on fire. Mind you, it’s clear he landed the flying saucer with very little finesse, ploughing it bonnet-first into the North Pole so only the fin sticks out of the ice when the guys get there. I can imagine Grumpy Alien Guy, legs up on the console, flicking through a potato magazine, bored out of his gourd, watching the gauges after a five millenia commute, then grunting fuck it that’ll do.

4: The set-up is pretty clear. Some kind of army base in Alaska. A reporter goes there looking for a story – although you’d have to think he must be desperate, choosing such a remote location. Maybe he specialises in snow. Maybe he had relatives in the area so was combining the trip. Anyway, almost as soon as he gets there Hero Captain – an actor with such deeply heroic grooves down the side of his face you could lie him on the ground and park your bike – Hero Captain and his band of guys are ordered to fly to the North Pole to help with a plane that went down, or something. So they fly off in a plane with snowboards for wheels, and end up in another godforsaken snowy outpost, where everyone shouts ‘Shut the door’ as soon as you walk in. You get to meet the people there – a guy who looks like a rockabilly DJ, someone tall with a small voice who looks like Lurch from the Addams Family, an old guy chuffing on a bendy pipe, a bunch of interchangeable characters with no dialogue who are there to make up numbers and maintain body heat, and a Professor type in a sinister smoking jacket and white roll-neck jumper and hair and goatee made of Italian meringue who takes every opportunity to make a portentous speech – the human race… rah rah … evolution rah rah …. with everyone gathered round, one hand in his pocket (to be clear, it’s the professor who has one hand in his pocket – not everyone else – the professor doesn’t have a pocket big enough for that, and anyway, it’d be difficult to choreograph).

5: There are two women in the film. One is a secretary at the first outpost, with weaponised breasts and an arch manner with a pencil, who has some kind of history with Hero Captain, only he’s got a drink problem and doesn’t remember. Singapore? Anyway, when they fly to the second post they need a secretary, and she soon realises her value by making coffee. Twice. Although Hero Captain doesn’t take her up on the offer, presumably because it doesn’t involve alcohol. The other woman is a scientist at the outpost. You can tell because she has plaits.

6: When Hero Captain and his guys make it out to the crash site they realise they’ve got a bonafide flying saucer on their hands. Stuck in the ice, fin-up. They decide the best way to proceed is to blow the shit out of it with ‘thermite’, which I think went on to be used in the manufacture of gloves. Anyway, surprise surprise, it doesn’t work that well, accidentally completely destroying the ship. Although – weirdly – what happens is that Grumpy Alien Guy is blown out of the ship, then instantly refrozen in the ice. (Which doesn’t improve his mood). To be fair, Hero Captain learns from his mistakes. They won’t use thermite again. This time they’ll chip him out with picks, and load him onto the plane in a block of ice like so much tuna.

7: Back at the outpost, they put iced GAG (Grumpy Alien Guy – it takes too long to type) in a storeroom. The Professor wants to defrost GAG immediately, but Hero Captain says no, the military authorities have to say it’s okay, and for now the radios are out, so they’ll have to wait. Instead they post a guard to keep watch over frozen GAG, breaking a window to keep the place cold (although why they couldn’t just open the window I don’t know). They give the guard an electric blanket to keep him warm, which is nice. But the guard is spooked by the way GAG is sneering at him through the ice, so he puts the blanket over the ice so he doesn’t have to put up with so much attitude. (In retrospect, not the brightest guard to sit there in the first place). Turns out the electric blanket is very effective at defrosting aliens, not shorting out in all that water, because no-one’s having any luck at all in any of this, especially not the alien. When GAG climbs out the guard shoots him six times and runs away. GAG doesn’t follow him, quite sensibly, I think. The signs aren’t good he’ll be well received. GAG runs out into the snowy storm and immediately gets set on by the huskies. He fights them, killing a few and only losing an arm. Then he runs off into the night.

8: The guys (plus The Secretary and Plait Woman) realise that GAG is dangerously grumpy and is bound to come back for his arm. They stand around as The Professor dissects it (presumably there’s a blooper reel – the actor under the table making some unscheduled gestures). The Professor is very impressed by the level of vegetableness. He makes another portentous speech about venus fly traps and carrots and things. There starts to be a measure of disagreement between The Professor and Hero Captain. The Professor wants to learn from our strange, highly-intelligent visitor; Hero Captain wants to blow the shit out of it

9: They all split up to search for GAG. The Professor and his team go to the laboratory, which is basically a fancy greenhouse. They find the bloodless corpse of a husky in a storage bin and guess that GAG put it there, for some reason . The Professor asks two guys from his team to hang around whilst he goes off to do some other shit. Fairly soon after, they’re hung upside down by GAG and have all their blood drained, too, which is a shame. The Professor is pretty sanguine, though. He’s prepared to give GAG the benefit of the doubt, especially as GAG’s new to all this, and probably jet-lagged.

10: Hero Captain and the guys (and The Secretary, and Plait Woman) get ready for GAG’s next attack by hiding in another room, nailing posts against a door that opens the other way, so that’s not great. They know you can’t shoot a carrot with any degree of effectiveness, so maybe they should burn it instead, like they did with the thermite, and how well that ended. Plus, they’re in a wooden building, so… Anyway, they go ahead with this plan. When GAG breaks in, the idea is one person chucks a bucket of kerosene over it while another tosses a cigarette or a pipe or something. The Secretary offers round coffee, then hides behind a mattress. GAG runs in, rah, rah, rah, fire, flames, terrible…. runs out again… Hero Captain and the guys put out the fire and wonder what to do next, and reminisce about Singapore.

11: Turns out, GAG isn’t so stupid after all . He’s disabled the outpost’s heating system, so they’ll all freeze to death, especially The Secretary, as she only has a light summer jacket and a pair of driving gloves. They decide to rig up a trap and electrocute him.

12: Meanwhile, they find out The Professor has been growing some GAG pods, a bit like pulsating alien cannabis, except with blood plasma instead of hydroponics. The Lurch character listens to the pods with a stethoscope and weirds everyone out by saying they sound like mewling children, which is an insight into his parenting experience. The Professor wants to grow lots of these pods; Hero Captain wants to blow the shit out of them. The Secretary is worried GAG has only come to Earth to make more of itself and take over the world, treating us all like so many cabbages. The Professor shrugs. It’s a risk he’s prepared to take.

13: They’re all standing in the corridor. GAG one end, holding a piece of wood, Hero Captain and the guys (and The Secretary – I’ve lost track of The Plait) holding axes and guns at the other. Just before GAG rushes them, the Professor breaks through and stands in front of the monster to make a speech, appealing to his better nature, which is a brave move, considering. GAG shows his appreciation by knocking him halfway through a wall. Then he rushes the team, and immediately gets flash-fried. Although they overdo it with the heat and he ends up completely inedible.


14: The film ends with the reporter on the radio to somewhere else, everyone gathered round to listen except for Hero Captain and The Secretary, who are canoodling on a bench in the background. ‘Watch the skies!’ says the Reporter. ‘Keep watching the skies!’ Which is good advice, although you might want to glance down now and again, for health & safety reasons.

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