Wednesday, February 5, 2014

It Came From the 1950's

Musings on The Thing From Another World

My oldest son graduated from listening to bedtime tales a few years ago, relegating my nightly read aloud episodes to the two little ones;  however, the process of exposing him to great stories continues unabated.  He's become an avid sci fi reader, and we've been trying to work the occasional movie classic into the mix as well.  Movies from the 50's are pretty safe as far as content, so science fiction stalwarts like Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Thing From Another World are in the queue.

Does everyone remember the original The Thing?  A UFO crashes in the ice, some soldiers and scientists at a remote arctic base uncover an alien encased in ice, the alien escapes its icy confinement and starts hunting the isolated humans, using their blood to grow an army of things.  It's a classic set up for a horror story.

What struck me so much on this recent viewing were the gobs of political propaganda.  Scientists are depicted as reckless maniacs willing to sacrifice anything to make peaceful contact with the monster; the air force soldiers are the stalwart heroes, drawing a firm line and refusing to bend in the face of outsider aggression.  The message is clear:  don't trust scientists and intellectuals; scientists created the atom bomb which led to the Cold War; intellectuals want to appease the socialists and the communists and the dictators of the world.  The army, on the other hand, toppled Hitler, saved West Berlin, and will halt the advance of communism wherever it rears its head - making sure no more dominos fall.  It's pretty much all right there in the film - a snapshot of early 50's psychosis just beneath the surface.  "Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"

I can't wait until we watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Oh no, there's a communist under my bed!  Jinkies.  I did have the chance to spend time with the kiddo talking about life growing up in Cold War America -  what a different world it was back then.

Horror is a fairly conservative genre.  A lot of stories involve punishment of transgressors by the monster - characters that cross a written or unwritten rule invite doom down upon them.  Don't pick up hitchhikers, don't go make out in the woods as a teenager, don't creep into the neighbor's house and try to prank them.  Don't open the book of forbidden knowledge.  The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hammered!  It can be a bit tiresome.

And yet… it's so dang effective to use this approach in dungeon designs.  The players do it to themselves, amiright?  I didn't make them climb into that dank pit seeing if there was a magic goodie in that chest, they did it to themselves.  Who knew the floor of the pit was a Mimic?

Our steady heroes in The Thing From Another World also invited the horror into their base camp.  They could have blown up the thing in the ice, but they wanted to study it, see what they could learn.  Even a straightforward sci-fi yarn like The Thing ultimately involves destruction ensuing inexorably from a quest for blasphemous knowledge.

I asked the kiddo what he thought of the movie.  "The monster was kind of dumb - it just strode around like Frankenstein, bashing things and snarling.  No way could that thing pilot a space ship.  The real aliens are still out there.  What they do is put these bio-engineered mindless killing machine vegetable monsters on flying saucers, crash them into somebody else's planet, and then let the monster go to work smashing things in advance of the real invasion.  The scientists were trying to talk to the wrong alien."

17 comments:

  1. John, if you want a good "Teach 'em a lesson" horror movie, you might want to track down one called "Kronos". Its a '57 movie about a device sent to earth by aliens to collect all of the Earth's energy and return it to their planet. It scared the bejesus out of me when I was younger, and it is still a good watch.

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    1. As a matter of fact... The whole movie is available on Youtube! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_oA-1dZCTg

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    2. I remember seeing that as a kid...I never could remember the name. Thanks.

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  2. While all 3 versions of the Thing are good, I feel like the steelly scientific detachment of competent men in a really bad situation of the short story has yet to be really captured. Might not work as well on film, though.

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  3. Sounds like you enjoyed "Who Goes There?" I was on the fence about adding it to the reading list - I'll put it on there. From the little I know, it sounds like the 1980's movie returned to the original story for inspiration.

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  4. Even allowing for the transparent Cold War propaganda, Howard Hawk's The Thing is one of my favorite movies.

    You should pick up a few John Wyndham books for your kid (The Day of the Triffids, etc.).

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    1. I keep hoping for Nextflix to get that 1960's version of The Day of the Triffids available. It scared the bejeezus out of me when I was little.

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  5. This is a great film, but you're spot on about the subtext. What I love about the film (aside from James Arness as the killer carrot) is the way they did the dialogue with people running their lines all over each other in what was a very intentional way by the director.

    Small trivia bit: the movie was directed by an uncredited Howard Hawks, who also did "Sergeant York," (another pro-military movie). There's a subtle nod to Sgt. York when one of the guys licks his thumb and smears it on the trigger sight of a flare gun.

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  6. It is a really good one. My wife watched it with us - she called out the interesting, snappy dialogue as well. There's a lot of cross-talk banter. Also, the female lead openly discusses a drunken one-night stand with the captain and clearly has the upper hand in the relationship. She wore pants and worked as a scientist, too.

    I don't know if that depiction was actually pushing the boundaries of the period, but it seemed like it to us based on our perception of the 50's.

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  7. I recall watching this a few years ago. Good movie. It would be interesting to compare this to Alien (1977). Between 1951 and 1977, Watergate, D├ętente and Vietnam happened. There was no Army to save the Nostromo's crew, and Ripley had to save herself; this time a corrupt corporate was the one not to be trusted, as well as its synthetic agent. The military (Marines) came in the next movie, but were slaughtered by the monsters, and in the end our working-class heroine, in a loading rig no less, kicked the Queen's ass.

    I wonder how Soviet sci-fi from the 1950's looked like, though...

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    1. Yep, that's really interesting - Alien isn't alone in presenting the monster as an impersonal force, and the actual villain of the piece is a corporation or exploitative capitalist. Note how the "monster as moral enforcer" still usually sticks it to the corporation (or its agents) in the end.

      I'm no academe, but I bet there are some interesting lectures out there on the role of monsters in modern movies - anybody know of them?

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  8. John Carpenter's version is one of my favourites but I love the 1951 film too. It looks great, the dialogue is brilliant, and the not-so-subtle subtext is fascinating. Much is made of the strengths of the 1982 one but I think the original is in many ways just as good.

    On a sort-of-related note, I'm still sad that Guillermo del Toro didn't get to make his At the Mountains of Madness movie.

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  9. The 1951 movie is one of my favorites of all time: a good, solid tale crisply directed. One reason it succeeds, I think, is that it takes the tropes of a familiar genre, the war movie, and overlays them with science fiction. The audience has plenty it can relate to, helping them "buy into" the movie.

    I have to disagree a bit on one thing: the scientists are not all "reckless maniacs willing to sacrifice anything." About half of them side with Captain Hendry against Doctor Carrington.

    Another great film from the era is "The Day the Earth Stood Still," with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. Taking an opposite tack from the politics of "The Thing," it comes from a liberal-utopian view, and a rather dark one, at that: Mankind can't be trusted with the weapons he created, so he should join a perfect interplanetary society policed by robots with the ultimate power of life or death over whole planets. And Man should join voluntarily.

    Or be destroyed.

    If you can find it, GURPS Atomic Horror is a very good sourcebook on the period.

    Back to lurking and reading. :)

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  10. "...talking to the wrong alien." Your kiddo is a genius.

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    1. He is raising quite the potential GM isn't he.

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  11. Just wait until your son watches John Carpenter's version of 'The Thing', I believe he will not think the monster is dumb then. :)

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  12. In the DVD set of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Forbidden Planet, there is a feature titled Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s, and Us. It covers many of the issues involving The Thing (from Another World), and puts it in context with the other major films of that era: Invaders from Mars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and so on. Including Forbidden Planet, of course, which is a film that everyone with even the least interest in SF film should see.

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