How The Thing Works


You'll never look at vegetables the same way again.
You'll never look at vegetables the same way again.
Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures Inc./Everett Collection

By the time this famed, fright-filled flick ends, you may be tempted to pile all of your houseplants on the front lawn, douse them with gasoline and send them to the horticultural hereafter. It might be the only way to regain your sense of peace. Otherwise, those ferns and orchids might try to attack you when you're sleeping.

What film could possibly inspire a fear of vegetation? It's "The Thing from Another World," a science-fiction story blended with cinematic elements of high drama and horror into one of the most famous films of the 20th century. Often referred to as simply "The Thing" (after the title character), this 1951 movie was based on the short story "Who Goes There?", which was written by John W. Campbell, Jr., who wrote the novella under the pen name Don A. Stuart. Campbell was one of sci-fi literature's most famous forerunners, and his success helped fuel the careers of great science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, among others.

If you haven't seen "The Thing," here's your spoiler alert. Our synopsis below highlights the plot (and ending).

The film's story begins as a small group of military men, scientists and an intrepid reporter investigate the crash landing of an unidentified aircraft near the North Pole. Near the wreckage of the strange-looking, round ship, they find an equally weird body encased in ice.

They take the body, still preserved in a block of ice, back to their Arctic outpost as a blizzard closes in on them. Then, ominously, the body is accidentally thawed, allowing the mysterious creature to escape.

Slowly, the scientists unravel some of the creature's secrets. Although it walks on two legs like a human, the being is actually a type of plant life that's evolved to use blood -- any type of blood -- for reproductive purposes. In his fascination with the creature, Dr. Carrington resolves to save "The Thing" from harm for research purposes.

Then, crew members ominously begin disappearing, and the base's plasma supplies are raided. In a flurry of action, armed men shoot the creature, but it escapes once again, apparently unharmed by the hail of bullets.

In the climactic final scene, the men manage to electrocute the creature successfully. At the end of the film, the horrible storm outside has lifted and the reporter is calling back to Anchorage via radio to tell other journalists about the fantastic events that have unfolded.

Though its plot is, well, a little on the outlandish side, "The Thing" was received as one of the creepiest movies of the 1950s and is now hailed by movie lovers as an all-time great. Keep reading to learn more about why The Thing resonated eerily with audiences -- and bring along some herbicide, just in case.

The Many Faces of The Thing

The classic response to The Thing? Kill it with fire!
The classic response to The Thing? Kill it with fire!
Courtesy Mary Evans/UNIVERSAL PICTURES/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

"The Thing" starred Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer, Robert Cornthwaite and Margaret Sheridan. It also featured James Arness, who played the title role monster. Arness is most famous for his two-decade stint as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series "Gunsmoke." Famed director Howard Hawks (listed as the movie's producer) reportedly let Christian Nyby take direction credit on this film as a favor to Nyby, although Hawks allegedly did much of the directing work.

As an adaptation of Campbell's book, the film only follows some of the plot's rough outlines. Perhaps the most notable deviation is that in the book, the alien isn't based on any sort of plant life. Instead, the entity is a shape-shifter that can take on the physical appearance and personality of its victims.

Armed with that person's memories and knowledge, the creature poses a threat to all of humankind. The alien takes control of one of the men and begins plotting its escape. But just before it gets away, the human survivors find it and kill the imposter before it can unleash its havoc upon the rest of the world.

That the movie featured a more vegetative antagonist than the book didn't bother audiences. In fact, the flick had a psychological impact strong enough to spawn two more films.

A 1982 version, called simply "The Thing," was directed by John Carpenter and starred Kurt Russell. This remake was filled with groundbreaking special effects and extra helpings of gruesome, bloody scenes. Though gory, this adaptation remained truer to the book, substituting any sort of malicious plant life with the shape-shifter that Campbell had originally imagined.

Unkind reviews contributed to the film's failure at the box office; it only made around $3 million on its opening weekend. Eventually, however, thanks to cable and home video, it garnered a cult following and gained a reputation as a classic, underappreciated work for its effects and chilling story. That's why in October 2011, another version of "The Thing" will hit theaters.

This time around, the movie is being billed as a prequel to the Carpenter adaptation. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and written by Eric Heisserer, the story is supposed to take place just days before the timeline of the 1982 film and is plotted so that it fits right into Carpenter's telling.

In this rendition of the tale, an American paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) accompanies a group of Norwegian scientists (including Joel Edgerton) who, by chance, find a spacecraft that ostensibly crash-landed in Antarctica long ago. They also discover the frozen body of a creature that they deduce died during impact.

The scientists unwittingly thaw out a bloodthirsty monster, which can assume the appearance and personality of its prey. To prevent the ruination of human civilization, the scientists try (and, we hope, succeed) to stop their alien adversary.

Whether you prefer the 1950s Thing or its latest incarnation, there's a thread of similarity running through the plot and characters of each film. On the next page, you'll read more about why this Thing won't go away, and what these spooky stories really mean to us.

The Thing's Enduring Appeal

Paranoid, 1950s American moviegoers were the perfect audience for Howard Hawks' horror/sci-fi flick.
Paranoid, 1950s American moviegoers were the perfect audience for Howard Hawks' horror/sci-fi flick.
Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures Inc./Everett Collection

Contemporary audiences might find "The Thing from Another World" to be a campy, sci-fi romp deserving of a B-movie label, but film aficionados disagree, and so does the Library of Congress. As part of the National Film Preservation Act, which created the National Film Registry, in 2001, TFAW was forever enshrined in the registry because it was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Out of context, it may be a little difficult to understand why the film warrants this level of serious attention. But when you peer through the lens of history to 1950s American life, the appeal and cultural significance of "The Thing" begins to make more sense.

The film was released at the height of the post-World War II Red Scare, when the American citizenry feared communism could infiltrate and affect politics and life in the United States. A sense of paranoia pervaded much of the media and society, creating fertile psychological soil for a sinister being that made little sense intellectually but was nonetheless completely terrifying.

Throw in the ideological clash between a military mindset hell-bent on immediately destroying every potential threat and a more objective, scientific perspective (events that were also mirrored in society at the time). Then trap all of these conflicting viewpoints in a claustrophobic and alien, barren North Pole landscape, and you had a recipe for interpersonal drama that symbolized conflicts on a much larger societal scale. Add in the fact that "The Thing" debuted only four years after the Roswell UFO incident in New Mexico, and you have a better understanding of why this film made a lasting impression on its viewers.

The movie also arrived as a trailblazer for the sci-fi movie genre. Its success spawned many other pseudo science-based, scary fiction films that captured the attention of the movie-going public for much of the 1950s. Its release occurred in the same year as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which contrasted sharply with "The Thing From Another World." It portrayed a benevolent alien that arrives on Earth and is killed by defensive, anxious humans too close-minded to understand a greater picture of their place in the universe.

As for the newest Thing feature film, it's arriving at a time of terrorism, war and economic and political turmoil. Just like in the 1950s and the beginning of the Cold War era, there's a pervasive sense of gloom in some quarters and a feeling of general unease.

Some might even go so far as to say that even in an age where there's never been more freely accessible information, no one really knows who to trust. It's not hard to see how a vague, indefinable enemy emerging from some harsh landscape might appeal to the psyches of modern moviegoers.

It all took root, though, with those first plant-infested characters back in 1951. But just how possible would it be for a weird alien carrot to infect our race and take over the planet? Keep reading, and you'll find out exactly how worried you should be about turning into a blood-crazed turnip.

The "Science" Behind The Thing

"A story of modern science that challenges imagination!" That phrase is splashed across the screen of the trailer for the original version of "The Thing," but including the word science in any serious way with regards to a human/plant hybrid is a stretch. Or, as one character famously proclaims during a particularly tense scene, "An intellectual carrot ... the mind boggles."

"Is it human, or inhuman, earthly, or unearthly? Baffling questions, astounding questions, that not even the world's greatest scientific minds can answer." Maybe, as "The Thing" trailer dramatically suggests, there really is no way to be sure whether a smart form of plant life could exist.

You might think that with all of the genetic engineering happening throughout the world, there would be all sorts of ways to cross a human with some type of plant life. Or maybe it could happen simply by accident. It wasn't long ago, in fact, that a Russian girl was supposedly pricked by a cactus and later began growing thorns in her arm as a result. It was an Internet hoax, of course [source: Bioephemera].

But could a plant/human hybrid ever happen? Well, there's no accounting for weird, intelligent and parasitic tomatoes arriving from the far reaches of the galaxy, of course, but current scientific technology here on Earth has its limitations.

Jennifer Bartlett, a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Iowa, says that on a fundamental level, plants and mammals are just too different. "They have different types of cell walls, and they produce and store energy differently, which means that they make extremely different kinds of enzymes, and they have different organelles." She adds that plants make whole classes of molecules that mammalian cells do not. 

In essence, the elemental pieces of the organisms just wouldn't fit together. The plant molecules would be trying to do one thing, while the animal molecules would be doing something else entirely.

Even with some extraordinarily advanced genetic engineering, blending mammal and plant cells would be difficult, if not impossible. Bartlett says, "To do something like that, you would have to introduce a whole suite of genes into the genome and make sure they get expressed at the right time during development and in the right kinds of cells, and all without creating other problems in the human genome, like inadvertently causing some kind of cancer, which would be extremely hard to do."

Ultimately, it will be a long time before we have the technical know-how to manipulate the human genome that skillfully. So we'll likely be forever waiting for insidious cornfields to rise up and take over our cities and our bodies, and for parasitic-plant aliens to descend from the heavens and wreak havoc.

In the meantime, though, it never hurts to be cautious and observant. As the diligent reporter in the original Thing movie said to his colleagues as he reported news of the Alaskan chlorophyll catastrophe, "Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking, keep watching the skies."

Can't get enough of The Thing? On the next page, check out more Thing-related trivia.

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Sources

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