The Thing From Another World

REAL MEAN CRITTERS

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD

USA 1951

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A couple of weeks ago The Guardian newspaper recommended the podcast Inside Psycho. The weekly podcast is a treat for Hitchcock fans. Much is made, as it has been before, of the risk Hitchcock took in making a low budget horror picture. Psycho was released in 1960. Howard Hawks made the cheap horror The Thing From Another World in 1951. If anything, Hitchcock had more form. He had experience of making cheap American TV. Hawks was a major director, and his films had big stars and budgets.   The diversion by Hitchcock somehow required explanation.   The reaction to Hawks going into left field was accepted with a shrug. Perhaps it is because Hawks, unlike Hitchcock, refused to specialise in genres. Hawks also was not the credited director. If Christian Nyby did direct the film as both the credits and Nyby claim then Nyby was a slavish pupil. The Thing From Another World is a Howard Hawks film.  Reports from the set indicate that Hawks was on the set during the film to give advice.

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The film is great. It compares to the other Howard Hawks classic Only Angels Have Wings. In both films a small group of airmen combine to take risks and do their jobs as well as they can.   Only Angels Have Wings was made in 1939 and had famous stars like Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. The airmen in Only Angels Have Wings operate an airfreight company. These heroes work in the private sector and take entrepreneurial risks. Six years and a Second World War later and people were thinking differently about the public sector. The US Air Force heroes in The Thing From Another World work for the Government. Their jobs, if not their lives, are secure.

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Critics of the film refer to its hostility to science and curiosity. The mad scientist Dr Carrington wants to keep alive the murderous creature from outer space. The plain thinking airmen decide to fight and destroy the alien being. A scientist in self-defence claims, ‘We split the atom.’ An airman replies. ‘Yeah, and that sure made us happy.’ The Thing From Another World, though, is not anti-intellectual. At the end of the film Scottie reports to the newspaper and pardons the mad scientist. This is approved by the airmen who understand the need for tolerance and future cooperation. Hawks values men who have limited understanding of the world around them but persist, and ultimately this applies to both undereducated airmen and obsessed scientists. The airmen are not just baffled by science. They also find military bureaucracy and its overarching rules and regulations a mystery. Uninspired by intellectual ambition these men pass their free time playing cards. Reading books is too solitary an activity for them.  Lacking privilege and access, they are obliged to solve front line and practical problems that the intellectual and powerful will never experience. The airmen have bosses at HQ. The scientists have intellectual freedom. The airmen are ordinary but, because of their limited knowledge, will need strength and courage. Hawks insists that they are entitled to respect and sympathy. In our better moments we know that he is right.

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Captain Patrick Hendry leads the aircrew. He understands that he is not entitled to ceremony and status. Others in the crew make jokes at his expense. In the aeroplane Hendry and his crew exist in close proximity. When they take the huskies on a scouting mission in the snow, the huskies share the same space in the aeroplane. All are equal in the team, man and animal. Hendry speaks quietly and listens more than he talks.  Critics have responded to the innovative overlapping dialogue.  There is a marvellous rhythm to the speech in The Thing From Another World.  In any other film the line, ‘An intellectual carrot, the mind boggles,’ would grate. But we accept it as a not too sharp comment from the newspaper reporter. It is just another remark from a fast talking character. The line arrives like all the others, one more wave that slaps on the beach and settles.

Characters not only interrupt one another but also finish the answers of the people speaking to them. The performance of the actors requires focus and control because delivering overlapping dialogue is difficult. That control, though, defines the characters in the film. Everyone shows respect to the others but also values their own contribution to the team. The clipped tone that they all have makes them sound like equal democratic partners and, just as important, level headed. They are not eloquent individuals but together they achieve poetical fluency. The heroism and glorification of leaders that exists in Only Angel Have Wings has been replaced by ordinary professionalism and mutual respect. Six years after the previous film times had changed.   Fascist romance and Ayn Rand nonsense were unsavoury.

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Captain Patrick Hendry is summoned to the North Pole to investigate odd readings in the sky taken by Dr Carrington and his team. In a marvellous scene they discover the space ship under the ice. There is not that much to the scene, nothing much except movie magic. The airmen work out the shape of the ship and rather than defrost the ice as they intend they accidentally destroy the ship. These men make mistakes but we realise errors do not preclude human strength, courage and good ideas, all of which come later.  Hendry accepts that his team will be obliged to save the world but his initial concerns are about not compromising his accountability. Later, when the monster is on his destructive prowl, Hendry has less regard to his orders from the military big wigs. But even then, when the team are battling on behalf of mankind, we have a sense of how Hendry will be circumspect in his final report and protect his job. The genius of Hawks is that this human quality makes Hendry more and not less admirable.

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Hawks accepts that even a democratic leader needs growth, which means moving on to another place. And in a team of equals the other men will have the strength to say goodbye. For Hawks moving on means leaving the other men and meeting a woman. In Rio Bravo Sheriff John T Chance played by John Wayne progresses to Feathers in the form of Angie Dickinson.   When Hendry arrives at the North Pole after his summons from Carrington, he meets Nikki who supports the team of scientists. We discover that they have met before when Hendry was drunk and lecherous. This time Nikki is happy to sit and talk but Hendry has to sit with his hands tied behind his back.   The scene is important. Nikki will be an equal in their relationship and she is sensible because she does not use a first impression to condemn another human being. Hendry admits his previous bad behaviour and accepts his punishment because he is mature and free of ego. He will soon be ready to leave the other men and accept something more important than physical challenge and heroism. Hendry is ready for domestic responsibility and knows that there will be other occasions when his hands will have to be tied by his equal partner.

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Meanwhile the other men will do their jobs. And in a world without women and sexual competition they will be polite to one another, respond to pressure and enjoy their moments of Hemingway grace.   The banter between the men in The Thing From Another World is gentle compared to modern standards, modest amusement about the predicaments of others. The restraint is valuable because it complements the overlapping dialogue. Points are scored but no one is allowed to take any of it seriously. The men tease one another, and we sense the sex free flirtation that exists between men proud of their physical capability.

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The Thing From Another World has had two remakes. Both deny the positive Hawksian view of a human race that needs to survive, men and women blessed rather than cursed by limited knowledge and understanding. The remake by John Carpenter is a bold interpretation. The men in his movie collect empirical evidence but their work is without consequence.  Disconnected from society and each other they are useless parasites surviving on supplies from another world they are free to ignore. They invite neither trust nor dependence. Both the original by Hawks and the remake by Carpenter are important and qualify as classic films.  Hawks was an optimist who in 1950 remembered what was best about the past. Carpenter anticipated the future, the world of today where some argue that only those who have digital mastery or entrepreneurial clout are entitled to a living and respect. In the Hawks movie the virtuous team of ordinary men keep the monster at bay.  In the remake unknowable men are possessed by the monster. The process of alienation that exists in the modern world is rendered complete.   Well, before all that happens we have time to watch and be inspired by the heroes of Howard Hawks.

 Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fearflix 37

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

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Seventeen years later the story is now being continued in British cinemas. Blair Witch is not the sequel to the original film but it is the first to return to the original plot of The Blair Witch Project. The first film was made in 1999 for little money and it earned a lot. Advertising and hype played a big part.   The filmmakers created a website that pretended that the Blair Witch really did exist. A financial phenomenon was created, and in that sense the movie resembles the literary blockbuster Fifty Shades Of Grey, a book that suggests sex is much more about what our heads want rather than our bodies.

The film was conceived by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. Since The Blair Witch Project neither man has achieved cinematic success. The Blair Witch Project was their one big and original idea. Sanchez and Myrick are not the first to use tight budgetary restrictions to create something different. The idea of using supposedly rough film taken by amateurs during an investigation has now been adopted in other movies. The rough technique has been smoothed and improved and it works well in films like REC and The Troll Hunter. Arbitrary restrictions on approach and content can benefit creation, force creators to invent something fresh. Lars Von Trier may have his psychological problems but he understood. The rules he created for his Dogma movie factory were like the Ten Commandments, mainly a list of things not to do.

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Many have assumed that the absence of explicit horror in The Blair Witch Project is merely a consequence of the tight budget. No doubt the lack of money played a part but Sanchez and Myrick exploited the financial constraints to create a film that challenges what we think of as authenticity. The Blair Witch Project also debates what it is that terrifies humans. The penultimate shot is very clever and leaves the viewer with a mystery much grander and more important than whether the witch exists or not. This is because that nothing or no one in The Blair Witch Project is as important as a camera that is constantly redefining reality.

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Sanchez and Myrick made the film in an unusual way. The three actors, whose real names are used as characters in the cast credits, not only had scope to improvise but were also obliged to respond without warning to events and situations created by the filmmakers. This approach can only go so far but there was enough improvisation and genuine surprise in the process for the actors to be uncertain about what they were doing and the audience to be confused by what they were watching. Modern technology pretends that what we see is authentic. The better we pretend, the more real it might be.

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The absence of sophisticated technology in The Blair Witch Project is consistent with the doubts about authenticity. The more real it looks, the more we worry about what is being pretended. The actors in The Blair Witch Project act but not everything we see in the film is cinematic acting. The notion of authenticity is even challenged in the film by the actors. Heather is accused of not understanding the difference between performance and honest reaction and expression.   The result is we may be watching acting intended for the film, performance designed to impress the other actors or whoever happens to be around or a genuine response to external suggestions and internal ideas.   The difference between performance and honesty, and reality and invention, is a dilemma for human beings, and the modern glut of movies, books and songs that fills our brains and coexists alongside reality amplifies the confusion. The same theme is explored by independent filmmaker Monte Hellman in his classic film noir Road To Nowhere. In that film Hellman makes a film about people who are unable to see the world as anything but action on a reel of film. The work of Hellman is inspired by existential theory. The Blair Witch Project puts the theory into practice.

Confusion reigns everywhere but what is left on film is preserved. Film has an editor, and decisions can be made about how supposed reality and performance are defined and remembered. Our lives are messier, and the actors who have conviction not only prevail but also deny us the authenticity some think is our entitlement. If many are not concerned about this aspect of our lives, it is because they have become lost in their own performances.  The actors in The Blair Witch Project walked away after the filmmaking was finished. The rest of us are not as fortunate. Our imaginations and those of others will surround us all our lives.

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Reality for humans is filtered by illusion, invention and creation. Much of the illusion is soothing, especially when technology produces bright colours and dramatic sound effects. Sunshine does something similar in the daytime. Bright colours are avoided in The Blair Witch Project but, of course, this is a horror film. Horror, though, has the same problem with illusion and invention as everything else. From the darkness The Blair Witch Project poses a fundamental question and it is this, just what terrifies us?

At the beginning of the film the horror is created by oral tales. We see and hear local residents tell their version of the Blair Witch myth. Each individual adds a twist to the tale and proves that the more information they exchange the more reality is beyond the locals. Their imaginations have polluted the truth. The pollution can be as terrifying as what did happen but imagined horror also consoles. We are reassured by being here to talk about what may or may not have been invented.

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But outside playful conversations horrible things do occur. If we are fortunate, we will miss the worst. These usually happen in remote conflict. Most of us do not experience the real horror that is out there. Our fears instead are rooted in inadequate interpretations of mundane mystery. Often this mystery is inconsequential to our existence, no more than an odd noise or a blurry momentary image. We have two responses to this terror that we create from inconsequential mystery. The first is chosen by the trio in The Blair Witch Project. They pursue a myth that will stimulate their imaginations. The second option is to avoid the myths, the locales or the horror movies that encourage dark fantasies. But this second option makes us doubt our worth and courage. A safe retreat is inadequate for the human imagination.   We avoid real horror but dilute our timidity with imagined threats and we pretend that the different and inexplicable are dangerous. The imagination is at its most potent in darkness and when we feel isolated. Odd noises and poorly defined images can be claimed as the noises and movement of monsters. This happens in The Blair Witch Project but the moments when the trio experience the greatest terror are when there is nothing, no noise and no light. When a dark blank screen appears in The Blair Witch Project, the trio become hysterical. Monsters have substance. Nothing is a terrifying vacuum in which all that is possible is the torture of our imagination and confusion. More worrying is that we do not know how long nothing can endure.

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From the beginning of The Blair Witch Project the audience has a sense that the team is capable of engineering their destruction. There are no direct references to the Howard Hawks horror classic The Thing From Another World. In that film a small team accepts responsibility and the need to cooperate. Such behaviour redeems the human race. Compared to Hawksian heroes the three people in The Blair Witch Project are inadequate. In the Hawks movie the humans survive by trusting each other and acknowledging the skills and worth of other people.   Howard Hawks is proud of his American heroes. These men and woman have confidence and they are inspired by the achievements in American history. In The Blair Witch Project everyone in the team soon decides that the others are unqualified and useless. There are moments when they try to bond but these usually occur late at night or when they are tired and hungry. The tasks that they have to do to complete the project only create antagonisms within the group. The folk history of American pioneers does not give them confidence. At one point in the film the American anthem is sung but the rendition is tuneless and sarcastic.   Heather mentions America a couple of times but she describes a tamed plastic country in which adventure and risk is impossible. Heather, of course, is wrong. America may be in decline but her notion of her country is smug and biased towards contempt. The teams of Howard Hawks may have consisted of simple-minded patriots but the cynicism of Heather and her two friends is also a limit on understanding. Educated, but nowhere near as curious as they think, their imaginations are incapable of appreciating not only the American wilderness but also what is inside their heads. In most movies there would be a final revelation and important evidence but disclosure is only useful to those who know how to establish what constitutes the authentic. The camera encourages dependence from the curious, faith in an independent eye, but, like the people who carry cameras, it cannot be trusted. At the end of the film it reveals everything it can but it amounts to nothing, and that encounter is what really terrifies us.

 

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Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.