Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Thing: From Another World (1951)



Excellent

  • Black & White (colorized version created in the early 1980s)
  • Running Time: 87 minutes approx...
  • Cinematography: Russell Harlan
  • Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, John J. Hughes
  • Film Editor: Roland Gross
  • Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
  • Story: Written by Charles Lederer based on a short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr.
  • Producer: Howard Hawks
  • Director: Christian Nyby (Many people contend that Hawks had more influence in this area than he was given credit for)


Cast & Characters


  • Margaret Sheridan as Nikki Nicholson
  • Kenneth Tobey as Captain Patrick Hendry
  • Robert Cornthwaite as Dr Arthur Carrington
  • Douglas Spencer as Ned 'Scotty' Scott
  • James Young as Lt. Eddie Dykes
  • Dewey Martin as Crew Chief Bob
  • Robert Nichols as Lt. Ken 'Mac' MacPherson
  • William Self as Corporal Barnes
  • Eduard Franz as Dr Stern
  • Sally Creighton as Mrs Chapman
  • James Arness as 'The Thing'
  • Paul Frees as Dr Voorhees
  • John Dierkes as Dr Chapman
  • George Fenneman as Dr Redding
  • David McMahon as General Fogerty





 “The Thing" would have to be one of my most favorite science fiction films of all time. It has a way of grabbing you and never letting you go. We’ll see why a bit later, but first let’s take a look at the story line of this fabulous film.


Synopsis


  • Scientists at a distant Arctic research station discover a crashed spacecraft buried in the ice.
  • They also discover the frozen pilot (The Thing!) after Captain Patrick Hendry accidentally destroys the vessel with thermite bombs.
  • After they take the creature back to the research station he is inadvertently thawed out!
  • The alien terrifies the soldier guarding him and is shot. He then escapes out into the blizzard where it is attacked by a sled dog which rips off the creature’s arm.
  • Dr Carrington suggests that "The Thing" is not an animal but is instead more akin to a vegetable, something like a carrot. Unlike a carrot, though, it subsists on blood!
  • Carrington embarks on a misguided attempt to spawn the creature’s offspring using blood. Meanwhile the creature embarks on a murderous rampage throughout the base in its quest for blood.
  • The female scientist, Nikki suggests that the best and obvious way to destroy a vegetable is to cook it. Methods for hopefully stopping ‘The Thing’ once and for all are then put into action.
  • Can  this small band of humans in their frozen isolated outpost devise a way of stopping this menace to humanity from another world? 


Points of Interest


The dialogue contains conversations that overlap and even run simultaneously. There is a lot of banter between the military characters, including the news reporter Scotty who obviously have a history and are at ease with each other. The result is a natural sounding dialogue between a bunch of guys instead of actors working from a script. These are indeed flesh-and-blood characters.

A hint of the geo-political context of the film is best conveyed when a likely explanation for the reported aircraft crash is that it “could be the Russians. They’re all over the Pole like flies.”

For the times, we are presented with a refreshingly, well-rounded female character (Nikki) who is nobody’s fool and who knows how to negotiate her way through a largely male-dominated domain. Steering her coffee pot she comfortably takes part in the male discussion of their dilemma and offers the most sensible course of action against their vegetable- opponent. Her conversation is engaging and her personality and sense of humour both shine through.




The Thing relies a lot on what the audience doesn't see. Graphic detail is replaced by glimpses and suggestion that lets your mind join the dots and fill in the details using the worst of what up your imagination can conjure up. Take the appearances by ‘The Thing’ character which are deliberately kept short and fleeting and appear indistinct such as the view we have of him as he appears in a doorway with the light behind him. It’s what we see from the corner of our eye and what we imagine that often most frightens and shocks us. All of this adds up to a wonderful blend of science fiction and horror. 





What else we don’t see in its entirety is the alien craft. We know that it causes a magnetic deviation, it manoeuvres unlike any natural phenomenon; it has a mass of 20.000 tons of steel; it emits radiation, suggesting some kind of atomic power; it has a tail fin and is constructed of “probably some new alloy.” Interestingly its magnitude- size and shape- is conveyed by the spacing of the men around the craft’s circumference. Added to this visual clue we have a poignant pause while the camera pans and the enormity of the fact that “we finally got one!” sinks in. We don’t need to fully see the space craft since we can well imagine it based on the suggestive clues that have been presented to us.

The overall mood and tension of The Thing is established right at the outset with the opening title, credits and of course the chilling and aggressive music score by Dimitri Tiomkin, interwoven with the eerie and haunting sounds produced by the Theremin. It seems to warn the audience that they are gradually approaching something sinister and dangerous or that “something wicked this way comes.” Watch the following clip to see what I mean;


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“The Thing” character played by James Arness (who later starred in Gun Smoke) is more reminiscent of a character from horror fiction, namely, Frankenstein’s monster. Like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster has become an iconic part of our culture and is synonymous with terror and everything inhuman. “The Thing” character is that and more and this product of our cultural nightmares confirms its true nature as the film progresses.




The film does contain some good action sequences, notably the 'fire scene.' With all the kerosene and flames engulfing the set, I couldn't shake that feeling of something about to go wrong! It was very realistic and I was surprised that no-one ended up being injured.

I feel that one of the most important elements of The Thing is its constant tensions, conflicts, clashes and unresolvable or almost irreconcilable elements. The following examples will serve to illustrate this;

The main conflict between the soldiers and the scientists: Initially this conflict is established when the scientists’ innate quest for knowledge by examining the creature is stymied by the military’s need to wait for instructions before proceeding. The military men, however, seem to be quite human, friendly, sentimental, and funny and are very concerned with the importance of survival. The scientists, particularly in the form of the cold and fanatical Doctor Carrington, are portrayed as being less concerned for doing what is best for the human race. Instead knowledge is considered to be more important than lives or even survival. They tend to concern themselves with facts, whereas the soldiers decide and act based on their own and humanity’s survival. Carrington expects obedience from his fellow scientists whereas Captain Hendry and his men tend to cooperate, with the captain relying on his men’s expertise and Hendry providing the necessary leadership and guidance at a time of peril.


Struggle for survival against hostile forces: Set in an isolated arctic lab and surrounded by ice and snow with the hostile forces of nature beating at the door, this vulnerable community must rely on solidarity and unity of purpose to win its death struggle with the hostile threat from another world also beating at its door. Note the cold breath coming from the characters when the heating is cut off. We truly know from that just how cold it is and how much peril they are in not only from the creature, but also from the hostile environment.

Individual and human rights vs. imperatives of national security:  Scotty is faced with the prospect of breaking the biggest news story of all time but his potential scoop is thwarted by the military’s need to “wait for authority.”  However, what is the value of determinations made by those in authority? After all, we learn in the film that the 1949 Department of Defense bulletin proclaimed the air force had discontinued further investigations into the existence of UFOs due to the lack of evidence! Really?

Assumptions & Preconceptions: Can we assume that an extra-terrestrial civilization would share our thirst and love for knowledge? Can we assume that it would act in a benevolent manner towards us or even care about our existence? Can we assume that it would have a higher or more enlightened sense of morality than us? Can we assume that it would share similar physical, emotional and other characteristics? OR Would such a civilization have beings whose cellular structure is closer to vegetation and who may view us as being little more than an inferior source of nutrients necessary for it to survive?

Because the creature is a stranger to our world and has “no hair” and lies within the block of ice with open eyes that “look like they can see,” should it be assumed that it is evil and dangerous? After all, when it first thawed out it was shot at and had its arm ripped off! Should we then assume that like Frankenstein’s monster it deserves our sympathy? It must be kept in mind that despite being “some form of super carrot,” this stranger in an unknown land was able to construct a space craft with an unknown form of propulsion! On that basis, it could be assumed that the creature represents a civilization with which we should “return the call.” Perhaps science holds the answer….or does it?

Science-saviour of humanity or its destroyer?  Scientific inquiry determined that the creature’s arm contained no animal tissue, blood or nerve endings. From this it is inferred that the creature itself cannot die in the way we understand it, that it has no emotions and feels no pain. For Carrington this can only mean that the creature is “superior” and is therefore “wiser than we are.” His desire to communicate with the creature and to continue to scientifically investigate it (without telling the “others”) has disastrous consequences, including the serious wounding of his colleague and the hanging up of two other dead colleagues from beams by the creature. For Carrington, there are “no enemies in science, only phenomena to study” and “knowledge is more important than life.” What he fails to grasp is that such attitudes or blind faith in science can blind us to the serious consequences to humanity that can result.  As was cynically pointed out in the film, this was the case with the “splitting of the atom.”

And so, dear reader, the message from this exceptional film, The Thing: From Another World, is that it is up to each of us to work together with a unity of purpose and to make sure that we continue to…..


“Watch the skies!” 

and 

“Keep looking!”





©Chris Christopoulos 2013



Sci-Fi on Film: 1951


After a tentative start in 1950, (see my posts on this Home Page) 1951 was quite a busy year in the sci-fi film genre. These are some of the films that will be featured in this blog.

· The Thing: From Another World
· The Man From Planet X
· When Worlds Collide
· The Day the Earth Stood Still
· Five
· Unknown World
· Flight To Mars 



The first film to be featured will be, The Thing: From Another World. But before we do, let’s take a bit of time to get a feel of that significant year for sci-fi in the movies…

Friday, 15 February 2013

A Tribute to Ray Harryhausen




At the back of his parents’ milk bar in Melbourne Australia, a young boy in the early 1960s watched TV with bulging eyes and open mouth. He was watching the film, Jason and the Argonauts at the point where the giant bronze statue, Talos was just coming to life to punish Jason and his crewmates for violating the treasure storehouse at the foot of Talos’ statue. It was the genius of the American master of visual effects, Ray Harryhausen and his brand of stop-motion model animation known as "Dynamation" that produced such an effect as described above in audiences of films that featured his ground-breaking special effects. By the way, that young boy was me. 


Raymond Frederick "Ray" Harryhausen was born on June 29, 1920 and it seemed as if a path was being laid out for him that would lead him to the creation of his own unique imaginative world via the medium of film. A part of this world was being shared with that young boy in Melbourne years afterward, who would in turn remember as an adult that magic moment on TV nearly 50 years later. 



video


This path Ray was to take was marked with the following signposts; 

  • His lifelong passion for dinosaurs and anything to do with fantasy. 
  • His parents’ encouragement of him to pursue whatever he wanted to. 
  • Opportunity offered to him at Grammar school to learn how to make model miniature set pieces of Californian Missions. This in turn led him to begin making three dimensional figures and sets. From that he would eventually make his own versions of prehistoric creatures. 
  • Inspiration derived from the LA County Museum where Ray gazed in wonder at the murals of prehistoric creatures created by Charles R. Knight. Ray also saw the film, The Lost World in 1925, at five years of age. His eyes feasted on a world populated with what seemed to be living dinosaurs such as an allosaurus fighting with and pushing a brontosaurus off the edge of a plateau. And then of course there was King Kong in 1933. 
  • His natural thirst for knowledge in which Ray wanted to know about the creatures he saw on the screen and how they seemed to have been brought to life. What was this thing called “stop-motion animation?” 
  • Trial and error: Ray Experimented in the production of animated shorts. 
  • Mentors such as Willis O'Brien who was the animator of King Kong. O'Brien assessed Ray's models and inspired him to aim for a more fluid animation and to construct creatures that were more anatomically correct.
  • Education being a life-long process to build upon and increase one’s skills. Ray took classes in graphic arts and sculpture and enrolled in art and anatomy night classes at the Los Angeles City College (LACC). He also attended night classes at the University of Southern California where he studied art direction, editing and photography. 


From such influences we can better understand how Ray Harryhausen was able to reach a point where he was able to almost magically inject life into his characters and give them character and personality. 



Ray Harryhausen’s Career 


  • Harryhausen’s first commercial job was on George Pal's Puppetoons shorts. 
  • During World War Two, Ray designed and photographed a short film called How to Bridge a Gorge in 1941 to show how stop-motion animation could be used in propaganda films. He also worked on US propaganda films such as the Why We Fight series for the US War Office 
  • In 1947 Harryhausen worked as an assistant animator on his first major film, Mighty Joe Young in 1949 which happily for him used the same people who had made King Kong. In this film, Ray animated most of the scenes.
  • Ray Harryhausen was later to form a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer. Their first project was It Came from Beneath the Sea in 1955, followed by Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in 1956. 


The films listed below that Ray Harryhausen worked on consist only of those that will be featured in this blog. 


1953:  THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS 





This was the first film that used the technique later known as Dynamation. This involved using a split screen technique to insert models into the live-action. It was a method of seamlessly integrating the live-action with the models. The film was Harryhausen's first solo feature film effort, and a major international box-office hit for Warner Brothers Pictures. 

It is worth noting that Ray was able to develop and execute most of the miniature set work himself, thereby saving money and more importantly maintaining his full technical and creative control in order to achieve the desired special effects in his films. 


1955:  IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA 






In the film the model of the octopus had only six tentacles due to budget constraints. To overcome this marine physical handicap, the model was always partially in the water at any one time. Don’t believe me? Check it out! 

1956:  EARTH vs. THE FLYING SAUCERS 







The design of the saucers had an animated section added into the top and underside. Flutes were also incorporated into the design so that audiences could see that the saucer was moving. Ray simply used old recording wire on which to suspend the saucers to give the illusion of flying. The Capitol and the Supreme Court buildings which were miniature sets cost a mere (by today’s blockbuster standards) $1500 each. The Washington Monument came in at a bargain price of $500. Ray’s dad made the saucers from aluminium which was then anodised to give them a matt finish so they wouldn’t reflect light. 

Harryhausen always involved himself in the pre-production film's story concept & script development as well as art-direction, design, storyboarding and other aspects of his films.







In this film, an American spaceship returns from Venus and crashes into the ocean near Italy, releasing an alien egg which washes up on shore. This egg hatches a creature that rapidly grows to enormous size and terrifies the entire populace of Rome. I dare you to try and not feel empathy for Harryhausen’s Venusian “Ymir” model. This would be due largely to Ray’s ability to make his model convey emotional states through their expressions, stance and movements, combined with other features used in the film to illicit emotional response. Ray insisted that the film should be shot in black and white using Kodak 35mm film stock that eliminated the problem of grain when the rear projection image is re-photographed. 20 Million Miles to Earth was the last picture that Ray made in black and white. It would have been Ray's tribute to Willis O'Brien and King Kong, mentioned above.  


1958:  THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD 


This was Ray’s first feature in colour and it was he who came up with the idea for the title, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad due to the mystical significance of the number 7. It was for this film that the name “Dynamation.” was coined for Ray’s dimensional animation. 


1963: Jason and the Argonauts 






So, how did Ray Harryhausen achieve that effect of open-mouthed wonder in a young boy of about 7 or 8 years of age sitting in front of a black and white TV set? With the statue, Talos coming to life, Ray based the movement of Talos’ head turning to the camera on a Japanese film in which a woman’s head turns to the camera. Talos’ movements are very laboured and slow in order to convey a sense of the height of the bronze statue. Quite a feat with a model which is only about sixteen inches high! 

And so, nearly 50 years later I still enjoy watching that and other films that feature the magic of the master, Ray Harryhausen. 

Thank you for the magic, Ray…..





Raymond Frederick "Ray" Harryhausen 

(June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013)






©Chris Christopoulos 2013

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Flying Saucer (1950)


Below Average

  •         Produced & Directed by Mikel Conrad
  •         Written by Howard Irving Young
  •         Starring Mikel Conrad
  •         Music by Darrell Calker
  •         Cinematography Phillip Tannura
  •         Distributed by Film Classics Inc.
  •         Running time: 69 minutes


Cast


  •         Mikel Conrad - Mike Trent
  •         Pat Garrison - Vee Langley
  •         Hantz von Teuffen - Hans
  •         Roy Engel - Dr. Lawton
  •         Lester Sharpe - Col. Marikoff
  •         Denver Pyle - Turner, spy
  •         Erl Lyon - Alex, spy
  •         Frank Darrien - Matt Mitchell
  •         Russell Hicks - Intelligence Chief Hank Thorn
  •         Virginia Hewitt - Nanette, bar girl
  •         Garry Owen - Bartender

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Read on for more.....