Going to Brass

So, let’s talk about Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, or rather THE THING, From Another World. (Thank you, Netflix!) In many ways, it’s a stupid movie. It’s based on Who Goes There, a smart and deeply horrifying (at … Continued

So, let’s talk about Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, or rather THE THING, From Another World. (Thank you, Netflix!)

In many ways, it’s a stupid movie. It’s based on Who Goes There, a smart and deeply horrifying (at least to my 15-year-old self) novella by John W. Campbell, which you can read online for free, and probably illegally, here.

The basic concept (yes, spoilers ahead) is…A group of scientists come across a space alien buried in ice, only to find that 1) it’s alive, 2) it is bloodthirsty, and 3) it can take over their bodies. Number three is really the kicker: the book turns into one of those murder mysteries where everyone in the room is a suspect and they’re all grinning at each other across the table while clenching revolvers under it, combined with a healthy dose of Capgras syndrome.

So yeah, the movie. Did I mention it’s stupid? Look, not only is the book’s concept of monster freaky, not only does it raise all sorts of interesting questions about identity and morality, it’s also cheap as all hell to shoot. You just use the same actors! No special effects required! But for the film, screenwriter Charles Lederer decided that America wasn’t interested in freakiness, identity, morality, or lack of special effects. (He may have had a point about the last one.) No, what America was hankering for something more… oh, I’m so bad with words. What am I trying to say, character from the movie?

SKEELY: You mean – its some kind of a super carrot, Doctor?

Exactly! (But please, don’t call me doctor.) I don’t suppose you could be more specific?

CARRINGTON: A carrot that can construct a ship beyond our terrestrial intelligence, of materials we have not yet created – and guide it sixty million miles or more through space.

To which I would add, a carrot played by James “Gunsmoke” Arness.

So yeah, that should give you a picture of where THE THING, From Another World‘s head is at. There are plenty of other stupid elements to the movie, from the characters’ behavior to the basic set design (in the clip below, they blockade a door by propping beams against it… only to have THE THING pull the door open, which was funny when Bugs Bunny did it, but played entirely straight here). Still, it’s enjoyable on its own dippy terms. The acting isn’t anything to write home about, but the cast has a kind of pleasant camaraderie, and for 1951, the romantic subplot is pretty inoffensive. There’s still a certain amount of “Stay back, Nikki! This is no place for a woman,” but at least she stands up for herself while THE CARROT THE THING from another world is safely offscreen. (At one point, she actually ties the romantic lead to a chair and starts kissing him, which is pretty raw stuff for a Hayes code picture.) And it’s considered a classic of early scifi/horror, to the extent that it’s last line, “Keep watching the skies!” has been parodied on The Simpsons.

Note: although I’ve already warned you about the spoilers, the clip below is the entire climactic scene of the film. Don’t click unless you don’t care.


By the way, when it’s melting there, at the end? That’s a midget actor in a miniature THE THING costume. Hard-core-to-the-mother-fucking-floor, no?

And then there’s Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. A Russian emigre who had studied with Glazunov and Busoni, Tiomkin was one of the architects of the classic Hollywood sound, especially in westerns like High Noon and Rio Bravo. He’s also one of the few classical composers to have popped up with some regularity on the pop charts. The Skatalites classic The Guns of Navarone is a cover of Tiomkin’s *decidedly* non-ska score to that film, and the ballad from High Noon was a hit in its own right. Oh, and he also wrote the theme from Rawhide. So it’s no surprise that his music for THE THING, From Another World kind of kicks ass. Dig those screaming trumpet chords! Here’s the interesting bit, to me. Elsewhere in the score, he uses a lot of theremin, which I know is supposed to be eerie, but pretty much comes across as a cliched signifier that we’re in 1950s scifi land. That brass sound, though, sends chills down my spine in a way that the theremin never could. And I’m wondering, is it because of my training? I play a brass instrument myself, and unless you’re learning to play jazz, they drum it into you at a very early age that playing in this style (usually called “blasting,” or “going to brass”), is something one must never, ever do, no matter how loud the conductor wants it. So when I hear that score, maybe it’s not just bombarding me with high-frequency soundwaves: maybe it offers the thrill of the transgressive.

If I’m right, the soundtrack for Saw V should just be a single child whispering “It’s dark and no one is watching… go ahead, pick your nose.” “Later, you should eat an entire bag of Oreos.” “It’s okay, lots of people find Paris Hilton attractive.” Come on, tell me that wouldn’t be terrifying.

4 Comments on “Going to Brass”

  1. Dan Alt #

    Oh, come on… you don’t even MENTION the John Carpenter version? Much better, AND it also had a high-profile European emigree composer (Moriconne) writing the score.


  2. stokes OTI Staff #

    To my shame, I haven’t seen the John Carpenter version, and I felt like I shouldn’t talk about something I haven’t seen. But yes, from everything I’ve heard, it is awesome… and the monster is much closer to Campbell’s original vision.

    I didn’t realize that the score was by Morricone, though! I’ll have to bump this one up the old Netflix queue…


  3. Dan Alt #

    It’s not his best score, as it’s sort of in the 1970’s, “Ooh.. a synthesizer! Let’s make it go beep!” vein. But it’s identifiably him. And the movie itself is much more faithful to the book. The ending is awesome.

    The boat sinks, and she’s really a man who sees dead people after she wakes up on the farm in Kansas with her childhood sled.


  4. mike weber #

    Actually, Carpenter’s film is quite faithful to Campbell’s original, right up to the ending. Carpenter’s ending is in the Lovecraftian vein of “horrible things that want to eat your face and will ultimately win no matter how smart you are”, while Campbell’s and Campbell’s is more in the line of “a Scottish engineer can whip anything if he understands what it is and has a piecre of wire and some chewing gum to work with.”

    And, incidentally, in Campbell’s original, as in the Carpenter film the creature doesn’t “take over” people, it replicates them; it’s Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters” in which they take over people. After all these years, it just hit me that “Puppet Masters” has a parallel structure to “Who Goes There?”, and, since Campbell was Heinlein’s biggest market for years, and was well-known for feeding writers ideas… Hmmm.


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