Tag Archives: the thing from another world

The Foxy Grey Fox

By Andreas

Howard Hawks mystifies me. A former pilot and avid outdoorsman, Hollywood’s “Grey Fox” was tight-lipped in interviews and is popularly viewed as the poster child for Hollywood classicism. By and large, his movies are old-fashioned genre fare about teams of professionals in tough situations (a synopsis that covers 4/5 of the movies on this list). Whereas some filmmakers give me an impression of flamboyance or eccentricity, Hawks feels vanilla and taciturn—the strong silent type.

But this vague sketch is totally insufficient when it comes to Hawks’s films. I’d rank his masterpieces alongside those of his modernist collaborators, like Hemingway and Faulkner; they’re sublime works of art made by an utter genius. Clearly, more was going on beneath the surface than Hawks chose to give away. This extends to the realm of sexuality: on the surface, Hawks was just a thrice-married heterosexual filmmaker who specialized in action/adventure movies. But buried in his work were strange, compelling sexual undercurrents. I’ve already discussed the queerness of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so here are a few other Hawks films with surprisingly sexy moments…

Throughout Hawks’s gangster classic Scarface (1932), anti-hero Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is pretty preoccupied with the sexual comings and goings of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). He slaps her around for daring to dance with other men, and is consistently abusive and controlling. Yet in the film’s last scene, as he’s holed up in his steel-shuttered bunker and surrounded on all sides by cops, Cesca is there for him. When he asks why she didn’t kill him (he did murder the man she loved, after all), she explains that it’s “because you’re me, and I’m you.” This scene blazes with incestuous tension, and when Cesca dies moments later, it does not play as a brother/sister death scene. “I’m no good without you,” says Tony as his sister breathes her last. It’s pretty obvious what he means.

As Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), co-written by Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck is a firecracker of compressed libido. She’s a stripper on the lam who stumbles upon a coven of academics working on an encyclopedia, and decides to tap into their latent desires… especially those of the lanky, sexually unaware Bertrand Potts (Gary Cooper). He’s an easy mark, as Sugarpuss introduces him to the wonders of “yum yum,” a slang term that becomes a running joke. You get one guess about who gives the film its title. (1941 also saw Stanwyck seducing the professorial Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, which is a better film and contains a hotter seduction.)

Hawks had the rare privilege of working with Hollywood’s hottest couple twice, first in To Have and Have Not (1944) and then in his noir masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946). Both films contain scenes of explosive sexual tension: the former has the infamous “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” exchange; The Big Sleep has the brilliant horse-racing conversation. Bogey and Bacall throw double entendres back and forth, metaphorically mixing sex and detective work with talk of being “rated” and “who’s in the saddle.” When Bogey says “I don’t know how far you can go,” they’re not discussing horses anymore. It’s a remarkably crude-but-subtle way to undermine the Production Code in the name of sexy, sexy art.

I think this image from Hawks’s Red River (1948) gets the erotic point across pretty well. Matt (the very gay Montgomery Clift) and his potential rival Cherry (John Ireland) have just met and, knowing one another by reputation, decide to test their “sharpshooting skills.” To do so, they trade “guns” and evaluate how well each “gun” handles. Maybe, just maybe, you can detect some subtext. As usual, Hawks’s use of sexual metaphors is unobtrusive and undeniable, saying exactly what he wants it to say with minimum fuss and maximum erotic power.

Although credit for directing The Thing from Another World (1951) technically goes to Hawks’s frequent editor Christian Nyby, everyone and their grandmother agrees that it’s covered in Hawks’s auteur earmarks. So I’m including it for its bizarre but fun example of fairly explicit bondage. Kenneth Tobey, playing a tough military man stationed in the Arctic, expresses a romantic interest in the only woman at the base, played by Margaret Sheridan. He offers to let her tie him up, if she has a drink with him, and she takes him up on it. The hand-tying always strikes me out of nowhere: so much of The Thing feels conventionally 1950s, and then it’s like, “Bondage!” Oh, Howard Hawks, you perverted devil.

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Hawks/Carpenter/Lovecraft

[This piece was written as part of John Carpenter Week over at Radiator Heaven. Go there for a comprehensive listing of other Carpenter-related writing.]

Together, The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) comprise one of my favorite original/remake couplings. They’re both chilly and paranoid, using the narrow corridors of polar research stations to elicit maximum terror. The 1951 version is a mix of high adventure and Cold War sci-fi, told with Howard Hawks’ consummate classicism (although the direction is credited to Christian Nyby); Carpenter’s, meanwhile, amps up the mistrust and the gore, the latter courtesy of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston’s special effects.

My point is that these are both top-notch sci-fi/horror movies that I love. During the summer, I read H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness and, what do you know, I caught some strong parallels with both Thing movies! Of course, there’s the basic plot – intrepid scientists uncover a long-buried eldritch horror in the icy wastes – but even beyond that, we’ve got similarities galore. This is probably not a coincidence, as Mountains was published in Astounding Stories in 1936, with John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, on which both Thing movies were based (and which I have not read), appearing in the same periodical just two years later.

But hey, pointing out parallels like this is fun. Thus, I’m going to reveal them in the most dramatic form possible: through quotes and screenshots! Everybody loves those, right?

“I hope I have said enough already to let me glide briefly over the rest; the rest, that is, of the horror at the camp. I have told of the wind-ravaged terrain, the damaged shelters, the disarranged machinery, the varied uneasiness of our dogs, the missing sledges and other items, the deaths of men and dogs…” (Chapter 4)

Exhibit A: In The Thing, the Norwegian camp operates with basically the same significance as Lake’s camp in Mountains. Except Lake and his men didn’t leave behind anything so informative as a twisted mutant corpse; all that remained was those weird alien snow-tombs.

“At first all that Lake found was dry, but as the heated tent produced its thawing effect, organic moisture of pungent and offensive odor was encountered toward the thing’s uninjured side.” (Chapter 2)

Whoops! Better not let that ancient ice block defrost! After all, it might contain ghastly creatures beyond man’s reckoning. Never mind; it’s too late. That’s what you get for introducing heat to the damn polar regions. (Fun fact: Mountains and The Thing ’82 take place in the Antarctic; The Thing ’51 is set in the Arctic.)

“Having trouble with dogs. They can’t endure the new specimen, and would probably tear it to pieces if we didn’t keep it at a distance from them.”

Note for future polar explorers: listen to your dogs. They are smart. They have that special dog sense, the one that helped Balto transport all that diphtheria vaccine. They can discern when eons-old beings with little regard for humanity have sneaked into your midst. And when earthquakes about to strike. Man, dogs are useful.

“A good-sized blast had laid open the subterrene secret; and now, through a jagged aperture perhaps five feet across and three feet thick, there yawned before the avid searchers a section of shallow limestone hollowing worn more than fifty million years ago…” (Chapter 2)

Guys, what’s the lesson you’re trying to give us? Don’t go digging in the earth? I guess Lovecraft would say that geology is just another branch of science, and all scientific/mathematical endeavors inevitably lead to failure or madness. As for Hawks’s men, Andrew Sarris said they were driven by “professionalism.” And not digging up a potentially groundbreaking discovery would probably be a breach of their code. In Carpenter’s case, it’s not even the Americans’ fault. They’re just pitifully following in the Norwegians’ footsteps.

“They had done the same thing on other planets, having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of molding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs…” (Chapter 7)

“Must dissect when we get back to camp. Can’t decide whether vegetable or animal.” (Chapter 2)

The greatest difference between the two Things is their monsters: Hawks has James Arness in pretty scary alien makeup; Carpenter has a series of icky, protean critters that turn into other critters. Here’s my proposal: the ’82 monster resembles Lovecraft’s “Shoggoths,” which also imitate other life forms. When the protagonist encounters one, he describes it as “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light.” These same threateningly amorphous qualities are present in Carpenter’s thing.

Hawks’s thing, on the other hand, is more like Lovecraft’s Old Ones. Not so much in appearance (they have starfish-shaped heads), but in the vegetable/animal ambiguity that Dr. Carrington raves about. In any case, the thing’s extraction from the ground, its thawing, and its escape match what happens with the corpses of the Old Ones, practically scene for scene. Let the inquiring minds over at Miskatonic ponder that one for a while.

So what’s the point of this exercise? Well, it’s threefold: 1) it’s cool, 2) it shows how supplemental reading material can give new insight into this pair of films, and 3) it’s another example of Lovecraft’s ongoing influence on horror fiction. Plus, At the Mountains of Madness is not going away any time soon. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some reassuring quotes from Guillermo del Toro about his upcoming film adaptation of Mountains. (Also, not as reassuringly, there’s prequel to The Thing in the works.) So there you have it: Lovecraft is alive and well and living in Arkham!

“I hope I have said enough already to let me glide   briefly over the rest; the rest, that is, of the   horror at the camp. I have told of the wind-ravaged   terrain, the damaged shelters, the disarranged   machinery, the varied uneasiness of our dogs, the   missing sledges and other items, the deaths of men   and dogs…” (Chapter 4)

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