This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
After years of dormancy and diminishing returns, the horror genre finds the seeds in 1951 of its resurrection, at least in the U.S.—a partnership with the rapidly evolving science fiction genre. Although 1952 will be another weak crop, before a revival begins in earnest around 1953, this year at least gives us more to talk about than the two that preceded it.
Providing a bridge to the past is the best of the Abbott and Costello “Meet” sequels, Meet the Invisible Man, now playing the character entirely for laughs rather than chills or thrills. It works fine; The Invisible Man was never one of the more frightening Universal Monsters anyway. Nevertheless, it confirms that the era of the frightening gothic monster film seems to have passed—the public has become jaded, and is no longer shocked by the sight of a vampire or werewolf. They want to be menaced by new figures that are relevant to 1950s popular culture, and appearances like Boris Karloff’s in this year’s The Strange Door seem particularly old fashioned.
Films like The Man From Planet X or The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, reflect the emerging zeitgeist much more clearly, catching the “saucer age” of the U.S. in full bloom, and the sudden national obsession with alien invaders, presented as a not-at-all subtle proxy for Cold War/Soviet tensions. Some of these films, like The Man From Planet X, are easier to slot into the horror genre for the fact that they’re primarily attempting to titillate and frighten an audience, whereas The Day the Earth Stood Still has loftier philosophical and pacifistic aspirations, not unlike those possessed by Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. The Day the Earth Stood Still seems particularly unimpressed with the technological advances of the past decade, with a pessimistic outlook on human nature that assumes we’ll almost certainly destroy ourselves in the end—worries that still seem pretty well founded decades later, even if we managed to avoid an immediate nuclear holocaust after developing The Bomb. The film has such a low opinion of humanity, in fact, that it seems to support the idea of its alien visitors stripping our species of its agency, for our own good, precisely because we can’t be trusted with it.
1951 Honorable Mentions:
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Five, The Man From Planet X, The Strange Door
Director: Christian Nyby
If The Day the Earth Stood Still is distrustful of the inability of humanity’s leaders to avoid an impending conflict that could destroy life as we know it, then The Thing From Another World is more representative of the common man’s deep, paranoiac distrust of his own Cold War neighbor, in much the same manner as Invasion of the Body Snatchers from later in the decade. The fear here isn’t one of inherently corrupted human nature in a new, technological age, but rather that the mysterious Other will infiltrate and destroy us—from without, rather than “within,” in this case. Unlike John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, the “Thing” here doesn’t insidiously imitate or subsume the identities and bodies of those it kills. It’s more like a bridge between the lumbering monsters of 1940s horror cinema and the outer space-inspired killers of the new era, albeit with a new, Communist subtext.
Debate has long raged about who truly directed The Thing From Another World, with some primary sources claiming that producer Howard Hawks was behind the camera on a daily basis, but we should be less concerned about the name receiving top billing and more focused on The Thing as a top-flight work of isolated paranoia and suspense. Its crew of scientists, military suits and journalists, all holed up in a North Pole research station, should by all logic be united in their resistance against an invading force from another world, but instead are divided by aspects of personal interest. The military wishes to destroy the creature, for the sake of national security. The scientists want to communicate, refusing to accept what is pretty clearly a case of hostile intent. And the writer, like so many film journalists, mostly wants to file the “story of a lifetime” for his own, self-aggrandizing ends. Whose response to the presence of a blood-drinking plant alien is most inherently flawed?
Regardless of what side one comes down on, The Thing From Another World is a gripping sci-fi thriller, with effective camera work that plays up the “no escape” isolation of being in a location that is inherently hostile to human life. The sequence where the clustered scientists and military men are backed into a corner by the advancing, backlit Thing as it smashes through the door and stands, highlighted against the arctic cold, is a classic of the genre. The fact that the creature is met with liquid fire (and later an electrical trap) feels like an atom-age update on how the Universal monsters were so often destroyed—by elements of nature, tamed by man’s science, used to drive back that which should not be.
The Thing From Another World launches a grand age of space and alien exploitation at the movies, which will last throughout the decade. From Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and War of the Worlds to Invaders From Mars, It Came From Outer Space or The Blob, the nation had found its latest and greatest bogeyman—and horror was happy for the assist.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.