The Air Force sends a crew up to the North Pole to help American scientists blast out a strange object they’ve found in the ice. But what they find inside it is even stranger: A giant alien, frozen stiff. What to do next? Well, what they certainly shouldn’t do is bring ice-cube man back to their remote base — and then accidentally leave him under an electric blanket to thaw out.
This is classic ’50s sci-fi, and with several great creepy moments — the drip-drip-drip of the melting ice encasing the alien, the seed pods the scientists discover in his arm, the dawning realization that he’s actually some sort of giant, vegetable vampire. Even in black-and-white, and with low-fi effects, the movie still works; there’s a reason it’s the scary flick the kids are all watching on TV in the original “Halloween.”
Loosely based on a short story by John W. Campbell, it set the template for a decade of Eisenhower-era sci-fi, with a strange menace from another world and a conflict between science and the military on how to face it. (This picture suggested that our armed forces were the real ones to trust in these perilous times: As it warns at the end, “Keep watching the skies!”) Add in solid performances by B-movie favorite Kenneth Tobey as our hero and Robert O. Cornthwaite as the egghead scientist, a shivery Dimitri Tiomkin score and a rousing climax and you have a baby-boomer favorite.
Fast forward/freeze frame: At 87 minutes, the movie barely gives anyone time to get bored.
Fun trivia: Yes, that’s James “Matt Dillon” Arness under the rubber bald cap as the alien, and Groucho Marx’ poor put-upon “You Bet Your Life” sidekick George Fenneman as Dr. Redding. And while Christian Nyby is the credited director, most historians count this as a Howard Hawks film; although he was ostensibly only the film’s producer, Hawks was on the set every day conferring with Nyby and the picture bears the veteran filmmaker’s signature, from its overlapping dialogue to its focus on a small stoic group of men working together under pressure.
Campbell’s original short story, “Who Goes There?” can be found in any number of anthologies, and would be a great introduction to the Golden Age of science-fiction — an era the native Newarker helped usher in, as the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
Double features: It’s definitely for older teens — and maybe not for some adults, given the rampant gore — but John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is one of the few remakes that has its own reason for being, as it returns to Campbell’s original idea of a shape-shifting monster. And cold as its Arctic setting is, its ending is even chillier.