Wednesday, 3 February 2010

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

Often noted for its amazing similarities to Alien (1979) and yet, as an individual film, often treated derisively, It! The Terror From Beyond Space is in fact a compact and well-handled B-movie. It certainly, for me, stands at the head of the pack in regards to the low-budget, late-‘50s sci-fi cycle, as the genre's heyday declined and budgets dipped. The terror is hardly from beyond space, wherever that is: it’s from Mars, upon which the first ever expedition crash-landed, and now, six months later, a rescue party has arrived. An Earthly press conference sees an official informing reporters that the stranded party’s lone survivor, Carruthers (Marshall Thompson), has been placed under arrest for murder, for the skull of one of his dead companions shows a bullet hole, and his rescuers now believe he killed off his companions to preserve rations for himself.

On board ship returning to earth, Carruthers is not imprisoned or manacled, but is constantly watched. He explains his story to sympathetic crewmembers like Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith), and ignores the jibes of her sort-of boyfriend, and his self-appointed jailer, Van Heusen (Kim Spalding). It soon becomes apparent that Carruthers’ account, involving the strange, deadly mutant life-forms that inhabit Mars and which decimated his crew, is all too true. One of the beasts has managed to board the rescue ship: intelligent but devolved, it seeks blood with relentless, rampaging hunger. The crew face a race against time to keep it contained, and work out how to destroy a creature which repels bullets and bashes through steel doors with little compunction.

It! was evidently shot on a low budget, but the imagery is a capsule of old sci-fi magazine covers with its cigar-shape rocket, crater-pitted vision of Mars’ surface, and lurking demon-faced, three-fingered beastie, which the director Edward L. Cahn wisely keeps in the shadows as much as possible, because the bagginess of the suit (filled out by former C-Western star Ray “Crash” Corrigan) is quite apparent in some scenes. The Alien similarities are particularly pointed in scenes where the crew hunts for the beast in the air ducts, where the creature’s exsanguinated victims loll in deathly dazes. It! is, however, merely an intermediary between that famous later hit film and The Thing From Another World (1951), merely swapping the pole for a space ship. Dated touches lurk: it’s funny, and a bit excruciating, how the ship’s two females, despite being savant professionals like the rest of the crew, are still the ones serving out breakfast with housewifely skill. Proceedings are fairly rudimentary in terms of characterisation, with actors who are by and large only serviceable.

But the script by Jerome Bixby is well-paced, the dialogue terse but smart, and the overall mood sober and focused. There’s no gratuitous religion or politicising, and even the romance of Ann and Carruthers is kept at a stoic minimum. An intriguing theme of survivor guilt/resentment, rarely portrayed in movies of the period and yet surely a vital aspect of the post WW2 psyche, bubbles away under the surface. This theme becomes particularly apparent when a dying Van Heusen berates Carruthers for his ability to always make it out when his fellows die, a point that causes Carruthers definite pain, even if he's only guilty of wisdom and dexterous speed. The gimmick of a murder mystery giving way to a monster siege makes for a tight narrative, which, once it kicks into gear, never drags. Cahn, a crafty filmmaker who had made literally dozens of small noir films and westerns since the '30s, turned out several horror and sci-fi films in this time, usually with goofy plots and yet handled with distinctive sobriety and restrained, low-rent atmosphere, ranging from the snappy, like The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), to the crappy, like Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957). All things considered, he does a lot with a little here, successfully generating a sense of claustrophobia, which ratchets up when the astronauts space-walk along the hull of their ship: humanity exposed to the infinitude, because the interior of the ship, their lifeboat in the nothing, has become home to something inimical. This is a good ride if you’re in the right frame of mind.


Robert said...

I was in the right frame of mind. Then again, I've been in the same frame of mind since I was 5.

Roderick Heath said...

Oh yes, I do hear you.