Saturday, October 14, 2017

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

Once again, I have to refer back to the book, Monster Madness, in order to talk about my introduction to this film. I may have read about it in some of the books on monster and science fiction movies at school and public libraries but, if so, it never left an impression until I got this book in 1998 when I was around ten or eleven years old. The book's section on the movie, in its chapter on movies about monsters from outer space, featured an image that you often see associated with it: the title creature carrying the female lead over its shoulder, which did catch my attention when I first saw it, especially the design of the monster, which I thought was pretty cool (although, said event never happens in the movie and you don't ever get a look at the monster that's as clear as that image). Most significantly, though, the book mentioned that the film ended up becoming one of the most influential sci-fi monster flicks of the 50's, most notably in that it was basically the prototype for Alien two decades later, a fact that was mentioned on the very next page, which was a brief summary of that franchise. Indeed, if the movie is known for anything, it's that, a fact that I've never been able to separate from it, since it's part of how I first came to know of it, and is one of the things that immediately comes to mind whenever I think of it. It wasn't helped by the fact that this bit of info was always a major part of trivia on the film, be it in The Amazing Colossal Book of Horror Trivia, which I bought around 2000, or in the trivia part of Cinema Secrets, a behind-the-scenes look at special effects movies that I used to watch every Friday night on AMC. As with all of these old horror and science fiction films that I learned of when I was a kid, It! was a movie that I wanted to see and in fact, I did end up seeing it around the millennium, a couple of years or so after I first heard of it. I can't remember if I got it for Christmas or bought it myself but it was around that time of the year when I got ahold of and first watched the VHS; in fact, I saw it before I did Alien. Despite being only 13 or so at the time, my impression of the film was that it was just average (it also didn't help that my tastes were starting to mature around that time) and that remains the best way to describe it today. It's nothing more than a typical 50's monster flick: decent but nothing great, and definitely a B-movie without being flat-out terrible. It's easy to see why, other than its connection to the much more famous and iconic Alien, it's mainly been forgotten, as it has little to truly reward those who go searching for it.

The year is 1973, and Col. Edward Carruthers, renowned for being the first man to ever be shot into space, has been discovered as the only survivor of a previous mission to Mars after his ship crashed on the planet. A rescue ship picks him up and blasts off from the planet to take him back to Earth... where he is to stand trial for the murder of his entire crew. Carruthers maintains that he didn't kill them, that the killer was actually some sort of violent, Martian creature. Col. Van Heusen, the commander of the rescue ship, isn't convinced, speculating that Carruthers murdered the members of his crew so he could use the ship's food and water rations to keep himself alive for as long as necessary, seeing as how he had no way of knowing when or even if a rescue ship would arrive. His discovery of a human skull with a bullet-hole in it has him completely convinced. Van Heusen decides to keep a guard on Carruthers at all times and intends to have his confession on tape by the time they reach Earth. However, inbound to Earth, two members of the crew, Joe Kienholz and Gino Finelli, disappear. During the search for them, the former's body is found stuffed in an air duct and the latter is found in another one, alive but barely. But, when Maj. John Purdue tries to save Gino, he's attacked and injured by the killer: a scaly, reptilian, humanoid creature that stowed away in the ship's cargo bay before it took off from Mars. The monster proves to be immune to bullets, gas, explosives, electrocution, and even exposure to the ship's nuclear reactor, forcing the crew to simply put up barriers between it and them on the various levels of the ship, which only work for so long, as it can tear through metal. An autopsy on Kienholz's body reveals that it absorbed every bit of edible fluid within his body and, what's more, the injures it inflicted upon Purdue and, at a later point, Van Heusen become infected with a Martian bacteria that is virtually impervious to normal drugs. Worst of all: the crew is running out of levels on the ship to use as shelter, meaning that by the time they reach Earth, there might not be anybody left alive.

The film's director, Edward L. Cahn, was one of those directors who specialized in quickly-made, low-budget B-movies, many of which he made for American-International Pictures. Some other notable examples of the horror and sci-fi genre include Creature with the Atom Brain, Zombies of Mora Tau (which absolutely sucks, I might add), The She-Creature, Invasion of the Saucer Men, Curse of the Faceless Man (a movie about a mummy-like creature that was released on a double bill with It!), and Invisible Invaders, with John Agar and John Carradine. While the features he directed at the beginning of his career in the early 30's aren't as memorable, it is noteworthy that he started out as an editor on films like The Man Who Laughs (the silent film featuring the character played by Conrad Veidt that was the inspiration for the Joker) and All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as that he directed some of the Our Gang short subjects from the late 30's into the early 40's. He spent the latter part of his career making low budget westerns and teen flicks, with his last movie being a 1962 version of Beauty and the Beast. Cahn died in 1963 at the age of 64.

This is definitely a movie where you shouldn't expect really deep, complex characters; in fact, other than their names and faces (which I know mostly from a helpful roll call before the ship departs from Mars and even then, a couple of them go unmentioned), a few of them aren't memorable at all. The film's lead, Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson), is your typical 50's B-movie leading man: fairly good-looking but without much else to him. He insists from the beginning that he's not the one who killed the members of his crew but he talks about it and everything else in such a soft, emotionless manner (there's only one moment in the entire movie where I can remember him really raising his voice) that you don't care about his plight in the least or that he's eventually proven right. The scene where he recounts what happened to Ann Anderson is the only time where he's really effectively emotive about it, and is the only part of the movie that has some semblance of mood, but for the most part, he's really bland and, along with Eric Royce, becomes the de facto leader of the crew after Van Heusen is put out of commission. He's not very effective in this capacity, though, as he doesn't know what the creature is other than it's a lethal Martian that killed his crew and while he comes up with a number of methods of dealing with it, only his final idea, draining all of the air out of the ship to suffocate it, is effective. Still, he's definitely not a coward and is willing to face the creature whenever he has to. And throughout the film, starting at the very beginning, he narrates what's going on in that same, emotionless voice, but I wonder who he's talking to in the context of the story. At first, I thought maybe this was meant to be him writing in a diary or making an audio recording of his situation, but given how specific his commentary is to whatever you're looking at, like the surface of Mars when you first see it and when they attempt to kill the creature by electrifying a ladder, it feels more like it's narration simply to keep the audience cognizant of what's going on or, if nothing else, to fill dead air.

An even blander character is the movie's female lead, Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith, whose real name was Shirley Patterson). Other than starting out as Van Heusen's girl, more or less, and gravitating towards Carruthers after he's proven right about the monster and Van Heusen is seriously injured by it, which doesn't cast her in a good light, she has little function in the film other than acting as moral support, serving food and coffee to the men, and looking pretty. At the beginning, she admits that she isn't sure if Carruthers is guilty or not or what she thinks of his story, but she takes it upon herself to get Van Heusen off his back and trying to bait him into confessing, as she feels it's not up to either of them to decide his guilt. But, other than that and a line near the end of the movie when she tells Carruthers that after a bad marriage, she decided to go into science (I don't know what purpose it served, since we're never told what she, or most of the crew members, for that matter, does on the ship), she's a nothing character and is among the most forgettable female leads in these types of movies. It's small wonder that Smith, who started out as a beauty pageant contestant, quit acting by the end of the 50's.

The character in the movie with the most notable arc is Col. Van Heusen (Kim Spalding), the commander of the rescue ship. At the start, he's thoroughly convinced that Carruthers is guilty of murdering his crew, theorizing why he did it, and has a pretty solid piece of evidence in the human skull with the bullet-hole that they found when they picked him up (it turns out that person was accidentally shot when Carruthers and his crew were firing blindly at the monster during a Martin sandstorm). He's constantly on Carruthers, treating him like an animal rather than a human being and making sure there's someone guarding him every step of the way during the trip back to Earth, as well as trying to get him to confess his crime on tape by the time they get back. He claims that he owes it to the people he "murdered" but it's more likely he's trying to do it for the props he'll get. But, when Ann, whom he calls "Chicken," tells him that he's abusing his authority and that he should leave it up to the courts to decide whether or not Carruthers is guilty, Van Heusen lightens up on him. Not that it matters much, though, as they soon discover their hostile stowaway and Carruthers is vindicated. Van Heusen begins working with him and the others to try to kill the monster but is soon put out of commission when it seriously injures him by grabbing and slicing up his left leg. His wound then becomes infected with a Martian bacteria that normal drugs can't fight and which begins to slowly kill him. As his health declines, so does his mental status, as he becomes antagonistic towards Carruthers for "abandoning" Lt. James Calder down below, which is probably motivated by the growing relationship between him and Ann, as he was earlier shown to be keen on keeping him away from her. He becomes delirious later on and, despite Ann and Mary Royce's pleas, un-shields the ship's nuclear reactor in an attempt to kill the monster when they trap it in the core, an act that only succeeds in getting Bob Finelli killed and once again stranding Calder down there with it when it breaks out. Near the end of the movie, when they've become trapped in the top level of the ship, Van Heusen, his last heroic attempt having blown up in his face, accepts that Ann and Carruthers are going to be together and that he's going to die from his infected leg. But, he ultimately manages to go out a hero, as he puts himself in harm's way to open the airlock and kill it by draining out all of the air, getting himself killed in the process (although I don't know how, as it looked like he just feel and the monster didn't touch him).

As I said earlier, after Van Heusen is injured, Eric Royce (Dabs Greer) becomes the new leader of the crew along with Carruthers, although that's one of the few things about him that is memorable. He's one of the more underdeveloped characters, although he does have something of a personality in how he makes cracks about not giving up on a chess game with Carruthers and, when Kienholz disappears, he says, "If this is one of his jokes, I'll make him walk home!" He's also fairly intelligent, in that he comes up with a possible theory for the creature's origin, and helps in coming up with plans to deal with it, although they all end in failure. Like Carruthers, he realizes near the end of the movie that the increased rate of oxygen consumption in the ship is because of the creature's enormous lungs, which leads to the idea of suffocating it by venting all of the air out of the ship. His wife, Mary (Ann Doran), works onboard the ship as the doctor and she, most significantly, discovers the way the creature feeds on its victims when she does an autopsy on Kienholz's body and discovers that every bit of edible fluid in his body has been removed. She also tries to treat the infected wounds it inflicted on Van Heusen and John Purdue but, because of the alien bacteria, she isn't able to do much with the drugs that she has, which leads to them having to go down to the deck where it is and try to get fresh blood to help them (they're successful, but it comes at a major price).

A more memorable character is Lt. James Calder (Paul Langton), one because he has a bit of charisma and personality. He's much more sympathetic towards Carruthers than Van Heusen, at one point saying, "Mars is almost as big as Texas. Maybe it's got monsters," although he sticks with him everywhere he goes like Van Heusen, and I think he's meant to be from Texas, as he often refers to the creature as a "critter." The other memorable thing about him is that, when he and Carruthers manage to get to a level underneath the monster to try to electrocute it, he gets stuck in a corner between two big pumps with a broken leg and has to use a welder's torch to fend it off whenever it tries to go for him. He remains there for the rest of the movie, although it proves somewhat advantageous for the others as he's able to tell them what it's doing while they try to come up with plans to kill it and rescue him. This is where Calder really shows off his personality, as he mentions that the torch he has is good for three hours' continuous use and adds, "It says to ask for your money back if unsatisfied," as well as defends Carruthers' when he overhears Van Heusen of abandoning him over his spacesuit's built-in radio. Nobody brings it up but it's actually kind of his fault that the monster got onboard the ship in the first place, as he left open a hatch in the ship's cargo compartment before they left Mars, which it used to get in after climbing up the side of the ship. Regardless, he's able to survive along with everybody else by hiding in a nearby airlock when they drain the ship of oxygen.

Bob Finelli (Richard Benedict) is kind of the jokester of the crew, remarking early on about how he can't wait to get back to Earth because of how he can't stand being cold, but his demeanor changes drastically when his brother, Gino (Richard Hervey), disappears and is found barely alive in one of the air ducts but isn't able to be saved. He's upset about having to leave him behind and initially says that they should've done something but, ultimately, doesn't blame anyone for what happened. He doesn't much else significant after that, save use his electronics expertise to patch into Calder's spacesuit radio so they can talk to him over the intercom, and try to save him while Carruthers and Royce get fresh blood for Purdue and Van Heusen. That rescue attempt turns out very badly for him, as when the monster breaks out of the reactor room after Van Heusen tries to kill it by un-shielding the reactor, it grabs ahold of him when he tries to climb up the ladder and mauls him to death. There's nothing to say about Gino other than he's one of the first to fall victim to the monster (his own fault, because he stopped to smoke a cigarette), and is found in the air ducts looking very pale and out of it from its feeding on him. Even after he's dead, the monster often drags his body around to continue feeding, including taking him into the reactor room with it.

Maj. John Purdue (Robert Bice) is the one who makes an unsuccessful attempt to save Gino in the air ducts, only to get scratched across the face and later become infected with the deadly Martian bacteria. He feels quite guilty about it, telling Bob that he should've tried harder to save him instead of running for it and that if he wants to blame anybody for it, it should be him, although he also says that, in the end, nothing could've been done to save him. He adds that Gino knew that himself, as he was shaking his head, trying to warn him of the monster when he crawled in towards him. After that, he spends the rest of the movie in pain because of the infection, although unlike Van Heusen, he ultimately survives. Finally, there's Joe Kienholz (Thom Carney), who's only notable for being the monster's first victim when it jumps and slices him up after he investigates its banging around down below. His body is found stuffed in air shaft, with just about every bone broken, but when Mary Royce performs an autopsy on him, she learns that he actually died from having all of the edible fluid in his body absorbed by the monster.

While it's never suspenseful or scary in the least, one thing that I feel It! has over Alien is the feeling of claustrophobia and being stuck in a confined space with something deadly. The basic plotline in both films is inherently scary but, while Alien is infinitely more atmospheric and has a much more frightening monster, the enormous size of the Nostromo there has always diminished the creepiness for me a little bit. While they do have to be on their guard when they go from one part of the ship to another, it's such a large place that their odds of running into the Alien are about 50-50 or less, which hurts some of the suspense in my opinion (not to get off-topic but that's why I felt that the claustrophobic, narrow corridors and rooms of the colony in Aliens made for a more effective setting). Again, It! can hardly be called a suspenseful movie but, that said, I do get a much bigger feeling of claustrophobia because of the size and shape of the ship. Van Heusen says himself at one point, "There's simply no place on this ship for a man to hide," and it's the truth. It's a typical, small rocket-ship, with rather small rooms and quarters, no hallways to speak of, and air vents and ducts that are much tighter and cramped than what you would later see in the sequence in Alien when Dallas is searching the vents, trying to draw the Alien out. What's more, the vertical design of the ship, with various levels connected to each other via ladders, means that when the monster begins stalking all of them, they have to put up barriers between the levels they're on and it's on, slowly but surely running out of places to run to. That's also why Carruthers and Calder have to go outside the ship and re-enter it below the monster in order to set one of their traps for it. It really makes me wish that they'd tried to make this more than just a quickie, B-movie because this environment had a lot of potential.

Visually, the film is well-done, considering both its time and budget (accounts vary but it seems like it was shot in, at the most, two weeks). First off, the cinematography by Kenneth Peach looks nicely crisp and stark in the black-and-white, with lots of good contrasts and shadows, especially in the scenes involving the monster itself. The production design, by William Glasgow and Herman Schoenbrun, while nothing special, as both the interior and exterior of the ship are interchangeable with those seen in most other science fiction films of the time, are well-done and serve their purpose, especially in the claustrophobic sense. And the special effects aren't bad. The surface of Mars, which you see in the opening, the shot of the ship taking off from it, the numerous shots of the ship traveling through space, and the sequence where Carruthers and Calder go outside ship and walk along its side, which is shown in both close-ups and in a big wide-shot with some matting effects, all look pretty good (the way you see outer space outside the airlock door when it opens and behind the ship and actors in the close-up of them crawling out and walking down the side of it is particularly impressive). However, the film's low-budget is apparent in how some shots are reused, such as the monster's shadow when it massacres someone being used for both Kienholz and Bob Finelli's death, and the shots of the ship traveling through space (note how it's always going up and never levels off like it should), and the reuse of dialogue from earlier in the movie. The latter happens when everyone else tries to keep the monster's attention while Carruthers and Calder slip into a level beneath it and, besides it being dialogue that we've already heard, some of it comes from characters who've been killed at this point!

Another thing the movie has going for it is that it doesn't waste much time in getting to the plot. It's only 69 minutes long, so they couldn't afford to waste time, but even then, it must be only ten to fifteen minutes in when the monster begins offing people and when everyone else realizes what's going on, the rest of the movie is focused entirely on the crew trying to survive and kill it. There are definitely lulls in the action, as they stop to come up with plans about what to do, to ponder what the monster might be, and to treat those who've been injured, but on the whole, once the movie gets going, it basically doesn't stop. While not exactly thrilling or action-packed, or emotionally resonant because of the bland characters, the movie is, if nothing else, a quick, easy sit.

While the title monster has a lot more screentime than the Alien or the James Arness creature in The Thing from Another World, it is similar to them in that you very rarely get a detailed, full-body glimpse of it. For the first bit of the movie, all you see is close-ups of its hands and feet and its shadow on the wall when it's killing someone, and while your first good look at it is when it attacks Purdue in the air ducts when he's trying to save Gino, you still don't get many others of the entire creature afterward. You do get enough to know what it looks like, mind you, as well as some nice, brightly lit close-ups of its face, but for the most part, it's either lit very darkly, sometimes to the point where all you see is a silhouette, or is very far away from the camera. The design of the suit, courtesy of Paul Blaisdell, is pretty cool: it's a humanoid, reptilian creature with big, padded shoulders, three-fingered hands with claws, and webbed feet that are reminiscent of those of the Gill-Man. That said, though, it is very clearly a suit, as you can see the rubber bunching and crinkling in spots and the zipper on the back is plainly visible. The look of the mask is pretty good, although they had a problem with actor Ray Corrigan's chin sticking out through the mouth (which was his fault, since he refused to go to Blaisdell's house at Topanga Canyon, meaning he was unable to take exact measurements of his head when making the suit), forcing them to make it up to look like the creature's tongue. Fortunately, you never get that good of a look at the bottom jaw. Also, the head originally had cat-like eyes but they were removed in favor of using Corrigan's real eyes, which you only really see in one quick shot when the monster is in the reactor room and doesn't hurt the movie at all; in fact, it's kind of startling.

Other than it's being a Martian, the creature's exact origin remains a mystery, although Eric Royce does theorize that it could be of a now extinct civilization on Mars that was destroyed in some way, forcing the survivors to go back to being savage animals. One thing's for sure: it's not only extremely hostile but is vampire-like in that it feeds on the fluids of other creatures, a function that evolution had led it to adopt since Mars is a very barren planet. It absorbs blood, bone marrow, water, etc., any type of edible fluid found in a living body, and according to Mary Royce, it must do this through some sort of osmosis-like process, as there are no bite marks of any kind on the victims. This leaves its victims looking pale, zombie-like, and in the case of Kienholz, whose fluids were completely drained when they retrieved his body, shriveled up. Most significantly, the creature is very strong, able to rip its way through metal, bend gun-barrels completely in half, and easily slice up anyone in its way. Like the Komodo dragons with their bacteria-infested saliva, even if you survive an attack by the monster, you'll still be in danger from infection of a Martian bacteria that normal medical supplies can't combat. Its tough skin and bone structure make it very hard to kill, as it's impervious to bullets, grenades, gas, electricity, and even being exposed to lethal radiation. Ultimately, its enormous lungs, which it developed because of Mars' thin atmosphere and which inhale 40% of the ship's oxygen during the length of the story (which, according to the closing scene on Earth, is only 24 hours, if that), proves to be its undoing, as they let out all of the air and suffocate it.

The downside of the monster is that, nice design and formidability aside, it's not much of a character in its own right. For the most part, it's just a typical, rampaging beast that tears through all of the obstacles in its way and shrugs off everything that's thrown at it simply in order to kill the characters for its nourishment. It has no other goal other than that, and Corrigan, who was an actor and stuntman whose nickname was "Crash" and who retired after this film, doesn't contribute much else in his physicality of the role. In fact, the way he moves around whenever you see him in full-body shots, like when he traps Calder in-between the two pumps, is very awkward and clumsy (when talking about visualizing the Alien, Ridley Scott once said that he didn't want it to look like someone in a dodgy suit bumbling around a set; I wonder if he was referring to this?) There are signs of intelligence in the creature, as you can see it exploring the ship and learning it at some points, and it also thinks to hide its victims, as well as itself, in the air ducts, which is something else that you'd later see in Alien. Finally, its vocalizations consist of deep, growly breathing, loud snarling whenever it's enraged or attacking, growls that grow more and more wheezy and desperate when it's being slowly suffocated at the end, and, most notably, a freakish, guttural howl that tends to echo throughout the ship. When Carruthers is telling Ann of his and his crew's encounter with the monster back on Mars, he mentions hearing a strange sound at one point; I think the look on his face upon hearing the monster's howl when it attacks Purdue in the air ducts makes it pretty obvious that that's the sound he heard, cluing him in that the thing that killed his men is now on the ship with them.

The music score, one of many produced by the partnership of composers Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter, is pretty standard 50's monster movie music, although there are some notable aspects to it. Save for the very first notes, the music you hear during the opening credits is the same main title that they did for the movie Kronos the year before, but it fits well and, like all great stock music, you'd never know that it originally came from another movie. Significantly, this main title makes use of the xylophone here and there, which they incorporated into the music they produced specifically for the film. One piece that I always remember is this short, building theme with trumpets that you first hear when Carruthers bumps up against an air shaft and Kienholz's hand droops down from up above. The music plays as Carruthers, sensing something, slowly turns around to see it, leading into the entire body slumping down in the duct. The piece that plays when Carruthers recounts his story of what happened to him and his crew early on has a soft, eerie-sounding piece that I like. However, the sound I most often identify with the film whenever I think of it is not exactly score: it's this strange, high-pitched, whirling noise that you hear during the exterior space scenes. Like Carruthers' narration, I'm sure was meant to fill the dead air of those scenes as well as give them sort of mood. It's science-fiction-y in an old-fashioned way but it does the job. Overall, the score isn't bad but it's also far from great; it's simply average. But, that same year, Sawtell would do a much more memorable score for The Fly.

Other than its providing the basic blueprint for Alien, It! The Terror from Beyond Space is a movie that's been virtually forgotten and, while I wish I could say that it's an overlooked gem, I can understand why. I at first thought this would turn out to be an entry in B to Z Movies but, when I re-watched the movie, I decided instead that it was technically competent enough to where it falls into that middle-ground of just being adequate. Nothing about it stands out: the cast is okay but many of the characters are bland and underdeveloped, the cinematography and production design of the spaceship are good, the design of the title monster is cool-looking, even though it is clearly a man in a suit and has little of personality, and the music score is little more than serviceable. The biggest compliments I can give the movie are the feeling of claustrophobia in the very small ship, the surprisingly-good special effects given the budget and short shooting schedule, and how it doesn't waste much time in getting to the story, settling into a brisk pace during its short length afterward. If you're like me and are a fan of 50's sci-fi and monster flicks, in spite of their individual quality, I'd suggest seeing the movie at least once but not to set your hopes too high; otherwise, I don't see you getting much out of it.

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