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To the Cinema and Beyond! Presents:
IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)
Movie Review by Dan Keohane
The late 1950s was a magical time for cheesy science fiction films, borne in the shadow of the communal fear of nuclear war, and excitement with the burgeoning space race, especially between the United States and Soviet Union. In later decades, these films, usually shot with minimum budgets and hashed-together scripts, became the staple of such Saturday afternoon TV fare such as Creature Double Feature.
Some of these films have lasted the test of time, and are now considered classics. THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and THEM! (1954) are just a couple. A larger percentage of genre films releases in this time were largely forgotten tales with names like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) and CREATURE WITH THE ATOMIC BRAIN (1955). Even among this group, however, there can rise a gem of a film for which every star lines up (no pun intended). The script, directing and acting are such that one walks away from it feeling moved in some way – at the very least, having been entertained (and not because the movie was so bad it was fun). I mention the previous two films because the man who directed those, Edward L Cahn, was tasked with bringing to life a unique little script by writer Jerome Bixby (who would later pen such works as FANTASTIC VOYAGE, 1966, and a number of acclaimed STAR TREK TV episodes).
IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), had a great director, clever writing and a strong cast. It also had what was probably the worst titles in movie history, which is likely why it has faded from public awareness and into relative obscurity. This short science fiction story, running only one hour and nine minutes is, in fact, one of the best science fiction films coming out of the fifties.
After all these years, the transfer to digital from the original print for IT! is stellar. Clear picture and great sound – someone had taken good care of the original film. The basic premise is this: contact is lost with the first manned mission to Mars, until the space agency gets a message from the captain, and only survivor, Col Edward Caruthers (played with angst-ridden intensity by Marshall Thompson). IT! opens as the second mission to Mars has landed and taken Caruthers into custody, the consensus being that after crashing, he killed his crew to horde the ship’s supplies in order to survive as long as possible on the red planet.
Before the ship lifts off for the return trip to Earth, something large and growly crawls through an open airlock and hides in a lower-level storeroom. When its presence is later discovered, the fun begins.
Like many science fiction films of its era, the lack of detailed knowledge about outer space results in some basic flaws with the science in this movie. Mars’s air is breathable, though thin, implied by the fact the crew left the airlock open. The events take place far into the future, 1973 to be exact. Like BLADE RUNNER (1982), whose plot takes place only 30 years in the future, I wondered why the writers would be so optimistic to think we’d have advanced so far technologically in such a relatively short time. Of course, things had begun to progress quickly on the space front in the late fifties, with satellites and an overall mindset among the population to reach into the stars. Who in 1958 wouldn’t have thought we’d be visiting Mars fifteen years later? The Space Age’s sudden death from political and financial pressure hadn’t been a consideration.
On a positive note, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE does not try to impress in this vein—the technology is basic. Aside from flying about in a spaceship, everything at their disposal is much the same as it was in ‘58. No laser guns or matter transporters beams. Bullets and cigarettes and glass IV bottles are de rigueur. One scene, three quarters into the film, is impressive for a film of this era. Two men suit up and walk outside the ship. When the shot cuts to the ship’s exterior, there is no sound—even the background score cuts out. An exterior shot of the two men walking upright but sideways down the length of the model ship is done quite well.
Of course, as soon as we cut back to the interior of the ship, the music begins, there is sound, and two of the main characters are lighting up cigarettes. No one could have imagined smoking inside a contained ship with limited oxygen would be deemed a bad idea in the future.
I make light of some aspects, but they need to be put aside, especially with older films which should be watched with an appreciation of societal norms at the time, such as the role of women. The crew consists of a dozen men and two women. The latter’s roles, however, are to cook and serve the men, doubling also as the medical team (aka nurses). Even so, the characters in this film are smart and intelligent, with little of the helpless cringing most females in movies of this era are known for.
The cringing is reserved for the viewer, because this is a frightening film. Quiet, intense, with a monster onboard shown mostly in sporadic, shadowy scenes though in some later scenes it’s more obviously a guy in a suit (Ray Corrigan, to be precise, who made a decent living playing rampaging gorillas in pretty much any film with a gorilla in the script—of which there seemed to be many at the time).
There is an added dimension to watching IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE—at least there was for me and, apparently, many others since I wasn’t the only one to notice it, around the plot and in an overall context of the historic annals of science fiction. Heavy statement, that.
From comments made in various interviews, this was one of a few inspirations for Dan O’Bannon when he wrote the script for the film ALIEN (1979). Yes, I know, this is my second review in a row with an ALIEN connection. Not to worry, they’re making me review TRANSFORMERS next— not likely I’ll find any connection there.
Much of the association with ALIEN, to be honest, is more legend than substantiated fact. O’Bannon never specifically set out to remake this movie, but it was cited as an influence, as well as such films as the Italian PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965) and FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). In an interview with David Konow, circa 2000 or so, O’Bannon actually downplayed the film’s influence, but it’s there, if even subconsciously. I noticed similarities well before I’d heard any of this. I first saw IT! years ago, when it was available on streaming for free and I had an hour to kill. As soon as the crew began dealing with the terror in their midst, I noticed subtle similarities to ALIEN. It’s not the same movie, but the atmosphere of dread, of decently-drawn people trying to destroy a monster in the vacuum of space without dying themselves, is the primary emphasis. Early on, after the first victim screams and draws the others to the lower deck, they discover a body shoved into an airshaft, drained of blood. When a second crewman disappears, someone crawls through the airshaft to find him. When found, he can hardly speak, looks frighteningly pale and uses all of his remaining strength to warn away his rescuer since the Martian beast is hiding just around the corner. Unlike Captain Dallas in ALIEN, the rescuer escapes, leaving the dying crewman behind. It’s a rather frightening and claustrophobic scene, played straight and quickly. No overly-dramatic music, no overacting.
That’s the key to this film’s success. Nothing is overplayed, every scene is done straight and serious. The characters seem frightened but determined, and do plenty of dumb things (such as using hand grenades to try and kill the thing, while they’re surrounded by the vacuum of space). One behavior which usually frustrates an audience worked well to ratchet the tension here. After every skirmish with the Martian creature, there is the assumption that this time, or this time, they’d succeeded in killing it. Whenever they think they’ve won, with guns, or gas, they open the hatch to the lower level, just to be sure. It’s really what most of us would do, unless we choose to cower in the corner and wait to die or get home, whichever came first.
Is it dead this time? I don’t know, let’s look. And there it is, waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs or just under the hatch. No dramatic flair of the orchestra to scare us, it’s already scary.
One other creepy aspect of this film is how the creature handles the second victim, the man abandoned in the ventilation shaft (I’m deliberately forgoing names here because there’s simply too many of them to keep straight). As the crew debates how to handle the intruder, we see flashes of it carrying the body around the lower level, feeding off him slowly, much to the chagrin of his crewmates listening via the intercom. But like everything else, it happens and they try to deal with it, but the scene isn’t pushed into the viewer’s face. Its concept is dark enough to let the idea of it take fearful root in us, much like how H.G. Wells subtly described how his invading Martians drained the blood from their living victims.
Eventually the monster gets impatient below deck and decides to move to the upper levels, forcing the survivors higher and higher with few options left for survival. How they defeat the creature is clever. And again, there is a connection to how Ripley eventually saves herself and Jonesy the Cat from the xenomorph in IT!’s inspired successor. Not quite the same, but close enough to keep up the myth between these two films alive.
Overall, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE has a terrible title, but is a smart, scary little film, and whether anyone consciously knew it or not, influenced science fiction horror films for decades to come, even if the movie, itself, has been largely forgotten.
© Copyright 2017 by Daniel G. Keohane