by Sam Juliano
Another word for Mars is death.
Edward Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space remains a prime example of a modestly budgeted 50’s science fiction film that was gloriously resurrected on television after a theatrical run fueled by the drive-ins. In the New York City market it remained a staple on WPIX’s Chiller Theater, where it was rightly perceived as a horror/sci-fi hybrid, and aimed squarely at the baby bommer generation. The original title, The Vampire from Beyond Space is a better appraisal of the movie’s central conflict, which is variation of sorts on another 1958 genre classic The Blob, but the film is now mainly celebrated as the inspiration for Alien, a mighty acknowledgement, especially for a standard programmer in an era inundated with this brand. Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (inexplicably missing from this countdown) even with the decisive lean towards horror, is another film with striking similarities to It!) The future as depicted in the film is scarely fifteen years away -1973- which is only four years after man first stepped foot on the moon. But the Jerome Bixby (Twilight Zone’s “It’s A Good Life”; Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror”) penned script relied on what appeared to be rapidly advancing technology, bolstered in part by the success of Sputnik the previous year, and the Cold War space competition that could very well see the U.S. negotiated not one but two missions back-to-back amidst the tensions associated with trying to exceed the other.
The rubber-clad terror that has invariably reduced the Martian physiology to that of the title protagonist showcased in Creature from the Black Lagoon is a reptilian monster with a singular aim of killing all who come in its path. There is nothing remotely sophisticated in both the plot and the character motivations exhibited in It! The Terror from Beyond Space, neither does the story arc veer into unexpected directions. Yet, there can be no question that once the suspense begins to build, it has the macabre allure of something like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where the question isn’t “if” but “how” and “when.”
The film begins with a voiceover narration depicting a detached astronaut colonel played by Marshall Thompson, who relates that he is being brought back to Earth to answer a court-marshial for the violent deaths of his nine crewmates, allegedly for their food and water rations. We see the image of a crashed rocket ship -Challenge 141- laying on the Martian surface in a surprisingly effective mat-painting shot of the a star lit night in the spirit of Van Gogh without the color. The narrative procedes to a press room at the “Science Advisory Committee Division of Interplanetary Exploration” back on Earth, where reporters are informed that another ship has just landed on the red planet to escort Edward Carruthers back to face the charges. He declares his innocence, attributing the demise of his fellow astronauts to an unknown alien life form that managed to board the ship -probably by way of an air lock- unbeknowst to the humans therein. Journalists bolt out to relay this matter of judicial urgency to the outside world via their newspaper editors by telephone. The film then tells its primary story aboard the rescue ship which presents repeat scenario of what happened on the first carrier.
The center of the universe in It! The Terror from Beyond Space is a markedly claustrophic spaceship comprised of mutiple levels, linked by steel girded steps, and guarded by an electronically negotiated circular hatches. The limited interior space is certainly consistent with the earlier image of the aforementioned ship docked on the planet, where potential maneuverability was stictly in vertical terms. The ship itself is admittedly rather drab and straight forward with only the air vents bringing any measure of engineering versatility and potential for solitary terror. It is missing the labyrinthine construction that would add the level of mystery vital to a story steeped initially in the unknown. Still, even the perpendicular set design fails to derail a film narrative that is irresistible in execution, as the available options for our besieged skeleton crew is narrowed by each ship level annexation that leaves a progressively higher body count in its path.
The film’s cinematographer Kenneth Peach is a talented craftsman who helped to forge the arresting visual style for the original Outer Limits in 1963-4, lensing an impressive 25 of the show’s 49 episodes. In fact It! The Terror from Beyond Space with a 69 minute running time could well have qualified in subject, tone and duration as an entry in that classic series with its dated pyrotehnics and a comparable visual style. Peach rose to prominence in the late 20’s, when Hal Roach hired him to shoot some of the classic Our Gang comedies. The journeyman doesn’t hide his affinity for German expressionism, and in It! he utilizes shadows quite effectively, bringing an added measure of menace to the scenes when the monster’s movements need to be shown in more subtle terms. He even shows the one-minded stowaway in a Nosferatu-styled silouette adjacent to a staircase in a lower-level storage room and there are more than a few instances where you think that Val Lewton was a fly on the wall. Two of the early murders are also enacted in silhouette, and the ghastly shot of a mortally wounded crewman named Gino in an air vent predates Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls what with the victim shown in a death like pall with black rings around his eyes. The alien Kybens in the most famous show of the Outer Limits – “Demon with a Glass Hand” written by Harlan Ellison are also depicted with identical facial make-up. No wonder that Peach also helmed that episode.
But atmospherics are soon enough replaced by the real thing, and the action readily becomes more bombastic and far brighter when the crew decide to use in succession a box of hand grenades, a bazooka, gas bombs and duped exposure to a nulear pile in a reactor room -all conveniently and rather comically available on the ship- to destroy this seemingly indestructible creature before it wipes everyone out. At this juncture the tenets of horror yield to the conventions of cheesy 50’s science fiction, the often laughable makeshift sets and zippered costumes. Yet even accounting for low-budget and the inherent genre limitations of the period It! is a riveting watch essentially because of (and despite) its central premise.
Primary credit for its effectiveness of course must go to Cahn, who is also known for directing the low-budget crime film Experiment Alcatraz, but like his cinematographer on It! he was a major craftsman on Our Gang. Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, with Henry Daniell and Edward Franz, a grisly black and white horror film from 1959, owe’s its reasonably effectiveness on Cahn’s unstintly seriousness, an attribute that can also be applied to It! The 50’s saw the release of many bargain basement sci-fi horror vehicles. The Manster, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Monster of Pierdras Blancas, The Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are just a few of those which have developed cult followings, but much like The Blob and Christian Nyby’s classic The Thing from Another World Cahn’s film has exerted influence on the genre, and remains to this day an example of employing a limited budget exceptionally well.
The role of women in It!, in extreme contrast with Alien where Sigourney Weaver’s character is the most take charge of the players, is dated as they are presented as basically subservient, assisting and cooking for the men, serving coffee, and essentially providing emotional support during time of crisis. The men like typical 50’s era movie protagonists spend their time playing chess, smoking plenty of cigarettes, and engaging in some meaningless banter. Their contentment is short lived of course when one of their contingent, Joe Kienholz falls victim to the adage “curiosity killed the cat” when he investigates some strange noices below and is is susequently dispatched by the madly flailing creature, who desposits his body in an air vent. One of his arms swings past Carruthers who with the others are seaching for the missing crewman’s whereabouts. Almost immediately afterwards a slight delay by Gino Fanelli while his brother and others ascend to the next level, results in a second mauling, though Fanelli is later found barely alive in a vent tunnel only to have his would be rescuer driven away by the creature’s sudden reappearance. A later autopsy of Kienholz’s body reveals that it has been sucked dry of all its fluids. No doubt the salt vampire concept in the first season Star Trek episode “The Man Trap” was derived with It! in mind, especially as Bixby finally amassed four writing credits in that iconic series.
Though the final idea of how to kill the monster is a no-brainer -it is summarily discovered that the ship’s unusually high level of oxygen consumption can be attributed to the creature’s much greater lung capacity – and should have been deduced almost from the start – such an early “revelation” would have deprived the audience of the many seemingly superior methods that comprise the film’s most elaborate set pieces. Inevitably the crew finally take refuge on the uppermost level after the monster has used his herculean physical prowess to crash though every stell hatch leading to the last level. One injured crewman is actually still below, having successfully warded off the creature’s repeated advances with a blowtorch always aimed at his attacker’s eyes.
It seems not the least bit coincidental that the three crewman who are killed within the film’s main narrative were all skeptical about Carruthers’ innocence, while those who survive were willing to give his explanation foremost consideration. This would appear to attach a moral compass on the proceedings, but no doubt just an ironic twist to make it seem that those who lived through this horror were a bit better as people than those who perished. In a film that offers up little by way of humor that judgement is entitled to at least a snicker. Following in that trend of thought, Lt. James Calder is the one solely responsible for the error that permitted the creature to get on board. His punishment is the injury he incurs, though it can be persuasively argued that the monster’s entry serves to clear Carruthers. Hence his life is ultimately spared. The film’s inventive electronic score was created by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter. Dissonance is often spelled by more linear thematic ideas and the sole violin is used to wonderful effect. The alarm like sound effect is superbly negotiated in the eerie space walk segment, when two crewman attempt to straddle the outside of the ship to gain access to a level below the monster in an effort that ultimately fails.
A good deal of credit for the presentation goes to art director and set decorator, William Glasgow and Herman Schoenbrun, who achieve a believability between the exterior figure of the rocketship and the vertical interior via the stacked design. Though the monster is frightening, the mask that actor Ray Corrigan wears is easy enough to ridicule. Purportedly the thespian refused to travel to the other side of Los Angeles to be properly fitted by the film’s makeup artist Paul Blaisdell, forcing the craftsman to approximate. This left Corrigan chin to show through the mouth, forcing Blaisdell to piant his chin so it would look like a tongue. Those who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s will always have fond memories of the film, but even newbies studying the era will find much to appreciate in this spiffy little thriller that rightfully had no business being as good as it is.
Note: A blu ray of “It! The Terror from beyond Space” has been released by Olive Films, and it provides a nearly pristine transfer with a rich contrast level of light and shadow, maximizing the film’s HD possibilities. It is strongly recommended for 1950’s science fiction fans and collectors.