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Friday, January 16, 2009

It: Terror From Beyond Space

This movie is said to have been the inspiration for the late 70s sci-fi hit Alien. It must be admitted that there is a lot of similarity. As "remakes" go, the 70s version has much slicker special effects, a vastly bigger budget for sets and costumes, and much MUCH more disgusting looking alien. However, the 50s version holds its own as far as a story goes. The very spartan-ness of the set and costuming in It keep such accessories from getting in the way of the story. Alien relied on startling viewers for its shock value, and lots of gore. It manages to do pretty well without the modern techniques.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The first manned mission to Mars met with a mysterious fate. Only one of the crew survived. A second mission comes to rescue him. The survivor, Col. Carruthers, is presumed to have killed the other nine crew members of the first mission, in order to conserve supplies for himself while awaiting rescue. Unknown the second rocket's crew, a shadowy monster gets aboard before they blast off. While in transit back to earth, one crewman disappears, and then another. Clearly something is killing them, and it wasn't Carruthers. The crew realize they have a monster on board. They try to kill it with hand grenade booby traps on the air vents, but this doesn't stop the creature. They try gas grenades to kill it, but this fails too. Even exposure to the ship's nuclear reactor does not stop it. Little by little, the creature forces the survivors up into the top deck of the ship. The doctor discovers, via an autopsy on one of the victims, that the creature absorbs all water from its victims. It must "eat" them to survive. They must kill "it" to live. They notice too, that oxygen consumption aboard the ship is up dramatically. The creature is consuming vast quantities of oxygen. This gives the desperate crew their last hope. The creature finally tears through the last hatch. The crew have donned their space suits. The commander opens the vent hatch, evacuating all the air. The creature struggles, but slumps over, limp. Success! Carruthers is cleared of the charges and a politician declares that Mars is a planet of death. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
The production is low budget, but the acting is pretty good for a B-film. The sets are basic, but they're adequate to the task. The director's use of darkness and selected areas of light help mask the low-budget sets, and focus your attention on the action. Yes, it's another man-in-a-rubber-suit monster, but he's given almost no cameo screen time, which helps him stay vague (and more scary)

Cold War Angle
There's very little of the Cold War in It. There is a passing thought that perhaps the monster was the result of a nuclear war destroying martian civilization and reducing the martians to such a creature. This is a very weak connection to the atomic angst thread, but thin as it is, it's there.

Prop Watch -- As with many low-budget films, props from earlier productions are re-used to save money. In It, we start right off with the rocket model from Flight to Mars ('51) though with a few new windows added. We also get to see that the venerable space suits from Destination Moon ('50) were still able to find work almost a decade later.

Forever World War Two -- An odd little feature in It, is how World War II weaponry always seems to be ready at hand. On only the second space mission to Mars, the ship's inventory includes wooden crates (?!?) full of hand-grenades, lots of .45 automatic pistols and a bazooka. A bazooka! Of course, none of these iconic weapons will stop the monster, but their very presence aboard the ship hints at the deep roots which WWII had in American culture. The weapons of that war had become so familiar, so routine as symbols of security, that their presence aboard an interplanetary mission seemed perfectly plausible. For a further example of the acceptance of WWII weapons, the crew have NO qualms about setting off a dozen hand-grenades or firing a bazooka inside their ship. Such old-friend weapons had developed a "savior" cache, (Bazookas stop anything!) which added to the creature's apparent invincibility.

Old-style Women in Space -- It's a subtle thing, but note how the two female crew members are examples of 50s social culture. While the men banter at the supper table, the two women (a doctor and a biologist) happily clear away the dishes. Then there is the ever-popular love triangle (women are love objects, you see) between Col. Heusen and Col. Carruthers. Perhaps the producers didn't think audiences would accept a simple space monster movie. There had to be a little romance too. (sigh)

Shadow of the Bear -- The monster in It is humanoid, but with reptilian scales (and the usual rubber head/mask set into a permanent scowl), but of particular interest are the clawed hands and feet. Why would a martian life-form have huge predatory claws? It absorbs water. Alien monsters are often given features which frighten earthlings more than they make sense for the strange new world they supposedly live upon. This suggests that creator Paul Blaisdell (this was his last monster costume) had a feel for our earthly primal fears. Wolves and bears in the dark woods were the "monsters" of our distant ancestors. They had fierce claws. The rubber-suit monster in It seemed like a shadow of that ancient bear in the wild woods beyond the village.

Bottom line? Give It a watch. Cut it some slack for a low budget and just see how much of a story they were able to tell despite the lack big bucks.


Randall Landers said...

This is one of the finest examples of 50's science fiction, with all its shining moments and all its dark shortcomings. Highly recommended. I watch it a couple of times a year even now, whenever it's on TCM.

Darci said...

I think by the 1920s it was known that there was no water on the surface of Mars. The writer, Jerome Bixby, perhaps was thinking the creature would have to dig for its water (hence the claws).

John Drake said...

Howdy Movie Fans.

First off, let's get past the holes in the plot - it has more holes than a spaghetti strainer.

The plot line - not bad.

The acting - not bad.

The atmosphere - fantastic.

Shadows and lighting really make the movie work.

It does keep you on the edge of your seat.

As a kid it scared me silly, which was not a bad thing.

If you watch it for what it is, fun science fiction from the fifties, you will have a good time.

I believed Col. Carruthers right from the start.

Grab your microwave popcorn and have a good time.


Just remember, "another word for Mars is death."

thingmaker said...

The notion of the monster as a degenerate survivor of a long fallen civilization reminds me of A.E.Van Vogt's 1939 story "Black Destroyer" which became the first part of his 1950 novel "The Voyage of the Space Beagle". The critter in that story boards an exploratory spaceship because the human crew contain an element it needs for food, which has become very rare on it's world. This critter is definitely the barbarous descendant of a lost civilization... Interestingly, the second story used in "Space Beagle", "Discord in Scarlet" is even more like the plot of "Alien".
Between the Van Vogt stories and this film, I think we have a firm basis for the origin of the screenplay to "Alien"... Well, those and "Planet of the Vampires" (1965), which contains the creepy planet surface and the derelict alien spaceship with a gigantic skeletal crewman.