"Of the 19 men and women who have set foot upon the planet Mars, six will return. There's no longer a question of murder but of an alien, an elemental life force, a planet so cruel, so hostile, that Man may find it necessary to bypass it in his endeavor to explore and understand the universe. Another name for Mars is Death."
It's that time of year again. October has started and as usual, my movie viewing tastes run to blood-curdling tales of terror, Gothic horror and rampaging monsters. I decided to kick off Halloween 2013 with an old fifties sci-fi flick, the splendidly-titled It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Far from the cream of the 50s monster movie crop, it's still a pretty fun watch and at 69 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome.
The movie has a terrific premise: Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the commander and sole survivor of an initial expedition to Mars. When a second, rescue expedition arrives, they refuse to believe his story of some strange creature that attacked and killed the rest of his crew, especially when the only evidence they find is the skull of one of the missing men with a bullet-hole in it. The leader of the second ship, Col. Van Heusen (Kim Spalding), puts Carruthers under arrest in anticipation of a court martial and sets his ship on a return course to Earth.
Carruthers is allowed to roam free on the ship, the Challenge 142, as long as he's always accompanied by one of the other crewmen to keep an eye on him. Heusen is convinced that he can make Carruthers crack and refute his crazy monster story. Only ship's science officer (and Heusen's girlfriend) Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith) proves somewhat sympathetic to the very sane-seeming Carruthers. Of course, Carruthers' story is borne out when the crew discover that they are not alone on the ship. Some thing has managed to get aboard, and soon begins to run amok, picking off crew members one at a time...
The intriguing premise is squandered pretty early on. A better script might have set things up to leave some doubt as to Carruthers guilt or innocence as the killings begin anew, but it's made clear right away that nope, he was telling the truth and there really is a nasty alien on board, with only Ann having the good grace to apologize to Carruthers for everyone doubting him. Things do move pretty swiftly from then on, at any rate, as the survivors try everything they can think of to kill "It," from bullets, grenades and bazookas ("On a space ship?" I hear you ask, understandably) to electrocution and radiation, all to no avail. The final solution - sucking all the air out of the ship while the surviving, spacesuited crew hold on for dear life - along with the set-up of an inimical, nearly impossible-to-kill monster on board a spaceship, will remind viewers of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), pretty much the final word on this particular subgenre (and a masterclass in chilly, creepy atmosphere and dread).
Unlike Alien, which features perhaps the scariest, most believable monster in movie history, the beastie in It! is a bit of a letdown. Another of a long line of monster suits created by Paul Blaisdell, the It! costume isn't done any favors by being worn by Ray "Crash" Corrigan, who proved much too big and bulky for it - so much so that his chin poked out at the bottom of the head mask, which Blaisdell and company tried to disguise by painting it to look like a distended alien tongue. Luckily, director Edward L. Cahn (a veteran of schlocky exploitation fare like this) wisely keeps the creature dimly lit or shrouded in smoke, but one can't help thinking back to more effective monster mashes like The Thing from Another World, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Monster That Challenged the World and similar genre gems.
The flat script is another problem, somewhat of a surprise coming from the pen of science fiction writer Jerome Bixby, who gave us the memorable Twilight Zone classic "It's a Good Life," several episodes of the original Star Trek (including fan faves "Day of the Dove" and "Mirror, Mirror") as well as Fantastic Voyage. (Oddly enough, Bixby also is credited with the story for Rampage, reviewed here last month.) It! features the occasional funny throwaway line ("Mars is almost as big as Texas. Maybe it's got monsters," opines one crew member early on) and one brief but effective bit, when Carruthers tells Ann the story about how the thing decimated the other 8 members of his crew in the middle of a Martian sandstorm, but is otherwise merely perfunctory.
Lead actor Thompson is OK, handsome and sympathetic if not especially heroic, and not helped by his droning, monotonous voice (he also serves as the movie's narrator). Kim Spalding is fine and has an interesting face, but he's sidelined pretty early on, which isn't a bad thing as it allows ace character actor Dabbs Greer to come to the fore. Greer is most famous for playing Reverend Alden on Little House on the Prairie, but had a long and busy career in all sorts of roles in film and television. He gives the best performance in the film but still isn't given too much to do. Shirley Patterson, who went by the name "Shawn Smith" in most of her 50s-era work, was no stranger to this kind of movie, having made World Without End and The Land Unknown earlier. She's not dressed or made up in a flattering way here, her tightly pulled back hairstyle accentuating her sharp, rather severe features; she seems better suited to play a Vulcan on Star Trek, but turns in a decent performance. Ann Doran as the other female crew member is also fine. The rest of the cast are adequate but undistinguished...but then, this movie is not designed to be an actors' showcase.
The highpoints of the film remain chiefly its simple but satisfying premise, some occasionally effective scare scenes and the well-designed, futuristic rocketship sets. It! is still well-liked by a host of fans who either saw it first run in the theater or caught it later on TV. It's tame stuff by today's standards but must have been pretty scary back in the day (I know I found it so when I saw it on Sci Fi Theater as a youngster back in the 70s). The nostalgia factor helps, but the movie is still pretty fun when watched in the right frame of mind.
A few other amusing points about the film, from the "Gotta love the 1950s" file: Notice how, despite the two women on board holding down important positions (science officer and doctor, respectively), they still find time to serve the men their food and pour them coffee. Also, there's so much chain-smoking going on inside the spaceship that I'm surprised the monster wasn't choked to death by the fumes long before the finale.
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