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Until his late-career fantasy output gained some attention, director Edward L. Cahn's reputation rested with an early Walter Huston talkie, the town-taming western Law and Order. Cahn had been making mostly short subjects when the 1950s gave him the opportunity to specialize in features filmed at a breakneck pace. Cahn made 51 theatrical films between 1950 and his death in 1963, which averages out to a picture every four months. I can't say any are classics, although many are entertaining. Horror-fantasy-Sci-fi fans certainly enjoyed little pieces of matinee heaven like Creature with the Atom Brain, The She-Creature, Zombies of Mora Tau, Invasion of the Saucer Men, The Four Skulls of Johnathan Drake and Curse of the Faceless Man. Some of these pictures play as if the money ran out on a three-picture deal, leaving Cahn's picture as the one that had to be done for half the projected cost.
Journeymen directors weren't thoughtless, jaded or total hacks, as most jumped to do good work whenever the opportunity came along. Fred F. Sears had to shoot all of The Giant Claw on tiny sets or against a blank background, and it really shows. But he did rather well improvising on location for The Werewolf.
Cahn's most popular '50s film is 1958's It! The Terror from Beyond Space. that benefits from an organized, tight suspense script and an impressive set. The show reportedly had the kids at the edge of their seats. It still holds up as a space jeopardy movie for its unusual attention to detail, but also because a couple of generations of fans point to it as one of the key inspirations for the huge moneymaker and Academy Award winner, Ridley Scott's 1979Alien. There's really no controversy there but I'll touch on the issue anyway.
Career writer Robert E. Kent got the nod to produce ultra-cheap pictures for United Artists in 1957, some of them in connection with the more established Edward Small, who had been producing since the silent days. It! The Terror has the distinction of a script by an established Science Fiction writer, Jerome Bixby. For perhaps the first time a space movie brings in technical details like an airlock chamber without stopping for a full explanation. The spaceship Challenge 142 has two airlocks ... and we're even shown a diagram displaying its six vertical levels. 1 An airtight center hatch with a metal staircase connects each level. This is the kind of stuff kids eat up -- how many of us passed the time by drawing pictures of imagined spaceship interiors? It! The Terror is small change next to the color epics Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth, with their five-figure construction budgets. But the big studios didn't like the low return on investment, leaving the Sci-fi field open to independents and discount monster makers. Kent & Cahn's spaceship delivers on the promise.
Bixby's basic pulp space drama is influenced by the 'men vs. monster in confined setting' premise of Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World. The year is 1973. 2 United States Space Command's Mars ship Challenge 141 crashed on impact, and it's taken rescue ship Challenge 142 six months to arrive. The only survivor found from the wreck is Col. Edward Carruthers, famous as the first man into space (ex- MGM contract actor Marshall Thompson). Ed's in big trouble. He says that all nine of his colleagues were killed by a monster he never saw. Finding a human skull with a bullet hole in it, relief ship commander Col. Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) has charged Ed with mass murder and placed him under house arrest for the flight home. Not much time passes before Ed is proven innocent, in the worst of ways. A brutal, intelligent creature slipped aboard just before the launch, and begins killing crew members. "It" is initially locked away on the lower decks. It drains its victims like a vampire, is strong enough to tear through the ships' metal walls, and can withstand .45 caliber bullets, poison gas, grenades, and high-voltage electricity. It kills two crewmembers outright and wounds two more, including Col. Van Heusen. Van develops an unknown infection, goes off his head, and jeopardizes everyone else by un-shielding the reactor to see if "It" is impervious to intense radiation.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space is bookended by a pair of Earthbound scenes in a typical windowless, nearly featureless Kent/Cahn room. But everything else takes place on the Challenge spaceship. We're tempted to suggest that only one spaceship level was built, and its décor and contents rearranged to represent the different floors. If so, it's a great job of work, for I watched carefully to spot telltale signs of redressing -- the same stain on a wall, etc. -- and spotted none. Maybe the set was modular to make changing over quick, but doing that would be more expensive.
Marshall Thomson gives a pro performance. His Ed Carruthers maintains an even strain when his story isn't believed, and when he's vindicated doesn't whine, "I told you so". BIxby's script is lean on comradely humor, except a couple of remarks over coffee that include a lamely sexist, "she's military property" jibe at the expense of astronaut Ann Anderson (Shirley Patterson, under the name Shawn Smith). Ann and the other female spaceperson Mary Royce (Ann Doran, James Dean's mother in Rebel Without a Cause) start the movie serving dinner and coffee, but are soon revealed as a professional doctor and scientist, not just women brought along to scream at the proper moments. None is a prospective Ripley, fighting back tooth and nail, but Anderson does add her two cents to the 'how to kill a monster' debate.
Speaking of killing, you'd think that the Challenge's mission was to smuggle arms to the Martians. Everybody carries sidearms, and rifles that one would think to be dangerous to fire on board. When the time comes to make an anti-"It" booby trap, several boxes of WW2 grenades are very handy. The first ship's complement was killed before any exploration could take place, and the second ship stayed on Mars just long enough to pick up Carruthers and return home. No research took place at all. That's a two and zero success score for the United States Space Command.
The dramatics work at a decent level of commitment, with Dabbs Greer fine as the senior member of the crew. The other spacemen look less like military personnel than plumbers. Bob Finelli (Richard Benedict of Ace in the Hole) gets emotional when his brother Gino (Richard Hervey) is dragged into a duct (BIG ducts on this ship) by "It" and stashed there for a later snack. The other solid cast member is Paul Langton at Lt. James Calder. Calder plays stern watchdog when Ed is still under arrest, and then joins with him in a risky flanking maneuver to trick the monster. Ed and James don Western Costume "Destination Moon" space suits (albeit with different helmets), take the airlock exit out of the Control level, walk down the outside of the ship and re-enter through the Motor Level airlock. After all that effort Jim gets stuck in a corner with a broken leg and a smashed helmet, and is forced to hold off "It" with an acetylene torch. Langton's good acting heightens the credibility factor with his nervous intercom reports to the gang back up in the Control level. The effort to rescue him leads to more and riskier hide-and-seek games up and down the levels, and they build to what in 1958 was a novel and exciting conclusion. 3
We like the "It" monster even though it's mediocre at best. It was designed and built by Paul Blaisdell, who appears to be trying something different than the "paste foam rubber chunks onto long johns" method that he used on the beastie-creatures for Roger Corman's The Day the World Ended and Cahn's earlier She-Creature. The thing appears to have been built up over rubber gloves and tennis shoes, with ill-fitting sections for pants, and a tunic that hangs from shoulder pads. Whenever the suit is in silhouette it looks great, but when it's front-lit it looks more like a scaly-textured leisure suit. The head mask wears a static toothy snarl, with a mouth that looks more like a bas-relief than three-dimensional. I'm remembering this from Randy Palmer's good book on Paul Blaisdell but probably have some of the details wrong. Bill Warren's Sci-Fi reference book tells us that former cowboy star Ray "Crash" Corrigan was chosen to play "It" even though Blaisdell had made the suit to fit himself. Some radical adjustments were required. This makes sense, if the monster's original 'knees' ended up three inches up Corrigan's thighs -- Blaisdell wasn't a big guy. The trivia bit everyone knows is that that dimpled tongue sticking out of "It's" mouth isn't a tongue, but Ray Corrigan's actual chin: his head was too big for the mask as well. The curious may compare "It's" tongue with the chin on this vintage photo of Ray. As Warren points out, the monster is supposed to be smart and quick, but Corrigan ignored direction and played "It" much the same way he played gorillas in at least nine jungle monster movies. For the real facts on all this, the go-to person is veteran monster maker and gorilla man Bob Burns, who worked with Paul Blaisdell off and on for years.
Like I say, "It" looks great whenever he's not front-lit. I don't remember any complaints from kids, who loved the silhouette shot of the monster bending a rifle in two. But a more effective It! The Terror would eliminate all shots of the monster for as long as possible, and shorten and darken many more later on. At some point we still need a reveal of the beastie in close-up, I suppose. This show is on the list for a personally edited re-cut. 4 Unlike some of Cahn's zero budget, zero interest groaners, It! The Terror has numerous handsome compositions, good blocking and effective camera moves. I only saw a few continuity 'things' that gave me pause. When Major Purdue (John Bice) escapes an air duct with his head slightly battered, he stumbles off camera, screen right. A few seconds later, Ed, Van and Jim stare down off-screen camera center, at some unhappy sight -- is it supposed to be Purdue? I will be happy to be embarrassed by an easy explanation.
The final confrontation (no spoiler) sets up a fateful Last Stand for the Space Command as "It" batters his way through the last center hatch. Two astronauts charge into harm's way, hoping to hit a switch in the ceiling. One of them gets shredded by "It", but completely off-screen, as if the censors demanded a cut. That's odd, because an earlier foot-mangling is depicted with an excellent angle on what looks like a ripped-up ankle, with "It's" giant claws happily gouging away. I bet a shot or two was cut before release, because a close-up of a hand throwing the crucial lever looks as if it's thrown by the wrong astronaut. No matter though, for the action of the final battle is novel and exciting.
Did I say that a recurring debate surrounds the perception that Ridley Scott's Alien seems to have been cobbled from equal parts It! The Terror and Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires? The same judges that ruled in favor of Harlan Ellison more than once might agree, with the right documentation, and if Ellison was arguing the case. But Bill Warren reports that It! The Terror scribe Jerome Bixby downplayed any comparison, saying that the kinds of events depicted in all three space movies were common in any number of Sci-fi novels and short stories. Just the same, UA and A.I.P. missed an opportunity to stick it to 20th Fox. Or at least make the attempt. Those Outer Limits / Terminator lawsuits certainly gave Harlan Ellison the reputation of a writer willing to defend his turf.
To its credit, It! The Terror has few if any blooper lines, often involving poor dumbbell Van Heusen. He lies in pain from his infected foot as Ed and Ann are cooing sweet nothings to each other just a few feet away. Van, unhappy: "Looks like it's you and Ed now?" Ann, mildly disinterested: "Let's talk about it later." A bright line pops up in the aftermath of what seems to be another astronaut slaughter, thanks to Van's stupidity: "Hey, what about Bob?"
And then there's the perfect one: Van looks jealously at Ed Carruthers being tended by Ann: "How come you always get away without a scratch?" The camera immediately cuts to Ed, who has a big nasty scratch on his forehead. 5
Olive Films' Blu-ray of It! The Terror from Beyond Space is a properly formatted widescreen scan of this matinee winner that was released just a couple of months before NASA formally began operations. Don't alarmed by the call-out of a 1.37:1 aspect ratio listed on the package -- the disc itself is 1:85. Bill Warren's older coverage of this title noted that the compositions are sometimes too wide and slack, which I noticed as well on old VHS tapes and laserdiscs. The widescreen formatting tightens up the framing and the filmic tension as well. Contrast is excellent, making some of Kenneth Peach's moody interior lighting come across quite well -- the lower decks especially.
Bert Shefter and Paul Sawtell's music score isn't identical to that for their Kronos but it's awfully close. Somebody else can fight that battle with music expert David Schecter. The main theme is thin but effective for not being overused, returning only in situations where "It" is on the attack. There is the ubiquitous 'outer space wail' musical effect for all the exterior space shots, which must have annoyed kids back in 1958 too. The Times Square flea-pit movie scene in the later Midnight Cowboy is almost a spoof of soporific 'exterior spaceship in flight' shots from Sci-fi films around this time.
Olive has come through with a quality product but omits potential extras save for a fairly ratty copy of the original trailer, the one that someone apparently saw fit to superimpose pseudo-subliminal messages over. Writer Bret Wood wrote an excellent, well researched Movie Morlocks article on the 'subliminal advertising / brainwashing scare' of the late 1950s, and if anybody can still find it over at the TCM site, I'll be happy to link to it. I'm afraid that I have to run right now, as I feel thirsty and hungry and have a desire to "see it now", whatever "it" is. 6
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. From top to bottom, the Challenger 142's levels are 1: Control (with airlock), 2: Quarters, 3: Laboratory, 4: 1st Storage, 5: 2nd Storage, 6: Motor (with airlock).
2. Why is a space movie made in 1958 set only fifteen years into the future? Steven Nielson explained it to me a long time ago: people can't imagine the world more than ten years in the future, but they notice that clothing changes fairly often. Fifteen years is enough time for space travel to be perfected (!) but not so long that fashions would necessarily be entirely different.
3. The movie keeps the spaceship in a uniform alignment at all times, pointing up in the middle of the frame, with no dynamic shots of it zooming past the camera, Enterprise- fashion. The spaceship model appears to be, by the way, the same or similar to the Allied Artists spaceship seen in Flight to Mars, World Without End and Queen of Outer Space. When Ed and Jim walk on the hull to the lower airlock, the camera is turned 90 degrees to effect a sideways walking gag, as used in the later TV Batman show. One long shot of the men walking superimposes the men on the model. Not only can we see a density shift in the film frame around the reduced image of the men walking, the little figures 'walk' without moving -- their feet slide on the hall as if they were moonwalking, Michael Jackson style. This detail is finally fully visible in HD.
4. Back when I was a TV commercial editor I kept sharp by taping pictures from TV and re-cutting them on 3/4" U-matic video. It's now possible to do this with much more flexibility. Editors often watch movies and think, "I'd do THAT differently." It's fun to experiment, to find out if your cockamamie ideas for 'improvements' hold water.
5. A scratch that, rather selectively for these super-virulent Martian germs, does not become infected. Are Perdue and Ed also going to get sick and go nuts, or does the contagion only strike down arrogant, chauvinistic dumbbells like Van?
Glenn, Here's the link you requested at the conclusion of your It! The Terror from Beyond Space review, the Movie Morlocks "Subliminal Advertising" article: Secret Messages by Bret Wood.
By the way, It! had at least two 13-year-olds on the edge of their seats... in the early nineties! My friend and I used to rent the picture almost every weekend. The VHS art showed "It" tearing through the reactor door in a glossy airbrushed still. To us at the time, the movie seemed as important a classic as, say, a Citizen Kane.
Years later, when the film arrived on MGM DVD, I felt that a scene was missing: a brief flashback shot of the crew of the Challenger 141 in a jeep, driving desperately through a blinding sandstorm to get away from... something. I remembered it as a single-angle process shot, a jarring but effective optical superimposition during Carruthers' story of the attack on Mars. It was a bizarre feeling, and I remember skimming through the disc to try and find anything like it. Of course, I had completely imagined it, down to the blocking and the budget-conscious stage effects. I can still see it to this day, and I secretly wish it was in the picture. Maybe there was something to that subliminal advertising after all! Thanks for the great review, Bart Steele
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