It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

*. Probably this film’s greatest claim to fame today is having anticipated, and perhaps inspired, Alien. Not so much in a visual way (a more suggestive precedent there might be Bava’s Planet of the Vampires), but definitely in terms of various plot points.
*. The basic set-up is the same. In the year 1973 (yes, you may laugh) a rescue mission lands on Mars to pick up the lone survivor of an earlier expedition that had been wiped out. The survivor is suspected of having killed the rest of his team and he is being brought back to Earth to face a firing squad (though nobody seems to believe he’s actually guilty of anything). Meanwhile, the real killer, an alien, sneaks on board the spaceship and once they leave Mars it begins killing off the crew.
*. In addition to this story outline, Alien also picked up many individual scenes along the way. The banter of the crew around the breakfast table is one clear example. Then there is a brief scene in a kind of air duct, the use of a welding torch (instead of a flamethrower), and the blowing of an airlock to kill the creature at the end.
*. I don’t think any of this makes Alien a rip-off (though apparently there was a lawsuit). I think a lot of people were impressed by It!, and given its obvious limitations in terms of budget and talent they figured they could take what worked and improve on it. That makes sense to me.
*. One filmmaker who probably had such an idea was John Carpenter. He introduced It! for Turner Classic Movies and praised it as “a little gem among a lot of really bad films that were made at that time,” with “a great little engine that drives suspense.” Carpenter might have even remade it himself, but instead remade a very similar film, The Thing from Another World.
*. I should note in passing here that The Thing from Another World was an influence on Jerome Bixby’s script. As was a story by A. E. van Vogt, “The Black Destroyer.” Once you start pulling out threads of influence you find they don’t have any end or beginning.
*. In short, material like It! is exactly the kind of thing any filmmaker should want to renovate. There are so many places in It! where you can see a better movie trying to break out and overcome the lack of talent and budgetary constraints. One just has to dump the silly stereotypes (the female crew members, including one medical doctor, serve coffee and nurse the wounded), and get rid of the corny dialogue (“Every bone in his body must be broken. But I’m not sure that’s what killed him.” “Mars is almost as big as Texas.”).
*. The monster, a shaky Ray Corrigan in a poorly-fitted rubber suit that looks a bit like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, needed a redesign, and Giger certainly delivered there. Various improbabilities had to be dropped, like setting off all those grenades to no effect, either on the monster or the ship. These are all easy fixes. Meanwhile, there are plenty of really good things to keep. The dead hand flopping down behind Carruthers. The discovery of the drained body in the air duct. And best of all the use of the strong vertical axis of the ship’s different levels, with the surviving crew being effectively treed by the monster as the film goes on. All the time the clock is ticking for both the crew and the monster: “it has to kill us or starve and we’ve got to kill it or die.”
*. That central series of stairways provides a solid visual spine to the proceedings, and it’s actually a bit surprising that later movies (like Alien) didn’t want to borrow it. But then I guess it’s kind of awkward to work around too. There’s a terrific moment when the crew come up with a plan to walk outside the ship and re-enter it on a level below the monster. Clever! But they initially have no idea what they’re going to do once they’ve pulled off this maneuver! And as things work out it really does seem to have been all for nothing.
*. I mentioned the curious way nobody seems to actually think Carruthers is guilty of anything, despite his being in some sort of very loose custody. I raise this point again because I’ve seen It! compared to plots like And Then There Were None. I don’t see this at all. The potential is there to play up Carruthers’ possible guilt in killing off the crew, but that’s simply a road the movie never even starts down. Everyone knows they’re up against a monster right from the start.
*. It’s very cheap, and though I’ve read some reviews that praise the acting I think it’s terrible. Indeed, I wouldn’t rate it much ahead of Plan 9 from Outer Space in either category. But unlike Plan 9 it’s shot through with good ideas and Carpenter’s “great little engine” of a story. A seed in space, I’d call it. And one that would grow.

7 thoughts on “It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    This was much discussed at the time of Aien, but Planet of the Vampires now seems to be more generally hailed at the successor. But this is a decent little B movie for sure. The Thing remake (1982) also owes a debt.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Planet of the Vampires really has those strong visual links but this movie now seems like it might have been more of an influence for the basic story and some of the key plot points. But as with all these things, once you start looking for where what came from there’s no end to it. Alien was still a totally original movie no matter how much it borrowed

      Reply
  2. Tom Moody

    The Voyage of the Space Beagle, a “fixup” novel comprised of several Van Vogt short stories, including The Black Destroyer, has a later segment where yet another malevolent alien is taken aboard the ship. This one incapacitates the crew and lays its eggs inside their bodies. Hmm, I wonder where that idea would turn up?

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’ve heard about The Black Destroyer but haven’t got around to reading it yet. As Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter of Alien) put it: “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!”

      Reply
  3. Tom Moody

    For the record, the story with the vicious, egg-laying creature is called “Discord in Scarlet.” Ixtl is red and looks like the Devil — the ship encounters him floating in space halfway between the Milky Way and Andromeda.

    Reply

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