[23 September 2004]
Bad-movie love is genetic. I inherited it from my old man, and it appears my son has gotten it from me. When he was younger, he and I would watch episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, me for the movies, him for the cute robots. But the other day, he sat through the Ed Wood classic Bride of the Monster (1955), not only watching it but actually trying to make sense of it. He found the flick so hilarious that the next night we watched Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959) and then Tim Burton’s biopic of Wood. After a delicate explanation of the finer points of transvestism, my son can now boast a firm grounding in the life and art of an American auteur, all before the age of 10.
For all of Ed Wood’s ineptitude, however, his work does have the advantage of being frantic and noisy. The same cannot be said for Gene Fowler, Jr.‘s 1958 opus I Married a Monster from Outer Space. My son got bored after about 10 minutes and wandered off to play Game Boy, so I’m thinking I’ll wait until his attention span expands before trying to lay Destination Moon (1950) on him.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space falls into the proud subgenre of paranoiac science fiction that includes great pictures like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as many, many stinkers, but it is neither a classic nor campy schlock—it’s certainly no worse than an average episode of The Outer Limits. If we read the sci-fi boom of the Fifties sociologically, as scholars like David Halberstam and Peter Biskind have, with Day‘s Christlike peace emissary Klaatu representing a liberal point of view and the Body Snatchers as a McCarthyite metaphor for encroaching Communism, then Fowler’s film fall somewhere in the middle of the road, a moderately conservative Eisenhower-era fantasy—the Monster Movie in the Grey Flannel Suit.
After a credit sequence wherein a fleet of flying saucers approaches the Earth, the film opens on the eve of Bill Farrell’s (actor-cum-novelist Tom Tryon) wedding. He and his buddies are getting tanked in the neighborhood bar and trading stock banter about getting shackled to the old ball-and-chain. As Bill makes his drunken way home, he’s waylaid by an alien creature with a vaguely squiddy appearance, like Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama. The next day Bill shows up a few minutes late for the wedding, disoriented but good to go. His new bride Marge (Gloria Talbott) notices that Bill seems a bit out of it, but she shrugs it off—she’s a good little woman.
Marge is such a good little woman, in fact, that it takes her an entire year to come around to the fact that Bill just isn’t the man she fell in love with. Perhaps it’s that after what screenwriter Louis Vittes suggests is much “trying,” Marge is not yet pregnant. Or maybe it’s the fact that Bill strangles the puppy she buys him for their anniversary. Or the stiff walk and bug-eyed expression Tryon affects throughout the movie. In any case, Marge finally wises up and decides to follow her increasingly creepy man on one of his nightly constitutionals. After a couple of miles, during which Bill fails to notice his nightgown-and-slippers-clad wife 20 feet behind him—after all, this is the Fifties, before modern advancements in peripheral vision—Bill enters the woods outside of town and the alien inside him sheds its Bill-husk before Marge’s horrified eyes. Suddenly Marge realizes not only what’s wrong with Bill, but what she’s been letting into bed.
What follows is Marge running about like a distaff Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers trying to get anyone to believe her story, only to find either skeptics or others in town who’ve been taken over. The roads out of town are blocked and phone lines are down. What’s worse, Marge’s friends are starting to hook up with Bill’s friends, and the last thing the girls want to hear is Marge begging them to call off their weddings.
It turns out that the aliens are an advance party looking not to conquer but to breed, their female population having died out in the catastrophe that destroyed their homeworld. The males are biding their time until their scientists discover how to augment the female human reproductive system to accept the alien seed. In the meantime, however, the process which gives the aliens access to their hosts’ bodies and memories also saddles them with human emotions, and as Marge rejects alien-Bill, he feels hurt. In one unusual scene, the town tramp comes upon an undisguised alien staring longingly at baby dolls in a shop window, a tender moment before he disintegrates her with a raygun.
It’s difficult to know what to do with hideous alien invaders who only want to be daddies, especially when they seem perfectly willing to assimilate into stereotypical small-town American life to do it. We have met the enemy, and they want to be us. The real Bill Farrell is an insurance salesman, and apparently the alien Bill has been going into the office regularly for a year now. Moreover, Bill and his buddies still go to the bar to keep up appearances, but alcohol is poisonous to them. So what have we got? A band of drunken misogynists transformed into teetotaling company men and pillars of the community, who want to have babies with Earth women but insist on marrying them first. Sure, in their true forms they look like squids (until they die, when they look like runny applesauce), but it’s hard to argue that anyone is actually worse off once the aliens move in.
Still, we can’t have extraterrestrials mating with our women, even within the sanctity of Christian marriage. So Marge locates enough uncompromised men (in a clever twist, they’re recruited in the hospital maternity ward, new fathers who obviously can’t be aliens) to force a showdown with the invaders. But again, it’s tough to remember who to root for, as Vittes and Fowler have so blurred the lines distinguishing good guys from bad guys. This is the picture’s real strength, as it is in the best films of the genre: the existential uncertainty that must follow in the meeting of two cultures on hostile ground. Thus does I Married a Monster from Outer Space manage, somehow, to transcend its lousy title and its own limitations.