Film

Don’t Open That Door! #58: 'It Came From Outer Space' (1953)

Welcome to our ongoing field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: mysterious goings-on in the desert can only mean one thing in It Came From Outer Space.


It Came From Outer Space

Director: Jack Arnold
Cast: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson
US Release Date: 1953-05-25

Alternative title: The Invasion of This Earthly Island by the Body Snatching Things from Another World

POSITIVES:

* Superior special effects and good performances.

* Cool spaceship design and alien point-of-view shots.

* Quick start.

* Effective use of southwest setting anticipates films like Them! and Kronos.

* Aliens leave glitter trails!

NEGATIVES:

* Nausea-inducing lame romance—but only at the beginning.

* Drags a bit in the middle—tries hard for “atmosphere” with electro-synth soundtrack, but ends up more dull than suspenseful.

* Very little destruction.

SYNOPSIS: Out watching the stars one night in Sand Rock, Arizona, local astronomer and crackpot John Putnam and his longsuffering fiance Ellen spot an enormous meteor flashing across the sky, looking like a huge soccer ball walloped by Cosmic Pele. John and Ellen rush off to find it, and when John descends the crater he discovers the enormous space ball occupied by a funny-looking alien who looks nothing like Pele. (Maradona, maybe.) Unfortunately, a landslide soon covers up both ship and occupant, and when John tries to report what he’s seen, everybody—imagine!—thinks he’s bonkers. Ellen is polite about it and everything, but you can tell she’s wondering whether it’s too late to get a refund on that ring.


Ellen changes her mind pretty quick, following a close encounter of the second kind in the desert, but John still can’t find anything definitive to convince anyone else. Even the observatory’s star astronomer, Doctor Snell, thinks he’s a little dotty. Before long Fred and George, a couple of telephone workers, start acting poetic and philosophical—too much time out in the desert, repairing lines, you know—as John grows ever more desperate to convince the authorities that something fishy’s going on. When philosophy gives way to weirdness, John tries to persuade Sheriff Hardass that the phone boys have been murdered or possessed by alien critters, or both. Surprising exactly nobody, he has no luck—and the matter isn’t helped any by his being wrong this time around.

Meanwhile, locals out in the desert keep screaming and collapsing backwards onto the ground. However you look at it, this can’t be a positive development… When the phone guys’ ladies show up, complaining that the men were acting weird earlier in the evening, the sheriff starts to think that after all, maybe John hasn’t been spending too much time painting interior rooms without adequate ventilation. But is it too late? Already, strange things have been happening: the hardware store has been robbed of copper wire (a critical component in interstellar travel—just ask NASA) and Doctor Snell has vanished too. All in all, it’s a crummy time for Ellen to go for a drive—which is, naturally, exactly what she does. John dashes off to find her, and he ain’t exactly thrilled with what he finds.

Moral of the story: Watch out for those telephone repairmen.

What gets turned into rubble: Not much. A coyote turns up dead and some of the other local wildlife gets spooked, as do a few local prospectors and phone workers. One alien is shot; a phone guy gets killed and his truck is destroyed.

What gets saved: A couple civilizations (ours and theirs).

Did you know? 1953 was a busy year for sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury. Besides seeing his short story upon turned into this movie, his Saturday Evening Post story “The Fog Horn” was transformed into Ray Harryhausen masterwork The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Party game: Play “Convince Me.” Everybody writes a list of four things about themselves—two of them true, two of them lies—and everyone else has to guess which is which. Players do their best to convince everyone else that the true things are false, and vice versa. Points are awarded according to how many other players are fooled. Note: Keeping a straight face is critical.

Somehow their careers survived: Richard Carlson (John) would star in 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, as well as Bert I. Gordon’s excellent Tormented (1960) and 1969’s Harryhausen cowboys ’n dinosaurs flick The Valley of Gwangi. In a career of 55+ years, Barbara Rush (Ellen) would star in When Worlds Collide (1951) and Moon of the Wolf (1972) among other projects. Joe Sawyer (Frank) is probably best known for his roles in westerns like They Died with Their Boots On (1941) with Errol Flynn, while Russell Johnson (George) would show up again in 1955’s This Island Earth.


BOTTOM LINE: A worthwhile monster-from-space flick that will remind you of too many other films even as it puts all the pieces together competently.

NEXT TIME: The Jungle (1952)

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