‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space’ Stars the Alien Before ‘Alien’

You may wonder why the final solution to killing the creature didn't occur to them earlier.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space, a trim little ’50s sci-fi B-picture arrives on Blu-ray in an impressively clean, sharp print, allowing us to sink into its simple, tense suspense plot and appreciate its minor virtues.

The story couldn’t be simpler. Except for bookending scenes of press announcements on Earth, the action takes place in a spaceship on its way from Mars to Earth in the year 1973. It has picked up the sole survivor of the previous mission, Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson), who is accused of killing all nine members of his crew. Nobody believes his story about a Martian monster attacking them, but they’re about to be convinced when the big, snarling, three-toed, three-fingered, indestructible, rubber-suited galoot (Ray “Crash” Corrigan, waving his arms) sneaks into the cargo hold and starts killing them one by one.

The plot becomes an “us vs. it” battle of the astronauts trapped in their environment against an alien monster, along the lines of the popular hit of several years earlier, The Thing from Another World, whose title is echoed in this movie’s title. This movie is commonly cited as an influence on Alien, and that’s entirely credible. The efficient script is by professional sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby, later a writer for Star Trek, and includes some rationalizing babble about how the monster survives on Mars and how its bacteria absorb bodily fluids like blood, thus making it among the earliest space vampires. (See, for example, Queen of Blood, Planet of the Vampires, and Lifeforce.)

The script’s worst flaw is that you may wonder why the final solution to killing the creature didn’t occur to them earlier, but one is generally caught up in the claustrophobic hysteria with its emphasis on shadows and scary noises and half-hidden glimpses. That approach is best, not only because it works but because the full-on monster has a cheesy element to its grotesquerie, notwithstanding being designed by famous sci-fi artist and monster maker Paul Blaisdell. TCM’s website reveals that when we see the monster’s tongue, it’s actually Corrigan’s chin.

Director Edward L. Cahn, who mostly did comedy shorts and B-westerns, essayed a few items like Creature with the Atom Brain, Invasion of the Saucer Men, and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. Hardly a master of subtle style, he tends to present everything as bluntly as possible, but the “hide the monster” approach works well in between the ooga-booga close-ups.

The rocket is presented by art director William Glasgow and set decorator Herman Schoenbrun as several floors with central stairwells. Presumably, it’s always the same set redressed, and this is efficient and convincing. As shot in black-and-white by Kenneth Peach, the movie even pulls off a scene of eerie beauty when two astronauts walk horizontally down the outside of the ship, scored by the weird spacey music of Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter in the best ’50s “outer space” style.

Interestingly, the crew contains two women. There’s not just the perky attractive ingenue (Shawn Smith, also known as Shirley Patterson) often seen in the era’s sci-fi films, but an older woman (Ann Doran of Rebel Without a Cause) who’s the ship’s efficient doctor and wife of another crewman (Dabbs Greer). Of course, their duties seem to include serving coffee and doing dishes while the men sit around smoking and playing chess, but what can you do? At least the women aren’t required to spout any cringe-worthy platitudes to justify their presence; it’s accepted without question.

The plot has no time for romance, thank goodness, but the pretty woman serves as a code or trophy whose shifting attachments signify that Carruthers is right, the ascendant alpha leader, while previous leader Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) is wrong. The latter, shredded in the foot, is left with no recourse but to sacrifice himself gracefully and usefully. Not for nothing is the drama set inside a huge phallic symbol.

In a curious psychological aside, the monster’s victims are those who believed unquestioningly in Carruthers’ guilt, while those who gave him the benefit of the doubt are still around by the final curtain. The crewman (Paul Langton) responsible for leaving the hatch open that permitted the monster’s ingress is severely wounded but survives, thus punished for his doubts but rewarded for allowing the proof to manifest. Maybe this movie also owes something to the “creature from the Id” in Forbidden Planet, or the transparently symbolic monster of sexual rivalry in It Came from Beneath the Sea, another “it” movie.

Robert Bice, Richard Benedict, Richard Hervey, and Thom Carney round out the small cast of crewmen. An uncredited Pierre Watkin is the boffin who hosts the press conferences and pronounces the final line, when his dull gibberish suddenly flies into the metaphor of “another word for Mars is Death.” I can’t help wondering if the deliberately boring, information-free public-speak of the characters in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the most hilariously dull press conference in sci-fi cinema, was consciously echoing such scenes in previous movies, or simply mimicking the way official spokesmen really sound.

Olive Films has done an excellent job in licensing this indie production, originally released by United Artists, from MGM (which acquired United Artists properties) and 20th Century Fox (which made Alien), and presenting an HD mastering. The only bonus feature is a trailer.

RATING 5 / 10