Thursday, July 14, 2011
Terror in Space
Page 161 of the Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin contains the entry for It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), a low-budget but intelligent and suspenseful science fiction horror movie.
It deals with the first manned expedition to Mars in the far future year of 1976. (Which, by the way, makes me want to curse Real Life—why the heck aren’t we on Mars?)
That first expedition has a rotten time. Everyone but the commander was killed by a barely-glimpsed monster during a sand storm. When the commander is rescued by a second expedition, he’s accused of murdering his crew to hoard supplies.
He’s abruptly proved innocent during the return trip to Earth, when it turns out the monster has sneaked aboard. A couple of crewmen are whacked and suddenly the survivors are in a fight to the death against an apparently indestructible opponent.
There are several factors that make this a great film (and the eventual inspiration for 1979’s Alien). First, it’s the perfect setting for a horror movie—you can’t just leave a space ship and go run somewhere else. Right from the beginning, it’s clear that either the monster dies or the entire crew dies. There’s no third option.
The design of the space ship also helps. It’s a traditional cylindrical affair divided into levels. A lot of the action depends on what levels are currently controlled by the monster and what levels the crew can gain access to.
Also, the movie never forgets that the ship is manned by trained astronauts and scientists. It’s crammed with smart people who act in an intelligent fashion. Every plan they try makes sense. When guns don’t work, they rig up some booby-traps with hand grenades. When that doesn’t work, they try gas. When that doesn’t work, they try an electrical booby-trap. And so on. They theorize about the nature of the creature and act accordingly. A couple of them take a space walk to move “below” the monster and set up a trap. The movie doesn’t depend on smart people acting foolishly or stupidly to generate danger—that all grows out of the monster’s ability to withstand enormous damage and keep going.
(Actually, I suppose you can argue that setting off hand grenades inside a space ship surrounded by vacuum isn’t terribly brilliant, but I suppose they were fragmentation grenades that aren’t designed to do structural damage, so we’ll give that to them.)
There is one brief instance where you see 1950s sensibilities slipping into the film. There are two women crewmen—one a doctor and the other a geologist. But they’re the ones serving the food and coffee at dinner time. Oh, well, maybe it was just their turn. Besides, both get to act intelligently during the crisis—especially the doctor.
That's a major key to getting a horror movie right--no matter what its setting. The characters in danger can't be stupid or act stupidly. They have to be threatened in spite of their ability to think or fight. Only then can you generate a real sense of suspense.
The movie is good enough to make one easily forget the occasional special effects failure. Most notable is probably the monster itself—stunt man and former serial star Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a rubber suit. But you find yourself accepting the monster as is. The story as a whole is too good to do otherwise.
The script for It! was written by Jerome Bixby, a talented science fiction writer with quite a bit of geek credibility attached to his career. Among his other credits are co-writing the story for Fantastic Voyage (which gave us the second coolest fictional submarine ever); the short story that was the basis for “It’s a Good Life,” arguably the best and creepiest Twilight Zone episode; and several Star Trek episodes including “Mirror, Mirror”—which gave us an alternate universe evil Mr. Spock (complete with goatee).
There’s one interesting bit at the very end. Most science fiction B-movies dealing with space travel (at least the ones made in the 1950s) were ultimately optimistic about exploring the final frontier. This one ends with the surviving crew members sending back a radio message warning that we might have to bypass Mars because of the danger there—that “another name for Mars is Death.”
I suspect the filmmakers simply wanted a cool sounding line to end with and didn’t have a deeper point behind it, but gee whiz—that’s a downer!
Last week, I ranted about how cool black-and-white photography makes movies look. This, by the way, is another example. No way this movie would have been half as good in color.
Anyway, that’s it for our four week experiment in randomly picking subjects for me to write about. Next week, I’ll have to actually think of something on my own again. No telling what I’ll come up with.