Thursday, August 23, 2012

Show the Monster or Don't Show the Monster?

A lot of the science fiction movies made during the 1950s—especially those made by Universal Pictures—had a horror story vibe to them. This isn’t really very surprising, considering that Universal’s bread-and-butter throughout the 1930s and 1940s was the horror genre.

So it’s not surprising that It Came From Outer Space (1953) is as much a horror story as it is a science fiction tale. To quote A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), by Denis Gifford:

“Ray Bradbury’s story of wandering Xenomorphs, aliens of misty aspect, was futuristic stuff, yet behind it the old horrors lurked. The small town in the Arizona desert stood in for the cut-off community of European lore; the glamour-gowned girl, possessed in mind in the wind-blown night, was a bride of Dracula; the stolid citizens, mindless zombies in the dark, were somnambulists straight from Caligari’s Cabinet.”

The movie starts with a “meteor” crashing in the desert. But it’s not really a meteor, it’s a space ship. And its crew are shape-changers, able to mimic the humans they meet—they even replace a few of them.

The protagonist is a local astronomer who is at first the only one to believe that aliens have landed. He quickly tumbles to the fact that a couple of local townspeople are no longer so local, but what are the aliens up to? Are they an invasion force?

Or are they just trying to buy enough time to repair their ship and get away?

The movie is based on a story treatment by Ray Bradbury and—though Harry Essex wrote the actual screenplay—much of the dialogue has that highly descriptive and poetic tone to it that makes Bradbury’s prose such a pleasure to read.  Not surprisingly, the story is intelligent and well-constructed.  Jack Arnold does an excellent job as director in creating the right atmosphere, while Richard Carlson pretty much creates the scientist-hero archetype that was standard in most SF films of this era.

(In fact, Arnold and Carlson would team up again in 1955 to bring us the last of the iconic Universal Monsters when they made Creature from the Black Lagoon.)

The movie generates a high level of suspense and tension out of the idea that we don’t know whether the aliens are perfidious or benign. The scientist tends to believe them when they claim they just want to fix their ship and leave, while the increasingly frightened local sheriff is much less trusting. To be fair to the sheriff, the aliens are holding the people they’ve duplicated as hostages (including the girl both he and the scientist love), so it’s a little hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.  This tension makes for a great movie.

Bradbury, though, went on record as being unhappy with one aspect of the finished film. The aliens, we learn, are horrifying in appearance to human beings. This is one of the reasons they assume human form before interacting with us. The original script made it clear that we (the audience) would never actually see an alien in its true form. We would only see the shocked reactions of the humans in the story.

In fact, the movie was initially filmed without the aliens being seen. But this was meant to be one of the first 3D films to be released and the studio heads decided we’d just have to see the alien seeming to jump off the screen at us.

So an alien—a hulking, one-eyed thingie—was designed and inserted into the film.  Bradbury hated this, thinking it looked fake and ruined the sense of terror that the movie otherwise built up so effectively.

Is he right? Well, the monster is a reasonably cool design, but I will not dare to disagree with one of the finest storytellers who ever lived. Having just watched the movie again after not having seen it in some years, I have to agree with Mr. Bradbury. It would have been better to leave the alien’s true form to our imaginations.

The monster we’re given has a reasonably creepy design, but it doesn’t elicit the horror in us that it does in the movie’s characters. It doesn’t even come close. And this does indeed spoil the moment.

Fortunately, the aliens only appear a few times and for fairly short intervals. They don’t ruin this otherwise wonderful film, but they don’t do much to help it along either.

I think proof that it was a mistake to show us the aliens is demonstrated by the fact that—though this movie is well-regarded as one of the better SF films of its era—the aliens themselves have not become the visual icons that other monsters became. We all remember the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We remember the mutant creature from This Island Earth (based, ironically, on a rejected design for the alien from It Came From Outer Space). Heck, we remember the Mole People from The Mole People.  And we think “Those are cool monsters.”

But when we think of It Came From Outer Space, we think “Great movie,” but don’t give those poor one-eyed aliens much thought at all. Even in a visual medium such as film, it is sometimes best to leave some elements to our imaginations.


  1. I agree with you assessment of the movie, it's wonderful, and I think that's part of the reason no one really thinks about the original Xenomorphs (not those ugly fakers that have stolen the name now).

    but I love seeing the monsters or aliens in any movie, no matter how silly or sublime they are.

    my review of the DVD for the movie-


  2. Thanks for the link to your review, David. I'm glad you mentioned the documentary in the DVD Special Features, since I failed to do so. It is an informative and well-made piece.

    Still have to disagree with you about showing the monster, though. It is a good design, but it simply could never be as awesome as what our imaginations could produce.

  3. I agree with that, about our imaginations being so much better, and we all would have had a different creature in mind.

    I actually never thought of that as it's true form anyway, just what we could see it as. I mean, how does it pilot a ship?

    but with or without the monster, the movie is great, which you can't say about "This Island Earth" or some others, try as they might.

  4. Quote: "I actually never thought of that as it's true form anyway, just what we could see it as. I mean, how does it pilot a ship?"

    Maybe it also uses that eye stalk as a hand? Ouch.

  5. ouch indeed!

    btw, I really enjoy your blog. especially the history of Marvel stuff you do. I think I may start up with the Avengers where you left off on my blog, if you don't mind (I love them the most).

  6. Please feel free. You have a fun blog as well and I would enjoy reading your take on those comics.


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