Alien Before ALIEN: The Story of It! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE
By John C. Alsedek:
Growing up in Central Pennsylvania during the 1970s was a boon to a monster-obsessed kid like me, because cable TV had recently become a thing, and we got an amazing TEN television stations! There were three local network affiliates plus PBS and an unaffiliated local that I don’t recall ever actually watching. And then there were my go-to’s: NYC independents WOR 9 and WPIX 11, Philly indies WKBS 48, WPHL 17, and WTAF 29. The latter three were the ones that tended to air horror movies: WKBS had Creature Double Feature, which was unfortunately directly up against WPHL’s Dr. Shock’s Mad Theater on Saturday afternoons (Dr. Shock also had a separate Saturday evening show, Horror Theater). And WTAF ran movies on (I think) Sunday afternoons, which is where I first saw the subject of the last column, Fiend Without a Face.
It was on WPHL Ch. 17 that I first saw It! The Terror from Beyond Space, and it instantly vaulted into my top tier of favorite films. The plot itself was pretty straightforward: a rescue ship departs Mars for Earth, carrying with it the sole survivor of the first expedition to the Red Planet. That survivor, Col. Edward Carruthers (played by Marshall Thompson), stands accused of murdering his entire crew to ensure his own survival until rescued, but he insists that the true killer is a mysterious creature native to Mars. Carruthers’ story is disbelieved at first . . . until the bodies start piling up and it becomes clear that the mysterious creature is on the ship with them! Every effort to kill the deadly intruder fails until (SPOILER ALERT), with nowhere left to run, they pop the airlock and expose "It" to the vacuum of space.
Does the concept of a killer alien loose on a spaceship, finally dispatched only by an opened airlock, sound a little familiar? It should. It! The Terror from Beyond Space is widely credited as a primary inspiration for Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for the Ridley Scott classic Alien. However, just as O’Bannon was influenced by It!, It! screenwriter Jerome Bixby may have been somewhat influenced by an earlier piece of fiction: A. E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Van Vogt’s 1950 novel concerns a massive exploration ship that, on one world, discovers an intelligent, starving carnivore ("Coeurl") that sneaks aboard and begins killing the crew. Closing the circle, 20th Century Fox got sued for plagiarism—not by Bixby but by Van Vogt! You see, another section of The Voyage of the Space Beagle concerned a monster that implanted parasitic eggs in members of the crew—shades of the "facehugger," right? The lawsuit was settled out of court.
Anyway, about It! The Terror from Beyond Space: it was an independent film produced by an outfit called Vogue Productions, which shot It! and a couple of other low-budget films in 1958 and 1959 before (I think) changing names to Premium Pictures in ’59 and then to Zenith Pictures in ’60. It! was distributed by United Artists as one-half of a double feature with Curse of the Faceless Man, which was shot right around the same time as It! and shared the same director, writer, and cinematographer. At a total budget of about $100,000 and a shooting schedule of just six days spread out over two weeks, It! was pretty typical of the average fifties B-movie. Yet it ended up being far more effective and memorable than most of its B brethren, and the credit for that goes to the team that brought It! The Terror from Beyond Space to life.
Director Edward L. Cahn had close to thirty years’ worth of directing experience when he shot It!, mostly in low-budget pictures and short subjects; as a result, he knew how to both get the shots he needed and do so on a tight schedule. Cinematographer Kenneth Peach was another guy with a long list of Hollywood credits that went back to Laurel & Hardy films such as Dirty Work and Sons of the Desert in the early 1930s; Peach’s excellent use of film noir–style shadows would also highlight 25 episodes of The Outer Limits between 1964–65. Screenwriter Jerome Bixby is best remembered for the Twilight Zone episode "It’s a Good Life," but he was also a prolific and well-regarded science-fiction author of the period. Visual effects creator Paul Blaisdell was pretty much the dean of fifties monsters, having created the memorable beasties for B-flicks such as It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, and The She-Creature. Composers Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter basically recycled their theme music from the previous year’s sci-fi film Kronos, but it’s used judiciously throughout, and the additional "space wail" used for exterior shots of the ship is quite effective. And speaking of quite effective, the cast, led by Marshall Thompson and including veteran character actors Dabbs Greer and Ann Doran, is effective throughout.
That’s not to say that It! The Terror from Beyond Space is without flaws, because it’s got plenty. If you watch it, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the casual fifties sexism of having the two female members of the crew doing all the cooking and serving at mealtime. That said, they’re also shown doing genuinely meaningful work on board the ship (in particular, Ann Doran as ship’s doctor Mary Royce), and they wear coverall uniforms identical to the men, so it was almost progressive in comparison with the way women were presented in a lot of 1950’s sci-fi. There are also the odd gaffes; my favorite is at the beginning when they do a pre-countdown name check/sound-off but leave out Gino and Kienholz—which is some unintended foreshadowing, since both men are dead by the 20-minute mark. There’s also one related to those deaths, as an ADR voiceover segment that includes both men is reused later in the film after they’re dead. And seriously: firing a bazooka and lobbing grenades on a spaceship seems like a really, really bad idea!
But you know what? It! still works. Virtually the entire film is set on board the earthbound spaceship, giving it a nicely claustrophobic feeling. The spaceship sets themselves are surprisingly well-realized given the low budget and tight production schedule, and they make sense from a design standpoint, with five levels connected by ladders and airtight (though not monster-tight!) hatches. The progression of the beast from one level to the next—and every attempt to kill it failing miserably—generates some good tension. The monster is a bit hit-or-miss (you can see the back zipper in a couple of shots), but it honestly looks creepy as heck in some of the shots. And having Dr. Royce coming out of the galley as she’s conducting an autopsy is low-key hilarious; I like to think that was a deliberate choice by the production team! Anyway, if you’ve never seen It!, I recommend it to anyone with a love of old science-fiction and horror films.
Of the cast of It! The Terror from Beyond Space, only Marshall Thompson went on to major success; he starred in the CBS family series Daktari from 1966–1969. However, the bulk of them continued to work regularly in Hollywood and, in fact, no less than five of them were guest stars on television’s very first franchise! We’ll be talking 77 Sunset Strip next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.