Welcome back to another edition of Insomniac Cult Movie Theater! The semi regular article series written about a man cursed with intermittent sleeplessness and the classic sci-fi, horror, and fantasy movies he watches well into the wee hours of the morning!
However, with October’s entries, we are going to do something a little different. These are not all movies I watched while dealing with my crushing stress related bleary eyed wakefulness. In fact, just so you at home don’t think I’ve completely went crazy and should seek professional help for my crippling anxiety, I have chose to watch today’s film plus all the rest of the films covered over the following weeks in October, as just a normal part of my day.
The reason you ask? ‘Cause I always have Halloween movie nights during this spooky part of the year, and I’m not going to stop now just because I barely have two free minutes to rub together. But instead of inviting people over to my house and socializing while watching movies such as the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (with a dog sporting Jerry Garcia’s head) or Poltergeist (with Crag T. Nelson punching a skeleton in the face), I’m just going to watch the movies myself and share with all of out there in Interwebs land!
So strap in for the next 5 weeks leading up to All Hallow’s Eve as the resident Ghost Host with the Most, Andy Larson, spins some sinister celluloid for all of you out there on a weekly basis reviewing some forgotten and overlooked thrill-fests from the land of film’s cult past.
First stop on our combined trek through the cinematic ether is Jack Arnold’s blockbuster 3D hit with Clones, Clouds, and Endless Cactus’: IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE!!
It Came From Outer Space!
It Came From Outer Space is a 1953 B&W sci-fi movie produced by Universal Pictures and directed by 50s Monster movie legend, Jack Arnold, whom I’ve talked about several times on this blog. Just to recap, Jack also directed such Insomniac Cult Movie films as The Incredible Shrinking Man and Creature of the Black Lagoon . It was originally shown in 3-D, which was the first time ever that Universal Studios never produced a film with those kind of effects.
The movie was based on a story treatment submitted by legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury, whom anyone worth their literary salt should know, but just in case you missed it, wrote such all time classics as “The Martian Chronicles”, “Something Wicked this Way Comes”, “The Illustrated Man” and “Fahrenheit 451”.
Although screenplay credit was given to Harry Essex , who later would go on to write Creature from the Black Lagoon, there are Hollywood legends that say that Ray Bradbury’s “story treatment” was so in-depth that it was in essence a full and complete script and Essex merely changed some of the dialogue before taking credit.
The story goes that Ray Bradbury had submitted two treatments to Universal for their latest alien picture, one where the space creatures were malicious and one where they were more indifferent/benevolent. Universal chose to do the treatment with the more benevolent aliens, which Ray thought was more of an intriguing idea and thus he stuck around to help out with the picture more than initially planned.
It’s true that the film primarily deals with a race of shape changing aliens who accidentally crash land on Earth, and “steal” human forms from other people just so they can collect the materials necessary to effect repairs on their ship without humans interfering with them too much.
Honestly, like a car with a flat tire in the wrong part of town, they just want to get on their way, but they realize that given their grotesque real appearance, humanity would perceive them as monsters and want to kill them. It’s actually a very common relatable concept for anyone that has experienced bigotry in their lives in which it’s not so much what you are doing that arouses suspicion but just simply what you look like that makes people second guess your intentions and respond with hostility.
Of course, there are more enlightened members of humanity such as astronomer John Putnam played by Richard Carlson who want to make peaceful contact with the beings from another world, but even he is so terrified by their natural form, that he begins to second guess the aliens motivations in kidnapping humans and taking their forms, despite being told several times by the aliens themselves that they just want to be left alone to repair their ship. The result is a somewhat intensely nuanced movie that somewhat rises above your traditional sci-fi fare, but I’ll go over that more in my 2am Thoughts section.
The rest of the cast of the movie includes Barbara Rush as John Putnam’s girfriend, Ellen, a role for which she won a Golden Globe in 1954 as “Most promising female newcomer”. I most recognize her for her role as Jamie Sommers’ mom on the 1970s TV Show “The Bionic Woman”.
Also Russell Johnson appears in this movie as a young telephone lineman named George. Most everyone that knows pop culture will instantly recognize him as the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.
Finally, as an interesting side note, Universal’s monster department came up with two costumes for the aliens in this movie. The one that was not used ultimately became the Metaluna Mutant from the 1955 Sci-fi movie “This Island Earth”. I’m a particularly big fan of that film given it was the one selected for MST3k: the Movie, which I feel not enough people have seen compared to the TV show!
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
Despite Harry Essex having his name on the picture as screenwriter, it’s really hard not to see Ray Bradbury’s signature storytelling style all over this picture. Anyone that has read his stuff like me can see that the movie isn’t really wrapped up in the traditional alien invasion motifs that would permeate the genre for years, but instead uses the aliens as a metaphor for other more existential questions about the nature of humanity and how we interact with each other.
Like some other 1950s Sci-fi movies, there are some strong Cold War undercurrents in this film, in particular the notion of whether or not communists are indeed a threat to our communities by secretly plotting to overthrow the status quo or whether they are simply there minding their own business, doing their own thing.
It’s a fascinating discussion point which I feel is just a relevant in today’s society as it ever was in the 1950s. Just substitute communists for Muslims or Immigrants or African Americans or any other minority which the white majority might fear because they represent something different from themselves, and you instantly have a conversation about our own prejudices as a species and how quick we are to assume ill intent just because someone doesn’t look like us.
To use my flat tire analogy, I feel like the aliens in this picture are no different than a African American man who happens to get a flat tire in a prominently white suburban neighborhood. After looking in his car’s trunk, he realizes his tire iron is missing. He has every intention of changing the flat tire and getting along on his way, but he’s missing the proper tools. But then he notices where he is, and says “Oh boy…nobody is going to help me here.” Worse yet, maybe he’s wearing a hoodie because it’s not exactly warm outside.
So he decides to take the hoodie off and walk around in the cold in his t shirt to ask some of the house holds in the area if he can borrow a tire iron. This is similar to the aliens taking the forms of humans, just something to help them blend in.
But it’s still not enough.
Because of what he looks like and the preconceived prejudices the neighborhood has, despite his request being an honest genuine attempt to get a tire iron so he can fix his flat and get back to his house, he’s instantly greeted by suspicion, hostility, or worse.
Eventually when he finds an open minded fella, we’ll call John Putham, who not only offers him the tire iron but also to help him change the flat on his car, the moment our wayward motorist puts back on his hoodie as again it’s cold outside, Mr. Putham reacts a little instinctively that this is the moment that he gets robbed or shot. Again all because of not what the situation is dictating but the baggage we bring to that situation. That hatred, that bigotry, that suspicion of the “unlike”.
And after it’s all over, and the tire has been changed and our motorist is on his way, one of the other neighbors comes out to talk to John and says:
“Wow John..what did that guy really want? I was this close to calling the cops!”
to which John just answers “He just wanted to change his flat tire.” feeling at the same time both proud that he helped a fellow man in need but also a strange mix of shame over letting his prejudices get the better of him even for a moment.
Yep, that’s “It Came from Outer Space” for ya. As I said before the best science fiction stories are those that you tie directly into your own life and make you think. This movie from that perspective does that in spades!
Final Grade: B
Although I talked a lot above about the metaphorical nature of this film and why it’s important from the perspective a discussion surrounding our own innate prejudices, it honestly doesn’t mean I loved this movie to death. I mean, a movie can have important messages yet at the same time not be as entertaining as one might like. That’s how I feel about this picture and why despite by lengthy diatribe above, I still only give this movie a B.
Yes, it’s got some genuine suspense, strong production values, competent directing and acting, but it’s also somewhat boring. Like nothing happens for big chunks of this movie other than John Putnam’s character agonizing about whether he’s made the right choice in trying to protect the aliens while he and the somewhat close minded Sheriff watch the alien clones walk around town doing their shopping. There’s tons of desert scenes with just people walking around and most of the excitement and tension comes from the aliens flying head on at moving cars, and or using their bubble vision POV shot and cloud gas to absorb kidnap humans.
There is a scene where the alien duplicate of Ellen, dressed up like a stage magician’s assistant, shoots at John in a cave with a laser pointer death ray, but it’s over in a matter of minutes.
I mean this is the problem with making the aliens just be harmless good guys. You do rob one of the major classic antagonistic forces that could be used to gin up some drama on screen. Instead all of the conflict is more internal within the characters’ psyche, which does lead to some interesting dialogue, but nothing much else.
I mean don’t get me wrong. Some of the writing in this movie is excellent and shows a heavy influence of Bradbury, such as his descriptions of the otherworldly looking Joshua Trees to the intense description of the desert being a living thing ready to kill anyone foolish enough to venture into it unprepared. But again, it’s still supposed to be a movie, not just prose, so I feel like some of the action gets lost in the translation from script to screen.
So in the end I feel like this movie works best like most super great episodes of shows like “The Twilight Zone” in which you might watch them once for the overall necessary philosophical debate that really makes you think for more than a few moments after it ends, and then tell a friend they should check it out for themselves. But will you ever watch it again?
Nah…it was just too dry. There weren’t enough laser “pew pews”. I’d rather watch Star Wars again…thanks.