It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
Though its title might evoke a bit of laughter and thoughts of a schlocky man-in-a-rubber-suit monster movie, It: The Terror From Beyond Space is more than just a standard creature feature. Not allowing his film to be hindered by a shoestring budget and relatively short runtime, director Edward Cahn (along with screenwriter Jerome Bixby) crafts a taut, science fiction thriller with issues and themes that require no special effects in the confines of a story that takes little time to tell. Here is a movie that confronts the ideas of distrust among men and fear of the unknown, all the while evoking feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia.
Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the soul survivor after a botched mission to Mars left nine crewmen dead. Years later, a rescue shuttle is sent to Mars to retrieve Carruthers, who claims the deaths of his crewmen were the result of an alien creature that inhabited the ship. However, those on the rescue mission believe that it was Carruthers that killed his crew and dismiss all accounts of encountering a creature from another world. That is until several crewmen disappear and later turn up dead with the blood sucked from their bodies. This forces the crew to overcome their paranoia of Carruthers and work with him to defeat a bigger threat: the creature that has come aboard their ship and is traveling with them on their way to earth, lurking in the shadows of the cavernous shuttle.
Cahn uses a lot of his earlier scenes to subtly construct the themes that the film touches on, one of which is the distrust in fellow man. As presented in the film, the rescue crew has an apparent suspicion of Carruthers from the moment he is brought aboard their vessel, and Cahn hints at this during one of their initial encounters. Carruthers is showing one of the crewmen the skull of a deceased partner and there is a small hole is present in the top of the bone that looks peculiarly like a gunshot wound. A close-up of the small hole in the skull reveals that it could in fact have been done with a pistol, but at the same time, the hole appears too precise to have come from a man-made tool. Cahn moves from this scene without revealing answers because he wants the audience to be constantly thinking about the skull later on when the crew begins to disappear. It is in this scene that Cahn is planting the idea of distrust within not just the characters, but the audience as well.
A similar approach is taken in regards to the crew’s fear of the unknown, a much more prominent and thriving idea in It. Shadows create convincing images up on the bare walls of the space shuttle, and glimpses of the monster’s hand only confirm the idea that there is something to be afraid of within the unknown, but what? In theory, the crew has the killer captured (Carruthers), so who (or what) is causing the sudden deaths onboard? Cahn demonstrates that such a fear can cause men to react unconventionally, charging into the unknown without answers or ideas as to what is waiting for them behind the dark curtain of the shadows. It is an idea that has since been carried over into the modern horror film (the “don’t go in there!” moments) but still carries the same warning as it does here that immense fear among man results in irrational decisions.
Since almost 90% of the action in the film takes place on board the confines of the space shuttle, there is a certain degree of entrapment and claustrophobia present here. Though neither feeling is expressed through the dialogue exchanged between characters, the space shuttle set piece used for primary filming is brimming with it. Each wall of the shuttle is plain and lacking in discernable features from the others, a design that gives lead to the feeling of entrapment, as if the characters are stuck in the same place on the ship the entire time. Another well-designed set piece is the one used for the ship’s cargo hold, the place where the rescue workers first encounter the monster. Crates are stacked high and are strewn about so much that the camera cannot navigate through them. This sense of claustrophobia is ever so apparent toward the end of the film when one of the crew is stuck in the cargo hold with the monster and there is one staircase that can lead him up to freedom.
But one feeling that felt absent from the entire film was doubt. Initially, the rescue crew has trouble believing Carruthers’ case against killing his own team, but this doubt is entirely erased within the first half of the film after the monster has killed one of their own. Granted it would have been impossible for Carruthers to have orchestrated the attack when he was above deck and the attack happen in the cargo hold, but could there not have been at least an accusation? It seems like the crew, for being so hardheaded about not believing Carruthers at first, falls out of that conviction so easily and far too early in the film. Considering the first time the monster attacks the audience sees just the creature’s shadow, why not use this to stir up some doubt among the crew? After all, shadows can be manipulated.
A much more prominent and troubled oversight is the lack of character development. Sure, the themes and emotions that these characters go through and experience are vast and clarified, but what happened to the characters themselves? None of the characters in the film truly stand out: the men are all iron-jawed, tough, and emotionless and the women are just worried and seem generally puzzled most of the time. I’m not demanding that each character be sporadic, just that the characters seem are from different molds. Aside from Carruthers, there wasn’t one character whose name I could recall mere minutes after watching the movie; to wrestle up even a simple sentence describing these characters would be cumbersome.
It: The Terror From Beyond Space has its fair share of shortcomings to be sure, but the biggest obstacle that the movie faces is being pegged as just another midnight monster movie because of its stock characters and ridiculous title. However, the film manages to be quite an entertaining science fiction thriller with some interesting themes and ideas. Upon the release of a far more successful but similar space thriller, Alien, the producers of It claimed that their movie idea was unceremoniously stolen to create the Ridley Scott-directed blockbuster. Be that as it may, both sides should be honored.