Sunday, July 7, 2019

Howling For All the Flesh and Blood On Earth! Eddie L. Cahn Will Freeze the Scream in Your Throat With IT! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

With a slow pan over the rocky and desolate surface of Mars our latest epic begins, augmented by a solemn prologue from Colonel Ed Carruthers (Thompson), who waxes on and on about this hellish landscape seen before us until the camera eventually settles on the wreckage of the Challenge-141 starship, which cracked-up while attempting the first ever landing on the Angry Red Planet. The lone survivor out of a crew of nine from this ill-fated vessel, Carruthers also warns it wasn't the crash that killed the others but some kind of a horrible monster (-- cue ominous musical sting), who picked his shipmates off, one by one, and violently shredded them. And this is where our movie proper begins, with the impending departure of the rescue ship, aptly named the Challenge-142.

Under the command of Colonel Van Huesen (Spalding), he, along with the rest of the 142's crew, don't buy the survivor's incredible story. In fact, they all believe it was Carruthers who killed the crew of the 141 to hoard the meager supplies and rations while waiting out a rescue ship. Thus, despite these protests of innocence, Huesen intends to extract Carruthers' full confession before they reach Earth, where a general court-martial and summary execution awaits.

However, as the final countdown to the launch commences, Huesen is alerted to one of the lower-level cargo hatches still being open. Somewhere below, Lt. Calder (Langton) apologizes, having accidentally left it ajar after dumping some garbage over the side; and as he closes the hatch, the camera pans away, revealing the shadow of something monstrous lurking in the back of the hold. And then the sparkler's lit -- sorry, the fuel is ignited, and the Challenge-142 slowly rockets back to Earth, her crew blissfully unaware they’ve picked up an unwanted stowaway -- a stowaway that's both vicious and very, very hungry...

And here we have the cinematic poster child on the dire consequences of littering on a galactic scale. Seriously, though, IT! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) is a bona fide seminal film that spawned and inspired plenty of features which followed in its wake -- some more obviously than others. And we're going to get to all that, but first, we're gonna take a look at what probably inspired the inspired in the first place.

Starting in 1939, Astounding Science Fiction, one of the premiere sci-fi pulp magazines of the era (-- of any era, really), published a series of stories by author A. E. Van Vogt concerning the exploits of Dr. Elliott Grosvenor and the crew of The Space Beagle: a massive interstellar exploratory vessel, whose own impact and influence on the science fiction genre are still rippling through all stages of mediums even to this day.

Alfred Elton Van Vogt.

Born Alfred Vogt on April 26, 1912, in the small Mennonite community of Edenburg, Manitoba, Vogt spent most of his youth moving around Canada as his father shifted jobs. He started writing in his teen years while working in advertising, selling several “true confession” type stories to the local paper and several short radio dramas. By 1938, he switched to writing science fiction after picking up an issue of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Campbell’s own seminal story, Who Goes There? -- later adapted into The Thing from Another World (1951) and then remade later as The Thing (1982), inspired Vogt to write Vault of the Beast and submitted it to the magazine, which netted him a rejection letter from Campbell himself that encouraged the fledgling author to try again. And try again he did, launching one of the most, sadly, and unjustly, unheralded runs in the science fiction genre.

"The son-of-a-gun gets hold of you in the first paragraph,” said Campbell in The John W. Campbell Letters. “Ties a knot around you, and keeps it tied in every paragraph thereafter -- including the ultimate last one.” And Campbell wasn’t alone with praise for Vogt. When asked which SF writers had influenced his work the most, author Philip K. Dick said, “I started reading science fiction when I was about twelve and I read all I could, so any author who was writing about that time, I read. But there's no doubt who got me off originally and that was A. E. Van Vogt.

“There was in Vogt's writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book did not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think that's sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else's writing inside or outside science fiction … Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared."

Harlan Ellison, a long time Van Vogt defender, added, “Van was the first writer to shine light on the restricted ways in which I had been taught to view the universe and the human condition." And David Hartwell probably summed it up best back in 1984 in his book, Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, “No one has taken Van Vogt seriously as a writer for a long time. Yet he has been read and still is. What no one seems to have noticed is that Van Vogt, more than any other single SF writer, is the conduit through which the energy of Gernsbackian (Amazing Stories), primitive wonder stories have been transmitted through the Campbellian age (Astounding Science Fiction), when earlier styles of SF were otherwise rejected, and on into SF of the present."

What Hartwell means, I think, is to some Van Vogt deftly bridged the gap between the fantastical gee-whizbang age of science fiction, which relied more on fiction than science, and the epoch Campbell revolution, which required a more grounded basis in facts. Others disagreed. Most notably, fellow author, publisher, and critic, Damon Knight, who felt Van Vogt failed consistently as a writer because, one, his plots do not bear examination; and, two, his choice of words and his sentence-structure are fumbling and insensitive; and three, he is unable either to visualize a scene or to make a character seem real. Unfortunately, this long running feud with Hartwell along with some ardent political views in his writings that favored benevolent dictatorships damaged Van Vogt’s reputation over the years. Not helping matters was his association with L. Ron Hubbard, who lured Van Vogt in with his theories on Dianetics in 1945. Van Vogt was then appointed the head of Hubbard’s Dianetics self-help operation in California in 1950, which went broke nine months later but was saved from bankruptcy when the author buoyed the finances with his own money. Van Vogt stayed on for nearly ten years -- all the while his typewriter remained silent, but checked out in 1961 when Hubbard’s Church of Scientology started picking up steam -- something Van Vogt never approved of.

I, myself, am a huge fan of the author, whom I discovered back in high school in the late 1980s, which led me to his yarn, Black Destroyer, where an intergalactic expeditionary crew of The Beagle finds a large, tentacled, lion-like creature amongst the ruins of an ancient alien civilization. Taking this new specimen on board the ship, though friendly at first, the Coeurl quickly shows its true stripes and starts killing the crew; first clandestinely, and then overtly, sucking the potassium it needs to survive from the corpses. Every attempt to kill the rampaging beast fails, as all their interior weapons prove useless, until the creature is tricked into a life-pod, jettisoned, and finally destroyed by the Beagle's larger atomic-disintegrator cannons.

In the follow up story, Discord in Scarlet, the Beagle runs afoul of another ancient alien: the Ixtl, a vicious insect-like creature that had been free-floating in the vacuum of space since the Big Bang. Once brought on board, the creature revives and escapes. Hiding in the ship's air-shafts, the Ixtl abducts several crew members, who serve as hosts when the beast implants its parasitic eggs inside them. Able to phase through solid objects, and possessing great stealth and speed -- so much so all the surviving witnesses can recall is "a scarlet blur" -- the ghostly creature buzzsaws through and impregnates a good chunk of the crew until, once again, nexialist ingenuity (-- look it up --) tricks the alien into vacating the ship, which then warps away, leaving the monster stranded in deep space again.

These episodes, plus two others -- War of Nerves, where they meet some benevolent bird-like aliens but are hampered by a deadly language barrier, and M33 Andromeda, where the Beagle must lead a nebulous, planet destroying vapor on a wild goose-chase until it starves to death -- were eventually collected into a novella, The Voyage of the Space Beagle -- the starship named after Charles Darwin’s own vessel of discovery, and later reprinted in Mission: Interplanetary, where I first encountered them. And even if you're just a casual genre fan, you owe it to yourself to track these books down and give them a read. And if those stories sound or ring familiar to you, well, you're not alone.

Over the years, many a savvy Sci-Fi fan has traced many of the themes and elements of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) back to IT! The Terror from Beyond Space -- both claustrophobic tales of a small crew trapped on a spaceship, facing an indestructible creature that randomly picks them off and violently dispatches them. But I, like many others, don't think they looked back far enough.

In 1979, Cinefantastique magazine ran an article comparing the two films, along with a third, Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1965). Had Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon seen these films? Or read Van Vogt’s books? And did it help influence his screenplay? Maybe. Unfortunately, when people use the word "influence" when talking about popular media these days it often has a negative connotation. Why say “influenced” or “inspired” when you really meant “ripped off.” And to confuse things even further, I'm not really sure where the line is when it stops being a rip-off and becomes a homage.

But just as George Lucas was inspired by the likes of Alex Raymond and Akira Kurwasawa, O'Bannon, just coming off Dark Star (1974), cherry-picked several key elements from several sources, put them in a blender, and ended up with one of the scariest movies ever made. And some could argue isn't that what the creative process is? Taking what you've experienced, seen and heard, and make them your own? We'll give that a qualified "yes" -- as long as you're not too obvious about it.

Frankly, I see more of Van Vogt's Discord in Scarlet in Alien than anything else. And so did the author, whose plagiarism case was strong enough 20th Century Fox settled for an undisclosed sum out of court. Van Vogt probably would’ve had a strong case against producer Robert Kent, his Vogue Pictures, and United Artists back in 1958, too, since their film hews pretty close to Black Destroyer as the Challenge 142 leaves Mars behind and begins its four-month trek back to Earth.

Here, Carruthers continues to plead his innocence, still insisting a monster killed his comrades until Huesen shows his prisoner some of the remains they recovered, revealing one of the skulls has a bullet hole in it. And since there is only one kind of "monster" in this universe who uses bullets, this clinches the man's guilt as far as Huesen's concerned despite Carruthers insistence the shooting was an accident and the victim was already dead anyway when the errant bullet struck. But Huesen will not listen and the rest of the crew pretty much feels the same way.

Speaking of the crew, they are a standard representation of 1950s-era space-pioneers (-- and every last one of them a chain-smoker). Calder is from Texas; and then we have Gino and Bob Finelli, the requisite brothers from Brooklyn (Harvey, Benedict); also along on this ride is the ship's physician, Dr. Mary Royce (Doran), and her husband, Eric Royce (Greer); and of course, the obligatory love interest, biologist Ann Anderson (Patterson -- anyone else find it funny they made the ship's medical doctor and biologist women, yet they're still in charge of making dinner, serving coffee, and doing the dishes! Good grief.)

There’re a couple of more red shirts at the bottom of the cast list; and since we know they’re probably toast, we’ll just introduce these poor souls as they’re knocked off. Starting right about now, when some strange noises from the allegedly empty lower decks draws Kienholz (Carrey) down to the darkened cargo hold to investigate.

Now, one should probably note the layout of the 142 rocket is vertical: five decks in all, with one central stairway and a sealable hatch on each floor. And after a few suspenseful turns, Keinholz is attacked by the savage stowaway. Of course, only Carruthers hears something odd, his senses keenly attuned after “relearning how to hear” on Mars; and fearing what it could be, demands the others investigate. Splitting up to search the ship, Gino makes a bee-line for a vital storage bin first: the one with all the cigarettes in it! But before he can even light up, the monster lunges from out of nowhere and attacks!

Now with two crewmembers missing, as the search expands, they finally find Keinholz's pulverized and exsanguinated body stuffed up an air vent. Volunteering to search the airshafts further, Major Purdue (Bice), our third red-shirt, finds Gino barely alive. Unfortunately, he also finds the monster. Purdue does manage to scramble away and escape, but not before the clawed monster tears up his face.

Proven right, this vindication means little to Carruthers with all of their lives in mortal danger. Knowing what they face, he quickly instructs the others to barricade the air-vents and then helps to rig-up an explosive trap for the monster. But when the expended grenades don’t even slow it down, the scrambling crewmembers try some gas bombs Gino had cooked up -- in case they ran into some dinosaurs on Mars. (Remember this is the 1950s, and new planets were either inhabited by Iguana-shaped dinosaurs and dorsal fin-decked out caimans that fought to the death or tribes of buxom Amazonian women.) Donning gas masks, the crew bombards the creature below, but this tactic doesn't work either and Huesen is severely mauled in the resulting mêlée.

Forced to retreat up another deck -- and there ain't that many left, he typed ominously, Royce concocts a plan to electrocute the invader. Donning their spacesuits, Carruthers and Calder use the airlocks to go outside and circle down below the monster, where they connect a high voltage wire to the stairway. But when it gets the juice, sticking with the established pattern, this has no visible effect on the monster -- except pissing it off. Thus, Carruthers barely makes it back to the airlock but Calder isn't so lucky and takes a beating, gets his leg broke, and, worse yet, the monster cracks the faceplate on his suit -- so he couldn’t escape out the airlock even if he could get to it.

Squeezing himself into a corner, Calder uses a handy acetylene torch to hold the creature off and orders Carruthers to go on without him and get help. And while Carruthers slowly makes his way back up the side of the ship, Dr. Royce finishes her autopsy on Keinholz, where she discovers the victim died of acute dehydration -- not the severe beating, most of which was done post-mortem. Somehow, the monster sucked all the oxygen, blood, and water, every ounce of liquid, from the body through some kind of osmosis. Dr. Royce also warns the wounded are infected with some kind of alien bacteria and without more whole blood, they will surely die.

Of course, the way this trip's been going, all the needed medical supplies are right where the monster currently is. Still kicking below, Calder radios the monster has taken Gino's body and moved into the reactor room. Seizing their chance, the others seal the thing inside the lead-lined chamber and then Carruthers, Bob Finelli, and Royce head down to retrieve Calder and the medical supplies. When they're gone, in a bacterial-charged delirium, Huesen opens the reactor core, exposing the monster to a massive dose of radiation in an attempt to kill it. But once again, this only makes the monster even more mad; and after tearing through the reactor door like it was wet tissue paper, the Martian proceeds to rip Finelli apart before he can rescue Calder. But with the monster gruesomely distracted, Carruthers and Royce retreat with the medical supplies while Calder, left behind again, resumes fighting off the monster with his torch.

Unable to get at this prey, the frustrated beast flies into another frenzy and starts busting it’s way up through the sealed decks to get at the others. Retreating to the command deck, the upper-most level of the ship, as the few survivors prepare for a final stand, Carruthers notices the oxygen consumption levels on the read-outs are way up. Way, way up. When Royce deduces the monster must be the cause, they hit upon a plan to shut the air off and blow the airlock, which should suffocate the creature and finally end its reign of terror.

Radioing their intentions to Calder, he manages to seal himself in the lower airlock. Up above, while the others frantically don their space suits, the monster claws its way through the last hatch, cutting Carruthers off from the airlock controls. But as Royce bounces a few bazooka shells off the creature's head, Huesen nobly sacrifices himself, lunging on top of the creature to get at the switches while Carruthers distracts it and blows the hatch. With that, the resulting explosive decompression asphyxiates the creature and it finally dies.

Back on Earth, the head of the Science Advisory Division of Interplanetary Exploration solemnly reads a tele-radio message from what's left of the crews of the Challenge-141 and 142 to the gathered media: “Of the nineteen men and women who have set foot on the planet Mars, six will return. There is no longer a question of murder, but of an alien and elemental life-force, a planet so cruel, so hostile, that man may find it necessary to bypass it in his endeavor to explore and understand the universe. Another name for Mars, is death."

Rumor has it the makers of IT! The Terror from Beyond Space also contemplated bringing suit against the makers of Alien, as well, back in 1979 but that would've been a classic case of the pot calling the Coeurl a Martian. For as much as the xenomorph was inspired by the Ixtll, IT's killer creature owes a huge debt to both Van Vogt's Black Destroyer and Campbell's stealthy alien from Who Goes There? and its first film adaptation, The Thing from Another World.

After selling his first script back 1937 (-- an early vehicle for Rita Hayworth called Paid to Dance), Robert Kent never looked back, cinematically speaking. Not one to limit himself, over the next three decades, and under countless pseudonyms, the screenwriter brazenly dabbled in all genres with his prolific, speedy, and solid reputation soon established. Thus, Kent was always in demand, mostly for second features and serials but his career really took shape in the 1950s when he hooked onto producer Sam Katzman's cheap-jack circus wagon at Columbia, penning several of William Castle's pre-gimmick flicks -- Serpent of the Nile, Fort Ti, and Siren of Baghdad (all released in 1953), and the totally under-appreciated shocker, The Werewolf (1956), for Fred Sears.

All the while watching and learning how to maximize profits by minimizing costs behind the camera as he pounded out script pages, it wasn't long before Kent decided to expand his film horizons well beyond a typewriter in 1958 when he started producing his own independent features under several different banners -- Peerless Productions, Vogue Pictures, Premium Pictures, and Zenith Pictures, striking a deal with Edward Small at United Artists for their eventual distribution, starting with a proposed sci-fright twin-bill of IT! The Terror from Beyond Space and Curse of the Faceless Man.

Seeing what the likes of American International and Allied Artists were making on such little investment, this wasn't that hard a sell and Kent quickly got the green-light. Both films were scripted by noted sci-fi author, Jerome Bixby -- probably most famous for penning Fantastic Voyage and the classic Twilight Zone episode, "It's a Good Life.” To direct both pictures, Kent plucked the wily and fast-shooting Eddie L. Cahn away from American International. To realize his monster in the Faceless Man, Kent turned to Charles Gemora, who designed the rubbery aliens for War of the Worlds (1952) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958); but for his deadly Martian, the producer tagged another AIP alum, Paul Blaisdell.

Originally envisioned as a sleek, lightning fast monstrosity, this idea was scrapped in pre-production when Small cast former matinee serial idol and gorilla man, Ray "Crash" Corrigan, to add some punch to the marquee. By 1958, however, Corrigan had badly gone to seed and was a practicing alcoholic. And when the cameras finally rolled, according to Randy Palmer's biography on Blaisdell, it was far from a happy shoot. To start off, the surly Corrigan hadn't shown up for any measurements so the beautifully sculpted, reptilian suit didn't fit him very well, including the mask, which the stuntman could barely see out of and whose layered chin protruded out of the creature’s mouth. A liberal dose of greasepaint salvaged things a bit, turning the bulbous chin into the Martian’s ersatz tongue.

Worse yet, on most days of shooting, the surly and uncooperative Corrigan showed up intoxicated, living up to his nickname by constantly crashing into things. And then, there’s the infamous scene where we first glimpse the monster's shadow on the storeroom wall, where Corrigan had refused to put the ill-fitting mask on and you can clearly make out the very human profile and nose on the hulking body.

Now, despite all of this off-screen acrimony, on-screen Cahn and cinematographer, James Peach, managed to hold things together and delivered quite a remarkable film with some genuinely creepy (-- the discovery of Keinholz's body), gruesome (--.the abuse of Gino's corpse), and hair-raising moments (-- Calder constantly holding the thing off with the torch), that still holds up when viewed today.

A veteran of hundreds of films from just about every genre imaginable, Cahn had a reputation for being quick and cheap, but also effective. Clocking in at a brief 69 minutes, the director lived up to that rep and really amped up the tension and suspense in IT! The Terror from Beyond Space by keeping things trim and tight and visually murky -- and kept Corrigan in check by keeping the monster in the shadows or very brief glimpses until it went on the rampage.

As for Bixby’s script, I love how at first the isolated ship essentially dooms the crew by trapping them with no possible means of escape -- Heusen refers to it as a perfect escape-proof prison for Carruthers, but then ultimately provides their salvation by offering the only means to finally kill the damned thing! Couple all of that with an eerie, punctuating score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter, the claustrophobic setting, the relentless pace -- marked by each death and evacuated floor, and a solid cast of can-do character actors -- anchored by Marshall Thompson, Ann Doran and Dabs Greer, and the end result is one of the most solid B-Movie efforts to come out of the 1950s.

Sure, there are a few anachronistic touches that will give you a few chuckles; like all the smoking these astronauts do inside the controlled environment of the ship. Or how no one seems to be all that concerned about the hull's structural integrity while firing off hundreds of rounds of ammunition, detonating several grenades, and popping off a few rounds from a bazooka. And I'm not even going to bother to poke the insipid love triangle between Carruthers, Huesen, and Anderson with the sharp stick it so thoroughly deserves. Also, I have no idea if anyone was able to disprove the Martian didn't exist to claim the $50,000 windfall offered in the promotional campaigns -- but I kinda doubt it.

When it was released, the double-bill did well enough financially Kent and Small immediately reunited most of the production crew to churn out another creepified double-feature, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) and The Invisible Invaders (1959) -- the latter film also recycling the monster suit from IT!. Alas, lightning failed to strike twice at the box-office; but still, over the ensuing years, Kent and Small would continue to turn out many a gonzoidal feature, including a couple of Vincent Price vehicles, The Tower of London (1962) and Diary of a Madman (1963), and culminating in the 1970 biopic that Ed Wood so desperately wanted to make, The Christine Jorgenson Story.

As for the who inspired what, when, and how, I think most of it can be chalked up to Hollywood's penchant for constantly cannibalizing and then regurgitating back-up what came before. And by the 1970s, when JAWS (1975) showed the studios what a B-Movie with an A-Budget could accomplish at the box-office, it was only a matter of time before somebody picked the bones of this fine feature film and others of its ilk, threw a ton of money and talent at it, and wound up with an even finer feature film, that in turn spawned many a rip-offs and homages. And so it goes...

IT! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) Vogue Pictures :: United Artists / P: Robert Kent, Edward Small / D: Eddie L. Cahn / W: Jerome Bixby / C: Kenneth Peach / E: Grant Whytock / M: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter / S: Marshall Thompson, Shirley Patterson, Kim Spalding, Ann Doran, Dabbs Greer, Ray Corrigan

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