❉ Mark Cunliffe looks at this Cold War sci-fi monster movie, recently released on Blu-ray.
“With director Jack Arnold’s assured, guiding hand It Came from Outer Space is never less than atmospheric, even though some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired. Even viewed today without the gimmick of 3D, the film remains evocative and Bradbury’s intention to subvert expectations, whilst robbing the film of any real threat, remains a satisfyingly different experience.”
Recently arriving on Blu-ray from Fabulous Films is the 1953 US science fiction horror It Came from Outer Space. Directed by Jack Arnold, written by Harry Essex and based on a story idea by no less a figure than Ray Bradbury, the movie marked Universal Pictures’ first foray into 3D filmmaking which, like Elvis Presley and rooting out reds under the bed, was all the rage in ’50s America.
It Came From Outer Space tells the story of John Putnam (Richard Carlson), an amateur astronomer who, whilst out stargazing with his fiancée Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) one night in the Arizona desert, witness what looks to be a large meteorite fall from the sky. Investigating the crater, Putnam discovers a partially buried object and what appears to be a hatchway. Could this meteorite actually be a spaceship from an alien world? Before he can get any closer, a landslide buries the object.
Heading into the town of Sand Rock, Putnam’s news is met with scorn and disbelief from Sheriff Warren (Charles Drake), who brands him a crackpot. Even Ellen is sceptical, but agrees to help her love investigate in any way she can.
It isn’t long before strange things start to happen. Locals disappear, only to return and behave strangely. Slowly, the tide of disbelief turns. Sheriff Warren rounds up a posse to explore the crash site and apprehend – or attack – any of the alien inhabitants, but Putnam – eager to avert a potential crisis between the world and the alien visitors – hopes to find a peaceful solution. Who will prevail?
The notion of shape shifting aliens who adopt the forms of the local townspeople they have abducted but fail to convince our intrepid heroes, was one that was very much part of the zeitgeist of ’50s American science fiction. Thematically, it tapped into the prevailing political concerns of the day and could be viewed either as a metaphor for the perils of conforming to McCarthyism (the ‘Red Menace’ witch hunts that I alluded to earlier) or the danger of the communist system itself, which the capitalist West viewed as a debilitating loss of personal autonomy. It’s a sub-genre of sci-fi that would reach its creative zenith three years later with Don Siegal’s 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers – itself based on Jack Finney’s 1954 novel titled simply The Body Snatchers – and, whilst It Came from Outer Space is inferior to Siegal’s movie, the fact remains that it arrived first and provides an intriguing allegorical commentary on the Cold War.
Right from the off, Ray Bradbury’s intention was to do something different in the alien invasion genre; “I wanted to treat the invaders as beings who were not dangerous, and that was very unusual”. Nevertheless, he hedged his bets and approached Universal with two story outlines, one featuring his preferred benign alien presence, and another featuring the traditional hostile invader trope. Much to Bradbury’s pleasure, Universal opted for the treatment that would buck the trend and he set to work on the picture he wanted to make, concerning stranded alien creatures who bore no malicious intent towards humanity – they simply wanted to repair their ship (their duplication of the local townspeople was a necessity for them to move around undiscovered; their natural form being little more than a single-eyed jellyfish) and return home. In drafting his screenplay, Bradbury mines his own personal experiences, incorporating the abduction of a telephone linesman as a homage to his own father, who worked as a linesman in Tucson when Bradbury himself was a child. However, the screenplay from It Came from Outer Space is actually credited to Harry Essex, with Bradbury receiving only a ‘Story By’ credit. The exact reasoning for this remains unclear, and screen legend has it that Essex merely changed the dialogue.
Prior to the outbreak of WWII, Essex had written for the theatre and had ambitions for breaking into cinema that the draft ultimately curtailed – though he did get a story credit for Universal’s 1941 sci-fi Man-Made Monster, starring Lionel Atwill and, in his horror debut, Lon Chaney, Jr. Once the war was over, Essex began what was to become a lengthy career as a scriptwriter for film and television and he was himself no stranger to the investigations and victimisations of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, having co-wrote with Leonard Lee and Dashiel Hammett the screenplay for the 1951 noir The Fat Man, which the latter could not receive a credit for as he was subsequently blacklisted and imprisoned for his refusal to co-operate with the Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts. The film’s relationship with McCarthyism would continue decades later when the journalist Patricia Bosworth, daughter of the Hollywood 10 defence lawyer Bartley Crum (who, following his experience battling the HUAC, sadly committed suicide in 1959) included it in her 1992 list of ’50s Anti-Communist Propaganda. This inclusion was a controversial one, as Bradbury’s intention to depict a race of aliens who were not dangerous, did not kill or harm anyone (beyond abduction and duplication of course) and simply wanted to return home to live in peace, was – if indeed a metaphor for Soviet Russia – arguably wholly sympathetic towards the idea of co-existing with different political systems.
It Came from Outer Space is briskly directed by Jack Arnold, a filmmaker who helmed a number of 50s sci-fi movies including Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its 1955 sequel, Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula (1955), and, perhaps best of all, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With his assured, guiding hand It Came from Outer Space is never less than atmospheric, even though some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired. Even viewed today without the gimmick of 3D, the film remains evocative and Bradbury’s intention to subvert expectations, whilst robbing the film of any real threat, remains a satisfyingly different experience. It is however perhaps watched now for a sense of nostalgia, immersing oneself in the Americana of white picket fences, heady consumerism and a sense of nagging paranoia. It is amusing however to see an 80 minute film include an intermission though – just how weak were the bladders of ’50s cinemagoers? Was the 3D considered too much for them?!
Included on the Fabulous Films Blu-ray release is a feature commentary from film historian Tom Weaver, an extra entitled The Universe According to Universal: An Original Documentary on It Came From Outer Space, some archive trailers and a stills and poster gallery.
❉ ‘It Came From Outer Space’ is available on Blu-Ray from Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises. Running time: 77 mins. Cat No. FHEB3758. RRP £19.99 (Blu-ray). Click here to order from Amazon UK. Also available on DVD, RRP £9.99 (DVD).
❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.