"dangerous, treacherous, alive with something we came to know as...death
"almost as big as Texas, maybe it has monsters"
1973. The Future. A rescue rocket blasts off from Mars carrying the survivor of a failed expedition. A survivor being brought back to earth to face a court-martial for the deaths of his companions. But there's a catch. He's innocent. And something elsesomething that is responsible for the deaths of those astronautshas hidden itself aboard. Something that threatens to kill everyone in the rescue party. It's a long way back to earth....
Seem vaguely familiar? Perhaps if one adds "and in space, no one can hear you scream." It! The Terror Beyond Space (1958) is widely acknowledged as the blueprint/precursor for 1979's Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, story Dan O'Bannon). While it seems unclear if it was a direct, indirect, or incredibly interesting coincidence, the parallels are there.
"such a cold desolate world"
Most of the science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s look pretty cheesy (though often not without charm and enthusiasmand fun) today. Even ones that are considered classics of the genre, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951),1 are often lacking somewhat in the suspense or mood departments. All bright and shiny, like westerns before the Italians got involved. Of course there are exceptions. Perhaps most notably 1951's The Thing from Another World2 shares the aspects that make It! so good.
The cast is kept small and the setting is self-contained. The protagonists are trapped with the alien and are forced to fight for their lives. Whether it is a snowed in Antarctic research station or a ship is the frozen vacuum of space, there is no way out and it's kill or be killed.
That isolation is underlined again and again as the ship is shown slowly and deliberately making its way across the backdrop of cold, dead-looking stars (the lack of better effects works in the film's favor). The rocket doesn't blast through space, it moves silently, creeping toward earth. No flame, no exhaust, just steady movement.
The credits roll over a static scene of that "cold, desolate world," the indifferent wonders of the cosmos, and the remains of crashed ship of the last survivor of the expedition (Colonel Edward Carruthers). His voice-over explains how he is the only one alive of the original nine (who, it is later learned, were never found). Nothing happens as the camera slowly tracks right across the Martian landscape and the sky until it stops at the rescue ship.
Can you think of a better prison?
The fairly typical (of the genre) music is just eerie enough to set the mood without being intrusive and the sets, while obviously limited somewhat by budget, are good. The rocket is the stereotypical cigar-shaped, missile type, giving it a series of levels with circular floors and a ladder down the center to facilitate movement. This means there is only one way in or out between floors. If one floor is cut off, anything above or below is inaccessible. And since each floor is rather small in area, there is "no place to hide in this ship" (except the cargo area and the ducts of the "AIR GENERATION AND MOISTURE RECOVERY SECTION").
This sense of being closed in, almost claustrophobic and submarine-like, comes across almost better on the small screen where everything is boxed in by the walls of the ship and the edge of the image. It's all shot around boxes, doors, through ladders, ports between floors, ducts, small cramped spaces. Particularly effective is the use of shadowalmost noir-like. The ship always seems to have the lights dimmed as if it's night (for the crew to more easily sleep) or necessary to conserve power. Control room, loungewhereverthe crew is partially shrouded and the dark wells up around the walls. Like a cylindrical interrogation room from a gangster flick, only missing the naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. Again, this could be partly due to budget restraints. Regardless, it's remarkably effective in conveying mood.
The alien ("It!"a sorta rubberized, lizard-like, creature from a black lagoon) is only seen in the dark or via shadows on the wall until 26 minutes into the 69 minute film. This heightens the suspense as well as avoids the obvious cheapness of the costume (worn by actor-stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan in his final motion picture).
In the end, the film succeeds despite all its obvious limitations. The cast is unspectacular, most of them having done majority of their work in this sort of low budget "quickie" or in very minor roles in better films. A director whose work was almost entirely in this sort of film. Cheap, fast, move on to the next one (Edward L. Cahn). The cinematographer deserves a lot of credit for his work, which really makes the picture. Even he never really made a prestige film (though he directed some episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits in later years).
It was one of those serendipitous things when all the right elements came together and worked. The sort of Weird Tales pulp flick that the directors of the French nouvelle vogue loved.
"maybe the one who got the bullet was lucky"
Carruthers is believed by everyone to be a murderer and the crew of the rescue ship are there, in his words, for a "single purposeto see that I face a military firing squad." He tells of the crew being caught in a sandstorm. One of the members disappearing from the jeep. Everyone shooting at a "shape," a "mysterious creature." His superiors (back at the "Science Advisory Committee Division of Interplanetary Exploration") and his "rescuers" think he killed them for survival. Fewer people, means more food and supplies until someone could come for him. He's then shown evidence. And they found a skull with a bullet hole in it. He looks guilty.
"Perhaps there was once a civilization on Mars. It ended. Disease, war, something terrible. The Martians went back to barbarism. What was left of them, savage murderers. Maybe that's what we have on board.
The alien makes its presence known by killing one inquisitive crew member who goes to check out the noises in the cargo hold. Then another is taken. The victims are found to be drained of "every ounce of edible fluid." It's found hiding in the air ducts, where it dragged one of the crewmen. Attempts to shoot it and gas it fail. Then they try wiring grenades to the vent covers (a clever thing to do in a rocket ship in outer space). When they seal the doors, the creature beats them like pie tins.
They make an attempt at electrocuting the alien (navigating around the sealed floor by exiting the ship and walkingBatman-likedown the side). Again, it fails and only enrages the creature. Exposure to a reactor core ("enough to kill 100 men") does nothing and the creature breaks through the sealed hatch.
"It has to kill us or die. We've got to kill it or die.
The crew continues beating its retreat, floor over floor, until they run out of floors. There is little left between the creature and them. Guns, gas, explosives, electricity, radiation. Nothing even seemed to damage the alien. It becomes a waiting game. There is a slim hope, one last trick to try. It all comes down to this.
They dump the oxygen...
"a planet so cruel, so hostile, that man may find it necessary to bypass in his endeavor to explore and understand the universe.
Another name for Mars is death...."
1Not denigrating them, of course. I love them all. Also, speaking primarily of rocket-space-other planet stuff, as there are other science fiction films of the era that are every bit as good, including the wonderful Them! (1954) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
2That's right, neither film known as "The Thing" is actually titled that. The 1982 remake was John Carpenter's The Thing.
(Sources: personal copy of the DVD and www.imdb.com)