For many people, Alien (1979) is the yardstick by which all “creature on a spaceship” films are measured. However, the first few inches on that stick are occupied by It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), an effective low budget shocker that helped write the template still used in sci-fi and horror today. Climb aboard for a 69 minute rocket ride to Mars and back with an unwanted passenger. And no, I don’t mean (insert name or political affiliate you hate here).
Released in August stateside by United Artists, with a November drop in the U.K., It! was mostly dismissed by critics, with the exception of Variety who said, “It’s old stuff, with only a slight twist.” In the B world, that’s as close to a rave as one might get from the mainstream media, and that’s fine; audiences enjoyed the straightforward thrills and somewhat unique concept offered up, on indoor and outdoor screens.
Our tale opens with a press conference that also doubles as a nice bit of exposition. A manned expedition to Mars has left nine of the ten voyagers dead, allegedly at the hand of the sole survivor, Col. Carruthers (Marshall Thompson – Daktari). A second expedition has been dispatched to Mars to retrieve Carruthers, and bring him back to Earth to be court-martialed for the deaths of his fellow crewmembers. We quickly learn that something has boarded the ship for the return voyage, and it’s very angry. (Hungry, too.) As the rescue crew is picked off one by one, they must figure out a way to stop the creature before it decimates everyone and surely hurls the cardboard ship plummeting to its doom.
This sci-fi scenario certainly owes a debt to The Thing from Another World (1951), which in turn is based on the John W. Campbell novella, “Who Goes There?” from 1938. Certainly The Thing and It! have more in common with each other than they do with the novella; the paranoia and loss of identity themes are gone, replaced with a straightforward narrative focusing on the monster in their midst. After all, it takes almost no time for Carruthers to convince the rescue party he’s not responsible for the mayhem; within the first ten minutes the creature claims a shipmate. (Repeat every ten minutes, as per filmmakers’ orders.)
Where It! separates itself is the location. There is nowhere to go, no place to turn; only three vertical levels to the cylindrical craft offering a somewhat cunning game of scaly, glandular disordered cat versus mice. It’s actually pretty impressive that director Edward L. Cahn (The She-Creature) manages to maintain interest over essentially the same three floors; the control room, the lower deck, and the uh, lower, lower deck. There’s a swiftness at play here that can’t be credited to just the run time (thank writer Jerome Bixby, which we will in a bit); the film moves at a staggering speed until it doesn’t, pausing midway so everyone can look at maps, formulate plans, and smoke a lot of cigarettes. But hey, ten minutes is a small price to pay for nearly an hour of monster stalking.
About that monster. The design by Paul Blaisdell is very good, as are all of his creature designs in such films as Day the World Ended (1955) and It Conquered the World (1956). It’s a shame then that stuntman Ray Corrigan didn’t want to make the trip to be fitted properly for the costume, resulting in an ill fitting outfit that certainly adds to the films charms, but lessens the impact of Blaisdell’s worthwhile alien. How off is the suit? That tongue you see sticking out of the monster’s mouth like an eager puppy is actually his chin. Oh well.
He couldn’t fix the monster tailoring, but at least screenwriter Jerome Bixby avoids most of the already tired tropes of the day (or at least minimizes them); we have a married couple on board, but romance is muted, and there isn’t a lot of sciencesplaining involved for the audience. (Thank you; why would the characters explain to each other things they already know, just for our benefit?) Instead, Bixby has the crew try to figure out a) how it got on board, and b) how to get it off. It’s a smart enough script; certainly for its day and as close to logical as a low budget bottom halfer could expect to be. Bixby would go on to write episodes of The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and the story for Fantastic Voyage (1966). His simple use of suspense and structure here obviously paid off down the road.
And this film does have suspense, borne from the claustrophobic nature of the setup and a good use of shadows. Sure, once the creature is in full bloom it loses some of its impact, but there are some very effective moments early on that let the viewer know this alien means business. Now, do the cast help sell the terror? I suppose they’re no better or worse overall than your standard sci-fi thespians, but come off mostly unscathed due to Bixby’s straightline prose. Personally, the only performer who really registers for me is Dabbs Greer, probably due to his later portrayal of Reverend Alden on that bastion of optimism and dead babies, Little House on the Prairie.
But the true impact of It! The Terror from Beyond Space is its influence on the genre. It!’s blood courses through Alien’s veins; the basic plot is the same but the devil is really in the details - from the casual mealtime interplay between the crew to the crucial hiding spot of the creature in the vents (complete with a surprise attack). Did Alien borrow those ideas from It!? Yes, in the same way that Led Zeppelin borrowed from Willie Dixon. One doesn’t negate the other; both can exist and be acknowledged for their place on the cultural spectrum. If appropriation is good enough for rock and roll, it’s certainly good enough for sci-fi horror, and definitely good enough for me. But never forget the roots; Dixon’s music kicks as hard as ever, and It! The Terror from Beyond Space still gives off enough screaming feedback to fill a stadium – even if it can’t be heard in space.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.