WHEN ALIENS ATTACK: IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)

June 2, 2015

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The “It” in It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a lumbering thing, a slow-footed creature from a Martian lagoon terrorizing the crew of a rescue ship returning to Earth. Despite his violent blood-sucking tendencies, “It” is a lovable sort, blundering about in the spacecraft’s engine room with the stunned and disoriented gait of a medicated mastiff. Under the rubber suit was a soused Ray “Crash” Corrigan acting in his final film, a former serial adventure star battling alcoholism, the pathos of his performance pouring out his pores and through the mask designed by Paul Blaisdell. The human crew is less sympathetic, a slickly Brylcreemed group of technocrats who leave each other to die with nary a second thought. This efficient, vulgar, and remarkably suspenseful film was directed by Edward L. Cahn (one of his five 1958 credits). Once a promising director of high-toned genre fare for Universal in the 1930s (see: Afraid to Talk (crime), Law and Order (Western), Laughter in Hell (chain gang)), he descended the ranks at the studio to short subjects until he landed in 1950s B-pictures with independent producer Robert E. Kent.  It! The Terror From Beyond Spaceis their first and most famous film together, since screenwriter Dan O’Bannon lifted its scenario for use in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). And now it is the first Kent-Cahn movie to reach Blu-ray, thanks to Olive Films. It! The Terror Beyond Space should be more than a footnote in Alien oral histories, though, as it stands on its own as a resourcefully relentless scare flick.

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Robert E. Kent was a screenwriter who bounced back and forth between Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers from the late 1930s through the 1950s. His credits run from the “adaptation” of the Bela Lugosi comedy Zombies on Broadway to the same credit on Max Ophuls’ prestige drama The Reckless Moment. He started his own production unit in 1957 (going by various names: Vogue Pictures, Peerless Productions, Harvard Film Corp.), and landed a distribution deal with United Artists. Kent must have met Edward L. Cahn on the set of the immortal The Gashouse Kids in Hollywood (1947), a PRC feature for which Kent wrote the screenplay and Cahn directed. Cahn was respected for his speed and reliability, and Kent surely remembered and filed that away. So Cahn was brought on to direct It! The Terror From Beyond Space for Vogue Pictures, the first of 32 features they would make together in the next four years.

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The original screenplay was written by Jerome Bixby, his first. So he likely came cheap, a priority for Kent’s nascent production unit. But Bixby was building a resume as a prolific Western and Science Fiction author, having already published “It’s a Good Life” in 1953, which would later be adapted into the evil psychic kid Twilight Zone episode of the same name. His story has echoes of A.E. Van Vogt’s story “Black Destroyer”, but it’s also influenced by the locked room monster mystery The Thing From Another World (1951). Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the only surviving member of an original nine-person Mars mission. The United States Space Commission orders that a rescue ship led by Commander Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) be sent to bring the surviving members home. Upon arrival to the red planet, Van Heusen suspects that Carruthers murdered the rest of his crew, and places Carruthers under ship arrest until they arrive back to Earth, where he will be court-martialed. It is not long before the Colonel is cleared, as a scaled, lizard-like monster picks off the crew one-by-one, sucking them dry of blood (the working title was It, the Vampire From Beyond Space). The surviving crew keeps barricading doors and moving up in the ship until there’s no place left to run.

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At a high-speed 69 minutes, there’s not much time for characterization, but sub-Hawksian attempts are made at a group breakfast. The crew debates Carruthers’ guilt and reminisces about life at home. Commander Van Heusen is adamant that Carruthers is a murderer, and treats him with barely disguised contempt. The female officers are more sympathetic, especially Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith), a combo nurse and waitress (the gender politics are not, let’s say, progressive) who grows closer to Anderson with each passing corpse. The narrative is simple and irresistible, and the higher the crew climbs, the slimmer their chances of escape. The geography of the ship (thin and skyscraper tall) limits their movement, and the monster will just keep tearing through the locked bay doors until it can get to the tasty liquid coursing through their circulatory systems.

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The key to the whole frightful operation is the creature design by Paul Blaisdell, a refugee from American International Pictures. An artist for Science Fiction magazines, he was drafted into monster making by Roger Corman, who paid him a pittance to design The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes (1955). Totally self-taught, he would go on to create a dizzying bestiary of monsters for AIP and others before the Sci-Fi boom trickled out, and he retreated to a career in carpentry. Blaisdell was friendly with Bixby, recalling to biographer Randy Palmer that “Jerry Bixby wrote a hell of a script, in my opinion, and we had no problems figuring out what a Martian lizard-man should look like.” Palmer writes that Blaisdell “wanted to give the lizard-man an expanded, barrel-like chest to suggest the enormous lung capacity a living being would need to survive in the thin atmosphere.” And because it was a carnivore, he gave it needle like teeth. The flat nose and flaring nostrils were added, one assumes, because it looked cool. The problems arose with the casting of Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Blaisdell had almost always played the monsters he designed, fitting them to his own physique. But Ed Small thought Corrigan would add some name value to the marquee, as well as being an act of generosity to a struggling actor. But by all accounts Corrigan was in the midst of a terrible bender, and he never showed up to the costume fitting with Blaisdell. On a tight schedule, Blaisdell couldn’t wait, so he modeled the head on his own, which caused trouble later on, because Corrigan’s enormous sozzled melon stretched out the mask, to the point where his chin is visible in some shots in the movie. Blaisdell was also annoyed with Robert E. Kent and UA executive producer Edward Small, who kept giving him contradictory information about how they wanted the eyes to appear. After many revisions, he was able to please them both, but the experience was a frustrating one (for the full, sad story of his life, read this article by Vincent di Fate for Tor.com).

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Blaisdell’s friend and collaborator Bob Burns recounts similar stories, but also reveals how the set worked as organized by Cahn:

I think it was shot in about 12 days. It had a longer shooting schedule than most of the films Eddie worked on. He also knew the limitations of Crash [brought on by his drinking], and so he kept that in mind. Eddie Cahn, I’ve got to say, was probably one of the best directors I’ve ever seen work —and especially with those short shooting schedule things, where he didn’t have any time. He did his homework every night. He came in and he knew exactly what set-ups he wanted. And, if possible, he could do forty set-ups in a day. He’d just move on. He was even better at it than Roger Corman. Of course, he’d been around a lot longer. He used to do a whole lot of those “B” westerns.

It was an intense workload for the entire production team, which Cahn had to orchestrate under extreme time constraints while juggling the demands of an obstreperous lead monster. Corrigan began his career as a fitness instructor to the stars, climbed to become a leading man in spectacular serials and B-Westerns  (Undersea Kingdom, The Painted Stallion), but ended up in ape suits (Captive Wild Woman, Nabonga, White Pongo) and  one final “It” suit. One can understand his anger.  Through it all, Cahn’s organizational vigor, the strong narrative and geographic line of Bixby’s script, and the stretched-but-still-scary monster design of Paul Blaisdell contribute to a creature-feature that that retains its bite.

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