3D is bullshit. You know it, I know it. But movie studios and the technology companies allied with them are, as of this writing, wasting billions of dollars on an international propaganda campaign to convince us otherwise. (I know – “Duh!” right? Well, since I currently can’t spit without hitting a trailer for the 3D Phantom Menace, you get to watch me vent about it.) This has happened before, but those who forget the past are condemned to…do something. I forget what just now. Strain their eyes, get headaches and have seizures if this Cal State study from last August is any indication.
Most of us are old enough to remember the 3D craze of the mid-80s. Even if we aren’t, a casual viewing of Friday the 13th Part 3-D or Jaws 3-D will tell us everything we need to know. But tonight I want to go back – way back – and talk about the wave that struck Hollywood in 1952.
A little-remembered man-eating lions epic called Bwana Devil formed the leading edge of that one. One day, I hope to read someone with a bit more clout than I correctly label Bwana Devil “the James Cameron’s Avatar of its era.” Then as now, the novelty of a “new” viewing format (which is as old as film itself, but never mind that now – 3D is the future!) allowed slack-jawed idiots to pretend the crappy, derivative film they just watched somehow “immersed” them in a “new” and/or “visionary” “experience.”
Then as now, talented filmmakers were conscripted to talk 3D up under implicit threat of never working in Hollywood again. Then as now, they made the best movies they could with the cumbersome, half-tested technology of the time and the constant oversight of bosses looking to make a quick buck. Thus was born the movie 3D partisans always trot out when trying to justify the form’s existence: House of Wax.
Actually, I’m lying. Most hacks trot out Dial M for Murder because it’s a Hitchcock movie, and therefore unassailable (in their minds). But that lay over a year down the road from House of Wax, which deserves to be considered in its own time. I bring it up here only to set the context for tonight’s feature, which came out the month after House of Wax and stands as an absurdly important piece of Alien Invasion movie history. It’s not marketed as such, and few have the patience to discover its real importance. Which means I get to tell all of you about it. Hopefully you’ll watch it and pass it on to your grade-school aged child, permanently wrapping his expectations of what counts as a “good” Alien Invasion movie.
Kinda hard to talk a movie up when its title sequence sends the audience into uncontrollable giggle-fits. Then again, that opening shot of a spherical alien ship crash-landing into the camera is pretty giggle-worthy. (A) It looks like a giant golf ball that’s (B) obviously hollow and (C) stuffed with magnesium flares. Plus, if you hit Pause in the right place, you can just barely see the mirror they hung to the left of frame. And the support keeping this flaming golfball wired to the ceiling. Then the movie explodes in our face.
Turns out that mess actually had some baring on the plot, because it’s 1953 and Hollywood writers can still define the word “plot” if you asked them. Especially since this film comes to us from SF grand master Ray Bradbury, who (like a lot of writers at the time) spend the early 50s slinging scripts at any producer who’d use them for something other than fishwrapping…including It‘s producer, William Alland. I’ve heard two stories about what followed: either Alland bought a bare bones treatment (or two) from Bradbury and turned it over to one of Universal’s in-house writers, Harry Essex, to finish up…or Alland bought a full script from Bradbury, with Essex going on to claim full credit only after he (or Alland, or the both of them) changed a few bits of dialogue around.
Either way, this movie feels like a Bradbury joint. If you ever stayed up all night finishing October Country or Something Wicked This Way Comes you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t…well, do. You’re missing out on some great stuff and you’ll thank me later. I’ll identify the Bradburyian elements that stick out to me, but actual Bradbury scholars (I’m just a casual fan, honestly) are sure to notice tons more.
Time to meet John Putnam (Richard Carlson) a writer and lucky bastard, enjoying a cozy Arizona night at home with local hot schoolteacher Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush). “This is Sand Rock Arizona,” he monologues for us over some opening helicopter shots, pulling double duty as main character and Humble Narrator,
“on a late evening in early spring. It’s a nice town, knowing its past and sure of its future as it makes ready for the night and the predictable morning. The desert blankets the Earth, cooling, resting for the fight with tomorrows sun. And in my house, near the town, we are also sure of the future. So very sure.”
You see what I mean? That’s pure Bardbury right there, waxing poetically about the most mundane things, like the world’s own Stage Manager. The man could turn any community into Grover’s Corners, and – hey – here’s a young couple all decked out and ready to experience some tragedy or another. Before that, though, Johnny and Ellen observe the starship from John’s backyard, its crash stymieing their plans to have sex under the stars. Even though its nighttime, the two manage to secure an overflight from Pete Davis’ Crop Dusting Service. As dates go, at least a giant “meteor” strike has the benefit of novelty. You don’t see thousand-yard craters everyday. Unless you’re from Mars.
I liked these two immediately, both as performers and as characters. They seem so comfortable with each other I was honestly sad to see the plot interrupt their four minutes of introductory flirting. When they’re together, time moves faster than that meteor. Ellen immediately struck me as the Sand Rock’s Designated Smart Person, once condemned (or so she thought) to a life of intellectual dehydration in a one-horse town. Then along comes this writer. From Chicago, no less. Of course she snatched him right up! For fuck’s sake, she’s a Scorpio! Scorpios are hot. They take what they want…and then paralyze it with neurotoxin so they can casually devour it later.
Meanwhile, Johnny – being a Sagittarius and a writer – is too bowled over by his own absurd good luck to do much more than banter. He’ll even listen to her talk about astrology. (Hell, I’d listen to Barbara Rush talk about the eurozone crisis with rapt attention, but some people treat astrology like they treat eugenics.) Not that she’s Nancy Regan or anything; she loves Science as much as the next girl, even pronouncing the crater “beautiful” as they observe it from the air. She also declines to correct her boyfriend when he pronounces it “the biggest thing that’s ever happened in our time!”
This is supposed to take place in Arizona, after all, home of the Barringer Crater and the Grand Canyon, two of North America’s biggest holes in the ground…but maybe John’s just excited. That’s gotta be it. He was all jazzed over the fact he was about to screw in the back yard, and doing that thing where you stretch the flirting out so’s you can build up the excitement…then this thing flies right over his house and crashes into the back-forty. His judgement’s bound to be clouded. That might explain why he decides to climb into the crater all by himself.
Otherwise the only explanation I have is “it’s in the script.” The script needs John to see the ship before its closing hatchway triggers a convenient rock slide. If anyone else saw the ship (besides the audience, of course) John might actually succeed at convincing them of the alien menace in their midst.
Pete Davis (Dave Willock), Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) and the one reporter who managed to see the crash try to write John off as a loon, inspired by a one too many blows to the head. Even Ellen needs a close encounter before she’s really convinced. (Astrology’s one thing, but alien invasions? Fuck off. Level-headed school teachers don’t have time for such nonsense.) Good thing an alien floats right across their path on the drive back.
Would an alien crossing your path count as bad luck? Depends on the alien, I suppose. Like if ET crosses your path things are probably all good…but if a xenomorph crosses your path, you’re probably fucked. In this case, Our Happy Couple’s smart enough to leave it until the sun comes up. Good thing, since the alien POV camera’s been watching them this whole time.
Cue excellent musical sting, courtesy Henry Mancini, Irving Gertz, and Herman Stein, who scored more of these 50s monster movies than I have space to list. Sufficient to say, we’ll be hearing about them again, but I’d like to call special attention to the theremin work here, which is excellent. It’s creepy in a distinctive sort of way, not easily reducible to the usual whooo-ooooh-oooohhhh. It’s hard to get more “50s” than an alien invasion movie scored by a theremin.
Incidentally, my research indicates these aliens were actually called xenomophs on set. They live up to the name (“xeno” = “foreign”; “morph” = “change”), despite the fact no one ever uses it on screen. In their native form they resemble giant floating jelly fish, with one cyclops eye providing director Jack Arnold with a great excuse to shoot alien POV shots (IN 3D!!! – even though that makes no sense, given the alien’s one eye and all). But as Johnny and Ellen discover the next day, on top of being smart enough to “conquer space” (though not smart enough to avoid crash landing) these aliens are shape-shifters.
Before that, though, everyone John knows has to question his sanity. Dr. Snell (George Eldredge) from “the university”? Hell, all the signs he can see point straight to “meteor.” The whopping four on-site reporters? They’re too busy trying to snap a picture of Ellen. Sheriff Matt happens to be Ellen’s ex (“I also knew her father: I was his deputy.”) so there’ll be no help there. “Putnam,” Sheriff Matt says, underlining the movie’s theme, “you frighten ’em. And what frightens ’em they’re against, one way or the other.” John and Ellen are on their own…and if I were John, I’d be happy enough about that. Hell, I’d face down twenty alien invasions for a chance with twenty-eight year-old Barbara Rush.
Ellen: “I just wish we had found one of ’em, that’s all. One little monster to toss into the principal’s bedroom.”
Mmm…Scorpio….Frustrated, Our Happy Couple stops by the side of the road and have another moment of Bradburyian rhapsody…
John: “It’s alive! Alive and waiting for you. Ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you, the cold at night. There’s a thousand ways the desert can kill.”
…before censorship codes of the time force them to abandon the idea of fucking by a Joshua tree. Instead, Our Happy Couple drives a’ ways down the road and stumbles across a couple of linemen, Frank (Joe Sawyer, or “Sgt. Biff O’Hara from Rin Tin Tin” if you prefer) and George (Russell Johnson, or “the Professor from Gilligan’s Island“). Frank complains of strange sounds traveling along the wires, as if someone down the line were tapping them. He then uses this as his excuse to soliloquize:
Frank: “After you’ve been working out in the desert fifteen years like I have you see a lot of things…hear a lot of things too. The sun in the sky and the heat. All that sand out there with the rivers and lakes that aren’t real at all. And sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens and talks, just like what we’re hearing now.”
We aren’t hearing it of course but “that’s the way it is; it comes and it goes.” Our foursome parts…and the intrepid linemen (as Bradburyian a pair of Working Class Heroes as you’re likely to see out of Hollywood) are set upon by the Alien POV cam and the mist it uses to enshroud its victims. This trips John’s spider-sense…or maybe he just saw something in the rear view…either way, the being they find where Frank and George used to be may look like George…but it isn’t. We see the alien POV cam sneak up on Ellen and the mist coalesce into “George’s” hand.
Spotting Frank’s arm sticking out from a nearby rock, and noticing “George’s” new ability to stare directly into the sun without blinking, Our Happy Couple retreats to Sheriff Matt…who doesn’t believe them. Of course. See, this movie’s the mid-point between 1951’s The Thing and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Don’t be afraid,” Alien-George monologues at Real-George and Real-Frank. “It is within our power to transform ourselves to look like you. Or anyone. For a time it will be necessary. We cannot – we would not – take your souls, or minds, or bodies.” Though they’re not above taking a few hostages to fortify their position. Smart aliens.
Too bad everyone’s got someone in their lives who knows them well enough to suspect they’ve replaced by an alien doppelganger. (I’ve got at least four.) In this case, George and Frank’s spouses show up to crack the case wide-open. Like the Thing, these aliens could care less about the planet Earth and only crashed here thanks to mechanical problems. But unlike the Thing, or the Martians who’d invade a few months later, these Its are not inherently hostile to humanity. They just want to go home. And if you can’t sympathize with that you’re obviously a coldhearted bastard. You’ll notice Steven Spielberg used the same trick thirty years later. Ever wonder why?
Apparently Bradbury submitted two scripts, one with beneficent aliens, one with malevolent. The studio, bless it’s heart, picked the beneficent script, and the movie’s far stronger for it. Right away it stands out from the pack of films it would obviously inspire. The whole “aliens in a cave” motif (mineshaft in this case – but same difference) shows up again in It Conquered the World and Zontar: The Thing From Venus, just to pull two off the top of my head. The whole “body snatcher” thing is a rant unto itself that I’ll save up for a review of those films. For now, let’s all wonder why this movie isn’t the “classic” cinematic metaphor for the dangers of rampant Communist infiltration/McCarthyist paranoia?
Could be because parts of just plain silly. For one thing, this is the first time I’ve seen a movie use a Joshua tree for a jump-scare. Literally, John shines a light on one and Ellen screams, meaning we’re all supposed to scream too. Must’ve been a 3-D thing. Also, the aliens can’t shoot for shit. Alien-Ellen (yeah, Ellen gets abducted and duplicated about a third of the way through – spoiler alert) could’ve easily cut Johnny in half with her laser pistol while he stood captivated by her sleeveless black dress and eevil scarf. Instead, Our Hero wins the obligatory gunfight. And for once I actually want him to.
It’s all Richard Carlson’s fault. I’ve liked the guy since I first saw Creature from the Black Lagoon years and years ago, but here he’s playing a much better character than Dr. David Reed. Johnny Putnam’s a strange fusion of the Bradburyian author avatar and the Hollywood Action Writer far more common to SF movies of that time and ours. In other words he’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want to talk his way through First Contact: an unyielding negotiator who’s naturally suspicious without being too big a dick about it. Add to that his and Rush’s chemistry and Johnny Putnam has enough contradictions in him to almost pass for human. His Stirring Speeches are certainly better written than Dr. Reed’s.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Matt’s supposed to stand for the Everyman, another Working Class Hero, even though we’re supposed to view him as a rival for Ellen. He’s all like, “Kill the aliens!” and only Ellen’s kidnapping prevents him from calling a torch-wielding mob down on them. Eventually even that concern’s overridden by the stress of watching “people” he knows aren’t people walk around town right outside his window.
Matt: “Did you know, Putnam, that more murders are committed at 92 degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easygoing. Over ninety-two and it’s too hot to move. But just ninety-two people get irritable!”
Charles Drake is wonderful throughout, gradually loosing his cool as responsibility piles up on his shoulders. The fact that I can root for both protagonists makes their eventual (but inevitable) fist-fight that much sweeter. Sure, Sheriff Matt’s even more of a patronizing asshole than most men in 50s SF films, but his concerns are genuine and his lawman instincts are on track. If this were any other Alien Invasion film, he’d be completely in the right and John Putnam would be a Damn Dirty Collaborator, on par with It Conquered the World‘s Lee Van Cleef. And while the usual boring love triangle is set up it remains blissfully unexplored because Ellen’s quite obviously made her choice before the movie opens…and then she gets kidnapped.
It’s neither the most famous nor the most infamous movie of its era. Because of that I’ve grown to appreciate It Came From Outer Space more than most of its cinematic siblings as time’s gone on. Bradburyian monologues may not sound natural to ears long-since starved by the poverty of modern expression, but their inclusion gives the whole movie that same dreamy character Bradbury lent to all his best work. Even the “normal” dialogue sounds crisper – less stagey and more pulp novel-y. Which means the characters are more likeable. Which meaning there’s some actual tension to their story because we the audience – gasp – care. Arnold’s direction on this (his first genuine SF picture) alternates between Awestruck (at Our Happy Couple, the desert landscape, or his own special effects) and Creepy in a classic horror/German Expressionism kinda way, making great use of shadows, light, and the seemingly-lifeless landscape that is – like all deserts – actually teaming.
And while later 3D fads would obsess over throwing shit in the audience’s face, this movie restrains itself to one spaceship crash, one rockslide, and one alien eyeball. Sure, we see the spaceship crash twice…but, then again, nobody’s perfect. I applaud It nonetheless. See It for its historical import or your own personal nostalgia. See It on a fourteen inch computer monitor or a forty-foot theater screen. But do yourself a favor and see It for Klaatu’s sake. Then I won’t have to explain why I like It so much more than Arnold and Carlson’s next – much more famous – 3D SF flick, Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Which I’m going to do anyway, regardless. Still, the point stands.