I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) ***
This is a kind of surprise I really like getting— a movie whose goofy title disguises an unexpectedly high level of achievement, both technical and artistic. Though the commonly applied epithet, “the feminist Invasion of the Body Snatchers” perhaps implies a bit too much praise (“the feminist It Came from Outer Space” is closer to the mark, in terms of both subject matter and quality), I Married a Monster from Outer Space is still one of the better 50’s alien paranoia movies.
You first see reason to expect more than the title would suggest very early in the film, when the first two scenes play a neat little trick on you. It initially seems that Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon, who eventually switched from acting to writing; his credits include both the screenplay for The Other and the novel on which it was based) is going to be the movie’s central character. We meet him and a few of his buddies hanging out at Grady’s Tavern on the day before his marriage to Madge Bradley (Gloria Talbot, from The Cyclops and The Leech Woman). Pleading the necessity of rising early for the marriage tomorrow, Bill leaves his friends and begins the drive home through the woods. A good couple of miles from anywhere worthy of a name, he sees what looks like a body lying in the road, and stops the car to investigate. There’s nothing to be seen when he gets out of the car, though— unless, that is, you count the glowing alien that creeps up behind Bill and engulfs him in a cloud of billowing black vapor.
As you might imagine, Bill’s a bit late for the wedding. He finally staggers in just as Madge is laying into his drinking buddies, Sam Benson (Alan Dexter of It Came from Outer Space) and Frank Swanson (Peter Baldwin, from The Space Children and The Ghost), for keeping him out so late the night before. Bill certainly acts hung over, and Madge doesn’t quite seem to buy the other men’s protests that their friend left Grady’s long before they did. But now that both central players are present and accounted for, the wedding can begin, and it does without further delay.
You know how a lot of people complain that their lovers seem to turn into different people after they get married? Well Madge has an especially serious case of that particular problem on her hands. The Bill she fell in love with was a warm, sociable, emotionally open man. The Bill she married is cold, secretive, and almost totally without even basic social skills, and she is naturally very unhappy about this turn of events. If only she’d been standing out on the balcony with him on their wedding night when the big thunderstorm began, she might have some idea why her husband has changed so much. After Madge went inside to get ready for bed, the first flashes of lightning illuminated a second face beneath Bill’s— that of the alien who waylaid him in the forest! But she saw no such thing, and thus she is totally in the dark about the change in her beloved’s personality.
Bill isn’t the only man in town who’s changed, either. About a year after he and Madge tie the not, Bill’s steadfastly single friend Sam suddenly gets a bug up his ass to marry his longtime girlfriend, Helen Alexander (Jean Carson). You probably don’t need me to tell you why. But by this time, Madge is beginning to get the idea that, if Bill doesn’t act like himself, maybe he really isn’t himself at all, and one night, she decides to follow him on one of the midnight walks he’s begun taking lately. Madge trails her husband out of town and through the woods, right up to the gangplank of an honest-to-God flying saucer. From her hiding place in the trees, she sees the alien inside Bill step out of his body like a person might get out of a car, and go inside the ship, leaving Bill standing motionless, zombie-like outside. Her story doesn’t get her very far with police chief Collins (John Eldredge, from Invaders from Mars and 1941’s The Black Cat), but a few days later, when Madge hears about Sam’s sudden and unexplained change of heart, she tries to warn Helen that something funny is going on. Alas, Bill comes into the room before she has a chance to say anything.
The nearly 45 years since the release of I Married a Monster from Outer Space have seen this basic story play itself out enough times that we can pretty much guess what’s going on here. The aliens have come to Earth to impregnate human women, because the sudden increase in the radiation output of their star that rendered their home planet unlivable also killed off all the females of their species before they had finished building their interstellar evacuation fleet, dooming the race to extinction unless some way could be found to press anatomically similar species from other worlds into service as breeding stock. For whatever reason, the aliens’ scientists think humans might be just the species they need, and they are hard at work on a technique for modifying human ova to suit their purposes. In the meantime, they have begun infiltrating human society in order to lay the groundwork for this ambitious program of interspecies breeding. “Bill” explains all this to Madge one night when she gets fed up with being a powerless spectator, and confronts him directly with what little she already knows. But as it happens, there’s one thing the aliens didn’t figure on. Obviously, it was necessary to appropriate the memories of their hosts if the invaders were to successfully pass for the humans they sought to replace. But those memories came packaged with human feelings, and now the aliens find that they are beginning to take on some of the characteristics of the men whose places they have taken. “Sam” has started to exhibit Sam’s carefree, fun-loving attitude, “Frank” has absorbed Frank’s subconscious misanthropy, and “Bill” has begun to love Madge with much of the fervor of the real Bill.
But Madge wants her Bill, and when she goes to her GP, Dr. Wayne (Ken Lynch), in a final, desperate effort to convince somebody that the men of the town are being gradually replaced by horny aliens, the doctor not only believes her story, but figures out a way to distinguish the remaining real men from the imposters. The aliens, after all, haven’t figured out yet how to get a human female pregnant; all Wayne needs to do is go to the maternity ward, and track down all the new fathers in town. Then he and Madge can lead this posse of papas to the aliens’ ship to kick some ass.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I’m a man, but I can’t watch I Married a Monster from Outer Space without rooting for the aliens. “Bill” especially seems sympathetic. He may start out as the movie’s main villain, but by the final reel, he seems more of a tragic figure than anything else. Sure, he kidnaps the real Bill Farrell and appropriates both his life and his wife, but not only does he have a really good excuse— the survival of his entire fucking species is at stake— he also ends up loving Madge, just as though he really were Bill. Though it’s terribly unfair to Madge and the other women to have some bunch of genetic freeloaders from beyond the stars come in and use them as breeding stock, it scarcely seems that justice has been served when Dr. Wayne starts unplugging the machinery that hooks the aliens up to their human captives, killing the invaders with the shock of sudden disconnection. And what’s more, the tone of the movie’s ending makes it clear that it never dawned on the filmmakers what a strong case they had made for the aliens’ side of the story.
On the other hand, the more commonly observed feminist subtext is certainly very strong considering that this movie was made in 1958. Its most potent facet concerns the nature of the aliens’ mission on Earth, and the role that Earth’s women are meant to play in it. The aliens recognize one use and one use only for women: to bear their offspring. When you get right down to it, this really isn’t too much different from the way in which many perfectly human, real-world men saw— and continue to see— their wives. I once knew a girl, in fact, whose father held something very much like this view of his spouse. He kept her cranking out the babies until, on the fourth or fifth try, she finally produced a son (sorry, no bonus points for guessing that this medieval egomaniac named the boy after himself). And mind you, this was in the mid-80’s, not the mid-50’s. Although I was only eleven years old, I was already perceptive enough to realize that this man was a throwback to a less enlightened age, but that didn’t make the son of a bitch any less real. In 1958, when this movie was made, that kind of thinking was still very much in the mainstream, making the message lurking just below the surface of I Married a Monster from Outer Space a remarkable display of nerve for a cheesy little B-grade sci-fi flick, especially one that was made by a major studio. Admittedly, this film seems to back down from its position in the end, preferring to restore the status quo rather than carry the challenge to the established order to its logical conclusion in the way that Invasion of the Body Snatchers does. Still, I admire a B-movie with a message, at least when its creators have the class to present it without preaching, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space definitely falls within that category.