It Conquered the World (1956) -**½
What a resounding title, huh? Say it with me: It Conquered the World. Grand. Sensational, yet dignified. And far more likely to get people to come see your movie than It Conquered Beechwood, which is what this movie probably should have been called, seeing as the small, rural town of Beechwood is all “It” manages to conquer, and only temporarily at that. Another title that should perhaps have been considered is Roger Corman Presents: How to Make 71 Minutes Seem Like Three Days. I really like 50’s monster movies, but a lot of them are just so fucking slow!
The first thing we see is a horizontal white stripe bouncing up and down on the black screen-- the same image that “The Outer Limits” used so compellingly in its main title sequence. The camera pulls back to reveal the interior of some sort of control room, filled (well, not really) with bulky electronic devices that look like they must have cost nearly five dollars back in 1956. This is the laboratory of Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves, from Night of the Hunter and Red Planet Mars). Today he will make history by launching the first man-made satellite into Earth’s orbit. (Aren’t these old sci-fi flicks great? I mean, nobody involved could have guessed that the Russians would be the ones to make that first stride, and only a year after this was released, at that. To me, this kind of missed prediction accounts for much the fun.) Meanwhile, another scientist, Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef, who seems to have been in pretty much every Spaghetti Western there was-- including the one in which the treasure map was tattooed piecemeal onto the asses of about a dozen hot Asian chicks), is meeting with Brigadier General Paddock (Russ Bender, from War of the Colossal Beast and I Bury the Living), the C.O. of the military installation from which the satellite is being launched, and the unnamed Secretary of Something or Other (Marshall Bradford, of Teenage Caveman and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein). Dr. Anderson hopes to convince the general and the secretary that the world will come to an end if the launch takes place as planned. The other planets, says the doctor, caused an earlier test launch to be destroyed because they want to keep the people of Earth “out of the skies.” Neither of the honchos believes Dr. Anderson, which is entirely reasonable, because we wouldn’t believe him either if we didn’t know that we were watching a movie called It Conquered the World. Dr. Anderson is shown the door, and the screen is filled with a particularly famous piece of stock footage, taken by a movie camera affixed to the tail of a captured German V-2 rocket shortly after World War II. Roger Corman sure knows how to save a dollar, yessiree.
Three months go by, or so we are conveniently told during a conversation around the dining room table at the Anderson place. Dr. Anderson and his wife, Clara (Beverly Garland, from Twice-Told Tales and Curucu, Beast of the Amazon), are having Paul Nelson and his wife, Joan (Sally Fraser, of Earth vs. the Spider and Giant from the Unknown), over for dinner and lots of bourbon, and the conversation understandably centers on “satellites, isotopes, and conical dispersions.” Paul was just saying that the satellite had been in orbit for three months, and as yet, there was no sign of the world ending as per Tom’s predictions. But old Tom isn’t fazed a bit, because he’s got a new wacky idea. Despite repeated dirty looks from Clara, Tom takes Paul into his living room to show him the great big radio rig he has set up in the corner. He turns it on and tells Paul to listen. “Do you know what you’re listening to?” Tom asks him, “It’s Venus.” He then tells his friend to “Listen to the voice.” Now, Paul doesn’t hear any voice, and that’s okay, ‘cause neither do we-- just a kind of low-pitched “woooooooooo” sound. But Tom Anderson swears it’s a voice from Venus, and Paul is able to escape from the uncomfortable position of having to tell his best friend that he’s a fucking nutjob only because just then, he gets a phone call announcing that he is needed at the rocket base. Apparently, the satellite is gone.
Now I’ve just realized that this review is moving almost as slowly as the goddamned movie, so I’m going to try to pick up the pace a bit. Only Dr. Anderson realizes it, but the satellite disappeared because it was taken to Venus by the owner of that voice that only he can hear. The voice belongs to an alien, one of the last nine members of a dying race, and he has commandeered the satellite to provide him with a ride to Earth. The satellite reappears in Earth orbit an hour later, and crashes as the scientists try to bring it down to study what happened to it. That’s when “It” sets about conquering the world, or at least Beechwood. The monster, which resembles a seven-foot carrot with crab arms and the face of a devil from an old Japanese engraving, lets loose eight of these flying rubber manta rays, which are really delivery systems for some kind of remote mind-control device. At about the same time, he also cuts off the power to every mechanical device on Earth (or at least in Beechwood). Now where have I seen that before, hmmm? It couldn’t possibly have been The Day the Earth Stood Still, could it? Nah... Anyway, Dr. Anderson told the alien how to get to Earth and which people to take control of first (Paul Nelson, the mayor, Sheriff Shallert, General Paddock, and their wives), all because the creature promises to make Earth into a utopia free of strife, hatred, and most importantly, stupidity. Hey, I might help an alien take over the world too if it told me it could get rid of stupidity.
Paul Nelson gradually puts the pieces together as Tom tries to talk him into helping (I guess he’d rather his friend come to see the light on his own, rather than through the agency of a rubber manta), and spends most of his screen time giving rousing anti-communist speeches, thinly disguised as rebuttals of Tom’s pro-alien arguments. At the same time, the rubber mantas are flying around injecting people with radio antennas, the sheriff (Taggart Casey, from The Navy vs. the Night Monsters) is herding the population of Beechwood into a camp out in the desert (which to judge from the landscape must be somewhere over the state line), and the general has put the lockdown on the rocket base, telling everyone inside that there’s been a communist uprising. Eventually, Paul and Clara convince Tom that the alien is evil, but not before Paul has to shoot his own wife because she’s been turned into a communist... er... alien zombie. Clara, Tom, and Paul each set off independently of each other to kill the alien, which has been living in a cave in the mountains. It kills Clara, along with most of a squad of soldiers that the general had sent on a march to nowhere so as to get them away from the base, but then Tom shows up with a blowtorch and melts one of its eyes while it strangles him. Both Tom and the alien die just as Paul arrives on the scene to give another rousing anti-communist speech.
Even by cheapo 50’s monster movie standards, It Conquered the World isn’t exactly Oscar material. The leaden pacing comes close on several occasions to killing it outright, and all the performances by everybody but Graves, Garland, and Van Cleef are little short of painful. But it isn’t all bad. It’s particularly rich in demented throwaway plot devices, like the airplane Paul and Carol see explode in mid-air when all the world’s (or at least Beechwood’s) power systems shut down. Or how about the scene in which Paul just happens to have a lead sap in his pocket when he finds out that the general is under alien control? Then of course, there is the opportunity to see Peter Graves inveigh again and again against communism without ever once uttering the word. And don’t forget the monster, which is a front-runner in the competition for the Dumbest Looking Movie Alien of All Time crown. If you have the patience of a saint, or a room full of like-minded people to help you heckle during the dull parts, It Conquered the World is definitely worth considering.