It!: The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) ***½
I strongly doubt that many people will disagree with me when I say that the original Alien is one of the finest sci-fi/horror films ever made. Its near-perfect mix of suspense and shock, its sketchy but vivid characters, its groundbreaking set design and superb special effects, and its intensely horrifying monster have all been well and justly noted by critics of all persuasions. But what many of my readers (the younger ones especially) may not realize it that Alien’s basic plot was lifted wholesale from a then-20-year-old film that few people under 40, outside the specialized world of B-movie geekdom, have seen. Chances are, you’ve already figured out that I’m talking about It!: The Terror from Beyond Space.
See if this sounds at all familiar. As the movie opens, the rocketship Challenge 142 has just landed on Mars on a mission to search for the crew of Challenge 141, with which mission control lost contact some six months before. The earlier rocket is a derelict wreck when the rescue ship arrives, and the only survivor among its crew is commanding officer Colonel Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson, from Cult of the Cobra and Fiend Without a Face). But the other nine astronauts were not killed in the crash. Rather, what remains can be located indicate that all were deliberately slain well after the Challenge 141 went down— as we shall later see, one of the skulls has an obvious bullet hole in its right parietal plate. The evidence at the scene convinces Colonel Van Heusen (Kim Spalding, who had played an extremely minor role in The Day the Earth Stood Still), commander of the Challenge 142, that Colonel Carruthers killed his shipmates in order to maximize his own chances of survival; the provisions calculated to sustain the crew for a year would keep Carruthers alone alive for ten times that long. Accordingly, Van Heusen places Carruthers under arrest and instructs mission control to have a court martial ready for his return to Earth.
Van Heusen sees no point in keeping the other colonel confined to his quarters aboard the ship, however (I mean, really— where’s he going to go?), so Carruthers’s side of the story has ample opportunity to come out in conversation with the crew of the Challenge 142. According to Carruthers, his crew encountered something while they were trying to find their way back to the wreck of their ship through a fierce Martian dust storm. Whatever it was first made its presence felt by snatching one of Carruthers’s men out of the passenger side of the jeep the colonel was driving. A confused melee ensued, with all nine remaining crewmembers firing their guns blindly into the billowing dust, hoping to hit their mysterious attacker; it is the colonel’s opinion that the man who died of a gunshot to the head was killed by accident during all this ill-directed shooting. Van Heusen doesn’t believe a word of Carruthers’s tale, but other members of the Challenge 142 crew aren’t so sure. Lieutenant James Calder (Paul Langton, from Invisible Invaders and The Snow Creature), the man assigned to guard Carruthers whenever Van Heusen is too busy to do it himself, notes that Carruthers himself clearly believes his own story, even if it isn’t, strictly speaking, true. And Ann Anderson (Shirley Patterson, aka Shawn Smith, of The Land Unknown and World Without End), whose primary functions on the ship seem to be making coffee and “servicing” Colonel Van Heusen (if you catch my drift), thinks Carruthers may really be telling the truth. For our parts, we in the audience know the colonel is on the level, and not just because we know we’re watching a movie called It!: The Terror from Beyond Space, either. Unlike the rocketship’s crew, we are privy to the information that something big and scaly snuck aboard the ship through an open hatch to the main storage compartment shortly before the Challenge 142 made liftoff for Earth.
The creature claims its first victim one “night” (the term is pretty meaningless in interplanetary space, but since most of the crew is winding down and going to bed, it seems as good a name to call the time as any), when Joe Kleinholz (Thom Carney), one of the ship’s technicians, goes down to the storage level to get some equipment. (The rocket’s interior is built as an stack of small, circular decks, each with several tiny cabins radiating out from a larger central space. The supplies deck is the second-lowest, just above the engine room. All this will be important later.) The alien looms up from behind a stack of crates and mauls Kleinholz, whose screams are just loud enough to be heard faintly on the upper decks. Naturally, it is Carruthers who hears them, and he rushes downstairs with another member of the crew. Kleinholz is nowhere to be found, however, and when he doesn’t respond to Carruthers’s paging him over the intercom, even Van Heusen realizes that something is seriously wrong. Van Heusen orders a thorough search of the ship, but all that accomplishes is getting a second man killed. Gino Finelli (Richard Hervey), an enlisted man who may be the ship’s helmsman, has a run-in with the monster when he dawdles in the supply room to get a pack of cigarettes.
Kleinholz’s body finally shows up in one of the ventilation ducts. It isn’t a pretty sight. Dr. Mary Royce (Ann Doran, from The Man Who Turned to Stone, whose 240-some appearances on film make her something very much like a female John Carradine) performs an autopsy, and determines that every molecule of water and free oxygen has been extracted from Kleinholz’s tissues. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Calder finds Finelli— not quite dead yet, after all— in another duct. His rescue attempt is cut short, however, when the monster, which was hanging out on the other side of a bend in the same duct, attacks and injures him. Well, if nothing else, Colonel Carruthers would seem to be off the hook for the deaths of his crew, eh? At Carruthers’s suggestion, crewmembers Eric Royce (Dabbs Greer, of The Vampire and House of Wax), Major John Purdue (Robert Bice, from The Ghost Ship and Space Master X-7), and Bob Finelli (The Beginning of the End’s Richard Benedict)— Gino’s brother— booby-trap all the access panels to the ducts on that deck with hand grenades, but those turn out to hurt the creature no more than did Calder’s .45. Indeed, the only answer for the moment seems to be to seal off the supply deck, and hope the creature isn’t strong enough to punch a hole in the between-decks hatches.
Unfortunately for the crew of the Challenge 142, it is. The remainder of the film will see the monster forcing its human prey ever higher up in the ship, while they employ ever more desperate measures in an effort to kill the seemingly indestructible alien. Eventually, with the surviving crewmembers cornered in the uppermost compartment of the ship, it occurs to Colonel Carruthers that Dr. Royce’s autopsy may provide the answer. If the monster kills in order to obtain water and oxygen, it obviously needs both of those things to live. Well, it just so happens that all around the Challenge 142 is an environment that contains neither. The only question is how to expose the alien to that environment...
It scarcely seems possible that a movie as good and as influential as It!: The Terror from Beyond Space could have been made by the director of The She-Creature, but the credits do not lie. Edward L. Cahn is indeed responsible for both movies. This film certainly isn’t the tour de force that its offspring, Alien, is, but it represents a vast improvement over Cahn’s earlier work for AIP. The pacing is much tighter, the lighting and camerawork is much more clearly thought-out (and clearly influenced Ridley Scott’s direction as much as this movie’s basic plot inspired O’Bannon’s screenplay), and a number of scenes are even truly suspenseful. Cahn is also helped out by a script that offers far more potential than most of what he was given by Arkoff and Nicholson, and by a studio with far more money to spend on the project. It!: The Terror from Beyond Space is most assuredly a B-movie, but United Artists had, even in 1958, a much more generous idea of what “low-budget” meant than did American International. The less stringent cost constraints pay dividends in the monster suit, as well. At no point does it ever really look like anything but a monster suit, but it is still by far the most convincing one that Paul Blaisdel ever made, and Cahn was smart enough to show only part of it at a time, under very low light, even if it does appear onscreen far more than most of its counterparts in other 50’s films. (Incidentally, the man inside that monster suit is the famous Ray “Crash” Corrigan, who also played the monsters in Unknown Island and White Pongo, though B-Westerns were the staple of his career.) In short, it’s easy to see why Dan O’Bannon would want to use It!: The Terror from Beyond Space as the jumping-off point for his Alien screenplay. It is an extremely solid film that is positively bursting with potential for expansion and reinterpretation.