They Came from Beyond Space (1967) **½
Umm, yeah… So it turns out this isn’t the movie I was thinking of at all. When I was planning my globe-spanning contribution to the B-Masters Cabal’s celebration of the many-splendored joys of the lousy rubber monster suit, my mind flashed upon an image I’d seen in a book some years ago— that of a space-man costume suggesting the alien in The Man from Planet X as reinterpreted by the special effects department for the original “Dr. Who.” I was pretty sure the accompanying caption attributed that magnificently chintzy extraterrestrial to They Came from Beyond Space, but I was mistaken. It was actually The Earth Dies Screaming, and lacking ready access to that film, I’ll just have to turn elsewhere for my British rubber suit fix. In the meantime, since we’re already here, let’s have a look at this lamentably suit-less sci-fi cheapie from Amicus Productions, which, although actually derived from the delightfully titled novel The Gods Hate Kansas, puts me most strongly in mind of Enemy from Space updated for a rather less trigger-happy time.
They Came from Beyond Space isn’t one of the anthologies for which its studio is best remembered, but it gets rolling fast enough to feel like one at first. Immediately following the fade-in from the credits, a farm couple in a small Cornish village sees a volley of meteors smash into one of their fields. It’s a curious enough thing to have happen anyway, but it’s the circumstances of the descent itself that attract official attention the morning after. One doesn’t often see nine meteors land in the same place at the same time, and one never sees them holding a perfect V-formation while they do it. So explains Richard Arden of Internal Security (Bernard Kay, from Trog and The Conqueror Worm) when he drops in at the laboratory of astronomer Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton, of The Slime People and The Colossus of New York). Together with his assistants, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne, from Hysteria and The Crawling Eye) and mathematician Alan Mulhane (Torture Garden’s Geoffrey Wallace), Temple heads up the British answer to NASA’s SETI project, monitoring the heavens for any irregularities that might be taken to indicate the presence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe than Earth. That makes him the obvious go-to guy for making sense of those space rocks in Cornwall, but there’s one slight complication. Temple has a weakness for fast cars, and he stove in the back of his head not long ago while pushing his antique V-12 roadster beyond the limits of its handling capabilities. He and the vehicle both survived (that old convertible is built like a fucking tank), but Temple now has a silver plate standing in for part of his skull, and his doctor (who conveniently has an office at the same university as him) refuses to countenance the idea of him taking any long-term trips until his recovery is complete. Arden will have to satisfy himself with having Dr. Mason onsite, relaying her findings back to Temple and Alan via telephone and radio.
If you remember Enemy from Space, then you have some idea of what befalls the investigators once they get to Cornwall. There’s something alive in those meteorites, something that possesses everyone who gets close enough to touch them, and Arden’s whole team is under alien control in short order. Then the beings from space begin taking over the village, occupying the minds of key citizens like the chief of police and the director of the local bank. Mason starts sending requisition orders to the government on Arden’s authority, bringing in millions of pounds’ worth of construction supplies, weapons, and sophisticated electronic equipment. Eventually, the peculiarities pile up so deep that the government takes action, dispatching both covert Internal Security agents and Dr. Temple to the scene in an effort to figure out just what in the hell Mason and Arden are up to.
The short version: they’re building a rocket base under Roberts Field (where the meteors landed) and the adjacent pond, allowing for rapid transit between their secret headquarters and, oddly enough, the Earth’s moon. Between that and Mulhane’s calculations tracing the meteors back toward the moon, the obvious implication is that the aliens have been using our satellite as a staging area for their invasion. Of course, it costs Temple a great deal of effort and exposes him to a great deal of danger to learn even that much, and that’s before the aliens begin deploying a bioweapon closely resembling Poe’s Red Death in an effort to deter and impede official scrutiny of their activities. The one risk which Temple doesn’t face is that of alien possession, for it happens that the plate in his head renders his skull impenetrable to whatever it is that the invaders use to effect their mind control. With the help of an electronics expert he knows, a Pakistani named Farj (Zia Mohyeddin) who fortuitously lives within easy driving distance of the stricken village, and a bit of rather less willing aid from a kidnapped Lee Mason, Temple is able to rig up some equipment with which the aliens can be seen and destroyed without harm to their human hosts, and which also extends the benefits of his silver plate to those who have nothing but standard-issue bone in their skulls. Of course, Temple’s daring counterattack starts to look like a slightly less brilliant idea when it accidentally places him, Farj, and Mason aboard a moon-bound rocketship, headed straight for an audience with the aliens’ leader (Michael Gough, from Berserk and Satan’s Slave)…
Chances are the main thing most people today will take away from They Came from Beyond Space is a sense of pleasant bemusement at its strange admixture of staunchly 50’s subject matter with modish Swinging 60’s mannerisms. It’s the same old story we’ve been watching over and over again in various guises since 1951, but I for one can’t recall ever seeing it told anywhere else with quite this sensibility. Professor Quatermass never busted up his head in a daredevil driving mishap, nor does he strike me as the kind of guy who’d cold-cock his alien-possessed girlfriend and then haul ass over to a friend’s house with her hog-tied in the trunk (excuse me— boot) of his hotrod. But not only does Curtis Temple do all of those things, he does them with a matter-of-fact-ness that reminds you that the 40-somethings of 1967 were the same guys who had personally fought and won World War II— of course they could handle themselves in a scuffle or shrug off the occasional life-threatening peril! Lee Mason makes for a striking departure from the old 1950’s Science Chick character type, too (which is all the more interesting given that Jennifer Jayne had confronted acquisitive spacefarers back in the 50’s as well). Although Mason is never explicitly called “Doctor,” it is strongly implied that her professional standing equals that of Alan Mulhane, who plainly is a full-fledged mathematician, and she is directly referred to as a scientist along with her male colleagues. In other words, she’s not just one of those “talented grad students” who kept running afoul of the monsters in movies like Tarantula or Creature from the Black Lagoon. And although she does technically require rescue from the alien menace, she proves more than able to pull her own weight once the extraterrestrial hitchhiker has been zapped out of her brain. She’s an altogether more modern sort of heroine to match Temple’s more modern scientist-hero, and it’s enjoyably disorienting to see both characters in what is at heart such an old-fashioned, conservative film.
Not that Freddie Francis directs it at all conservatively, you understand. In fact, his handling of the picture might be the least conservative thing of all. Like Mario Bava, the other famed cinematographer-turned-director of 60’s genre cinema, Francis learned to use color film at a time when its saturation requirements were extremely high, and he continued to make a stylistic signature out of lush, intense color palettes long after it ceased being a strict technical necessity to use them. In They Came from Beyond Space, Francis achieves a vivid, proto-psychedelic look that meshes very well with the rollicking, jazzy score and the less-straitlaced-than-they-seem characters, simply by continuing to do what he’d been doing since his days as Hammer’s top cameraman. Whether by finding a few candy-colored pockets of ersatz snazz in the desperately cheap futuristic sets, or by playing up the scenic beauty of the Cornish countryside— or hell, even by lingering in exactly the right way upon the charming visage of Luanshya Greer’s spirited female gas-station attendant— Francis makes sure our eyes never get bored, even when our brains are thinking they’ve heard this all before. It’s undeniably a slight movie, but They Came from Beyond Space has at least a little something with which to reward a patient attempt at rediscovery.