Saturday, October 19, 2013

Stubs – It Came From Outer Space

It Came From Outer Space (1953) Starring: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson. Directed by Jack Arnold. Screenplay by Harry Essex. Based on The Meteor, a story by Ray Bradbury. Produced by Wiliam Alland. Run Time: 81 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Science Fiction, Horror
There is an old expression that everything old is new again. That’s true for two things that are popular staples in theaters today, science fiction films and 3D technology. These were also quite popular back in the 1950’s, when our film, It Came From Outer Space, was released.
Some have declared the 1950’s as the classic period of science fiction films. However, much of the science fiction films from this decade were low budget affairs. (Note: Practically every film made in the 1950’s was made on a shoe-string budget when compared to the $200 million productions of today.) Major studios were often involved, if not in a production capacity, then definitely as distributors.
In my review of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, I wrote that fifties’ sci-fi and flying saucers go together like milk and cookies. And this is certainly true. Post World War II and pre-Apollo moon landing, there seemed to be an obsession with space and especially visitation from other worlds. While Mars was a popular choice, it was certainly not the only origin point for aliens. That fascination has never died and is carried on today fueled by films like Cloverfield (2008) and Super 8 (2011) to name a few (JJ Abrams) films.
Film studios, which were not the media companies we know today, were finding themselves in a pitch battle with this thing called television. One way they could differentiate themselves from the little box in the living room was to offer a bigger, more spectacular experience. Large formats, color, stereo sound and, of course, 3D, were all designed to separate the movie experience from the stay at home one. (Even today with large screens capable of showing 3D in Dolby 7.1 surround sound, the experience is not the same. Cheaper maybe once you buy all the equipment, but not the same.)

3D makes it better, doesn't it?
3D was a gimmick then and it is still a gimmick today, despite what the majors may say. They want you to pay extra to see something that might be passable in 2D, but is supposed to be awesome in 3D. And even more if it is in IMAX. Face facts that if the story is good the dimensions don’t matter. 3D, as long as it is projected correctly, can certainly enhance the storytelling and the visuals, but it can’t make up for a lousy script or bad acting.
Considered the Golden age for 3D, the early 1950’s saw several of the major studios release their first films in this new format. The first color stereoscopic film was Bwana Devil (1952) produced, directed and written by Arch Oboler, famous for his ego and for writing the radio series Lights Out. Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. took stabs at 3D with Man in the Dark and House of Wax respectively, both released in 1953. House of Wax is notable as well for its use of stereo sound.
The craze would die down starting in the summer of 1953, when 3D was viewed as hard on the eyes (sound familiar?). When the two strips of film got out of synch or the projectionist was careless, the resulting viewing experience would cause headaches and eyestrains. When the craze kicked up again a few years ago, there were the same complaints. But rather than withdraw the format, the studios have gone so far as taking beloved classics, like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and transformed them to 3D. Nothing is sacred these days.
But before the craze started to die, Universal-International (“Doesn't the fact that it's universal make it international?” apologies to MST3K the Movie) got into the act, releasing It Came From Outer Space, its first 3D film and accompanied with “Amazing Directional Stereophonic Sound”.

Time to put on your 3D glasses.
It Came From Outer Space tells the story of writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) who has recently moved from the city to the small town of Sand Rock, Arizona. (In fact his character starts narrating the film, but this device is quickly dropped.) Still considered an outsider, John has won the heart of schoolteacher Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush). Early one morning, after midnight, while John and Ellen are about to kiss (hey it was the 50’s and kissing was all that you could do on film) there is a flash of light streaking across the sky. John searches through an enormous telescope he has set up outside (not Mount Wilson big, but big for an amateur) for the meteorite crash site, nearby in the desert, near the abandoned Excelsior mine.
Sometimes a telescope is a telescope, other times it's a phallic symbol.
Waking up Pete Davis (Dave Willock), a pilot with a topless helicopter, John and Ellen visit the crash site. John, against better judgment, goes down into the crater created by the object and he follows a glittery trail that leads him to the spaceship which has caused the damage. In the open hatch is an alien, which only looks like a glowing eye. Before you can say “Danger Will Robinson”, the alien causes an avalanche by closing the hatch and the craft is buried.
This just looks dangerous.
John narrowly escapes being buried, too and by the time he’s made it out of the crater the local newspaperman, Dave Loring (Alan Dexter) and the Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) have arrived. But when John tells them what he’s seen they think maybe he suffered a blow to the head in the avalanche. The fact that Matt has a thing from Ellen doesn’t help matters either.
Just before the avalanche, John (or a model replica) gets close the spaceship in the crater.
After a helicopter ride back to the airport, John takes Ellen home. On the way, he explains that even though the townspeople may deride him, he must pursue his discovery. Ellen agrees to help him. Then in the desert, they glimpse a nebulous image that crosses in front of the car. Sure they have hit whatever it is, John stops the car, but there is nothing they can see. The two do not realize that the alien is watching them.
Ellen (Barbara Rush) and John (Richard Carlson) look for an alien lifeform.
The next day, activity at the crash site has increased. There is a phalanx of reporters, print and television, including Dugan (Robert Carson) as well as law enforcement and the army. When John arrives with Ellen, he is happy to see his old friend, Dr. Snell (George Eldridge), and his assistant, Bob (Brad Jackson), are already at the site, taking samples and readings. But the good doctor is unwilling to commit the resources necessary to dig up whatever caused the hole. He doesn’t seem to appreciate what John had been through the night before.
The press, Dugan (Robert Carson), hounds John for details about his supposed find.
After Matt warns John that he’s ruining Ellen’s career as a school teacher by keeping her out of the classroom, John and Ellen leave. On the way back to Sand Rock, they encounter their friends, phone engineers Frank Daylon (Joseph Sawyer) and George (Russell Johnson). They’re investigating an eerie whistling over the phone lines and Frank asks John and Ellen to check one area of the lines while he and George check another. John and Ellen find nothing and return to report to Frank and George. But they discover their telephone truck abandoned on the road with a blood stain on the door. John follows glittery tracks into the desert, where he encounters a glassy-eyed, robotic-sounding George, who assures John and Ellen that nothing is wrong. (Yeah, right.)
Frank (Joseph Sawyer) invites John to listen to the whistling noise on the telephone lines.
But John spies Frank's body on the ground behind a rock. He grabs Ellen and the two race back to town to enlist the sheriff's help. As soon as they leave, the real Frank and George wake up from having been knocked out and see before them their robotic replicas. Alien Frank and George explain to the real Frank and George they are aliens and have taken on the men's appearances. The aliens reassure Frank and George that they are peaceful and will merely detain the men at their ship until the aliens are ready to leave Earth.
Naturally, Matt does not believe John's story. Reluctantly, he accompanies them back to the desert; he leaves when they find no trace of Frank or George or their truck. All three return to town, where Matt watches as John spots alien Frank and George and chases them down the street. Hidden in a dark alleyway, the aliens, who sense that John understands them, inform him that if they are left alone to repair their ship, they will remain peaceful. They wish to harm no one, especially John.
Alien Frank and George tell John they just want to be left alone to finish their repairs.
That night, as John frets over whether he is doing the right thing by not attacking the aliens, he is called to Matt's office. The sheriff, concerned about that day's disappearance of Frank and George, as reported by Mrs. Daylon (Virginia Mullen) and George’s girlfriend, June (Kathleen Hughes). According to them the “men”, who had been acting strange, left on a special assignment for a couple of days and took clothes with them. The sheriff promises to let the women know what he finds and asks Ellen to drive them home.

June (Kathleen Hughes) is George's girlfriend. She certainly makes an impression in her one brief scene.
After they’ve gone, Matt tells John about the other people who’ve disappeared, including Dr. Snell and Bob, and about electrical equipment stolen from a local hardware store. Matt is finally beginning to believe John. 
Meanwhile, the alien Frank abducts Ellen and brings her to the mine.
Ellen being abducted by Alien Frank.
There is a mysterious phone call, after which John knows the two men need to visit the mine and that the aliens have Ellen. They hope the mine will lead to the buried spacecraft and its occupants. When John and Matt arrive, Matt reluctantly agrees to wait in the car while John explores outside, which seems to have been arranged in the call.
But within minutes, an alien uses Ellen's form to lure John into the mine. There, an obscured alien instructs John that its race is an advanced one, but they are good and have souls and want nothing more than to repair their ship and leave. While they desire contact with earthlings, humans are not developed enough to accept the aliens' frightening appearance. The alien tells him that he must keep the other humans away or they will have to destroy them.

John refuses to agree until the alien shows itself, but he then turns away in horror from the huge, one-eyed, bulbous jellyfish-like being. Back at the car, Matt is waiting anxiously. John reveals to Matt what he has seen and that he’s learned Ellen is okay as long as they don’t interfere. The aliens are afraid humans kill what they don’t understand. Matt reluctantly agrees to wait and the two return to town, where John finds that the aliens have visited his house, leaving their tell-tale glittery path. He discovers that his clothes are also missing.

John couldn't handle seeing the alien in his true form.
Meanwhile, the sheriff and his deputy, Reed (William Pullen), discuss what to do. The sheriff wants Reed to evacuate the area, but Reed thinks they should attack the aliens and questions Matt’s manhood for listening to John. So when John informs Matt that the aliens have taken some of his clothes, Matt decides that maybe the aliens have been lying to him.

Deputy Reed (William Pullen) challenges the Sheriff's decisions.
The nervous sheriff changes his mind about waiting things out. John has to restrain Matt from interfering with alien Frank who is in town getting supplies. But as soon as the truck has gotten safely away, Matt rounds up a posse to stop Frank. They set up a roadblock and shoot the alien, forcing his truck off the road and into a boulder causing it to explode.

Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) puts together a posse.
Alone, John takes the sheriff’s car and drives back to the mine to warn the aliens of the pending attack. He encounters alien Ellen, who first tries to lure him into a pit. She then tells him that the aliens no longer trust him and they must resort to violence. She tries to shoot him with a laser like device, but he shoots back with a handgun, killing alien Ellen, who transforms back into her alien form before falling into the pit and dissolving in the water.
When the aliens stop trusting John, alien Ellen tries to kill him.
Meanwhile, the sheriff and other armed men arrive at the mine ready for a fight.

John follows the sound of electric motors and finds the aliens, in their human forms (?), working on the engine they’ve been developing for over a thousand years. The head alien, who now looks like John, knows there is a mob after them and informs real John that the aliens have no choice but to use their deadly laser weapon if they are prevented from leaving.

Alien John tells real John once again they just want to leave earth.
John counters, proposing that the aliens release the earthlings as a show of faith. Then the men outside will cease their attack. Reluctantly, the aliens agree, and the unharmed humans are freed. They exit through the mine shaft. John sets off dynamite to seal the abandoned mine and to protect the aliens from the posse. Given the time to complete their repairs, the aliens leave while the townspeople stand together to watch.

John leads Ellen and the other townspeople to safety.
When Ellen asks if they are gone for good, John explains that they will return only when humans are ready for them to meet and they’ll be back.

While the 1950’s was the golden age for 3D sci-fi, that only meant there were a lot of them, that doesn’t mean they were necessarily good or made huge box office. It Came From Outer Space grossed only about $1.8 million in the U.S. and Canada, making it the 75th biggest film of the year, which is really nothing to brag about. Reviews at the time were lackluster. The New York Times wrote that it was “mildly diverting” which isn’t fodder for the movie poster.

The film is viewed now as one of those iconic 50’s sci-fi alien films, even earning mention in The Rocky Horror Show’s opening theme “Science Fiction/Double Feature” in the line: Then at a deadly pace it came from outer space.

The low budget film is not without its charm. As an example, the alien ship and their form are actually done pretty well and both seem original, at least to the casual viewer of 50’s sci-fi. One thing that adds to the film is its use of the Theremin in the score. The Theremin is an early electronic instrument controlled without physical contact and invented by Leon Theremin in 1928. The instrument is known for the eerie sounds that it creates and was already a staple of Sci-Fi and Horror soundtracks, having been used in Rocketship X-M (1950), The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Before that the instrument had been used as far back as 1936 on The Green Hornet Radio show and in films as such as Spellbound (1945) and The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Spiral Staircase (1946). The soundtrack for It Came From Outer Space was written fairly equally by Herman Stein, Henry Mancini and Irving Gertz. The Theremin itself is played by Dr. Samuel Hoffman, who apparently was the go-to man for Theremin play.

The alien spaceship in flight from the beginning of the movie. This probably looked awesome in 3D.
There is also an originality to the story. The aliens really don’t want to do us harm nor take over planet Earth or tell us how to run things (as they do in say The Day The Earth Stood Still). Instead, they just crashed here on their way somewhere else and all they want to do is be on their way; the equivalent of an intergalactic flat tire. While that is a refreshing sentiment and sets the movie apart from most of the alien sci-fi fare, the story is still full of holes. To name a few: Why did the aliens pick John as someone to trust? Why would alien Frank and George know their way around the small town and manage to lead John into a trap of sorts? Who calls John at the Sheriff’s office to tell him the aliens have Ellen? Why do the aliens need human clothes? Why are they working on their ship in their human forms, rather than their true forms?

Much of the action consists of travelling to and from the crash site by helicopter, car and truck. And while the pace is slow, the story never really stands still.

The acting is all right though nothing spectacular. The lead actor, Richard Carlson, had been working in films as an actor since 1938’s The Young in Heart. While he would go on to appear in Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), his film career would slow down after It Came From Outer Space. Carlson did work in television, where he would appear as Herbert Philbrick in I Led Three Wives (1953-1956). He would continue to act as well as direct and write until 1975.

The lovely Barbara Rush, who will apparently scream at the drop of a hat or at least the sighting of a Joshua Tree, had been acting since 1951, appearing in such films as When Worlds Collide. She received a lot of attention from this film, winning the Golden Globe for most promising female newcomer for her role as Ellen Fields. She would go on to appear in Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) but never really obtained stardom. She also acted on television, appearing for example, in 68 episodes of Peyton Place (1968-69).

I would be want if I didn’t mention Russell Johnson, who plays George, Frank’s assistant. While Johnson appeared on television as far back as 1950 on a series called Fireside Theatre, and in films in 1952’s For Men Only, he is best known for the role of The Professor aka Roy Hinkley, Jr. (or as part of … and the rest, depending on which version of the theme song) on Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967). He appeared in This Island Earth (1955) along with numerous sci-fi and western films and had guest spots on such television series as Adventures of Superman (1953), The Lone Ranger (1955), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957), Twilight Zone (1960-61), Route 66 (1962) and on and on. But every time he appears on screen in any movie, you’re attempted to say, “Hey, it’s the Professor” and possibly make some bad Gilligan-related joke. Such is the power of television than an entire career can be overshadowed by one role.

Watch out Professor, I mean George.
Interestingly, Kathleen Hughes, who played June, George’s girlfriend, got fairly big billing for a pretty small role. She certainly stands out in the one scene she’s in, but it’s more her look than her acting that is noticed. While I’m not familiar with her career, which included about twenty films, It Came From Outer Space seems to have been the biggest one she appeared in, or at least the most memorable. She had been in films for about four years prior to this film, so I wonder if she was a bigger star than I realize or were people expecting more from her in the future? Hughes, like everyone else from the cast, would go on to act in episodic television, making guest appearances in everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1956-57) through Perry Mason (1962). I Dream of Jeannie (1967) to Quincy M.E. (1980).

Overall, I would say that It Came From Outer Space is not a bad film, however the pacing is a bit slow. While I am not an aficionado of 50’s sci-fi, I do like watching the “classics” from time to time and I would consider this film to fall into that category. Fairly entertaining, this is very much worth viewing.

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