Tuesday 27 March 2012

It Came from Outer Space [1953]

Another monster movie but this time with a definite sci-fi slant, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE was directed by Jack Arnold and released by Universal in May 1953.  One might say that it's a halfway house between the classic monster movie, say THEM!, and the classic invasion movie, say INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.  It has the desert setting particular to a lot of monster movies - handy for atomic tests and hence whacking great mutations - but it adds the 'they're taking over' paranoia, which often sees genial townsfolk replaced by blank replicas.  And of course there is the well-worn 'no one believes me' angle, which pits the hero against the authorities as well as the aliens.

Familiar elements, certainly, but it's all in the handling and director Jack Arnold was one of the best in the business when it came to genre flicks.  He's probably best known for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and TARANTULA, two really first rate monster movies, but was also well regarded enough to land gigs directing more mainstream pictures, such as Peter Sellers' THE MOUSE THAT ROARED.  What Arnold was really good at was marrying the everyday with the fantastic, in the same way that Stephen King used to do in his novels: the smalltown atmosphere is crucial to this kind of film because it has to represent the ordinary without being dull.

The 'comet'; note the tiny figure just below the escape hatch - that's our hero
In IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE the hero John Putnam (played by Richard Carlson) is a teacher and amateur astronomer who sees a comet fall to earth and, in the course of his investigations, comes to believe that it was actually a manned spacecraft.  But manned by what?  And why have the locals started acting out of character?  To complicate things further, Putnam is having a hard time trying to convince the sceptical Sheriff Matt Warren that something's amiss, partly because the Warren fancies Putnam's girlfriend Ellen and thinks Putnam is a flake.

Barbara Rush and Richard Carlson
I really like these films with a desert setting.  Sometimes it's Texas (see THE GIANT GILA MONSTER), sometimes it's New Mexico (e.g. THEM!), or even Nevada (e.g. TREMORS).  In this particular case it's Arizona but the point is that all these films feature small communities that are already struggling against the odds to carve out an existence.  The desert that surrounds them is a harsh, unforgiving, perhaps even malign environment that threatens their lives every day.  But what it means is that the communities are that much tighter, everyone knows everyone else's business; in other words, a perfect setting for an alien invasion movie where strange behaviour is bound to be noticed by someone.

Not in fact Chris Packham from Badger Watch but Russell Johnson as the replicant George
The desert then is a place where strange things happen.  In this film Jack Arnold almost manages to make the desert a character in its own right; he certainly treats it as more than a location.  There are some terrific sequences set on desert roads which are full of foreboding and death awaits anyone who strays from the path - not unlike the moor in John Landis' brilliant AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

Film anorak notes:
Russell Johnson, who plays the lineman George, went on to everlasting fame as the Professor on hit US TV show Gilligan's Island.

The original story for the film was written by the great Ray Bradbury, many of whose books have been adapted for the screen.  And never with unqualified success, thus far, sadly.  I'd say the best are probably SO METHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983) and FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966).

Actor Richard Carlson also appeared in Jack Arnold's THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The film was originally released in 3D.

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