Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thrills, Chills, & Spills: IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (in 3-D!)

by JB
Blazing across the night sky and sailing over the desert comes one of the best and most influential science-fiction films of the 1950s!

Lately I have been enjoying the book Universal Terrors by Tom Weaver. It’s the follow-up to his earlier, indispensable Universal Horrors, which discusses every horror film made by Universal Studios during its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s. Because the Terrors book covers only eight films (the first half of the 1950s; there’s a follow-up book in the works), because there exists more plentiful production records for the ’50s films, and because Weaver has interviewed so many more participants, each film gets a whopping 135 pages devoted to it.

The book’s coverage of It Came from Outer Space is as exhaustive as it is entertaining. I learned so much about this seminal film that I did not know before. I learned that Natural Vision, the original company behind the first wave of 3-D cameras, wanted a percentage of the profits from any film that used its equipment, so the resourceful camera department at Universal built their own 3-D rig. I learned that star Richard Carlson wasn’t such a nice guy in real life. I learned the circuitous history of the film’s screenplay: Ray Bradbury was hired to write the treatment; he wrote a brilliant 110-page outline that could have been filmed as written. Instead, Universal hired Harry Essex, who basically retyped Bradbury’s outline in script format. Essex spent the rest of his life claiming credit for the screenplay. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book.
Tearing through this terrific book gave me the impetus to re-watch It Came from Outer Space. I first saw the film in crappy red/green anaglyph 3-D at a screening held as a Film Club fundraiser back when I was in high school. This was the dark ages, when red/green 3-D still seemed pretty cool. The film wowed me then, and it continues to wow me now that our advanced science people have made 3-D even more cooler. Get lost, “red” and “green”! We don’t need you anymore! #ChristmasisCancelled

The Plot In Brief: Amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his fiancé Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) witness a meteor crash near his desert home one night. They convince neighbor Pete (Dave Willock) to take them down to the crash site in his helicopter. Putnam climbs down into the crater and sees what he thinks is an alien spacecraft, but an avalanche buries it under rock and debris.

Back in town, no one believes Putnam. When several townspeople go missing, Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) begins to take Putnam and his wild theories more seriously. What’s really buried under all that desert rock?
The film’s 3-D effects are still impressive. Considering that this was Universal Studios’ first foray into the new format and the first 3-D film directed by Jack Arnold, it’s doubly impressive. The film features several “gee whiz” 3-D set pieces: the opening “there’s a meteor in your lap” shot (not a euphemism), John Putnam’s swinging telescope (not a euphemism), and the film’s one-eyed monster (not a euphemism) extending itself right out of the screen. But there are also more restrained 3-D shots using the sense of depth to emphasis an empty closet, the size of a mine tunnel, or the proximity of a hot-headed sheriff’s gun. Clearly, Jack Arnold planned this film carefully with his technical staff and knew what he was doing. Even today, it is a joy to watch.

It Came from Outer Space marked the beginning of a new narrative trope in American science fiction films: the hero scientist. In most post-World War II horror and sci-fi films, the hero was a military man, far more able to vanquish the film’s threat with force than listen to the film’s obligatory white-coated optimistic who believes that the beast can be reasoned with (Think Kenneth Tobey vs. Robert Cornthwaite in The Thing from Another World.) Instead, It Came from Outer Space introduces Richard Carlson’s John Putnam: a handsome, rugged scientist who is to reckoned with and, more importantly, proves to be right. In his very informative and entertaining commentary track on the 3-D Blu-ray disc, Tom Weaver observes that all of these “citizen scientists” in 1950s movies looked more like tennis pros than dweeby academics. Almost all later sci-fi films of this period featured a character just like this as the protagonist, whether it’s Hugh Marlowe in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, Rex Reason in This Island Earth, Richard Carlson himself in Creature from The Black Lagoon, or John Agar in Revenge of the Creature, The Mole People, and Tarantula. The man of science who will show us the way to survival through logic and learning is everywhere in science fiction films from the mid-’50s on.
Bradbury’s influence on the finished screenplay is everywhere, from the clever narrative trope of the aliens crashing accidently and just wanting to leave undetected to some dialogue passages that absolutely sing. At one point early in the film, Telephone Lineman Frank tells Putnam about his job, saying, ”After you’ve been working out in the desert fifteen years like I have, you hear a lot of things. See a lot of things too… sun in the sky… the heat. All that sand out there… sometimes rivers and lakes that aren’t real. And you think the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens …” Midway through the film, Putnam warns his girlfriend Ellen not to be fooled by the beauty of the desert: “[The desert is] alive and waiting for you. Ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you or the cold at night… a thousand ways the desert can kill...” At the film’s conclusion, the character of Ellen wonders if the aliens are gone for good. Putnam responds, "No, just for now. It wasn't the right time for us to meet. But there will be other nights, other stars for us to watch. They'll be back." This is great dialogue, far richer and more resonant than most other low-budget films from this time period.

It was Bradbury’s desire to never show the aliens directly, that they should only be suggested by other characters’ horrified or terrified reactions to them. Universal Studios thought otherwise and insisted on showing the aliens. This leads to what I call “The Xenomorph Conundrum.” Like Curse of the Demon made four years later, which also had an “explicit beast” added to it in post-production, it begs the question: is the film diminished or improved by actually showing the monster? Would either film be “better” if the audience needed to use its collective imagination a little more? I may be in the minority here, but in the words of Clive Barker, “It seems to me that monsters are what I come to see.”

In the case of It Came from Outer Space, the alien design that the Universal prop and makeup departments dreamed up is so weird and charming that I cannot imagine the film without it. It even leaves a trail of glitter behind… perfect for film fans interested in craft projects!

(The film features stunning 3-D effects and is still considered by aficionados of that narrow genre to be one of the finest 3-D films ever produced.)

CHILLS: 100%
(We are treated to a palpable creepiness, thanks to Bradbury’s script and the then-novel use of theremin as part of the film’s score.)

(Crashes of various sorts abound: meteors, trucks, and people. What fun!)


  1. After seeing a lot of 1950s sci-fi about dangerous alien visitors, It Came From Outer Space was a refreshing and surprising watch. It definitely subverts expectations. Jack Arnold had a great run in the 1950s, especially with this and The Incredidble Shrinking Man.

  2. ...and Creature From The Black Lagoon!

  3. I’m finding that I have really enjoyed each of the 50s sci fi films I have seen so far (which is not many!). In particular, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Forbidden Planet made a huge impression. This sounds fantastic, article was really fascinating :) can’t wait to check it out!