Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review: "It! The Terror from Beyond Space"

Back at the end of 2012, I wrote a pair of movie reviews as part of an application to become a website's movie critic. It didn't happen, and since then I've been sitting on the reviews, so I decided I'd post them here. Anyone looking for a person to critique bad or strange movies for modest sums of money is advised that I'm still available. Here's the first one:

It! The Terror from Beyond Space

A crew of black-and-white sci-fi's finest is deployed to Mars to retrieve the lone survivor of a crew he's accused of killing, only to find that the true killer has come aboard with them.

Directed by Edward L. Cahn, 1958.

Smokeless rockets wouldn't be invented until 1981.

The benchmark for the mano y mano alien attack film is, of course, "Alien," but it was neither the first nor the last to use the scenario. The basic formula is as simple and timeless as a group of teenagers setting out to spend a weekend at a cabin they're sure isn't as haunted as the locals claim. When a movie formula goes unchanged for as long as this has, it gives us a chance to examine and appreciate the things that do: the characters and the setting. In this case, the future is 1973 and humanity has unwittingly unearthed the slumbering, rubber-clad terror of Mars.

We're introduced to the situation through a brief introductory voiceover by Col. Edward Carruthers, played with deft detachment by Marshall Thompson. He's going to be brought back to Earth to be court-martialed for the deaths of his crewmates.

"If you'll direct your attention to the back wall, I'd like to talk about my latest purchase from the Bradford Exchange."

Immediately after this introduction, we're taken to the only room in the movie not on the returning spaceship: a press room (the "Science Advisory Committee Division of Interplanetary Exploration") on Earth where reporters are told that the rescue team has just arrived on Mars to get Carruthers. This is where the movie really shows its chops: A middle-aged man, who is acting in the sense that he's reading from a script in front of a camera, informs a roomful of journalists on recent developments received through a "teleradio" broadcast. The conference finished, the journalists then all run out the door like lead paint just went on sale.

Nobody comments on how this reference schematic for a spaceship appears to be a hand-drawn one-off in outlined pencil.

The rescue ship is comprised of a series of stacked rooms that have the proportions of cans of tuna fish. Each level has a staircase running up from below and down from above, and when we're shown the ship's blueprints at one point we see that the whole ship is indeed laid out pretty much like a tenement building. The set design team - which otherwise saw fit to take standard 1950s appliances and mount them flush into walls - gets credit for going the extra mile here. If you went inside any of the rockets on the covers of pulp mags from the '50s and '60s they would probably be laid out just like this, and it takes a certain amount of bravado to go through with stacking the floors instead of laying the thing out like an airliner sans wings.

"Yeah, all we need now are a few gray bean-bag chairs and some beer that comes in those cans you have to punch holes in."

We see the rocket standing upright on Mars at the beginning of the movie and so the whole inside of it is oriented accordingly. Bravo. That this choice reduces the shooting space on any given floor to one medium-size room (or a bunch of smaller rooms each the size of elevator cars) is something that the people who made "It!" simply chose to live with. It certainly allows them to shoot a lot of the movie with a stationary camera, sitcom-style, and everybody knows that stationary camerawork is what you look for in futuristic thrillers.

The women are smiling, so clearly everything is fine here.

The rescue crew actually includes two women, which seems highly progressive right up until you see that they're just there to cook dinner and provide school nurse-level medical care when the men get injured. That's all the future you're getting, 1958.

Carruthers is innocent, however; the real culprit is, in the best 1950s tradition, a lizard man. Carruthers desperately pleads with his captors to believe his innocence, but they don't listen to him until they, too are overtaken by a monster as tenacious as it is ponderous.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the lizard mask didn't fit right and what appears to be the monster's tongue is actually Ray Corrigan's chin. I dare you to find anything more 1950s than that.

"It" is played by Ray Corrigan. I didn't know a whole lot about Mr. Corrigan, so I took a quick trip to the Internet Movie Database, which told me that this was the last of 98 productions he was in. There was a biography I could have read, but I feel like I learned enough just going over the credits and finding that he's credited as playing a gorilla 13 times, an ape five times, and "Gorilla Man" in a 1943 musical comedy called "She's for Me."

I like to imagine that when they found out Corrigan was auditioning for the part, the producers looked up from a pile of heavily smudged mimeographs and said, "THE Ray Corrigan?" I don't know what your options were as a casting director who needed a large hominoid in 1958, but it seems like Corrigan was certainly a bankable choice.

There's a lot of this.

"It" is introduced a bit at a time, in glimpses seen in the darkness. In a better movie this would have built suspense, but here we're simply allowed to ponder the individual shortcomings in the costume, starting with the Barney-esque feet shown wending their way uncertainly through the storage area at the beginning. Soon enough, however, It moves in for blood, and Carruthers renews his cries of warning after a couple of the crew are picked off. Something has to be done.

It's then that we really get into the heart of the action. The human vs. lizard fight standards of the era aren't really that high, as anyone who saw Captain Kirk lugubriously fight the Gorn a decade later can attest, so it's a sort of delightful surprise when the movie steps it up. After It has retreated to the depths of the ship's ventilation system, the humans regroup and... break out the box of grenades.

Yep. In the ship's storage area, sitting right on top of everything, is a medium-sized crate with GRENADES stenciled on it. Somebody packing a spaceship for the express purpose of a round trip to Mars to look into a mysterious disappearance decided the recovery crew needed grenades. I mean, heaven forbid anybody on this inane mission should needlessly endanger themselves, take everything you need to do the job right, but when you're coming down out of space to apprehend your quarry you really don't need the sort of weapon that's typically lobbed two dozen feet by hand. And, of course, the idea of using grenades inside a spaceship has a very limited appeal to anybody who's ever seen Jiffy-Pop in action.

So of course they hang some grenades on one of the vents on a trip wire and wait. Presumably Ray Corrigan went out and auditioned for a few gorilla parts while they shot the scenes he wasn't in.

Then we enter the film's magical second half, in which it becomes clear that It cannot be killed. It never injects its eggs into anybody; it doesn't shapeshift into cunning facsimiles of those whose lives it's taken.... it's just really, really hard to kill this thing. Really hard.

After gas, bullets and grenades fail, the crew uses an inter-floor hatch to seal It into the lower levels of the least interesting spaceship ever while they ponder their options. Eventually, Carruthers and a shipmate take an extremely slow spacewalk down the outside of the ship from one airlock to another so they can sneak up on the creature. They then use a torch to weld some electrical lines to the metal staircase with the intent of shocking It to death.

This doesn't work, and only annoys It. Carruthers makes it back to the airlock, but the other - Lt. Calder - breaks his leg trying to escape his hidey-hole and is forced to hold It at bay with the blowtorch. Rewatching this scene with the Netflix subtitles on, I was heartbroken when it turns out that Calder doesn't actually say "Sure, whatevs" into his radio when they tell him to just hang on. It turns out he's just saying "Sure, what else?" which took a lot of his grizzled teenibopper mystique away, in my opinion.

Also, It is saying "[-roaring]."

This came so close to happening. So close.

Back up in the nurse's office - "[machines beeping]" - Ann Anderson tells Carruthers how "I decided after one bad marriage to bury myself in science." This miniscule fragment of character development comes as she rubs a swab of something on his forehead with one hand and wraps the other one almost all the way around his head. "Van changed your mind?" Carruthers asks, indicating a limp shipmate on an IV drip.

The other nurse, Mary, says that Van needs blood. The ship conveniently has some on board, but all the on-hand blood has been used up and somebody has to go downstairs and get more from the compartment where they apparently store overflow blood.

Rather than make another trip outside, the men plan to simply take off their boots and sneak down the ladder while Calder, still pinned in with his blowtorch, makes noise to distract It. Conveniently, the creature wanders into the reactor room, housed on that level, and they just lock it inside by remotely lowering the door.

"Oh man, I LOVE 'Karma Chameleon'!"

Meanwhile, Van staggers out of bed with a sort-of-good idea: unshield the reactor while the creature is trapped next to it and irradiate it to death. He staggers over to the control panel and raises the shield, once again slightly annoying It. "It's enough to kill a hundred men!" says Van with unnervingly genuine enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, It rips through the extremely thin reactor room door and proceeds to flail one of the guys to death with a frenzied series of waving motions.

The other survivors then flee to the ship's control deck and pile random stuff on top of the last hatch in the hope of making the movie feel even longer. Van woozily accuses Anne - or "Chicken," as he lovingly calls her - of falling for Carruthers. Then the survivors break out the bazooka and wait.

I like to think that when the movie was done, somebody pulled all these switches and dials out of that board and reused them in a boiler room.

Finally, with time running out, Carruthers looks at a huge bank of dials and realizes something: The monster is drawing heavily on the ship's oxygen. So they open the doors and let all the air out. The creature dies.

Back on Earth, the world's least compelling press secretary actually stands there and reads a "teleradio" message sent from the ship, warning that "another name for Mars is 'death.'"

Oh yeah!

In a closing note, the movie poster for "It!" contains the following text: "$50,000 guaranteed! By a world-renowned insurance company to the first person who can prove 'IT!' is not on Mars right now!"

Now, I haven't been able to find an online copy of the poster high-res enough to read the fine print, but it's possible that offer is still standing. If anybody feels like trying to cash in on the saddest promotional stunt ever conducted, now is certainly as good a time as any.

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