Darkness. Flare of acetylene torch—revealing a man sitting on the floor, wedged in between two pieces of bulky equipment. The headgear he is wearing has been ripped open, revealing his face, a single stream of blood trickling down his forehead. He waits in the darkness, the only light the glare from the torch.
By the age of nine, I’d seen more than my share of movie heroics, usually featuring A-list actors portraying courageous characters risking all, being selfless, and “doing what a man’s gotta do.” Many of these actors were undeniably talented, but it’s also true they starred in studio films with big budgets, had top screenwriters providing the dialogue, and often featured some of Hollywood’s best directors overseeing the action.
From a speaker inside Lt. Calder’s damaged headgear, a voice is heard:
Voice: Can you hear me?
Calder: Loud and clear. Nice to have company.
Voice: Are you all right?
Calder: I’m alive, if that’s what you mean.
Paul Langston—playing a supporting character in a B science fiction film, outfitted in what looks like a satin space suit with a squared-off helmet—helped define for a nine-year-old boy the idea of courage and how it is expressed. The character Langston plays has a broken leg, is unable to move, and has an acetylene torch as his only weapon. There’s one more thing—an indestructible Martian creature is trying to kill him.
Calder: I picked a good spot right between the induction pumps.
Voice: You mean it can’t get at you?
Calder: It could if I didn’t have this torch. To reach me, it has to stretch down in. Every time it does, I give it the torch right in the eyes. (pause) Here he comes again!
Limited to voice and facial expressions, Langston manages to create a sense of controlled panic. His performance gives a reality to the alien monster that the film’s low budget is unable to achieve and clever direction is unable to make credible. The scenes with his character, isolated and alone, have a direct kind of terror to them and a stoic, no-frills bravery.
Monstrous roar of anger and frustration. The creature swings at Calder with its huge misshapen hands, trying to rip him apart. Calder leans forward, thrusts the torch at the creature again and again, until, finally, the creature withdraws. For the moment. Until the next attack.
As a kid sitting in front of a TV in the mid-1960s, it was clear to me that It! The Terror from beyond Space was unlike any science fiction film I’d ever seen before. In the first four minutes, the following is established: A spaceship has crashed on Mars, and now, eight months later, a second rescue ship has landed. In an effort to conserve resources and hold out longer, it is believed that the captain of the crashed ship murdered his crew, despite his claim that some kind of creature was responsible. Then four minutes into the film, we get our first glimpse of the Martian monster—a bulky, towering silhouette making its way through the cargo area of the rescue ship.
At the four-minute mark in most films of the period, you were lucky if you had met the first member of a crew being assembled to go to the moon or Mars or wherever. Instead of wasting time with a training montage, a delayed takeoff, or lots of mind-numbing chitchat aboard the spaceship (only interrupted by an obligatory meteor shower), It! The Terror from beyond Space gets right down to the deadly game of attrition waged by the Martian monster against the spaceship’s crew.
Calder waits in the darkness. In a kind of grim play-by-play, he relays the monster’s movements to his fellow crew members.
Calder: Hey! Hey, it’s moving. It’s going up the ladder. I can hear him prowlin’ around up there. Bangin’ into everything it passes! It’s going nuts!
As an adult, watching the movie again for the first time in forty years, I was surprised at how well it held up. From the first interior shot, It! The Terror from beyond Space sets itself apart from other science fiction movies of the 1950s by creating a kind of sci-fi noir look. The ship is crisscrossed with shadows, the black-and-white cinematography emphasizing areas lost in pools of black while illuminating others with a harsh bright light, throwing characters into sharp, sudden relief.
The director, Edward L. Cahn, makes judicious use of Curtiz-like camera movements, pushing in to reveal an important detail, pulling back to reframe a shot, or dollying behind and past equipment and structural supports, establishing the confined space in which the deadly cat and mouse game between the alien and the crew will be played out.
Another plus is Jerome Bixby’s screenplay, which makes clever use of the standard needle-shaped spaceship. The ship is divided into six levels, and each level has a circular hatch at its center, with stairs leading up to the next level and down to the one below. As the Martian creature pounds its way up through each sealed hatch, the crew is forced to retreat to the level above until they are finally trapped at the top of the ship. Each level also has its own airlock, allowing members of the crew to exit in space suits and reenter an airlock a level below the monster in an effort to catch it by surprise.
The atmospheric lighting; the use of a torch as a weapon; crawling through confined ductwork in an effort to track down the monster; and the final victory over the creature—these are all elements that later turn up in Alien. But It! The Terror from beyond Space is more than just a blueprint for a modern big-budget hit. It is a self-contained, suspenseful, almost-perfect example of what a B movie can achieve.
And at its heart, in a handful of unforgettable scenes, is the character of Lt. James Calder. He is up against a creature that gas bombs, electricity, grenades, and even exposure to intense radiation cannot kill.
Calder waits in the dark. Immobile. His only weapons: a torch—and his courage.
Calder: Still alive. Don’t ask me why I bother.
Voice: Can you see it?
Calder: Big as death. It’s been sittin’ here for the last half hour—lickin’ its chops.
It! The Terror from beyond Space is a film that the kid I once was and the grown-up I have become can both agree on.