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Director: Edward L. Cahn
Starring: Marshall Thompson, Shawn Smith (Shirley Patterson), Kim Spalding
“…another word for Mars is death”.
While on a mission to an uninhabitable planet, a ship’s crew find a wrecked spacecraft and unwittingly pick up a stowaway in the form of a hostile alien.
Hiding in the shadows to pick off the crew one by one, the creature seems practically invulnerable and the survivors have to improvise weapons and crawl through their ship’s vent system to track it, before it finally meets its demise on the end of a violent decompression.
Sounds familiar, eh? We’re not talking about Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien here though. No, we’re looking back another couple of decades to a film that most definitely provided at least some inspiration for Dan O’Bannon’s masterpiece script.
The threat of alien attack had been almost done to death by 1958, but the majority of films still focused on earth-bound drama. Certainly the sci-fi films that can also be classed as horror tended to be grounded in the real world, which is why It! The Terror From Beyond Space feels so ahead of its time.
It’s a sci-fi, it’s horror and like the more famous film that it would inspire 20 years later, it’s a haunted house movie and even a proto-slasher all at the same time.
In the far-future of 1973, the Challenge 142 leaves Earth for Mars to investigate what happened to the 141, the first manned craft to land on the red planet and from whom nothing has been heard of since. They find only one survivor, Col. Edward Carruthers (Thompson) who is immediately suspected of murdering his nine-man crew to preserve rations in the hope of an eventual rescue.
Carruthers denies the accusations and insists that a hostile humanoid alien is responsible for his crew’s deaths, but struggles to convince anyone of his innocence.
Once the bodies of the new crew start to mount up though, it becomes clear that not only is the Martian creature real, it’s aboard the ship and will not stop until everyone is dead…
There’s a very good reason the base-under-siege scenario has been such a staple of horror cinema for so long. Gather a bunch of different characters, trap them in an environment with no means of escape and unleash a killing machine on them. It beautifully simple but brutally effective way of building tension.
Obviously you still need to deliver on that tension, but It! The Terror From Beyond Space manages to nail it on all counts. Right from the off, there’s a splendid feeling of isolation about it that just sets up a creeping dread. Even without the murderous alien, the Mars and the surrounding space we see here is hostile, cold and unforgiving. We’re reminded just how small man is in the universe and just how little we understand of the cosmic horrors that are waiting for us in the blackness of the void.
And *then* the alien appears.
As monster designs go, it’s one of the better ones of the era. Okay it’s not the Gill Man or a Metalunian mutant, but sci-fi artist and monster maker Paul Blaisdell’s reptilian design is suitably feral looking, not to mention physically imposing. You can absolutely believe that this brute can tear through metal as easily as flesh, meaning that there’s nowhere in the confined environment of the spacecraft that’s safe.
Interestingly, it’s the crew members who are open to the possibility of Carruthers being innocent that are still alive at the end of the journey home, while those who were quick to condemn him were the ones that ended up shredded by the Martian beast.
Not that there’s a huge amount of characterisation going on here. This is an ensemble piece where the situation is the star and director Edward L. Cahn puts all his focus on wringing every last bit of suspense from the cat and mouse game going on in the Challenge 142.
Tightly-paced, brilliantly lit and containing no small amount of genuine tension and dread, It! The Terror From Beyond Space is a minor classic. A B-movie sure, but one at the very high end of what that can mean and a movie whose influence would extend for decades to come.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy