There are a trio of “Body Snatcher” type sci-fi movies which all seem to have snatched source material from all over the place making them not quite original, but their melting pot of ideas have produced something aficionados of the genre may cherish.
It Came from Outer Space (1953) is the first movie and is a favourite of mine from 3-D midnight screenings as a teenager. It is a black and white movie directed by Jack Arnold (1916-92 heart disease), who would also do other Universal-International movies Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
The original story for It Came from Outer Space is based on a screen treatment entitled Atomic Monster adapted by Harry Essex (1910-97) who was known for taking credit for other people’s work and at the end of his career directed the gleefully bad Octaman (1971) and The Cremators (1973), possible proof he lacked any real talent. Love them that I may! Essex was, however, given a retrospective Hugo Award, a sci-fi gong, for Best Dramatic Presentation for his script for It Came from Outer Space.
The original treatment it came from: Atomic Monster aka Ground Zero was originally written by legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012 lengthy illness) whose works have been used in films such as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Illustrated Man (1969).
There has been talk over the years that the It Came from Outer Space script was based on a short story called The Meteor by Bradbury but it may just be another title or short story adaptation from one of several from the original screen drafts, as it doesn’t appear to have been published under that title. But I’m boring you with detail…
The story of It Came from Outer is about a spaceship which crashes to Earth and the aliens who must fix their ship to escape Earth take on the form of human individuals from the local township in order to get the tools and resources needed. The horrifying monsters take on human form.
While Bradbury’s four screen treatments are available from Gauntlet Press, I can’t help but think Bradbury used the seed of his story from another novel published in November 1941 in Startling Stories entitled The Gods Hate Kansas by Joseph J Millard (1908-89). It has been revised and altered over the years with modern lingo added, but you see, at the beginning of that novel a number of meteorites hit Kansas. Aliens on board these “meteors” possess the bodies of humans and make them work on their secret project which includes an invasion on Earth. It’s that crashing on Earth, possession theme to repair a spaceship which is central. However, the aliens in Millard’s novel do not take on human form as a doppelganger but possess the humans.
I know there is only a minor comparison to Bradbury’s treatments but it is there and The Gods Hate Kansas was used for screenplays for the other two movies in this trio – the first is the British movie They Came from Beyond Space (1967). Incidentally, the title The Gods Hate Kansas is based on the “fact” that more meteorites fall in that American state than any other place on Earth. The third film is the American television movie Night Slaves (1970). This film has, like the protagonist in They Came from Beyond Space, a metal plate in his head which stops him being possessed or controlled by the aliens which have crash landed near a small town and are tying to fix their craft again using the population, who this time seem to be in some sort of trance as a result of possession. So Night Slaves is a mixture of It Came from Outer Space and They Came from Beyond Space.
Yet Night Slaves is based on a novel by Jerry Sohl (1913-2002) and was adapted into the final teleplay. That book was published in 1965 around the time of Sohl’s greatest success from writing for television shows The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. He also wrote a few Star Trek episodes.
So these three movies, as you can see, are all related.
The best is certainly It Came from Outer Space and it stars the solid and dependable Richard Carlson (1912-77 cerebral haemorrhage), whose sanity is questioned when he says he’s seen a spaceship and an alien buried deep inside a mountain after a meteorite crashes to Earth and it is then covered by a landslide.
With a beautiful Barbara Rush (1927-), who won a Golden Globe for this film as Best Newcomer, in tow, the film has the dramatic dynamic throughout that these aliens may be malevolent as they make doppelgangers of the townsfolk for “some purpose”. Or are they just nice aliens going about their business so they can leave this gigantic mess of a planet as soon as possible? I mean wouldn’t you? No wonder UFO’s usually pass us by or if aliens are among us they don’t let the general population know – just like It Came from Outer Space.
So we are left wondering when one of the aliens says creepily to a couple of telephone linesmen it has captured: “Don’t be afraid… it is within our power to transform ourselves to look like you… We cannot, we would not take your souls or minds or bodies… Don’t be afraid!” The alien’s bodies simply take on the form of the human they have been in contact with. Creepy enough that it is!
Of course there’s a policeman who doesn’t believe a damn thing Carlson says when he says he saw one of the linesmen dead. Carlson got it wrong anyway but it doesn’t help his or the alien castaways’ reputations.
As much as I love Carlson the actor, his delivery is delivered on an almost juvenile level, but to a kid it’s kind of neat and very powerful. I always wanted to be the scientist he was in The Magnetic Monster (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Minus some of his silly hats! Still, he has gravitas and with his voice from too many Camel cigarettes, Carlson delivers a couple of magnificent speeches – for a sci-fi movie! Shakespeare it aint!! But Bradbury it is.
“Wherever you are, whatever you are, I want to understand you, I want to help you…”
It is that fear of the unknown or what is different which is at the heart of It Came from Outer Space. And it is this feeling, along with the Communist scare at the time, in which you didn’t know if your neighbour was a Commie, let alone an alien, which inspired Jack Finney’s (1911-1995 pneumonia) novel The Body Snatchers (written in 1955) which quickly became the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and was remade again in 1978. Both are very good.
Then there is Robert A Heinlein’s (1907-88 emphysema) 1951 novel The Puppet Masters which had parasites taking over the world without the population knowing. Again that one prefigures Bradbury’s Atomic Monster. There is a Disney produced 1994 movie based on that novel which is a compromise of the original book but is worth a look despite its poor reviews.
It Came from Outer Space is one of the first decently budgeted sci-fi movies of the 1950s, albeit still a B-movie. Its budget was apparently $800,000 but it paved the way for producer William Alland (1916-1997 heart disease) to make the classic landmark This Island Earth (1955) in colour.
Steven Spielberg has credited It Came from Outer Space and its story of aliens who neither want to help or harm the human race and as inspiration for Close Enocunters of the Third Kind (1977). And don’t forget the reference in the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Science Fiction/Double Feature song: “Then at a deadly pace It Came from Outer Space, and this is how the message rang…”
Of course, it’s not for everyone, as most of the films I discuss aren’t. When I went to a midnight 1980s screening of the film in 3-D, during the scene where Carlson looks through the telescope at the night sky, some guy called out: “I spy with my little eye” much to the delight of the audience. But as the film progressed, it was obvious such moments are in short supply because it is so well written and tense. I believe that is due to Ray Bradbury and not the “award winning” Harry Essex.
As for They Came from Beyond Space (1967), it gets some remarkably awful reviews in comparison. Released as a double bill with an even better (or worse) cult film The Terrornauts (also 1967) – they have been described as the two worst movies ever produced by Amicus Productions.
With its budget already spent on The Terrornauts, They Came from Beyond Space had to settle for sets used from Dr Who movie Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 (1966).
If you read the book The Gods Hate Kansas there are differences, the main one being that the film is set in Cornwall in England. I won’t go much further except to mention the Crimson Plague is mentioned only in passing in the movie as some sort of pestilence which strikes the small town near where the original set of meteors have crash-landed in formation. There was more Crimson Plague in the book. Obviously, some sort of intelligence is behind it all… This time they are not very nice or they misunderstand the human race. Not surprising since the human race doesn’t understand itself half the time!
Amicus was a rival to England’s other studio Hammer Film Productions (1934- mid 1980s) although on a smaller scale. Amicus Productions were active between 1962 and 1977 and was founded by American producers Milton Subotsky (1921-91 heart disease) and Max Rosenberg (1914-2004). Amicus means friendship in Latin and they are best known for their horror portmanteau films such as Torture Garden (1967), The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973). These were generally star-studded affairs with faded actors and stories which usually had a twist.
The film the producers were most proud of making was William Friedkin’s film version of Harold Pinter’s (1930-2008 liver cancer) play The Birthday Party (1968). Before the critical success of that film they endured the critical drubbing of They Came from Beyond Space which is rated a BOMB by critic Leonard Maltin while others called it an “unpleasant looking re-tread of It Came from Outer Space”.
Milton Subotsky wrote the screenplay for this cheap looking but, to me, still enjoyable sci-fi, which stars cult favourite Robert Hutton who directed the so bad it’s good The Slime People several years earlier. He has a metal plate in his head, which saves him from being possessed by the aliens, while his girlfriend played by Jennifer Jayne (1931-2006) is one of the first to fall under the spell of them. Jayne was also in the British sci-fi monster film The Trollenberg Terror aka The Crawling Eye (1958) about giant eye creatures that invade a mountain village. I’ve seen it several times and it’s a bit of black and white hokum worth a look.
Jayne is effectively creepy as the possessed woman, one of many in the village, who are using a farm as a base where beneath the surface they are working on their damaged space craft. Opposed to It Came from Outer Space, these aliens are nasty and it is up to Hutton, who learns humans are only immune to alien possession if they cover their heads with silver, to save the day.
So he gets his friend to melt down his trophy collection to make helmets in a bid to infiltrate and end the alien infestation.
The script may be no great shakes dialogue-wise and the music is a bit underwhelming but there is something about the bare bones of this movie which makes it work. Perhaps it’s just the potency of the basic “original” story.
The acting is better than the budget deserves and there’s not any notable special effects that rate a mention.
Confronting the aliens and his possessed girlfriend, Hutton says: “I wanted to find out what was happening… I also happen to be in love with you.” Jayne replies: “Sentiment. I will not have sentiment interfering with our vital work.”
Then later, Hutton, in a blink and you’ll miss it nod to one of the It Came from Outer Space speeches says: “Can’t you tell me what you’re doing? I might be able to understand… to help you!”
It all pales in comparison to It Came from Outer Space and goes to show what a lack of time and money can do to a film. However, I think that despite one of the heroes wearing a silver plated colander on his head, it is less ridiculous to those in search of a laugh than the original movie. It Came from Outer Space features one of the worst rubber spiders in film history! They Came from Beyond Space is so cheap it isn’t funny – the seams are blatantly showing but poverty isn’t necessarily laugh-inducing.
Hutton is cerebral enough to carry the film like Carlson did and Jayne like Barbara Rush was never so fetching.
Stephen King must have been a fan of both movies as his novel The Tommyknockers has a buried alien spacecraft as well as a character immune to alien possession due to having a metal plate in his head.
In the end of They Came from Beyond Space we meet The Master of the Moon Played by Brit horror regular Michael Gough (1916-2011 pneumonia)…you see these aliens have been trapped on the moon… and it was all a bit of a misunderstanding… if only the aliens had asked us, then humanity would have let them fix their craft in peace so the aliens could go back to their home planet and die.
It’s a silly and perfunctory ending with no set, just the actors standing around in darkness as if there wasn’t a penny left in the budget to spend on set design. If only they had sat down together in the first place… the producers too and then there wouldn’t have been all the trouble with the aliens… and the critics!
That the aliens are called “they”, we automatically know they are not one of us, that we are suspicious of them, that they are not sympathetic. At the end of It Came from Outer Space Richard Carlson says: “They’ll be back”. I don’t know why. They are body snatchers after all and can’t help themselves – but at least the endings to these first two movies are far happier than Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the whole world is enveloped and taken over by aliens.
The 1970 television movie Night Slaves stars James Franciscus (1934-91 emphysema) hot after the success of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) which was also directed by Ted Post. He directed Franciscus again in the cult item in waiting Nightkill (1980).
Franciscus also has a metal plate in his head caused by a car accident. With his adulterous wife in tow, the pair go on a road trip which leads to a town where they stay the night at a bed and breakfast. Franciscus wakes to find his wife and the rest of the townspeople getting into trucks to be taken somewhere in the middle of the night. When morning comes everything’s back to normal and no one believes Franciscus, including the local sheriff… Sound familiar?
The elements of It Came from Outer Space and They Came from Outer Space are there in this 70-odd minute film, which features Andrew Prine as the village idiot and as one of the head aliens who possesses him. Someone suggested these films might have inspired the V (1983) television miniseries as Prine stars in that and like that series They Came from Beyond Space has bodies kept on ice in a freezer for no explained purpose.
Anyway, no one except Franciscus remembers the events of the previous evenings as they pass. One night, a mysterious girl appears and Franciscus starts falling for her. He’s a self-confessed “dropout” unhappy in marriage who discovers love once more. It’s just this girl is from another planet – or the spirit possessing her body is.
Eventually, Franciscus is taken to the spaceship being serviced in question and the names of the girl and ringleader Prine are Naillil and Noel. Spelt backwards and they are the names of the couple killed in the car accident Franciscus damaged his skull in – Lillian and Leon. So during the day, his wife thinks he’s nuts dreaming up people with mirror image names.
Other cast members include a pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielson (1926-2010 pneumonia) as the sheriff and 1940s star Ann Sothern’s (1909-2001 heart failure) daughter Tisha Sterling (1944-) as Naillil. Lee Grant (c1925-) is the wife.
Franciscus is an actor who never quite got his due. He doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame despite his work on film and television and charity work on celebrity tennis events. He doesn’t even have a grave you can visit. In Night Slaves he is his typical self and is as good as he always was. He is another actor like Carlson with a charming cigarette-affected voice.
As is usual with 1970s television movies that were pumped out to fill weekly spots, it is not full of great dialogue, just good acting and that engaging ingenious storyline again. What is great about this movie is its ending, which is strangely wonderful in a romantic sense and in terms of science fiction. Here, Franciscus perishes and perhaps his soul is transferred to the spaceship after it leaves his body behind and scorch-marks in the paddock where the ship took off.
Apparently the ending of Jerry Sohl’s novel was less romantic and questioned Franciscus’ sanity and whether he really did imagine it all. He really was “acting a little strange”.
A few movies of the same era as Night Slaves from the ABC network’s Movie of the Week are classics such as Duel (1971) and The Night Stalker (1972). Night Slaves gets an honourable mention.
So there is a trio of sci-fi films inextricably linked despite separate original sources. The best is the first but the other two are also of interest. It is interesting that cult actors Richard Carlson and James Franciscus appeared together in another sci-fi fantasy film The Valley of Gwangi in 1969 with its pre-Lost World dinosaurs. Another influence on Spielberg perhaps?
As the old saying goes: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is obvious in the case of these movies. Also when it comes to aliens landing on Earth and turning themselves into us or using us as conduits – I think that if it hasn’t happened already, these movies are as flattering and as close as it’s going to get!