Released: October 4, 2016
Synopsis: An insular desert community is infiltrated by bug-eyed aliens that have crash-landed and need time to repair their powerful ship.
Special Features: 2002 Audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver / 2000 making-of featurette: “The Universe According to Universal” (31:35) / 2D and 3D theatrical trailers / 2D version of “It Came from Outer Space”.
A sci-fi classic of the first order, It Came from Outer Space is packed with a mass of genre clichés, some of which were seeded in a script co-authored by Ray Bradbury, but the film remains oddly fresh, perhaps because it’s neither a full-on bug-eyed monster movie, nor a minimalist thriller.
The original premise reportedly stemmed from producer William Alland, who engaged Bradbury to write a script that was subsequently pared down by Harry Essex (Kansas City Confidential), and with Jack Arnold on board to direct, Space was developed and shot as an accidental alien visitation thriller in which the monster is never seen. A screening for studio brass led to an order for reshoots that involved monster footage, but Arnold managed to keep the creature’s onscreen time to relatively limited glimpses; the one-eyed, troll figures aren’t hidden anymore from audiences, but in most cases, their creepy appearances are fleeting.
Both the residual prosaic Bradbury dialogue and Arnold’s eerie use of desert landscapes ensure the characters are trapped in a perpetual state of paranoia; primarily fear of being infiltrated by aliens that have just landed, and may have seeded themselves into the community all along. Not unlike Them! (1954), this is a tale of humans who’ve lulled themselves into a false state of control and stability by spreading themselves outward over harsh terrain, with just the radio, telephone, and the automobile offering communication and safety from freakish danger.
Rather than take these security blankets away from characters, the script focuses on the likelihood of aliens being able to monitor humans via direct infiltration as clones of otherwise missing townsfolk, or via miles of highway-flanked telephone wires which relay mundane details and little bursts of discoveries or suspicions.
Arnold exploits the sense of being monitored by repeatedly cutting to aerial shots that convey the long spaces between an area of questionable activities (alien abductions in remote locales), and the town centre where the local sheriff resides. The cars and lines of communications are never severed, but it’s the way aliens exploit distance that give them an upper hand.
Genre icon Richard Carlson (The Magnetic Monster) is John Putnam, an astrologist who witnesses the sudden crash of a flaming meteor near his remote homestead. With girlfriend in tow – schoolteacher Ellen Fields (When Worlds Collide’s Barbara Rush) – he finds a spherical ship caught in the nook of a crater. Ellen initially waves off his claims of an alien ship as nonsense – a sudden rockslide ultimately smothers the chance of showing anyone any proof – but she eventually agrees something’s amiss when two telephone workers (one played by Gilligan’s Island’s Russell Johnson) disappear, and their car almost slams into a one-eyed creature.
A rivalry over Ellen between Putnam and Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) is classically contrived, and Putnam’s ability to sway Matt from any action is preposterous, but what’s novel to the story is that aliens have accidentally crashed on earth and want to leave pronto instead of mount an insidious conquest of humankind. The one-eyed trolls later use citizens as hostages to keep Putnam quiet, and hold off Matt until ship repairs have been completed and the aliens can continue their voyage – a time-sensitive hook that makes the lack of U.S. military aide somewhat acceptable.
For the drama’s entirety, the town is basically on its own, and as far as alien visitations are concerned, Putnam’s claims are written-off as small town paranoia by the media (in print, radio broadcasts, and a live shot TV report), which provides swell cover for the aliens.
If there were any tertiary character stories (like sixth-billed Kathleen Hughes, featured in press shots as the screaming blonde in spite of having one scene), they must have been pruned from the final shooting script, because this is a lean, economical tale of paranoia that established a clean template for the genre, especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) which balanced pacing with taut atmosphere; in both films, the respective towns are depictions of modern suburban Americana that prove vulnerable to stealthy alien presences.
Space was Universal’s first 3D film, the first to feature an ‘alien POV’, the first 3D sci-fi film, and the first 3D movie released widescreen. (Both the prior 2002 DVD and the 2016 Blu-ray sport 1.37:1 transfers, but Space was apparently also released in a matted 1.85:1 ration.)
It’s also a rare film with an early stereo audio mix with panned dialogue – something typical of Fox’s CinemaScope films) – and this restoration reportedly marks the first time the dynamic mix has been heard with maximum boom. The music is sharp, the effects have decent rumble, and although there is audible hiss in the dialogue tracks, for such rare surviving elements, the stereo mix is a rare treat.
Decades since its release, Space still boasts some of the best 3D effects put on film. Arnold and cinematographer Clifford Stine were more restrained in their use of 3D: besides showing the descending spacecraft twice, a mass of tumbling boulders, and some peripheral shocks, the emphasis is on creating a deep-focus canvas from which objects bleed out instead of jut towards audiences.
Not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s similarly intelligent use of 3D in Dial M for Murder (1954), 3D is also used to deepen the film’s paranoia: any shots involving fog or mist has the smoky clouds adding depth to the barren locations, and in one great moment, two aliens reformulated as humans stand ominously as shadowy figures in a doorway, threatening to kill their hostages if Putnam brings in the law.
Even better is a simple shot of Putnam and Ellen by a fireplace: from the forefront to the back, the multiple planes of activity have the crackling fire, the lovers, and a candelabra in the background – all crisp and clear in this gorgeous restoration by the 3-D Film Archive.
Universal’s BR sports both flat and 3D versions (with the former showing some palpable DNR), and like Warner Bros.’ House of Wax DVD and BR, the 3D version of Space also features an Intermission card that’s placed around the 1 hour mark, a presumption by Universal that audiences unaccustomed to 3D might need a pause before putting back on the glasses for the denouement.
Ported over from the 2002 DVD is Tom Weaver’s fact-filled commentary that covers pretty much every aspect of the film’s production and release, plus a half-hour featurette completed in 2000 where film historian Rudy Behlmer stitches together clips and interviews with historians Paul Jensen, Bob Burns, and Vicent DiFate; 3D restorationist Bob Furmanek; and film music historian / Monstrous Movie Music Producer David Schecter. Co-composer Irving Gertz is the only surviving member of the production in the featurette, and filmmusic fans will appreciate the heavier attention given to the score that was co-composed with Henry Mancini and Herman Stein.
Universal’s insistence on stamping an ‘Also available from’ caption at the beginning of every film clip is grating to the max, and silly, since most ardent fans probably already own a share of the extracted shockers already.
Amid all the ephemera within the featurette and commentary, one odd bit of stage direction overlooked by all still stands out: close to the finale, Ellen pours a cup of coffee for her Putnam, and both the cup and steaming put are placed on a live radio and left there as they head off for some late night sleuthing. I guess radios in 1953 were encased in special watertight shells to ensure they could beam radio shows and keep hot beverages warm from the heat of the interior tubes.
In a genuine quirk of distribution, Space, alongside The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) and October Sky (1999) were released stateside as Best Buy exclusives and will street to regular consumers Feb. 14, 2017, but the same trio of titles were released in Canada Oct. 4, 2016 – a rare treat, given we’re often forced to wait until the U.S. street date.
In 1996. Jim and Ken Wheat penned a TV sequel, It Came from Outer Space II, but it’s the original that remains a cherished classic among genre fans, especially due to Carlson’s portrayal and the screenwriters’ rendering of Putnam as a pro-active, physically agile egghead who leads the charge for answers instead of being an aging fuddy-duddy who bumbles and fumbles around, and offers key bits of information to younger, snappier leading men (as is definitely the case in Them!).
Although Jack Arnold would direct a slew of bug-eyed monster classics – Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Space Children (1958), and Monster on the Campus (1958) – his efforts to tackle other genres were more rarefied. The Mouse That Roared (1959) is a comedy classic, but by the late 1960s Arnold was trapped in TV, directing generic episodes right up to The Love Boat in 1983, after which he retired, and passed away in 1992.
Barbara Rush also co-starred in the 3D western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) and soon appeared in A-level productions, including Magnificent Obsession (1954), Bigger Than Life (1956), The Young Lions (1958), and Come Blow Your Horn (1963), before easing into episodic TV.
Richard Carlson also appeared in two more 3Ds flicks: William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). As for one-scene hottie Kathleen Hughes, she co-starred with Edward G. Robinson and John Forsythe in Jack Arnold’s film noir The Glass Web (1953).
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review