IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE was Universal Studio’s first foray into the realm of science fiction (excluding the execrable ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS). The studio was known for its classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, but by the 1950s times had changed. The Atomic Age had been launched and reports of UFO sightings filled the tabloids. Science fiction films were the latest rage in screen scares, as was the then-new process of 3-D. Universal covered all the bases on this one, including a script based on a story by sci-fi titan Ray Bradbury.
Astronomer John and his fiancé Ellen witness a crash landing in the Arizona desert. Thinking a meteor has struck, they go by helicopter to investigate. The object has created a giant crater near an old mine. John goes down to inspect, and gets a glimpse of what looks to be an alien spacecraft. A weird, glittering trail has been left near the craft’s perimeter. A sudden rockslide forces John to scramble back up to safety, leaving the spaceship hidden from view. When he relates his story, everyone from the sheriff to the press to the Army scoff at him, thinking he’s nuts. Even his fellow astronomer Dr. Snell refuses to believe John.
Driving down the highway, John and Ellen are startled by an ethereal vision. They pull off to the side of the road, but see nothing. Meanwhile, the audience can see through the alien’s “eye” as it spies on the young couple. Further on down the road, they come across telephone linemen Frank and George. The workers claim they’ve seen nothing, but Frank has heard some strange noises over the line. John listens in and hears them, too. The linemen leave their job site headed for home, when they’re attacked by the mist shrouded monster.
John and Ellen find the abandoned truck with blood on the door. They cautiously go out into the desert and come across Frank. He’s acting and sounding very odd. John sees a hand sticking out from behind a rock and the couple heads into town convinced something is not right. In truth, the linemen’s human forms have been duplicated by the aliens!
Other townspeople are being duplicated, including a trio of miners and Dr.Snell. John encounters Frank and George in town. They break into a hardware store. John confronts them, and the duplicates tell him they wish no harm. They’re only trying to repair their spaceship. “Trust us. Give us time”, they say.
Frank’s wife and George’s girlfriend go to the sheriff complaining the two men are not acting themselves. John tries to convince the sheriff about the alien landing party. He’s still skeptical but slowly comes around. Ellen drives alone towards home and is stopped on the highway by the duplicate Frank. She too is captured by the extraterrestrial being. The aliens call John and tell him they’ve got Ellen. They want him to go to the mine alone, but the sheriff insists on accompanying him. When they arrive, John sees Ellen dressed in a gorgeous black evening gown. Not realizing this is a duplicate Ellen, he follows her to the mine. The faux Ellen tells him they are repairing their ship and will hold the others hostage until they’re finished. John demands to see the creature in its true form. The alien obliges, and of course its a hideous, one-eyed, big-brained monster!
John tells the sheriff the aliens intentions, and the lawman immediately wants to take action. They fight and John takes off in the sheriff’s car to warn the aliens. A posse is formed. They set up a roadblock just as the duplicate Frank is coming down the highway. The posse fires a barrage of bullets and the alien dies in a fiery crash.
John has gone back to the mine and is confronted by the duplicate Ellen. She says he cannot be trusted because he’s brought the posse on them. She shoots a ray gun which misses him. John now understands this isn’t really Ellen, and guns her down. Going deeper into the mineshaft, he stumbles upon the alien crew, including a doppleganger of himself! The aliens are ready to destroy their persecutors, but John manages to negotiate the release of the hostages in exchange for buying more time for the space crew to fix their ship. The humans leave the mine, and John seals it off with a blast of dynamite, just as the angry mob has arrived. A rumbling shakes the area as the spaceship blasts off into the unknown. “It wasn’t the right time for us to meet”, John says at the film’s conclusion. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars for us to watch. They’ll be back”
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is a worthy successor to the Universal horrors of the 30s and 40s. There are some genuine scares here, and the alien creature is appropriately creepy looking. The film has an eerie mood and atmosphere, helped greatly by the theremin music on the score. It’s the first in a long line of Universal sci-fi flicks, followed by THIS ISLAND EARTH, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, TARANTULA, and many more. The 50s was a grand time for science fiction movies, especially if you like them in the pulp mode like I do.
The cast is great. Richard Carlson stars as John, and he was a staple of 50s sci-fi. His resume includes THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, RIDERS TO THE STARS (which he also directed), CREATURE FROM THE BLACL LAGOON, and VALLEY OF GWANGI. Carlson starred in the series MACKENZIE’S RAIDERS, and later appeared in numerous episodic TV shows.
Barbara Rush makes a beautiful Scream Queen. No stranger to episodic TV herself, Barbara was a regular on the primetime soaps PEYTON PLACE and FALCON CREST. The actress also costarred in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, played a villainess in TV’s BATMAN, and appeared in the cult TV-movie MOON OF THE WOLF with David Janssen. Her last acting gig was a recurring role in the series 7TH HEAVEN. As of this writing, Barbara is still with us at age 88.
There are plenty of other familiar faces in IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. Charles Drake plays the skeptical sheriff. Joe Sawyer of TV’s RIN TIN TIN is Frank, the older of the linemen. The younger is played by Russell Johnson, probably the most familiar due to his role as the Professor on endless reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.
Director Jack Arnold worked with Johnson on 26 of those episodes. Arnold was Universal’s science fiction go-to guy in the 50s, sitting in the director’s chair for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, TARANTULA, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS. Never a household name, Arnold wasn’t a flashy auteur, but got the job done in a respectable and entertaining manner. You could do a lot worse than rediscovering the works of this fine director.
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE holds up well today. The fear of the unknown is a universal one (pun intended!) that today’s audience can surely related to. Besides, it’s a fun and fast 90 minutes of science fiction from a more innocent era. If you get a chance to see it, don’t hesitate. If not, don’t worry. As John states at the film’s ending, “They’ll be back”.