The Earth Dies Screaming

Continuing with the theme of lower budget British movies that I’ve been exploring of late, let’s move away from the crime and noir genres featured so far and look at an area where it could be argued that a more frugal approach is likely to be more harmful. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Sci-Fi is hurt when the cash is in short supply, that the effects suffer and the cheese factor rises proportionately. Well once again, this conventional wisdom may be no more than prejudice wearing the mask of critical conformity. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is a film which was clearly made on the cheap, using a very small cast and with a running times which comes in at just over an hour.

A short running time means we need to cut to the chase at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s precisely how this movie begins. Vehicles go catastrophically out of control and derail,crash or drop out of the sky, people die abruptly and dramatically. As the title suggest, the Earth is dying, just not with a scream. Although we don’t know why this is happening it’s enough to know that it is, that we’re witnessing an apparently inexplicable cataclysm. Yet there is a natural curiosity, a need to understand and try to make some kind of sense. And there’s a feeling that this knowledge will come our way when we see Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), grim-faced but comfortingly calm and driving along with an air of purpose. As he searches around the desolate village for a means of communication, anything which might raise a living voice anywhere, we get a taste of the enormity of his situation. For a time it looks like he might actually be the last man alive but there’s only a limited amount of dramatic potential in such a setup. No, we need other people to interact with and provide the conflict without which no dramatic situation can truly exist. Enter Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price) and his traveling companion, Peggy (Virginia Field), representing treachery and romance respectively. Others also come on the scene – Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell to bring some pathos, while David Spenser and Anna Palk are a simultaneously surly and hopeful vision of the future. So, as this small, disparate group gathers in the village inn to plan their next move, we get a hint of what may have happened and who (or perhaps what) was behind it.

The name of Terence Fisher must surely be familiar to even a casual fan of British cult cinema. It’s hard not to think of Fisher without Hammer coming to mind, such was his intimate association with the studio. From the early crime and noir pictures of the early to mid 1950s right through to 1970s Fisher’s name regularly popped up in the credits as director, frequently taking charge of some of their most famous and influential movies. The fact The Earth Dies Screaming was also produced by Lippert Films (one of the company’s last titles), another recognizable collaborator with Hammer ties in with this feeling. However, that’s all it is – a feeling – as the famous old British studio didn’t have a hand in this one and had by this time gradually moved away from Sci-Fi, tending to favor (with the odd notable exception) their trademark Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers. Fisher’s flair for and experience of handling pulpy, genre material such as this is evident throughout. There’s a smoothness and confidence to the storytelling and it moves at a very comfortable pace. It’s difficult not to make a comparison with Target Earth, which had been made in the US a decade earlier. That film had used a very similar premise but, in my opinion at least, nowhere near as successfully. The Earth Dies Screaming uses its limited locations to maximum effect and avoids looking any cheaper than absolutely necessary. More importantly though, there is no attempt to move beyond the small, tight-knit cast. This means the focus remains where it should, cuts out any superfluous distractions, and allows the viewer to become better acquainted with these people – all crucial factors in an hour-long feature.

In a film like this, where you have a frankly fantastic storyline, it’s advisable to cast the kind of people who are capable of grounding it all, of keeping the histrionics to a minimum and ensuring that the notionally unbelievable attains a degree of credibility. Willard Parker had that careworn solidity about him, an aura of competence and cool dependability. The Earth Dies Screaming came near the end (he retired from the business after making only two more movies) of what had been a long and varied career for Parker. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that he was the most exciting screen presence but, as I noted, that’s not the quality this production called for. His wife Virginia Field was making her only cinema appearance opposite him – although a bit of research indicates the couple had appeared together in a number of television shows  in the 50s – and also provides a collected and reassuring face. When our attention is on a beleaguered and bewildered group as is the case here, the dynamic works best when there is at lest one disreputable or dangerous member to stoke additional conflict. And it’s difficult to think of anyone who fit the bill better than Dennis Price, a man who practically had a full-time job playing louche wastrels. The rest  of the pared down cast perform admirably – Thorley Walters never disappoints anyway and only David Spenser comes across as mildly irritating, although I suspect that was part of his remit.

The Earth Dies Screaming has been available on a very nice-looking DVD from MGM in the US for a good many years and has recently made an appearance on Blu-ray too. While I’ve no doubt the BD will look excellent I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the old DVD and therefore haven’t bothered to think about an upgrade. That disc has a clean and sharp print presented in the 1.66:1 ratio, and I have no complaints about it. I feel it’s a marvelous little movie, of a type which challenges the idea of Sci-Fi requiring large amounts of money and jaw-dropping effects to be successful. If you haven’t seen it, look out for it and give it a go.

Quatermass and the Pit

Once upon a time it was quite common to see movies either inspiring TV shows or leading to direct spin-offs. This still happens of course but it doesn’t seem to take place with the same frequency. On the other hand, we’ve now grown accustomed to seeing TV shows being adapted or reimagined as big screen vehicles, with variable success. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking the latter is a purely modern phenomenon. But it’s not really, it had been going on long ago and one of the studios that became aware early on of the potential for commercial exploitation was Hammer in the UK. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials were big hits for the BBC and Hammer seized the opportunity to turn them into cinema features, significantly boosting their fortunes and profile in the process. That was in the 50s, and Hammer would return to this winning formula again in the following decade when Quatermass and the Pit (1967) stylishly revived the series in color.

The ominous-sounding pit of the title is an excavation taking place at a London underground station, Hobbs End, aimed at extending the line. This is our point of entry, following the workmen as they shovel out the clay.  In the midst of this routine labor something irregular is spotted trundling along the conveyor belt – the remains of a skull. Almost immediately, another section of earth is pulled away to reveal an almost complete skeleton. So one excavation gives way to another, the structural yielding to the archaeological, this one under the supervision of Dr Roney (James Donald). However, the relatively standard prehistoric material being retrieved isn’t all that’s been buried at this site, the unexpected discovery of an unfamiliar casing suggests there might be an explosive device keeping the ancient residents company. And it’s here that Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), professor of physics and head of the government’s rocket research, comes into the picture. Furthermore, this is also the stage at which the film shifts from the realm of the mundane towards that of the fantastic, and potentially horrific. Quatermass, Roney, and Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), find themselves gradually drawn to the conclusion that the contents of Hobbs End station may not be from this planet at all. If their theories are correct, they may have stumbled upon that long sought after “missing link” in the evolutionary chain, something which promises to be not only startling in its audacity but also terrifying in potency and destructiveness.

I’ve never seen the original TV serial that formed the basis for this adaptation but I’ve heard that it was a triumph, a high point for the medium. I’ve also seen claims that the film, while very good, didn’t quite measure up to its origins. I do intend to fill in this gap in my viewing knowledge at some point but for now all I can do is comment on the movie as I see it. I think I first saw this at some time back in the 1980s and it made an instant impression. Anyone familiar with Hammer films will know what I mean when I say that they had a “feel” to them which was unmistakable. This was partly due to the casting but, as with films like Quatermass and the Pit, it was still apparent even if many of the faces weren’t as familiar. It was as much the contribution of the team behind the cameras that created that unique Hammer vibe as anything. Just seeing credits which promised production by Anthony Nelson Keys, photography by Arthur Grant, art direction by Bernard Robinson etc meant you were in for a cinematic experience that had Hammer stamped all over it.

Roy Ward Baker had enjoyed success in Hollywood, UK cinema and then worked quite extensively in British TV before coming to Hammer. As such, his was a sure hand directing and he obviously slotted neatly into the team as he went on to take charge of a number of features for the studio.  Possibly as a result of being a serial in the first place the script, having presumably been compressed to some extent, moves along at a reasonable pace, taking its time only where necessary, and there’s no shortage of incident to hold the attention. Sci-Fi generally depends on intelligent writing and, perhaps more so in recent times, visual effects to be considered successful. While I don’t believe effects are the be all and end all in any production, it’s clear that they do play a part in the enjoyment of many – in Quatermass and the Pit this aspect ought to be considered perfectly satisfactory although obviously not of the kind audiences today would be used to. Of greater importance is the quality of the writing and again, without wishing to go into too much detail and thus spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I believe Kneale’s script fulfills the basic requirement of any good piece of science fiction: it asks as many questions as it answers and encourages the viewer to think.

Kneale never made any secret of the fact he disapproved (to say the least) of the decision to cast US actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the first two adaptations of his work, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, something I’ve seen fans complain about too. Frankly, I never had any problem with Donlevy and quite liked the energy and assertiveness he brought to his interpretation, although I can understand too how a writer might feel displeased with a characterization he found too far removed from his own vision. Anyway, Andrew Keir tackles the role of Quatermass in a different way, emphasizing the more thoughtful sides of the man but retaining something of an edge at the same time. That tougher, more stubborn streak emerges most noticeably when he’s confronting the supercilious and dismissive Colonel Breen whose military inflexibility is captured neatly by Julian Glover. James Donald has a certain reserve and remoteness as Roney, lacking some of the warmth and companionable charm of Keir, but that’s something which serves his character well, bearing in mind how he’s seen to develop in the latter stages of the film in particular. Barbara Shelley feels like one of the constants of British TV and cinema. She appeared in a huge number of notable productions, and something like a half dozen or so Hammer films among them. The roles offered to women in Sci-Fi weren’t always the most interesting yet Shelley’s part in Quatermass and the Pit is actually quite pivotal and she comes across as playing an important part in the central team.

Some Hammer films have been difficult to come by and really only became readily available in recent years. However, that was never the situation with Quatermass and the Pit, it being one of those titles that never seemed to be out of print for any length of time. I had the DVD for years and then picked up the UK Blu-ray last year as I reckoned it was the kind of movie that might benefit from the upgrade, and it does. The old DVD  was perfectly acceptable to my eyes but the Hi-Def version brings out the details and colors even more and gives the whole thing an attractive punch. The film remains an absorbing one no matter how it’s viewed of course – it’s up there among the very best Hammer productions and it’s also one of the finest British Sci-Fi movies.

The Thing from Another World

I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.

Those words quoted above are the last lines of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), a plea for caution and vigilance directed at an audience which had just spent an hour and a half having the pants scared off it and, beyond the world of the movies, was taking its first tentative steps into a (fairly) new decade where politics and science were moving ahead in a challenging fashion. As the Cold War tightened its icy grip on the world, Hollywood was serving up its own slice of chilling paranoia where the threat posed by unknown, malignant forces from without was never far away.

The wind is blowing cold in Anchorage, Alaska, intruding from time to time on the warm interiors of the USAF base. It’s here that we first see Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), playing cards with  his men, easy in the company of those he knows well. And it’s also here that news first filters through of a downed, unidentified aircraft. The scientists at a polar research station picked up images of it but they can’t be sure what it is. So Hendry and his crew are sent north to see if they can assist in locating, identifying and dealing with whatever came down out on the ice. Measurements at the research station suggest it must have been something large that dropped from the skies, and sure enough that proves to be the case. To the amazement of those present, it would appear they have come upon a genuine flying saucer. However, their pleasure is to be short-lived as the efforts to melt the surrounding ice lead to the destruction of the craft. Yet all is not lost; a body remains intact, encased in a solid block of ice. Naturally, this one surviving element is brought back to the research station to be kept until it has been decided how to proceed, although a moment’s carelessness sees events take a different and altogether more dangerous turn. That slab of polar ice contains something strong, potentially indestructible, and hungry.

The Thing from Another World sees Howard Hawks listed as producer while Christian Nyby gets the directing credit. According to most of those involved, that’s how the job was divided up although the finished product clearly shows a considerable bit of input from Hawks – he said himself that he worked on the trademark overlapping dialogue that’s to be found throughout the film. So, while this is clearly a Sci-Fi movie, and an iconic and influential one at that, I think it’s fair to say it’s a Hawks movie first and foremost. Even  though I don’t wish to drag this piece too deeply into comparison territory, the fact that this John W Campbell story was remade in 1982 by John Carpenter and has a markedly different feel should tell us that. The Hawks movie (as indeed could be said of the Carpenter film) is a product of its time, both politically and sociologically, and I suppose the same can be said of the filmmaker himself.

On the simplest level, a Hawks film is typically recognizable from its characteristic setting or circumstances – a tight, self-contained group bound together by their sense of professionalism, duty and mutual respect, and of course the affection that simultaneously gives rise to and grows out of their cohesion.  Any Hawks film, and The Thing from Another World is no exception,  is as much about the various bits of business and repartee that arise from the close interaction of the group. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of social unity; people of significantly different backgrounds all (well, let’s say largely) come together as a result of their shared sense of professionalism – and I feel that in the world of Hawks professionalism frequently equates to humanity – to meet adversity head-on. There’s a particular kind of inclusiveness implicit here, something that’s quite common in post-war cinema. This is what I mean when I speak of Hawks being a product of his time; I’m referring not to the Cold Warrior warning of external threats but the man who adheres to the concept of unity and communal strength. Above all else, I see that as the central message of The Thing from Another World, and that’s why I consider it a Hawks movie as much as, or more than, a Sci-Fi movie. Look at the 1982 version of the story (and I’m not implying any criticism of it here)  and its emphasis on suspicion, distrust and division and the point ought to be evident. Hawks, because of his own sensibilities and perhaps because of the era he lived in, could not have made The Thing from Another World in any other way.

Kenneth Tobey had been doing lots of bit parts and getting walk on roles before this opportunity came along. He was never to become a big star but, in among his other credits, he would star in another couple of entertaining Sci-Fi pictures, It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. His role here is of the square-jawed and decisive variety, and he handles that aspect very well. However, the heroes in Hawks’ films generally need to be capable of carrying off the inevitable sharp humor too, and Tobey does have the required twinkle in his eyes when necessary. Some of this comes out of the by-play with the members of his flight crew but it’s more obvious in the sparring with Margaret Sheridan. She was under contract to Hawks but her screen credits are limited and I don’t remember seeing her in anything else, which I think is regrettable.

Seeing as this is mostly an ensemble piece, where the group is arguably as important a character as any individual, there aren’t too many stand-out performances. Still, Douglas Spencer (who gets to deliver the lines at the top of this piece) gets a chance to shine as does the rather clinical Robert Cornthwaite along with Dewey Martin and John Dierkes. And of course, there is the Thing itself to consider – James Arness was a considerable presence in more conventional roles and his physicality is used to excellent effect in this film. He has no dialogue and is only glimpsed for long stretches, and when he does get more screen time he’s still kept mainly in the shadows. Nevertheless, his job was to intimidate and threaten, and he does that very successfully.

In addition to those elements I already mentioned, there’s so much more to enjoy about this production, not the least of which is the strong sense of claustrophobia achieved by Russell Harlan’s moody photography, or the eerie scoring of Dimitri Tiomkin. With regard to the story, I haven’t gone into the classic moral dilemma faced by so many movie scientists over how to approach new discoveries that also pose a major threat. The fact is this is a film demanding and deserving of a far longer and more detailed analysis than I’m going to try to deliver here. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on a few of the auteurist principles which caught my attention, but you’re welcome to raise any points you wish in the comments section. The Thing from Another World is a superior piece of classic Sci-Fi from a superior filmmaker, it’s an easy recommendation.

Other views on the movie available from Laura & Jeff.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

The cellar stretched before me like some vast primeval plain, empty of life, littered with the relics of a vanished race. No desert island castaway ever faced so bleak a prospect.

I guess what makes Sci-Fi such a popular genre is the way it takes fantastic or exploitative elements and uses them to present a story that is not only entertaining but, at its best, also thought-provoking. It is a genre where the visuals are frequently required to play a significant role, although I get feeling some of the more modern efforts play this up to the detriment of other aspects. Ideally, a successful Sci-Fi film ought to be a blend of interesting and/or well-realized effects and solid, challenging writing. And the emphasis really needs to be placed firmly on the latter, in my opinion. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) constitutes a textbook example of what I’m talking about, with direction by Jack Arnold and a script (adapted from his own novel) by Richard Matheson – two accomplished genre practitioners.

The plot is a relatively straightforward one, following the fortunes of Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and the bizarre turn his life takes after he’s exposed first to insecticide and then later to a cloud of radioactive dust. Neither one should amount to a big deal in isolation but the it’s the combination which sets in motion a genuinely life-changing process. It begins when Scott finds his clothes seem a little too big, his wife (Randy Stuart) initially scoffs that he’s just not eating properly but it soon becomes apparent that there’s something more unusual afoot. The plain fact is that he’s shrinking, getting progressively smaller and the doctors don’t look like they’re going to be able to halt it. The first half of the film focuses on the corrosive effect this has on Scott – his marriage comes under impossible strain, his job is gone and he becomes a virtual prisoner in his own home as the rubbernecking hordes jostle for a glimpse of this scientific conundrum. It’s no surprise that the poor man’s character begins to change too; his bitterness and frustration leads to a feeling of disgust with himself due to his apparent helplessness, and manifests itself in the increasingly snappy and intolerant way he interacts with his wife.

All of this is interesting enough and makes for compelling viewing. However, it’s the second half of the picture which bumps it up to a different level and takes it into the realms of the classics. In short, Scott is marooned in the wasteland that is the basement of his own home, presumed dead and threatened by both hunger and the kind of hazards one would merely brush aside normally. Everything comes together beautifully at this stage – the increased use of special effects, the tension and adventure arising from the new situation, and the spiritual and philosophical epiphany which Scott ultimately experiences. It’s this combination that so successfully draws one as a viewer, the excitement acting as the initial hook while the feeling and humanity which underpins it all reels one in.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is really a journey in search of oneself and, in the course of this quest, becomes a journey into the self. It’s all a matter of perception, ultimately; Scott starts out as man who defines himself in relation to the way the world around him perceives him. As he becomes physically smaller, so his sense of worth and vitality (even virility when it comes to his marriage) are diminished. There’s an intensifying frustration as he feels himself becoming less significant, transformed into a curiosity at best. But the moment he moves from the world he has known into the now nightmarish frontier that his own basement has become another change begins to take place. Forced to fall back on his own inventiveness and innate sense of survival, he comes to regard himself in a very different light. This is the point where Arnold’s directorial skills and Matheson’s writing make themselves most apparent – Scott’s battle to overcome the obstacles that nature has cast into his path restores his faith, and by extension ours too. There’s a sudden realization that the terms by which he had previously defined himself were wrong, or at least too rigid to be true. It all builds to that marvelous revelation that the smaller he becomes, the less it actually matters; in the grand scheme of things he continues to exist and influence whatever little corner of the universe he occupies, therefore his significance is not less just different.

Normally, I like to talk about the contributions of the various performers involved in a film. However, this time I’m going to confine myself to Grant Williams. He’s certainly not the only one in the movie but it’s his show for the most part and the focus is increasingly on him as the story develops. In a way, that structure mirrors the message of the tale – the character’s importance growing as his physical stature declines. Acting in any film which is heavily dependent on effects requires a fair bit of skill on the part of the performers as they often don’t have the visual markers to interact with. Williams had to deal with that aspect all the way through and in the latter stages it becomes all the more pronounced. I think it’s also worth noting that in addition to the relative lack of other performers to relate to, he had to contend with a role which was physically quite demanding.

The Incredible Shrinking Man has been issued on Blu-ray by Koch in Germany but I have only seen (impressive looking) screen captures of that disc. As it happens, I have two DVD versions of the movie: the stand alone  UK disc and the US one which is part of a large Sci-Fi set. There’s not a huge difference between those editions and the film looks generally fine, and is presented in its correct widescreen ratio. The classic era of Sci-Fi movies saw some schlock produced as well as some intelligent classics. The Incredible Shrinking Man is definitely one of the more intelligent entries – it’s also a moving and spiritually uplifting piece of work, perfectly encapsulated by Grant Williams’ closing monologue:

I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

It Came from Outer Space

– It’s alive.

– And yet it looks so dead out there.

– Oh no, it’s alive and waiting for you, ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you, or the cold at night. A thousand ways the desert can kill. Where are you? What do you look like? What am I supposed to be looking for? I know you’re out there, hiding in the desert. Maybe I’m looking right at you and don’t even see you…

Visitors to this site might get the impression I only watch or appreciate a narrow range of movies, westerns and noir thrillers in the main. Well those happen to be my favorites, and therefore get featured a lot, but it shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal on my part of other genres. The fact is I watch all kinds of stuff, even if it doesn’t get written up here with any kind of regularity. Sci-Fi has only made one other appearance on the site, despite the fact I do enjoy it, and I feel it’s time to offer some company to that solitary post. I should also say that Kristina’s recent flurry of Sci-Fi and horror/fantasy related posts over at Speakeasy encouraged me to do something about it. Let me say right away that my favorites in the genre can be found among the classic era material from the 50s and, to a lesser extent, the 60s and early 70s. As such, I’ve decided to run with It Came from Outer Space (1953), one of the best and most literate of the “fear of the unknown” variety.

Any movie with a relatively short running time owes it to the viewers to grab the attention as abruptly as possible, and this movie does just that by having a glowing spherical object hurtle menacingly towards the screen right at the beginning. We soon learn that this strange sight is an extraterrestrial spacecraft careering blindly towards the desert on the outskirts of a small Arizona town. Sand Rock is one of those close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else, and strangers generally have to toil in order to overcome the inherent suspicion of the locals. John Putnam (Richard Carlson), an astronomer and relative newcomer, finds himself in that position when, along with his fiancée Ellen (Barbara Rush), he witnesses what looks like a meteor blazing its way across the night sky and ploughing into the arid wastelands beyond the town limits. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, Putnam is the first to explore the crater gouged out by the impact and also the only one to see the clearly alien craft that caused it. A major rock slide succeeds in burying all trace of the find, and leaves him in the unenviable position of trying to convince others of the significance of what’s just happened. Perhaps not unnaturally, his claims are met with almost universal skepticism, Ellen being the only one not to doubt him, and borderline hostility from one particular quarter. Matt Warren (Charles Drake) is the local sheriff who clearly has feelings for Ellen and this arguably colors his reaction to Putnam’s assertions. However, something otherworldly has landed in Sand Rock, something capable of assuming the form of whoever suits its purposes. Aside from the neat mirroring of attitudes  – both Putnam and the alien interlopers are on the receiving end of essentially the same suspicion and paranoia – the plot develops in an interesting, and quite refreshing direction, in terms of the visitors’ motivations and objectives. Before all of this is resolved though, there’s plenty of opportunity for the suspense to build.

The 50s science fiction boom seems to have been a direct result of the mood of the times – a curious cocktail of fear and hope. There was the paranoia stemming from the dread of devastation raining down from the skies coupled with a wariness over the possibility of an enemy within. This was at least partly balanced by the optimism of the post-war era, where the flip side of the technological revolution was the realization that boundless possibilities for progressive discovery also existed. Putnam’s character, as much as the aliens themselves, could be said to represent these twin concepts, and I feel it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that it’s the positive rather than the reactionary aspect which is embraced in the end.

It Came from Outer Space was to be the first Universal picture shot in the new 3D process. I’ve only seen it flat and it plays fine that way, although there’s a documentary on the DVD which points out how certain shots (not just gimmicky, throwing stuff at the screen material) were carefully composed to highlight the added depth of the extra dimension. The film was shot in California, standing in for Arizona, and good use is made of the Mojave Desert locations. The sense of remoteness, and the attendant perils of such a harsh and bleak environment, is woven into the plot, notably through passages of associated dialogue retained from Ray Bradbury’s original screen treatment. Although he had worked on a number of shorts, this was one of Jack Arnold’s earliest full length features, and his assurance as a director is already evident. Clifford Stine’s moody cinematography obviously helps things along, but Arnold sets everything up and keeps the story moving forward smoothly. Initially, it was planned not to show the aliens to the audience (a principle which I feel probably should have been adhered to) and focus on a combination of reaction shots and first person filming via a distorted lens. As it stands, I think some of the most effective scenes in the film are those where the threat is unseen – the sinister figures of Joe Sawyer and Russell Johnson silhouetted in a doorway, or a simple jump scare provoked by a light suddenly illuminating as mundane an object as a Joshua tree.

Richard Carlson had appeared in a whole variety of movies, some memorable and others less so, by the time this picture was made, and it introduced him to the Sci-Fi genre. He had the kind of square-jawed yet thoughtful features that lent themselves to playing heroes with a brain, a quality which would see him cast in a number of other films in this genre in the years to come. In the role of Ellen, Barbara Rush is asked to do little more than provide a supportive and sympathetic presence at first, but she later gets to have a little more fun as her own doppelgänger in the final act. Ms Rush was near the beginning of her long career in this movie and I’ve no doubt her composed performance helped raise her stock as an actress. While her cinema credits are impressive enough, she has worked extensively on TV, including a highly memorable part in a show I can’t seem to get away from mentioning of late – yes, it’s The Fugitive again. Charles Drake took on all kinds of roles over the years, as was the lot of contract actors, though I always feel he was at his best when cast as weaselly or less than sympathetic types. As such, playing the hot-headed, resentful sheriff suited him well and added an intriguing layer to the relationships at the center of the movie.

My DVD of It Came from Outer Space is the old Universal UK release, which is serviceable enough but could be improved. Personally, I’m not that bothered about the absence of a 3D version, although others will likely feel differently, but the open matte transfer is more disappointing. A film like this really needs to get a Blu-ray release in the correct widescreen ratio, and also provide the option of viewing it in 3D for those who wish to do so. On the plus side, there are some good extra features: a commentary track with Tom Weaver and a half-hour documentary on the film and it’s place in 50s Sci-Fi filmmaking. The film remains important as Jack Arnold’s first science fiction project, the genre his name is now most strongly associated with, and also for its position as an early classic in what has become a very crowded field over the years. I think the best, or most interesting, Sci-Fi films use their fantastic or otherworldly elements to tell us something about ourselves above all. It Came from Outer Space neatly challenges expectations and prejudices and encourages us to look within as much as without, which is one of the reasons I enjoy revisiting it. Recommended.

The Omega Man

Poster

Up to now I haven’t touched on science fiction on this blog. The reason for that isn’t that I have any beef with the genre, rather that it tends to get plenty of attention elsewhere. The truth is I’m quite fond of sci-fi, at least the movies from the 50s through to the 70s, and watch a reasonable amount of it. One of my all time favourites in the genre has to be The Omega Man (1971), a film that’s not without its faults but whose strengths raise it up high. To the best of my knowledge, the story by Richard Matheson has been filmed three times now with The Omega Man being the second effort. It’s a movie very much of its time, but Charlton Heston’s central performance and a fantastic score by Ron Grainer power it on and help to divert attention from the weaknesses.

The story is pretty straightforward: a Sino-Russian conflict spreads westward and eventually engulfs the whole world, resulting in germ warfare that essentially wipes out humanity. The film opens with Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), a former army scientist, driving through a barren urban landscape. This scene, which never fails to give me goose bumps, has Neville cruising down deserted streets to the accompaniment of Percy Faith’s A Summer Place blasting out from the car stereo. For an instant, everything seems almost idyllic – but the illusion of an early morning spin in a still sleeping city is shattered violently as Neville stamps on the brakes and produces a machine pistol to rake the windows of a building where he’s just spotted a dark figure flitting silently by. From this point on it becomes clear what the real situation is; Neville is the last healthy human in a world of corpses and photo-sensitive mutants. The first three quarters of an hour are spent establishing the near hopeless situation Neville finds himself facing. He commands the city by day, hunting mutants and searching for their hive, but the nights belong to the black robed Family. It’s clear that the strain of his solitary existence and nights spent holed up in his fortress-like brownstone have begun to take their toll on Neville’s psychology. He spends his time conversing with himself and playing chess with a bust of Caesar, and he’s beginning to crack up. Were any person forced to live in such isolation and fend off regular night time assaults and taunts from the sinister Family, it’s not unreasonable that they’d start to imagine they could hear phones ringing and begin to question their own sanity. Neville has spent two long years ploughing this lonely furrow, until he catches a glimpse of what he thinks might be another normal human being. It’s only when a slip on his part leads to his being captured by the Family that he finds out he’s not as alone as he thought. That whole first half of the movie carefully builds up a picture of Neville’s world and the horror of living within it. The second part takes us in a new direction as we see him regain hope and perspective. The question is whether that new hope can be sustained, and the answer is left open when the movie reaches its conclusion with one of the most memorable (and touching) final shots and fade outs in cinema.

Charlton Heston confronting the grim handiwork of the Family.

I started off by pointing out that The Omega Man is not without its faults, and I’ll try and address those first. The thing that will strike any modern audience is that this is a 70s movie, and proudly so. The imagery and many of the themes are rooted firmly in that decade. The problem is that this lends it an air of kitsch that may be off-putting to some. The presence of Rosalind Cash and Lincoln Kilpatrick results in a curious mix of jive talking blaxploitation and more serious questions about race relations, and they don’t really sit comfortably together in retrospect. However, that stuff is more a matter of personal taste and could be seen as part of the movie’s charm. A bigger issue is the Family (this is probably the main weakness of all three versions of the story) who never come across as threatening as they should. They do attain a cult-style creepiness, and their malice is never in question, but there’s also a slightly comical air about them – not helped by a hammy performance by Anthony Zerbe as their leader Matthias – that dilutes the danger somewhat. On the other hand, Heston’s take on Neville really anchors the picture. He does very well in the opening half when he basically has no one to play off and has to earn the viewers’ sympathy and support single handed. I thought he brought the right balance of tough resilience and increasing despondency to the role. The other major plus is a score by Ron Grainer that evokes the mood of both the story and the characters beautifully. I think it would be fair to say that Grainer’s music plays a significant part in ensuring the movie remains eminently watchable – this is probably among the best pieces of film composing the decade offered.

The Omega Man is one of the gradually increasing number of classic films that’s made it onto Blu-Ray. Having said that, I’ve yet to buy into the format myself (partly because of a lack of attractive titles but mainly because I’m satisfied enough with the quality of the DVDs I own – but that’s a discussion for another time) so I’ll confine myself to saying that I’ve no doubt the BD adds to the overall visual presentation. The old Warner DVD was one that never gave me any cause for complaint, with a strong and detailed anamorphic scope image. For me, the film is an old favourite whose failings can be easily ignored when there’s the pleasure of seeing Heston near his best and hearing Ron Grainer’s haunting melodies.