Saturday, September 10, 2011

IT Conquered The World, an under-rated classic

   Last night I watched ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS. As rabid monster movie fans probably know, the film is a remake of an earlier film, in this case IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. In the 1960s, Texas exploitation movie director Larry Buchanan was commissioned by American International Pictures to make a slate of films that could be sold to television. AIP was enjoying great success with the new medium, as any color monster movie was a big seller (hence the AIP-TV releases of things like THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET, VOYAGE INTO SPACE, WAR OF THE MONSTERS, THE RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS, etc, etc). I don't know if the idea was Buchanan's or AIP's, but the bulk of Larry's movies were remakes of earlier AIP films (so much so that there were only minor changes in the scripts). Thus, VOODOO WOMAN became CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE, INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN sired THE EYE CREATURES, THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED mutated into IN THE YEAR 2889, and so on.

   (While most of Buchanan's monster movies were remakes, he did find time to film a couple of original stories. MARS NEEDS WOMEN is a cheap but effective opus about invasion from space. "IT'S ALIVE!" meanwhile is a minimalist production about motorists being held hostage in a cave under an isolated farmhouse, and a dinosaur -of sorts, being the same cheap gill-man suit used in CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION, Larry's remake of THE SHE CREATURE- is lurking down there with them. Amid the cheap monster antics, Buchanan even found time to cobble together a war movie starring John Agar, HELL RAIDERS, which until recent years was considered a lost film. Legend has it the first person to view the film was Agar's friend John Wayne, at the stars home before the print was even dry!)

   Buchanan's movies are almost interesting, if not for the "we've seen this all before" nature of viewing them. Working with minuscule budgets (even by AIP standards) and sparse resources, Buchanan's TV movies are like watching really ambitious home movies a gang of friends decided to make with their neighbor's 16mm camera. Yet each is in color (making sure the films continued to air for decades on late-night blocks on countless UHF stations) and features a name actor like John Agar, John Ashley, and Tommy Kirk (say what you will, for a cheap TV movie, featuring even such faded personalities was quite an achievement). Agar is the star of ZONTAR, taking over the role played in 1956 by Peter Graves. One of the most obvious signs you're watching one of Buchanan's remakes is that you hear every line and say to yourself "the original guy did it better." Indeed, nothing demonstrates how natural the line readings were in the 50's AIPs than seeing them said again by someone with all the conviction of a ten year old in a school play about nutrition. Few cases are quite as stark as IT/ZONTAR.*

   (*The one quasi-exception to this formula is CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION, which stars Les Tremayne in a part once played by Chester Morris when the movie was called THE SHE CREATURE. Both films feature casts who handle their material pretty well. THE SHE CREATURE is still a superior movie, but Buchanan's movie for once doesn't constantly remind you of that fact.)

   IT CONQUERED THE WORLD was one of the cheapies rushed out by Roger Corman in the early days of AIP, when the outfit was producing ready-made double bills for the drive-in market (IT's co-feature was THE SHE CREATURE, AIP's first really big hit). I doubt the budget was much north of $30,000, and was probably much less. Yet the film has such a slick professional sheen that you'd never know it. It also proves that, while speed and cost were Corman's main concern, he was a good director. Aided by an intelligent script and fine actors, Corman gives his little flick a real depth and watchability many might not expect. Compare everything here to the flat interpretation of Larry Buchanan and you can see what I mean. IT is practically JAWS when compared to ZONTAR, and yet they share the same script. (Some of Ronald Stein's music cues from IT, as well as SAUCER MEN, and a couple of Les Baxter cues from the Beach cycle, are heard in ZONTAR as well. Zontar's 'voice' is even the exact same sound effect from the earlier film. As well, Agar at one point calls Zontar "It" in jest. At least Buchanan wasn't hiding it, all he was offering was a color version of the same film!)

   Part of it is the cast. (While Agar isn't bad in his version, he suffers a bit because the work was fresher when it was done the first time.) Peter Graves is our star, passing through on his way to TV immortality as the star of Mission: Impossible, and later long-time host of A&E's Biography. "I'd have to take a long, hard look at anything that was going to change the world, and me, so completely." His wife is played by Sally Fraser (also seen in THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN), who is just an absolute doll. She gets one of the most disturbing/upsetting/shocking scenes, and that's all I'll say. His best friend/rival Tom is played by future spaghetti western mainstay Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef offers some of the film's most passionate and memorable passages, only outdone by Bevery Garland as his wife, Clair. She gets a pair of absolutely stirring moments where she can no longer hold back her hatred for the monster that has brainwashed her husband and caused mass panic in the town of Beachwood. When an intimidated-by-IT Tom leaves to greet Paul (Graves), whom IT has ordered Tom to kill, Clair rushes over to the radio set that Tom has been using to communicate with IT. Angrily flipping the switch to on, she lets the beast have it with both barrels, so to speak. "I don't know if you can hear me, but if you can you listen and you listen good! I hate your living guts for what you've done to my husband and my world! Tom may be afraid of you but I'm not, and I'm going to kill you! Do you hear me? I'm going to kill you!"

   Beverly hits this speech with full force, in a rushed anger that has been building for a long time. In the remake, the actress instead reads the line slowly, breaking up with occasional tears she must beat back. Both reactions work, but when Garland recites these lines, she makes a pretty good impression that she'll actually do what she says and kill the monster. That makes the invader's revealed power in the climax all the more impressive. The actress in the remake comes across like a lamb heading to the slaughter. Garland gives you the impression that even if the monster kills her, she'll make it a challenge for the critter. When she confronts the monster, she offers what may be the most famous line (aside from the stirring end speech from Peter Graves): "So that's what you look like! You're ugly! Horrible! Go ahead! Use your intellect on me! You think you're going to make a slave of the world? I'll see you in Hell first!" Following which she unloads a shotgun into the creature's face. (But I've said too much already about the climax of the picture.)

   The film is sort of a parable about communism. Tom is a brilliant scientist stymied by the powers that be, until he makes contact with a creature from Venus who offers to release mankind from the stupidity that has plagued it throughout history. The answer is cold intellect, removing man's emotions and giving him a single power to follow. Paul, meanwhile, has built a powerful new satellite which suddenly vanishes from all scopes. (A sign of changing times: Here, the project cost nine million dollars, in the remake, the cost has ballooned to twenty million.) But Tom knows what's going on. He's arranged for IT to board the satellite and ride it back to earth. Once here, IT destroys all power (even a hand-crank fails to work on a generator), and the world comes to a stand still. Only Tom still has power. His car is the only one on earth that still runs. And Clair discovers that her husband is not harmlessly insane.

   In a typically good scene, Tom is explaining how IT has taken control of all power. "All power is stopped at it source. Electricity, steam, water." Clair is skeptical and turns on the water hose. "I thought you said the water wouldn't work." She's convinced Tom is wrong about the invader. "Of course that works," Tom counters, "it belongs to me." Here, Clair knows something is wrong. For the first time, she must face the notion that Tom and his crazy ideas are cold hard reality. (In the ZONTAR version, she just sort of shrugs this off. Here, the seriousness of the situation is conveyed by Beverly's expression. There really is trouble, and its managed to sneak in under her nose, despite her being closest to IT through Tom's relationship. It's amazing how much more complex and intelligent one version of a story can be when the same script is used twice.)

   To control victims from a distance, IT uses living control devices that fly to the victims like birds. There's a great scene where Graves battles one of these while driving a jeep. Later, he must fight one of these things off in his spookilly-lit living room. (The film has some nicely fluid camera work throughout. Buchanan's best camera move is a tracking shot while a couple is walking through the woods.) The control devices are incredibly life-like, fluttering around like bats. (These same props found themselves pushed into service as flying alter-egos for a witch and her imp sidekick in Corman's THE UNDEAD.) ZONTAR's control devices are dubbed "Enjecto-pods" and look like stiff, winged lobsters bobbing about on a string (the original control devices also bobbed about on strings, obviously, but they did so with much greater realism). A sort of middle ground creature was used in homage to these movies when winged lobster creatures did the bidding of 1989's LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS.

   Paul Blaisdell's monster has gotten some hard knocks over the years, but I've always loved the thing. A sort of vegetable-based crustacean, IT had a big impact on my childhood. Really, I always thought it looked pretty cool, so I never really understood why people kept calling the design "goofy." I still figure a creature from space isn't locked into our laws of what looks proper, so a space monster can get away with goofy. Who's to say what goofy is? Surely standards of goofy would be different on, say, Jupiter than they are here, right?

   I could go on, obviously, but I think you get what I'm saying. IT CONQUERED THE WORLD is a great little movie that's sadly overlooked these days.

And Sally Fraser was the sexiest woman who ever lived.

Paul Blaisdell (left) and his creation, IT (center), with friend Bob Burns (right) on hand.

IT in Paul Blaisdell's workshop

Paul Blaisdell clowns around with IT


  1. Lee Van Cleef is the best! Never phoned in a performance in his life. Beverly Garland played the perfect wife, never gave up on her husband and defended him right up to the end.

  2. Indeed. I can think of few films where a wife's love is so expertly portrayed. The mix of emotions is perfectly played in voice and body language, even when Clair is poking Tom with her verbal barbs. As nasty as it gets (which is in line with the stakes on the table), she never takes pleasure in what she has to do. You can plainly see she's doing what she's doing because she loves Tom and wants to bring him back from the edge. You could replace the monster with a drug habit, and the film would still work just as well (in fact, it sort of works as it is as an alegory of intervention).

  3. "It Conquered the World" is certainly underrated. I must confess, I sort of fancy "Zontar" as well, but "It"--oh, "It" is nothing short of sublime.Great cast. Great performances. Great director. A classic.