Horror History: Why It! The Terror From Beyond Space isn’t just an inspiration for Alien
The horror genre is a lens with which we refract our realities. It’s an escape from our terrifying real world, just as much as it’s a chance to investigate what scares us and why. Today, it’s easy to spot the social issue that inspires movies like Get Out (racial conflict in the United States), It Follows (teenage sexual health), or even The Green Inferno (American exploitation of indigenous peoples). Filmmakers brazenly zero in on political issues, perhaps more overtly than they have in the past. Franchises like The Purge create universes where the political climate is so fraught that the only solution is to legalize crime and, effectively, oppress the lower classes. The last decade of mainstream horror is loud about the politicization of the genre. It creates a worst-case scenario and asks audiences to address an issue before it becomes a worldwide problem.
We forget, though, that horror has always been a political tool. Psycho came out near the end of the Red Scare, when Americans weren’t sure if they could trust their next-door neighbors. Ultra-violent exploitation movies like Cannibal Holocaust were reactions to the anti-war movements in the early 1970s, showcasing a similar brutality to what was exhibited in the Vietnam War. And, during the advent of new technology systems, the late 1990s and early 2000s brought with it a slate of Japanese horror films like Ringu that made innovation a source of fear.
What makes the 1950s horror showcase unique is the combination of scientific discovery and worldwide conflict. The Cold War wrestled up fears of the unknown in American communities, as international tensions grew between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Years of capturing territories and reclaiming nations bred fear and hostility, often in favor of an ideology that the American people didn’t fully grasp. It was a period of competition and confusion that was packaged together in the US-USSR space race.
As film fans, we can see when the fight to be the first on the moon started in America. Even before the launch of Sputnik 1, the horror films of the 1950s were asking the audience to consider what really lay beyond outer space. In 1951, The Thing from Another World brought an alien to an Arctic research outpost, where the creature slowly murdered every living thing it came across (and yes, this film served as inspiration for John Carpenter’s The Thing). 1953 saw It Came From Outer Space, which followed a storyline similar to The Thing From Another World, but replaced the Arctic with Smalltown, USA. Even some of the more iconic horror films of the 1950s pitted their heroes against alien invaders, most prominently, Steve McQueen’s cult classic The Blob or the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Each film looked at the same vast, unknown universe in front of us and presented reasons why we might not want to go out there.
And then the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the event that historians often credit as the official beginning of the space race. We were now competing to get human life into the galaxy.
Before 1957, the major horror trend brought the aliens to us. In 1958, It! The Terror from Beyond Space changed that. It! opens with a space crew retrieving a man accused of murdering his entire ship. What the new team doesn’t know is that the original crew was murdered by a terrifying alien. Unbeknownst to them, that same creature has snuck on board their ship. The titular “It” stalks the crew and exterminates them one by one, before finally being taken care of in a way that begs the question, “Huh, why didn’t they think about that earlier?”
Film buffs and casual fans alike can recognize this plot as a vague description of Alien. Indeed, Dan O’Bannon, Alien’s screenwriter, credited It! as part of his inspiration for the script. Though he also borrowed ideas from the likes of Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956) and Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965), it’s the near beat for beat comparison that gets It! the internet credit of “the movie that inspired Alien.”
But It! deserves more credit than just the inspiration for a more famous movie. In an era when Americans weren’t sure of what was going on in space, It! inverted the space theme and put humans into space, leaving them at the mercy of the creatures beyond earth. Their impending doom wasn’t caused by an invasion. It was the quest for knowledge and understanding that got them killed. Whether it was intentional or not, this movie was released in the wake of the USSR’s innovation in space travel, and while the alleged enemy of freedom explored the cosmos, the American film industry has instilled the fear of space travel in its audience.
Today, we can recognize that It! The Terror from Beyond Space isn’t that scary. It’s a black and white movie starring a guy in a rubber suit killing a bunch of astronauts. There’s more money in the industry now, leading to better special effects and set pieces. But during its time, It! presented a potential evil that was much more believable when we didn’t know what was out there, in space. It was a perfect storm: It! borrowed from a contemporary film trend while benefiting from the pressures of the Cold War. Even if it was just a capitalization on the alien craze, It! was an important reflection of what scared Americans in its time.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody
From Friday, August 16-Sunday, August 18, catch It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the Trylon Cinema. Tickets and more information available here. Make it a space-horror double feature and stay for Event Horizon, also screening all weekend.