Column: The Vault of Secrets: It Came from Outer Space (1953)

It Came from Outer Space (1953). Directed by: Jack Arnold. Starring: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. It Came from Outer Space was the first sci-fi film that Universal put out in the then-new 3D format. A fact that I could have guessed even if I hadn’t already known it, based solely on the number of things that fly or jut toward the camera early on. It was directed by Jack Arnold a year before he would do Creature from the Black Lagoon (also in 3D), and features makeup effects by Universal’s go-to guy of the era, Bud Westmore.

For the most part, we’re in pretty familiar 50s alien invasion, Cold War paranoia territory (just listen to that music over the Universal logo!), complete with long monologues about how weird the desert is. One of the main things that distinguish It Came from Outer Space from the crowds of its fellows — besides beating many of them to the punch — is that it was written from a story treatment by Ray Bradbury. (Many sources claim it was inspired by a published short story, but Bradbury actually wrote several treatments for the studio. Years later, in 2004, the majority of the material that he created for the movie was collected together in a pricy collector’s volume of the same name.)

This led to the standout trait of It Came from Outer Space — that the aliens aren’t actually hostile; they just want time to repair their ship. It’s a plot variation that has shown up time and again since, but probably felt pretty fresh in 1953. (In some ways, Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World three years later feels like a flipping of the script of It Came from Outer Space, with the naive scientist unwittingly helping the alien to take over.) According to Bradbury, he presented the studio with a couple of options, one in which the aliens were malignant, another in which they were benign. The studio wisely chose the latter.

Around its generic trappings, the finished film has a lot of stuff going for it. Better-than-usual dialogue for a picture of its type, a nice third-reel effect of a laser cutting rock, an early example of monster vision, and a strong performance by Barbara Rush as the film’s token woman, for which she won a Golden Globe. (There are a couple of other women, but they don’t get to do much, in spite of Kathleen Hughes getting billing in the closing credits and slapped onto the crappy cover of the DVD release to add an extra scared lady.) The honeycomb-like spaceship — which is maybe the film’s most iconic image — looks pretty great both after the crash, and as it’s flying through the air. The latter effect was apparently accomplished with a hollowed-out iron ball mounted on wire, with burning magnesium inside.

The aliens spend most of the movie assuming human form (in order to keep the budget down), but they do show up a few times, as sort-of-forgettable, floating, monocular jellyfish monsters that leave trails of glitter and are maybe also partly made of smoke? The story goes that Universal’s makeup department submitted two designs for the creatures. The (much better) rejected one later became the Metaluna Mutant in This Island Earth.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we unearth a William Castle shocker, just in time for Halloween!