Friday, July 25, 2008

It Conquered the World (American International, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we ended up watching was It Conquered the World, a fascinating (in all the wrong ways!) Roger Corman “B” from American International in 1956 that was basically a blatant ripoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still: iconoclastic scientist Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef, better known as the bald, rat-faced villain in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns but here sporting hair, a moustache, decent modern clothes and a disinclination to support things like nuclear weapons and space launches) makes radio contact with an alien from Venus (the planet Venus? Yes, indeed!) and offers guidance to it while it hijacks an experimental satellite and rides it down to Earth. Once here, it puts in place a plan to (dare I say it?) conquer the world by sending out bat-like probes that bite people on the backs of their necks and turn them into zombies under his control. As a demonstration of his power, he also stops all sources of human energy — electricity and automotive travel in particular — and since he only has eight of the probes, he husbands them and uses them on the leading politicians and military men of the small Colorado town where all this is taking place.

Among his targets are Anderson’s colleague, Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves, top-billed), and Nelson’s wife Joan (Sally Fraser), whom the alien succeeds in taking over — whereupon, since the process appears to be irreversible, Paul is forced to shoot her. Produced and directed by Corman from a script by Lou Rusoff, It Conquered the World came out five months and 10 days after the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and sought to take the Body Snatchers metaphor and use it for Right-wing propaganda (as John Carpenter’s 1983 They Live took it over and used it for liberal-Left propaganda in the age of Ronald Reagan, who’s “outed” as an alien in the theatrical and DVD versions of Carpenter’s film, though not in the TV version); just as the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and the minions of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade were telling us that Communists pursued their dastardly plots by recruiting our political, military and scientific leaders and subverting them, so does the Venusian alien in this film; there’s one truly chilling scene in which the local general (who’s been taken over) confronts the editor of the town paper (who hasn’t), gives him his marching orders as to what to print under the New Order, and shoots the editor dead when the editor invokes freedom of the press to defy him.

Alas, any quality It Conquered the World might have had is completely undone by the ridiculousness of the monster; one of Paul Blaisdell’s makeups for American International (and a design he reused again and again, just adding bits and pieces of cloth and wire to change the monster’s appearance so it would look like a “new” menace in each film), it resembles a giant ambulatory cucumber, sliced in half vertically and stood up on the severed end, to which someone tried to play Mr. Potato Head and stick toothpick arms in place (though according to the trivia section on the actual costume — still in the hands of Blaisdell’s assistant, Bob Burns — is beet-red, not green as I’d assumed). Apparently it originally had a round, dome-shaped head, but when this version (with Blaisdell himself inside wearing and working the costume) was tested, not only was it unfrightening but Beverly Garland, the actress playing Tom Anderson’s wife (who’s supposed to confront the monster in a scene that attempts high drama and achieves high camp), towered over it.

Charles and I watched this on a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 download and the MST3K crew mostly made fun of Graves’ future career (especially his gig hosting Arts & Entertainment’s Biography series) and his family relationship with James Arness (Graves was actually Arness’s younger brother, something I hadn’t known before),who at the time had a respectable gig starring in the TV series Gunsmoke while Graves had to make a living making movies like this and the even worse The Beginning of the End (which staged an invasion of Chicago by giant grasshoppers by having real grasshoppers walk over a still photo of the Chicago skyline, often of course stepping on the parts of the photo that were meant to represent sky!). Rusoff did give Graves an unbelievably pretentious curtain speech expressing the film’s Libertarian (sort of) politics: “Man is a feeling creature, and because of it the greatest in the universe. He learned too late for himself that men have to find their own way, to make their own mistakes. There can’t be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves. When men seek such perfection they find only death, fire, loss, disillusionment and the end of everything that’s gone forward. Men have always sought an end to our misery but it can’t be given, it has to be achieved. There is hope, but it has to come from inside, from Man himself” — and quite naturally the MST3K crew had a lot of fun ridiculing that!