Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Day It Came to Earth (Atlas Limited, Rainbow Productions, Howco International, 1979)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the movie we watched for the rest of the evening was hardly in the same exalted vein! I’d been curious about The Day It Came to Earth ever since I got the Alien Attacks boxed set, which contained Cat Women of the Moon from 1953; its surprisingly good quasi-remake Missile to the Moon from 1958; The Brain from Planet Arous from Howco International in 1957 (Howco International got its name from its founder and CEO, Joy Houck — whom I’d assumed was a woman but was really a boy named Joy; later on his son, Joy Houck, Jr., took over the company); and The Day It Came to Earth, which was also a Howco International production, a tribute to the cheesy sci-fi movies the company had made in the 1950’s even though it was made in 1979 and, unlike the other movies in the Alien Attacks box, was in color. What’s more, it’s not really about an alien attack; the plot revives around a high-energy meteor that falls to earth from space and is picked up by a group of college students, it’s not part of a spacecraft and there are no actual aliens in the dramatis personae. Indeed, the opening pre-credits sequence is a nice bit of neo-noir that seemed to come from such a different cinematic world than the movie we were promised on the DVD box that Charles and I at first wondered if we were watching a whole other movie that had been packaged in this box and labeled The Day It Came to Earth by mistake. Set in 1958 (we know because the car we see in the opening scene is a 1958 Ford and we hear a radio news report referencing “Vice-President Richard Nixon”), the scene establishes that gangster Lou Jacoby (Ed Love) has just given key testimony to Senator Estes Kefauver’s latest investigation of organized crime.

For this the government has given him a new identity so he can hide out from the gangsters he’s exposed and who are threatening to kill him — I don’t think the feds had a formal witness protection program that early but they did do that al fresco in some cases (but then I’ve had Joy Houck’s gender wrong for years so I’m not putting much faith in my own knowledge base right now!). Not surprisingly, though, the feds’ plans go for naught; the gangsters find Lou Jacoby (who incidentally bears the name of a semi-famous character actor of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, though he spelled it “Jacobi”; his most famous credit was as Moustache in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce, in which he replaced Charles Laughton after Laughton’s death) and shoot him, then dump his body in the old Willow Lake. Only the meteor lands in the lake and the energy from it makes contact with Jacoby’s body, revivifying him but turning him into a homicidal monster who immediately targets two guys playing poker. Director Harry Thomason shoots a lot of the movie rather flatly but also inserts some scenes that show a real flair for visual atmosphere. He also shows off how many classic movies he’d seen; the sequence in which the monster kills the poker player has a swinging overhead lamp like the one in Psycho, and later there are scenes of the college students bathing in the lake while the monster watches them swim by but doesn’t bother them that are straight out of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. What Thomason doesn’t have is much of a sense of pace: scenes that could have been suspenseful and genuinely frightening are yawn-inducing instead because of his slovenly directorial style (and his editor, LeRoy Slaughter, doesn’t help much either).

Not that the script by Paul J. Fisk helps much; it’s basically your standard-issue set of sci-fi clichés (Charles noted the sheer number of movies we’ve seen in which some form of radioactivity on a lake or ocean floor has turned human corpses into reanimated monsters, notably The Horror of Party Beach — which is “worse” by any objective measure than The Day It Came to Earth but is also so wrong-headed it’s actually a lot of fun), including the avuncular professor (George Gobel, the only cast member I’d actually heard of before) who explains it all in the best pseudo-scientific terms writer Fisk could come up with. By far the most entertaining part of the movie is the physical appearance of the male leads, Eddie Newton (Wink Roberts) and his friend and roommate Ronnie McGuire (Roger Manning). They’re not drop-dead gorgeous sex gods but they are easy on the eyes, and director Thomason gives us plenty of chances to savor them; they’re introduced in adjoining twin beds in their dorm room, with Eddie in his underwear and Ronnie in pajama bottoms but blessedly shirtless above the waist. Naturally, they’re interested in women — though the body language between the two actors conveys some homoerotic tensions Thomason and Fisk probably didn’t intend (and ditto for the two college girls Eddie and Ronnie are attracted to, Sally [Delight De Bruine] and Debbie [Rita Wilson], who likewise do an awful lot of hugging in bed, the kind of sexually innocent but physically enjoyable horseplay same-sex roommates, especially in the military, indulged in before society’s awareness of Gay people made it difficult for basically heterosexual people to sustain this) — and the first big scene happens when the four dubious lovebirds go to the lake and find pieces of blue rock that are fragments of the extraterrestrial meteor. Eddie has a small chunk of it made into a pendant as a gift for Sally, but the way it glows on screen and is accompanied by a peculiar buzzing/ringing noise on the soundtrack makes us realize that the stone is a source of potentially dangerous energy.

The climax comes in a supposedly “haunted” house in which Sally, Debbie and about 10 other girls are supposed to stay overnight to prove their worthiness to enter the college’s hottest sorority. The boys crash the party, constructing a dummy that looks like a weird cross-breed of Alice Cooper and Tiny Tim. The monster crashes the party too and breaks it up, causing the kids to flee for their lives before the monster is finally cornered in an abandoned movie theatre and is set afire — it’s been established earlier that guns don’t harm it but apparently, like Fred Myton’s and Anne Rice’s vampires, fire can destroy it. The biggest problem with The Day It Came to Earth is the old one, uncertainty of tone: writer Fisk never decided whether he was creating a serious homage to the 1950’s sci-fi “B”’s or a campy spoof of them, and as directed by Thomason the story isn’t frightening enough to work as serious horror and isn’t silly enough to work as camp either. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is rather similar plotwise but much more entertaining because its creator, writer/director/star Larry Blamire, had no intention of creating anything other than a campy spoof of its models. Still, any movie that spends a lot of its running time offering us fetching glimpses of Wink Roberts and Roger Manning in surprisingly frank states of undress (as well as the pair of shorts Roberts wears, which shows off much more of his basket than 1950’s — or 1970’s — movie clothes usually did) is going to be entertaining for non-cinematic reasons! It was also amusing to have a film that contained so many cheesy pastiches of 1950’s rock ’n’ roll on its soundtrack — especially the night after we watched Shake, Rattle and Rock and got to watch Joe Turner and Fats Domino do the real thing, and do it superlatively well!