Friday, September 29, 2017

They Came From Beyond Space (1967)

They Came From Beyond Space was another of those films that always seemed to be in the late night TV schedules when I was a kid and too young to be allowed to stay up and watch it.  (These were the days before video recorders).  In an era when few science fiction films seemed to get released and Doctor Who being the only thing on TV flying the flag for the genre, the newspaper TV guides' synopses of the film - aliens land in Cornwall and take over parts of the population as part of a mysterious plot - intrigued the pre-pubescent, science fiction obsessed me.   But by the time I was old enough to stay up late, it seemed to have vanished completely from the TV schedules.  As time went on, I was able to read about it in various film reference books and found it had a poor reputation: cheaply made and poorly plotted.  Recently, however, I finally managed to see it - and I felt that it was nowhere near as bad as many critics have made out,  It's no lost science fiction classic, that's for sure, but it is an enjoyable sixties science fiction pulp potboiler.

Which shouldn't really be surprising, because it is derived from pulp science fiction potboiler, The Gods Hate Kansas  (surely one of the greatest pulp titles ever) by Joseph Millard, originally published in the 1940s.  Obviously, being a British movie made on a low budget, the action is moved to then contemporary Cornwall, but otherwise shows its US pulp roots, with its scientist protagonist, alien intelligences falling to earth in fake meteorites, deadly space plagues, secret moonbases and alien possession of human bodies.  Indeed, They Came From Beyond Space packs a lot into just under ninety minutes.  Which is the film's main problem: there is just too much going and too much convoluted plotting for the viewer to properly assimilate, making some plot developments seem random and arbitrary.

The film opens with a mysterious meteor fall in Cornwall (the meteors fly and land in a V-formation) and bowler hatted government official (not John Steed) tries to pull together a team of top scientists to investigate.  His top choice, middle aged American radio astronomer Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton) is blocked from joining the team by his doctor, who worries that he isn't sufficiently recovered from a car accident which has left him with a silver plate in his skull.  Inevitably, when the team of scientists - led by Temple's assistants - investigate the meteors, they are taken over by the alien forces inside them.  They then proceed to use sections of the meteorites to take over various key figures in the local area, before proceeding to fence off a significant part of the countryside, the area protected by armed guards.

Naturally, Temple goes to investigate these goings on, finding that the plate in his skull protects him from alien takeover.  The film then follows his repeated attempts to penetrate the sealed off area - which do become somewhat repetitive.  Things are complicated by the outbreak of a deadly plague and the apparent collusion of the authorities with the aliens.  He eventually enlists the aid of his friend Farge (Zia Mohyeddin) - a character straight out of a forties science fiction pulp story: he conveniently has his own, well equipped, lab in his cottage.  Having fabricated a bizarre looking helmet from his melted down cricket trophies, Farge and Temple devise a way to identify who is possessed by the aliens (they have to wear bizarre goggles to do this)  and a method of driving them from their host human bodies.  Aided by Temple's female assistant - who they have freed from alien possession - they penetrate the alien stronghold, but find themselves reluctant passengers on a rocket carrying the frozen bodies of plague victims to the moon.  The aliens claim that they have a deal with the authorities to safely dispose of the bodies on the moon.  Except, of course, that the victims aren't really dead and are being taken to the moon to be used as slave labour to help repair the aliens' spaceship, which has crashed there.

At their moonbase the aliens (led by Michael Gough) plan to remove the plate from Temple's skull so that they can take over mind and access his knowledge.  Farge escapes and organises a revolt among the slave labour, arriving in the operating theatre in the nick of time.  There then follows the most anti-climatic denouement to a pulp science fiction film I've seen, with Temple making peace with the aliens by telling them that there's no need for their invasion tactics - all they had to do was ask and the Earth's people would have assisted them.  (He apparently speaks on behalf of all mankind).  It just feels like a cop out, as if the film makers realised that they were nearly at the end of their running time and just had to end it, no matter how abruptly.  Which, again, is consistent with the film's pulp origins: pulp novels were often written to specified length with authors often realising they were reaching their word limit with the story still mid-plot, necessitating an abrupt and arbitrary conclusion.

Directed by Freddie Francis, They Came From Beyond Space was put out by Amicus on a double bill with another low budget science fiction film, The Terrornauts.  Francis later complained that Amicus had spent so much money on Terrornauts that he had nothing left to work with.  Comparing the films today, such a claim seems extraordinary - Terrornauts does indeed include more miniatures work, but it is mostly terrible.  They Came From Beyond Space is easily the better film, due, mainly, to Francis' direction, which contrasts markedly with the workmanlike job done by veteran TV director Montgomery Tully on Terrornauts.  Francis makes the most of his meagre resources, producing a good looking film full of well framed shots and sequences smoothly flowing from one to the other.  The does have an air of cheapness about it, though, with very variable miniature effects - the opening meteor fall is terrible, but the rocket launch is up to Gerry Anderson standards - ray guns which are obviously torches and moonbase sets recycled from the Dalek saucer interior from the Daleks Invasion Earth film.

A mediocre cast doesn't help either.  Robert Hutton makes for an uninspiring hero, although Bernard Kay is memorable as the government official enslaved by the aliens and Zia Mohyeddin is outstanding as Farge in an underwritten role.  In fact, few of the characters are particularly well formed, with too many of them rapidly coming and going to leave any lasting impression.  All of which come down to a weak script which leaves too many plot points vague (just how many people are under alien control, just when did the authorities start colluding with them and how far into government does the alien conspiracy extend, why didn't the authorities move against the aliens as soon as they started annexing parts of Cornwall?).  Yet, despite all of these handicaps, Francis succeeds in fashioning a decent small scale science fiction movie, conjuring up some suspense and atmosphere in places.  Indeed, in the early part of the film he creates a vaguely Quatermass II feel with alien takeovers and the infiltration and subversion of a local community.

Always very much the 'second string' director to Terence Fisher at Hammer, Francis was very much Amicus' number one directorial choice at this time.  Whilst his Hammer Gothics aren't as good as Fisher's, he seems much more at home with contemporary settings than his sometime colleague.  Certainly, he proves adept here in contrasting the mundane and realistic looking sixties settings with the bizarre events unfolding within in them.  The film only really comes apart when these setings are abandoned altogether in the final act.  The sudden tumble into the full on fantastic seems jarring and unconvincing.

Long hampered by having been part of what Amicus itself considered its worst ever double bill, They Came From Beyond Space now seems an entertaining, slightly bonkers, science fiction thriller.  It is certainly better than similar contemporaneous films like Tigon's The Body Stealers, for instance.  No masterpiece, but a diverting enough eighty seven minutes of daftness.



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