Friday, July 11, 2014

It Conquered the World

It Conquered the World
Roger Corman

Following a worldwide power loss, Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef) reveals to his friend Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves) that he has helped an alien from Venus find its way to Earth. Ostensibly it’s here to help save the world,  but the moment it lands, it starts giving birth to small bat like creatures that deposit mind control devices on key people in the town. It looks like the thing from Venus has other plans entirely.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: the monster is utterly ludicrous looking. Even though there is some thought behind its appearance; the high pressures of the Venusian atmosphere could reasonably cause it to have a compact squat shape, it still looks like nothing more than a really pissed off traffic cone. The monster is so silly looking that when placed against Van Cleef and Graves, both of whom are desperately trying to maintain some gravitas, the whole film goes out on a weirdly comical note.

Up until that point, It Conquered the World actually works pretty hard to build some tension and mystery. An early scene, when Dr. Anderson is demonstrating his receiver for picking up signals from Venus, and talks of a message hidden behind the seemingly random noise, is effectively eerie. As he sees the horror that he's brought to Earth, Tom Anderson’s descent from idealist to shell shocked dupe, is a strong character arc and it easily steals the film from Peter Graves’ square jawed and rather bland hero. Beverly Garland’s turn as Claire Anderson is another great role, it’s rare to see a housewife in a 50s SF film ever speak up much less grab a shotgun and go face down the monster in its own cave.

For a film that clocks in at 71 minutes there is far too much time wasted with comedy relief. As much as I love seeing character actor, Dick Miller, on screen, watching him have to suffer through scene after scene with a vaguely racist character like Pvt. Manuel Oritz (Jonathan Haze) is agonizingly unfunny. It’s also hard to ignore (especially since was highlighted in the MST3K episode) the exceptionally lengthy speech that Dr. Nelson delivers at the film's closing. It’s so long and rambling that it descends into parody, providing an almost perfect capper to the misplaced comedy of the final battle with the creature.

For a relatively inexpensive Corman film, It Conquered the World never looks like a threadbare production. The flying mind-control bat/manta-ray things are not great looking but for 1956 they work well enough. Even the monster, as unfortunate a design as it is, looks like it had some care put into its construction.

It Conquered the World is a curiosity, it both defies many of the cliches of 50's b-movies ( a strong female character with agency, and a morally complex protagonist) but at the same time embraces them (silly looking monsters, a central white male figure who is an absolute authority). The friction between these aspects takes what could have been just another budget minded monster movie and transforms it into fascinating viewing.

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