Are you 3-D capable? This classic-era Sci-fi is one of the better ’50s films ever designed for 3-D, and the restoration on this much-coveted new release is excellent. Meteors explode in your face! A rockslide in your lap! Bizarre superimpositions! Ray gun blasts! And don’t forget Ray Bradbury’s feel-good sense of wonder speeches, from wide-eyed Richard Carlson.
It Came from Outer Space 3-D
Universal Home Video
1953 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 82 min. / Street Date October 4, 2016 / at present a Best Buy exclusive
Starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer,
Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes
Cinematography Clifford Stine
Art Direction Robert Boyle
Makeup and Special effects Jack Kevan, Bud Westmore, David S. Horsley, Milicent Patrick.
Film Editor Paul Weatherwax
Original Music Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, Herman Stein
Written by Harry Essex from a story by Ray Bradbury
Produced by William Alland
Directed by Jack Arnold
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Home Video Blu-ray 3-D gets a fast jolt of excitement with this week’s release that nobody saw coming, a core classic ’50s title. Like much of the most exciting 3-D news these days, the prime impetus behind the 3-D Blu-ray of It Came from Outer Space is the 3-D Film Archive. It was initially announced to be released overseas — the U.K.? France? — by a third party that licensed it from Universal. That release got canceled when the distributor announced that Universal had decided to put it out themselves.
So far, every disc the 3-D Film Archive has been involved with has become a highly desirable collector’s item. This show is as polished as Universal’s 3-D disc of its own Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’ll have more about the disc quality below.
The more time passes, the more special seems the initial spate of science fiction films from the early 1950s, before the genre became synonymous with cheaper exploitation productions. Universal’s first science fiction offering is an elaborate tale of alien visitation from an original story by Ray Bradbury, and his florid, poetic dialogue still survives in some sequences. One of the first, biggest and most successful productions of the 3-D craze, It Came From Outer Space is still a special item. Considering the cut-price tactics applied to some of the Universal Sci-fi efforts that would follow in the next four years, we really appreciate some of the time and expense taken with It Came: elaborate location work, impressive miniature shoots, experimental 3-D optical work, and an interior-exterior desert road set that’s simply enormous… and that works better in 3-D than it does flat. This is also the first Sci-fi film by ’50s cult director Jack Arnold.
Author, stargazing amateur astronomer and Ray Bradbury-like dreamer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) has just sold one of his fantasy stories, and is showing the stars to his fianceé Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush of When Worlds Collide) when they witness the landing of a meteor-like vessel from Outer Space. Only John gets a look at the ship before a landslide buries it at the bottom of a deep crater, and only when people start disappearing from the nearby town of Sand Rock can John convince anyone that aliens have arrived on Earth. Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) is still skeptical about the funny business happening out in the desert, when Ellen disappears as well — replaced, it seems, by some kind of eerie copy.
The smoothly directed It Came From Outer Space augments its studio-grade production values with excellent Robert Boyle designs and sincere group of actors, particularly Richard Carlson. As with all but a couple of producer William Alland’s fantasy pictures, the B&W photography doesn’t hide the standard studio sets but the extensive location work is an added plus. Director Jack Arnold presides over some impressive sights achieved in second-unit and special effects shoots, such a the initial view of the globular, honeycombed ship under the crumbling rocks, and a nearly shapeless alien seen only in brief glimpses. Arnold can take credit for the film’s fanciful tone. The lonely desert already seems like the surface of an alien planet. The sight of John Putnam following a trail of glittering dust across his living room floor imparts the feeling of a space-age fairy tale.
The show earned extra genre cred for being written by Ray Bradbury, who for us ’50s and ’60s kids was a futurist guru who could do no wrong. They screened short subjects about Bradbury in grade school to inspire creative writing. When listing this show, TV Guide always mentioned his participation, as a special badge of virtuosity. The author’s inspirational sense of wonder comes through in Richard Carlson’s speeches. The idea that the aliens use telephone lines as a conduit for their eerie surveillance is nicely suggested, with impressive moving 3-D shots that link the telephone lines with a speeding truck. Add the ‘alien POV’ optical effect and the spooky music, and the spell is cast.
As happens often in early ’50s Sci-fi the visitors from space are frustratingly ambivalent: sometimes benign, sometimes threatening. Shape-shifting star travelers, they have made a pit stop on Earth only to repair their ship and be on their way. The trouble arises when they kidnap and impersonate Earthlings to obtain supplies from town. The huge, formless hulking eye-creatures that they normally are (an exciting, highly publicized flourish added in post) can change their appearance to resemble us, and move about freely. The human duplication results in some offbeat Cocteau-like moments, such as when John Putnam finds two telephone linemen hiding in a storeroom: “Who are you? Why have you come here?” Also evocative is the sight of an alien posing as Ellen standing atop a rough desert hill, wearing an incongruous evening gown and flowing scarf. If the show had more moments like this and fewer ‘boo!’ scares with hands reaching into the frame, the visuals might have found more serendipities for Bradbury’s verbal poetry. It’s good that William Alland appreciated Bradbury’s contribution, but the producer’s subsequent shows didn’t continue to tap other writers of the fantastic. It was Albert Zugsmith that produced the best Uni film in this genre, The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson.
The duplicates look correct but lack normal human mannerisms and speak with hollow, haunted voices, a combo that quickly became a tired Sci-fi cliché. But if taken in the right spirit It Came From Outer Space never seems stale. Even though similarly themed movies were made before this one, this show set the standard: with the killing score 2 – 0 in favor of the humans, the visitors are more sinned against than sinners.
Story-wise things don’t develop much farther beyond Putnam’s initial dilemma. He knows there are visitors among us but nobody will listen to him. When Putnam gets down to cases with the aliens, carrying on an argument with their leader, things become more confused. The extraterrestrials claim that we are the hostile race, yet they are the ones doing the kidnapping. They try to fry John with a ray gun and casually threaten the entire planet with destruction. They’re probably right to suspect that Arizonans would shoot first and get sociable later, but when they feel the need to threaten the obviously friendly Putnam, they don’t come off as very trustworthy. The much later Mars Attacks! had a field day lampooning the genre’s sometimes irrational pacifism, when faced with obvious threats. When the visitors blast off into the night sky Putnam is still spouting happy-talk about how wonderful they were. In fact, the whole visit was a miserable fiasco of interstellar diplomacy. The supposedly lofty visitors are just as suspicious and trigger-happy as the Earthmen. One of the commercial contradictions of early ’50s sci-fi is the constant talk about the higher moral standards of civilizations from space, when what we’re shown is mostly more of the totalitarian aggression we’re used to on Earth.
Dreamer Putnam is not much of a scientist; instead of sticking to facts he spends altogether too much time telling the sheriff his flaky-sounding theories. If he really wanted some cooperation, he should have dropped the Men from Mars talk and simply told the authorities that he saw a solid gold meteor at the bottom of the crater. That spaceship would have been uncovered in ten hours flat, and we’d all be partaking of the secrets of the universe instead of standing empty-handed watching the spaceship zoom away, without so much as a photo snapshot to prove that it ever was here. Lucky for us, It Came From Outer Space still retains its magic. Its poetic qualities haven’t diminished.
Savant first saw It Came From Outer Space in Polaroid 3-D in 1972 when the defunct Star Theater on Hollywood Boulevard gave a short series of 3-D pictures. The illusion was stunning, with the rockslide sequence indeed making us bob our heads reflexively. Some of the scenes had a cutout diorama look. Isolated planes of action appeared to be stacked up like paper cards instead of creating a convincing depth continuum. One setup in the sheriff’s office, where a room divider stretches diagonally into the distance, looked like a forced perspective trick, as if the objects and people in the shot were really flat things in a 3-D world. But all of the scenes with mist and smoke and some of the elaborate special effects looked great. Only the unsatisfying shots of the meteor zooming across the sky stand out, because the cartoon matte around its trailing sparks never blends well with the sky. Yet Universal invested a great deal of effort in the film’s visuals. Some of the superimposed explosions, glitter and flying sparks are awesome. I believe that one 3-D explosion shot was re-used for the ‘creation of the universe’ sequence in Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Other 3-D details from way back when: the print I saw projected had only one intermission to change reels, not two as described in Universal’s older disc commentary and docu. The trailer and the cast run at the end of the movie give rather ungallant attention to Kathleen Hughes, encouraging the expectation that the 3-D effect wouldn’t just be used for monsters. Ms. Hughes proved her acting ability in other Universal pix of the time, yet she’s most remembered in her one scene from this picture as the ‘girl with the 3-D figure.’
Universal Home Video’s 3-D Blu-ray of It Came from Outer Space 3-D is a delight, as legions of home 3-D fans who pre-ordered from Best Buy are likely discovering.
The 3-D picture and the image overall is quite good, with smooth contrast and a pleasing surface texture. We’re happy to report that we’re not sure that Universal could have done a better job in-house. When I look at just the left or right eye information, I see no drop in quality. The 3-D Film Archive’s article on the restoration goes into some detail, stating that “all the baked-in vertical alignment issues and reverse stereo shots have finally been corrected,” which means that perhaps I wasn’t crazy way back when, when a shot or two made me feel like my eyeballs had turned inside-out. What’s more, purchasers are already talking about the discrete 3-channel (left/center/right) original audio mix rescued and resurrected by the 3-D Film Archive. A year or two before the stereophonic hi-fi sound craze hit America, It Came From Outer Space has one of those highly directional tracks that delights in playing tricks with our ears. The archive has a good article about the audio from those experimental years, here, written by Greg Kintz.
The first shot hard-cuts a bit late to the opening Universal logo, but included at the forty-minute mark is an original Intermission card that was used in original two-projector exhibition, which required a break to change to the second half of the show. Please listen up, studios… we consumers LOVE these kinds of exotic thrills and technical frills. I can’t believe that a fully restored, theater and home video-ready 3-D restoration of John Wayne’s Hondo has existed for years. So far as I know, it has only been seen in isolated special screenings. That picture wouldn’t do badly in general release.
The disc has been given the extras from the old DVD from fourteen years ago. The thorough commentary track by Tom Weaver is still one of the author/genre interviewer’s best. He tells the production story in pleasing detail, including how the many special effects were achieved. Tom also settles the controversy surrounding who’s really responsible for the film’s screenplay, Ray Bradbury or credited writer Harry Essex. Weaver’s assessment of who should get proper credit seems biased at first, but after we’ve heard the story from three angles, the truth becomes fairly clear. What really makes this Weaver commentary superior is his sense of context. Just how interested were the players in the project? In what ways did Universal put special effort into the picture? Weaver expresses well the country’s mood toward ‘futurism’ in the early 1950s, when it seemed like anything was possible.
The old David J. Skal docu, The Universe According to Universal isn’t as satisfactory as his earlier classic monster docus because what there is to tell about the show is stretched too thin; the show should probably have been about a third shorter. There are no direct witnesses: I guess Barbara Rush wasn’t game to talk about her beginnings in science fiction films. Perhaps the studio wags directed Skal to drag in references to other Uni Sci-fi home video offerings regardless of their relevance to the outer space theme. On the other hand, we do see David Schecter and Bob Furmanek as they were in 2002, and the 3-D Film Archive was already established. That’s a nice bit of deserved continuity. The 3-D Film Archive provides a glorious original trailer in 3-D, a rare item that also appeared on the company’s 3-D Rarities disc.
This is a really exciting release. We hope that the 3-D Film Archive moves forward with more restorations, like the hinted-at The Maze by William Cameron Menzies. And by all means, Universal, look at this as a positive trend and give it some support. We’re very happy with this disc. Wouldn’t it be grand to have a boxed set of all three Creature movies, with Revenge of the Creature fully restored? Why not go whole hog and perform a post-production conversion on the final Gill Man opus The Creature Walks Among Us, just to complete the set? 3-D shouldn’t be just for family cartoons and Marvel superheroes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It Came from Outer Space 3-D Blu-ray
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Excellent Original restored 3-channel Stereophonic
Supplements: Tom Weaver commentary, long-form documentary, original 3-D trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 7, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson