Progenitor And Progeny: IT! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), And Creature (1985)
In his excellent Evolution Of A Horror Fan piece for Genre Squad, Shaun Stidham does a perfect job of conveying what made TNT's Monstervision such a special show. I share his feelings, but sadly, I only caught on to the series somewhat later in its run, and fully regret missing what came before. I still have deeply fond memories of the portion I did see, though, and among the more faded is a showing of IT! The Terror From Beyond Space. This was likely the first time I'd ever heard of the film, and during the host segments Joe Bob Briggs would detail it's similarities with Ridley Scott's Alien. Lately, it happens that my own considerable fandom for Alien and Aliens has been rejuvenated, and it occurred to me that I had never viewed the entire film that was supposedly an inspiration for that massive franchise.
A spacecraft prepares to depart the dreamily painted black and white surface of Mars. It's sleek hull bears the "cigar with fins" shape, a visual archetype of the golden age of science fiction so omnipresent and familiar as to inhabit the collective subconscious. Newly aboard is the survivor of a previous expedition which left all other crew members dead. Colonel Edward Corruthers (Marshall Thompson) claims that a glimpsed being, a savage inhabitant of the red planet itself, is responsible for the deaths of his crewmates. But the commander of the aforementioned rescue ship is not buying it for a second. If movies have taught me one thing it's that if someone claims that a monster is responsible for a terrible event, then it was a monster, this being much more likely than for such a claim to be a deliberately concocted alibi from an adult human being. "The only way I'll get away with this is to say a monster did it!" That would never be convincing, and everyone knows it. There's a monster.
Just before the rocket lifts off, the titular IT!, sneaks aboard. The creature is itself another survivor, of sorts, having developed biological attributes to withstand the extraordinarily harsh environment of Mars. This marks a clever explanation for the alien's hardy resistance to nearly every weaponized attempt to stop it, or even slow it down. Crew members begin to go missing, and the movie is smart enough to avoid the easy trick of marking the rescued human suspect as a red herring. As it is he is being continually chaperoned on the ship, via the commander's orders. But the commander is unable to let go of his single minded distrust and disdain for Corruthers, even once his alibi proves true. It's an intriguing and offbeat character arc, and yet another obstacle to a group caught in a fight for survival. The creature slowly enfolds the ship into its territory, ascending floor by vertical floor, as the humans do their best to seal it below. Their climactic attempt at a solution is admirably science driven, and plays out in a way that prefigures Alien's own finale, if not exactly.
Other similarities exist, but reside more in plot and specific details than overall execution. People crawl into and are killed inside of ducts. Flame throwers are used. The construct of an ever reducing number of characters, killed by the monster, is employed. In terms of how the two films feel, however, in atmosphere, pacing, and style, they contrast massively. IT! has a sustained, combative tension that gradually increases with each failed attempt to stop the monster. Alien could be characterized more fairly as submerging into an ever expanding sense of dread, punctuated by moments of violent shock. Giger's now immortal creature design for Scott's film is an unsettling nightmare, of the subconsciously demonic and primally grotesque. The humanoid beast in IT! is a burly, toothy, growling product of the monster boom that bore it, another man in a suit, with all the hypnotic charm attendant to such things. Buried beneath the costume in this case is legendary stuntman/serial hero Ray "Crash" Corrigan, who ably sells the insurmountable physical power of the savage stowaway.
While Dan O'Bannon was inspired by IT! in his writing of Alien, director Ridley Scott took those elements and elevated them in his sci fi horror masterpiece. IT!, like it's central monster, developed in a rougher environment, near to the boiling, creative b-movie ectoplasm itself before it evolved into Alien. The film wonderfully embodies the 50's sci fi monster movie, but is laudable for being a particularly fast, sometimes tense, and often smarter than usual example of the genre from the period.
While Alien had its predecessors, it, too was in turn the source of many imitators. 1985's Creature, known by its on - screen title of The Titan Find, is a notable example. The film is directed by William Malone, who never fails to deliver on a visual front. If he was given access to a solid enough script, I believe that he would be more than capable of delivering a truly great film. In his review of Malone's Fear.Com, Roger Ebert gave any credit the movie deserved to the aesthetic work of Malone and his crew. Creature is no exception, delivering a dense and foreboding atmosphere. The Saturnian moon of Titan, where the story is set, seems constantly beset by rumbling storms and features a gusty, harsh, twilight landscape. It is in this moody climate, as well as the dimly lit interiors of its spacecraft, that Creature comes fairly near to replicating Scott's aesthetic. You can ape the plot of Alien all you want, but it's the atmosphere that sold it, and Malone, to his credit, seems to have understood this.
Beyond its environments, the film's effects, created in part by the great Skotak brothers, excel just as well in the miniature sequences. I've mentioned it before, but using models to represent spaceships is very nearly always superior to the digital equivalent. In the 80's, even a lower budget genre film like this one could still contain accomplished effects, and I have no doubt that this is due to the practical nature of the techniques used. With CGI, the amount of money spent seems to have a more direct consequence on the end result, whereas in the practical world, the sheer ability of the craftsmen is the paramount factor. Artists like the Skotak's can pull off wonders on a shoestring because they are working largely with hands on materials, and are skilled at it. Furthermore, how one chooses to photograph a real, physical object can both enhance its appeal and limit its flaws. Just such a combination of talent and tricks is at work in Creature.
An obvious testament to the influence of Scott's film, Creature utilizes both corporate shill and tough woman archetypes as characters. Perhaps as a preemptive, tongue in cheek admittance of mimicry, the two are handled quite differently in the course of the story. The formidable female in question, Melanie Bryce (Diane Salinger), happens to be the personal security officer of said company man, and is a colder, initially mute version of Ellen Ripley, one who might be malevolent. The company liaison's arrogance leads to his crewmates' ship becoming stranded on Titan in the first place. By the end of the story, though, each of these characters are greatly humanized, with the security officer revealing a charming vulnerability. As for corporate shill David Perkins (Lyman Ward), a truly unexpected turn occurs as he becomes not only a valuable addition in the fight against the monster itself, but outright heroic. The fact that one is rooting for this character in the last act of the film is a testament to the storytelling freedom given to a smaller production, and to the ability of Ward as an actor to coax us into liking him.
The film's own variation on the iconic Face Hugger organism is an imaginative, unexpected threat. The slimy membrane attaches itself to deceased victims, actually replacing the function of the brain, and animating said hosts as a means of deceiving the remaining survivors. This adds an entirely different, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers style dynamic to later moments of the story. It's somewhat ironic, for a film that is itself impersonating something that came before. As if these dangers weren't frightening enough, an unstable and mysterious interloper, Hans Rudy Hofner, appears. Played by the incomparable Klaus Kinski, he is the sole survivor of an earlier, for profit mission to Titan by a rival company. There is a real sense of danger, untrustworthiness, and charisma about him, as only Kinski can project.
Despite the handful of interesting details that distinguish Creature from Alien, it is not without its flaws. Foremost is its reliance on the trope of having a group of characters split up, even after the nature of the threat is established. It is employed multiple times, and often with scant justification. It is common to assume that this conceit is at its worst in slasher films like Friday the 13th, but that's not strictly true. In nearly every film of that franchise, bodies aren't discovered until the last act, so the danger isn't known in time for characters to band together - they're mostly dead by then. Creature is an example of when the gimmick is too loosely employed. When the movie is otherwise so entertaining and atmospheric, as this one is, it becomes quite easy to overlook. As a film that contains a comically blunt instance of the monster gnawing someone's head off, so that it plops onto the floor? I certainly can't complain.
When we delve into the nature of a film's inspirations, it can be easy to complain of imitation, or proclaim rip off. But noticing how similar a film is to another does nothing to analyze it on its own merits. A film is not merely its parts, or even story. It is a sensory experience, an overall impression or feeling, and the nature and flavor of this experience cannot be separated from the sensibilities of those who made it. This transference of taste and interest from filmmaker to viewer, moment to moment, cannot truly be replicated, even if superficial details can. Furthermore, the concept of what is original is fraught with difficulty. Nearly everything can be traced backward, from inspiration to source, through a long, if not infinite chain.
This is not to say that plagiarism doesn't exist, only that pure incarnations of it might be tricky to distinguish from inspiration or loving homage. Within the swirling mixture of the zeitgeist, there is a constant transposition and overlaying of creative notions, big and small, between an endless series of creators. Even individuals within this artistic multitude might not be fully conscious of what they have taken from elsewhere and put to use for their own work. Memories are imperfect, and there is little rhyme or reason regarding what becomes lodged in our subconscious. Small moments and brief images glimpsed from another's work re emerge later in our minds where we mistake them for our own idea, the true source long since forgotten. And there is such a phenomenon as simultaneous, independent invention by separate individuals. Consider the concept of the orbital elevator, a hypothetical structure of arced spires that extend from the Earth's surface to beyond its atmosphere, where they connect with spaceports or a unifying ring around the planet. A clever concept, meant to allow humans to board a large lift or elevator within each spire, and ride it to space without the need for the enormous amount of fuel and force currently required to make the journey. What's more fascinating is that, by all accounts, It was conceived by science fiction writers Arthur C. Clarke and Charles Scheffield at the same, with the two having no contact with one another on the subject. A wild coincidence, but real nonetheless. In the ecosystem of thought, one must learn to accept that ideas may have a life of their own. Sometimes they lay dormant, only to burst forth years later from within a new host.