Thursday, September 23, 2010

12th September 2010: They Came From Outer Space (1966)

They Came From Beyond Space

UK 1966 colour

Director Freddie Francis Writer Milton Subotsky

Cast Robert (Dr Curtis Temple), Jennifer Jayne (Lee Mason), Zia Mohyeddin (Farge), Bernard Kay (Richard Arden), Michael Gough (Master of the Moon)

A flying V formation of meteors crash lands in Cornwall, prompting American scientist Dr Temple to send his assistant-girlfriend and her team to investigate. They excitedly poke the still-warm rocks when ZAP! Alien intelligences invade their thoughts – as possessed scientists their customary British reserve becomes even more starched - - and before you can crowbar your glazed eyes shut into what could be described as a blink, they're borrowing a million of our Earth pounds, taking over entire estates, abandoning morning teas to build rockets to the moon, and unleashing a dash-awful disease of Biblical proportions dubbed the Crimson Plague. I say, how unsporting! Thanks to a convenient silver plate in his head, our intrepid American scientist hero believes he's able to save the planet from the non-sentient rotters – it's all smoke and mirrors, however, for the alien Grand Poobah's REAL motives.

At a time when Hammer was the by-word for British horror, a rival company was carving out its own niche in the British genre field. Amicus Productions, a partnership between Americans Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, started with youth- culture B films in the Fifties before hitting gold with the atmospheric, gothic-drenched Horror Hotel/(aka City Of The Dead, 1960). Amicus followed in 1965 with an even more striking horror anthology called Dr Terror's House Of Horrors, made by one of Hammer's most prolific cinematographer-turned-directors Freddie Francis, and starring the two stand-out icons of British horror, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. From the mid Sixties until its demise in 1974, the company's biggest successes would alternate between gothic horrors and Dr Terror-styled anthologies, and despite the borrowed talent and reflected glory, distinguished its product from Hammer's by Subotsky's wit and comparatively subtle touch.

Along with titles like Torture Garden (1967) and Tales From The Crypt (1972) came the inevitable science fiction films, a minor cycle for Amicus no doubt inspired by Hammer's groundbreaking Quatermass series. Subotsky's two big screen adaptations of the Dr Who series in the mid Sixties rolled into two further low-budget alien invasion features for their 1966 schedule – The Terrornauts, and a reworking of US pulp novel The Gods Hate Kansas, retitled as the generic and less inspiring They Came From Beyond Space. With Freddie Francis once more in the director's chair, it's a threadbare patchwork of borrowed ideas – Invasion Of The Body Snatchers the most obvious – held together with American actor Robert Hutton as the Professor Quatermass stand-in Dr Curtis Temple.

And hereby lies the film's major weakness. To illustrate it in more topical terms: They Came From Beyond Space is like Christchurch, a city built upon a major fault line, which is American import Robert Hutton. At his first appearance, the cracks begin to show. By the end, over 80% of the city is without water and due for demolition. It made business sense to cast an American actor in a British B-film to broaden its audience appeal Stateside, but seriously, what appeal IS there? Hutton is neither an action hero, svelte intellectual nor romantic lead, and is more of a body stocking filled with suet swung at the heads of his supporting cast. The moment a local dolly bird (or is she a Cornish gaming hen?) chats Hutton up with the offer of a cup of tea - “with sugar” (arches eyebrow) – the film is propelled even further into the realms of the unbelievable.

It's other major fault can only be described as being “too British” - unremarkable, indistinguishable, with cardboard sets left over from the Dr Who features and a narrative that demands a minimum of cheapskate effects, and an conclusion featuring venerable British actor Michael Gough that, despite the grimly apocalyptic build-up, is depressingly jovial. On the plus side............. the jazz score is snazzy, and I like the girls' hair. Should this forgotten example of British science fiction have been left forgotten? Like Michael Gough as the all-seeing, all-knowing Man in the Moon, you be the judge, as we decant They Came From Beyond Space.

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