IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956)
Synopsis: As mankind’s first satellite is about to be launched, discredited scientist Dr Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef) tries to convince US Secretary Platt (Marshall Bradford) and General Carpenter (David McMahon) that the project should be cancelled; that “alien intelligence” is watching, and it is not happy…. Anderson is ignored, and the launch goes ahead under the watchful eye of program head, Dr Paul Nelson (Peter Graves). Three months later, while Nelson and his wife, Joan (Sally Fraser), are having dinner at the home of the Andersons, Tom reiterates his warnings against the satellite program, but Paul is unmoved. Over the objections of his wife, Claire (Beverly Garland), Tom shows Paul an electronic communication system that he claims is not only picking up signals from Venus, but a “voice” as well. Paul receives a phonecall informing him that the satellite has disappeared, but by the time he reaches the instillation, the object has reappeared. Paul goes home, leaving his colleagues Pete Shelton (Charles B. Griffith) and Ellen Peters (Karen Kadler) in charge. Meanwhile, Claire Anderson listens in despair to her husband’s frantic claims that “he” is here, that “he” is using Paul’s satellite to come to Earth from Venus. Tom insists on sleeping by his communicator. The following day, Paul and his team bring the satellite back to Earth. However, they lose control of it, and the object crashes into the mountains south of the project. Shortly afterwards, something frees itself from the wreck…. Suddenly, all forms of power in the vicinity of the town of Beechwood are cut. Out on the road, the Nelsons’ car stops; Joan realises that her watch has stopped, too. Then, as the couple watches in horror, a plane explodes in mid-air. They set out to walk to the Andersons’. Meanwhile, via his communicator, Tom reads out the names of the most important people in the area – including Paul Nelson. He learns that eight “control devices” have been produced…. In Beechwood, people are beginning to panic. Claire is accosted by newspaper editor George Haskell (Thomas E. Jackson), who points out that her husband predicted just such an occurrence. Tom himself then appears, and is promptly attacked by one of the townspeople, who accuses him of causing the power cut. Police Chief Schallert (Taggart Casey) breaks up the fight, and the Andersons hurry away – their car is still working. Out in the woods, the Nelsons are horrified by the sight of a strange, bat-like creature. Paul manages to drive it away. The creature continues on to Beechwood, where it attacks Schallert. It embeds a small device in the back of his neck, and then dies…. Walking through the woods, General Pattick (Russ Bender) is attacked by another such creature. At the Andersons’, Tom tells the incredulous Paul about the Venusian; that it is here to “change everything”, and for the better; and that the days when people could laugh at him are over…. Despite Paul’s frank disbelief, Tom shows no hostility, but agrees to drive him and Joan to their home. He asks them to wait for him outside, then hurries to the communicator, reporting the Nelsons’ whereabouts….
Comments: ….aka It Sat In A Cave In SoCal. I’m probably going to disappoint quite a few people with this review, but the fact is (MST3K notwithstanding) I have almost as much admiration for this film as I do affection, and I don’t intend to make fun of it any more than is absolutely necessary.
That said – well, sometimes it is absolutely necessary, not least because It Conquered The World boasts one of the most charmingly idiotic monsters ever to grace the silver screen. “Beulah”, as the beastie is generally known, is perhaps Paul Blaisdell’s most endearing creation: an ambulatory kohl rabi with fangs and claws, that after lurking in a cave for most of the film, finally charges out into the unforgiving light of day and reveals itself in all its glorious absurdity. While it’s not hard to understand why this image should be most people’s dominant memory of It Conquered The World, the fact is that, its gigglesome monster aside, the film has a surprising amount going for it. In many ways, this is the definitive Roger Corman film. It is, granted, a low-budget, slapdash production, full of padding and stock footage, with cheesy effects and a screenplay that borrows heavily – and blatantly – from other science fiction films (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invaders From Mars amongst them – well, you can’t say ol’ Rog didn’t have good taste). Nevertheless, It Conquered The World is not without an appeal and a stature all of its own, thanks to some committed performances from a stalwart crew of actors, a witty script, and a story that has more ideas crammed into its seventy-one minute running time than you’d find in half a dozen of today’s science fiction blockbusters.
Unsurprisingly for 1956, It Conquered The World is essentially a Commie paranoia film. Nevertheless, the film does stand a little apart from the crowd, particularly in view of its willingness to understand the forces that drive Tom Anderson to become “the greatest traitor of all time”, and the degree of sympathy it evinces for him. The alien force, we see, is not merely exploiting Tom’s weaknesses (and inevitably, Tom’s very intelligence is regarded as a “weakness”), but turning what is best and most positive in him into a force for evil. Clearly, neither actual treachery nor a hunger for personal power is behind of Tom’s actions (or at least, not consciously), but rather a sincere desire for the betterment of the world. But of course, there is more to it than that. Tom is an outsider, a renegade, who has been mocked right out of his profession for his views, in spite of all his achievements. It is quite obvious to the viewer, if perhaps not quite so obvious to Tom himself, that one of his main motivations in giving himself over to the Venusian is to show them – to show them all. (“The days when people could make fun of me are over!” he announces with unconcealed gratification.) Inglorious as this impulse is, it is precisely what will win Tom the empathy of the audience – or certain portions of it, at least. On this level, It Conquered The World is a film for anyone who was ever picked on, bullied or ridiculed; who could not or would not run with the herd; and who passed a few lonely hours dreaming up revenge fantasies of a most comprehensive and satisfying kind….
One of the real strengths of It Conquered The World is its emphasis upon character. Far too many movies ask the viewer to believe in connections between people who you can’t actually imagine wanting to spend five minutes in the same room together. This film, in contrast, focuses upon two entirely credible couples and one equally credible friendship: relationships plausible enough to give the story as a whole an unexpected impact. One of the most interesting things about It Conquered The World is its off-kilter casting of Lee Van Cleef, whose only previous escape from the world of the western was his small but important role in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. If it is more than a bit difficult to believe that Van Cleef is a world-renowned physicist with “every degree imaginable” (an accomplishment that does him about as much good as it did Arthur Carrington in The Thing), you can at least believe that Tom Anderson is the kind of man who might indeed sabotage his own career by persistently butting heads with The Authorities. On the other hand, everything about Peter Graves’ Paul Nelson screams “Establishment!” (I mean, he was just poured into that lab coat, wasn’t he?) The philosophy of It Conquered The World (and yes, it has one – stop snickering!) is largely conveyed in a series of debates between Nelson and Anderson, which not only serve to air the opposing viewpoints of the two scientists, but – thanks to some nice acting from both Graves and Van Cleef – convinces the viewer that the two men have indeed been good friends, and mildly antagonistic rivals, perhaps since their college days; certainly since the early days of their respective careers. That the two so clearly like and respect one another adds an interesting edge to their irreconcilable stances.
As you’d expect, establishment guy Paul Nelson has an equally establishment fifties wife. (You just know that in conversation, he refers to her as “the little woman”.) Viewers today might be unkindly amused by Joan Nelson, with her inability to absorb any of the science stuff that “the men” are always discussing, her abiding interest in “recipes” and “washing and wiping”, and her reduction of a world in crisis to, “Well, at least this means you get a day off!” But all the same, Joan’s very conventionality lends considerable power to what is perhaps the film’s most unanticipated moment…
The critical relationship in It Conquered The World, however, is that between Tom and Claire Anderson. Beverly Garland was, of course, one of the great ladies of fifties B-Moviedom; her mere presence is enough to give the film class. Garland never gave less than 100%, no matter how dubious the production in which she found herself, and her performance in It Conquered The World is one of her most memorable. Claire Anderson, fittingly, is as much of a non-conformist as a wife as Tom Anderson is as a scientist. Passionate and forthright, Claire steels herself to make a defiant stand against – and for – her husband, speaking her mind with brutal honesty as she valiantly tries to reclaim him first, as she then believes, from the brink of insanity, and then from the clutches of the Venusian invader. The estrangement between the Andersons is particularly poignant because we really believe that Tom and Claire are sincerely in love with one another. (Even at the height of his mania, Tom can call the Venusian “My greatest interest in life”, and then correct himself with an affectionate glance at his wife: “Second greatest.”) Moreover (how daring!), the Andersons are one of those rare movie couples from this era who give the impression of actually having an active sex life – or at least that they did, before Tom’s obsession with the invader took over. Claire’s repeated pleas for her husband to “Come to bed, darling!” are not, we feel, made purely because she’s worried that he isn’t getting enough sleep. (There’s a brief, rather touching moment after Tom rejects Claire’s suggestion of bed and settles down on the couch near his communicator. Despite everything, Claire later brings a blanket out to her sleeping husband and tenderly covers him up.) Ultimately, the absolute wrongness of Tom’s surrender to the Venusian is most strongly illustrated by the fact that he is not just prepared to hand over his country, even his world, to the invader, but that he is prepared to sacrifice his marriage, too. Inevitably, it is at length revealed that one of the first consequences of the Venusian’s takeover will be a banishment of all that “wasteful emotion”. Claire immediately pounces on the paradox in her husband’s statement, and demands to know how he can say such a thing to her – while holding her in his arms. Caught off-guard, Tom assures her that he will always need her, “emotion or no emotion”, but Claire isn’t having any. In a startlingly explicit moment, she paints a bitter portrait of the future, with Tom able to “hire” for “a few dollars” a woman who will meet all of his “requirements” – and when she bores him, to run down to “the employment agency” for another. (“Employment agency”!? – now there’s a euphemism you don’t hear too often!) Even this isn’t enough to bring Tom to his senses, so Claire, gutsy lady that she is, decides there’s nothing else for it but to take matters into her own hands….
But before we follow Claire Anderson on her mission to save the world, let’s find out how we all got into this mess in the first place, hmm?
It Conquered The World opens with the launch of mankind’s first ever satellite (Sputnik being a full year into the future, remember), an event that occurs over the strenuous objections of Dr Tom Anderson. Tom has travelled to Washington to voice his protest – we know he has, because the thoroughly anonymous room occupied by “Secretary Platt” offers a close-up view of the top of the Washington Monument. (Which, according to my calculations, was due to be sliced in half by a crippled flying saucer at any moment…. July of 1956 was obviously the high tourist season for alien races.) Platt calls General Carpenter into his office, and the General starts making honeyed remarks about “meeting so illustrious a physicist”. “Ah, cut the crap!” responds Tom – or the 1956 equivalent thereof, at any rate – and then pleads with The Authorities to stop the satellite launch, insisting that “alien intelligence is watching” and intends to keep mankind “in its place”. The screenplay then takes the opportunity to give us a potted resume of Tom’s career (it is now that we learn he has “every degree imaginable”; as usual, the film seems to assume that “a degree” is something awarded for merit, like a medal). When Tom proves impervious to flattery, Platt shifts tactics, asking what the scientist is doing now: “Retired, aren’t you?” Tom agrees dryly that “ that’s one way of putting it”, and attributes his situation to the fact that “there are a lot of fatheads in the world”. For reasons best known to himself, Platt takes this personally, and with a real nyah-nyah-nyah in his voice, he informs Tom that he is too late: the launch will be under way any second….
Three months later, Paul and Joan Nelson are having dinner with Tom and Claire Anderson. Paul is feeling smug, but is a little disconcerted when he realises that Tom seems just as smug. “You look like a man who just inherited Texas,” he observes. “You might not be so far off, in a sense,” Tom smirks, provoking Claire to remonstrate with him. (“Tom!” “Yes, dear.”) Paul then runs over his satellite’s specifications, provoking his own wife into a protest of her own: all this “science” has given the poor little thing a headache. But Paul, by now, is set on finding out Tom’s “secret”, and despite his promise to Claire that he wouldn’t start on that subject, the lure of having someone at last listen to him proves too much for Tom. “Paul will understand!” he insists to his mortified wife (and there isn’t a woman in the world who won’t sympathise entirely with the involuntary cringe of mingled embarrassment and annoyance that Claire gives here). “Maybe nobody else will, but Paul will understand!” And with that, he carts Paul off to the next room. Seeing Claire’s distress, Joan then offers the best remedy she can: “Come on – I’ll wash, and you wipe!”
In the living-room, Tom whips back a curtain to reveal a nifty bunch of electronics. Paul is impressed: “Where does one buy the kit?” (Radioshack, I imagine.) Tom switches the set on, informing Paul that the signals he hears are from Venus. But there is more than that: “Listen to it, Paul! Listen to the voice!” Before Paul can react with a significant forehead tap, or even make a “Wheeooo!” noise, the phone rings. It’s for Paul, of course. The satellite has vanished – of course. Paul grabs Joan and heads for the door, pausing only to inform Tom that, “I know what you’re thinking – and I don’t appreciate it!” Considering that Tom’s thoughts are probably revolving around a mutant cucumber from another world, somehow I doubt it.
Outside, Joan offers her opinion: Tom is a bit “odd”. “Tom’s a genius,” Paul responds – and as is usually the case with films of this era (and sadly, often beyond), his tone implies an insult, not a compliment.
General Pattick, head of security for the satellite program, arrives at “the instillation”, and we get a brief introduction to Sergeant Neill and Private Ortiz, who will constitute the film’s Comic Relief. (Neill and Ortiz are played by, respectively, Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze, and are therefore by definition not Odious; although at times, that’s all that saves them.) Inside, it’s time for another significant introduction: Dr Pete Shelton, played by screenwriter Charles B. Griffith – who we almost certainly have to thank for all of It Conquered The World’s best moments, despite his lack of screen credit. Pete and his colleague, Ellen Peters, are trying unavailingly to locate the satellite. “The scientific achievement of the century has disappeared!” pronounces the General. “We’ve got to find it!”
Back at the Andersons’, Claire is prowling restlessly around the house, and she is pissed. “You promised!” she accuses her husband, nevertheless allowing him to take her in his arms. Meanwhile, Paul arrives at the instillation to find that his satellite has reappeared as mysteriously as it vanished. He decides that they will have to “bring it down”, and orders Pete and Ellen to prepare a report for Platt, who will want to know “where she went, and why”. Tom, of course, knows exactly where and why, and after accepting a little more ego-stroking from the Venusian (“It’s true – I am your only friend!”), explains it all to Claire. “He drew the satellite to his world – to Venus – and now he’s back – all within an hour!” (Uh, yyyeah….) Claire begs Tom not to let his imagination get the better of him. Tom insists that it’s nothing of the kind, but rather “What I’ve been predicting for years! – and this is good, instead of evil! That was my one uncertainty!” Talk having failed, Claire tries another tack: “Come to bed, darling!” But, alas! – Tom is so far gone that he declines this offer, and settles down on the couch, instead.
The next morning, Pete and Ellen twiddle knobs in an attempt to land the satellite. (And just where is program head Paul Nelson? You may well ask.) However, they lose control of the object; and in an hysterical piece of “special effects” work, we see the “satellite” descend towards earth at a perfect 45o angle, stop, prop, take off again on the horizontal, and slam into the side of a mountain. Tom is swiftly on his communicator, being reassured that the visitor survived the crash. When the “news” is relayed to her, the disgusted Claire announces that she is going into town. “And when I get back, I pray to God you’ll be rational!”
We are then permitted a tantalising glimpse of the Venusian as it climbs out of the wrecked satellite. It waves its claws and antennae, and instantly the power cuts out, all over the world – or so it is implied (the “communication blackout” means, conveniently, that we need not deal with the world outside Beechwood). And that is, by the way, all kinds of power: electricity and steam power die, engines and batteries cut out, water dries up – even wind-up wristwatches stop working! (Take that, Klaatu!) Out on the road – ah, there’s Paul! – the Nelsons’ car suddenly stops. As Paul climbs out to check under the hood, Joan notices that her watch has stopped too. (“So wind it up!” says Mr Fifties Husband in his most condescending tone.) Paul can’t find anything wrong with the car, of course. He begins to suggest a walk to the Andersons’, when---
We get to enjoy the film’s most egregious blunder (giving the audience a clear view of Beulah aside, that is), as a highly unconvincing plane explodes overhead. Not only does this make no sense whatsoever (wouldn’t it simply drop from the sky?), but the Nelsons’ lack of response is jaw-dropping. Oh, sure, they decide they might be wanted as witnesses, and so check the time of the disaster (thus learning that Joan’s watch still isn’t going – so much for you, Mr Fifties Husband!); but when they eventually do reach the Andersons’, they don’t even bother to mention what they’ve seen, confining themselves instead to making complaints about their car. Oh, and Joan’s sore feet, of course. Guess you’ve got to get your priorities straight.
Meanwhile, Tom makes a fatal decision. Irrevocably crossing a line, he willingly reveals to the Venusian the names of “the key control people in the vicinity” (all four of them): the mayor, the police chief, General Pattick – and Paul Nelson…. Tom learns that the Venusian has produced eight “control devices” – exactly the number for the “key people” and their wives, conveniently enough. Tom expresses a desire to see one of these devices, a favour that is about to be bestowed upon the audience. But first – we get to see Beulah….
Lordy, lordy, lordy….
Near to the ground, the Venusian has a fringe, or skirt, of fleshy projections; and from beneath this skitter two bat-like creatures that take off through the woods.
In Beechwood, the loss of all power has the people beginning to panic. (Well – except for the two female extras laughing their heads off in the foreground, that is.) Newspaper owner-editor George Haskell spots Claire in the crowd and – showing a remarkable familiarity with The Many Rants Of Tom Anderson – observes that, “Your husband said that this thing was going to happen! Now, ask him how in the world we’re going to get out of it!” The distracted Claire promises she will, and stumbles off. Along the road, we are introduced to Police Chief Schallert, who is doing his best to calm the panicky populace. (Tragically, however, he does not assure the crowd that “There’s nothing to see here!” – even though, for once, it would have been true….) A distraught woman rushes up to Schallert and blurts, “My husband – he’s in an iron lung – it stopped!” “Well, you go back inside and operate it by hand,” the helpful Schallert tells her in a soothing voice. At that moment, Tom himself appears. Instantly, an irate townsperson – well-read, but violent – launches himself in Tom’s direction, shouting, “You’re Anderson! I read your stuff! You did this!” – and then punches him in the face. (We’re left to infer that Tom publishes his revolutionary theories in that most powerful organ of the press, the Beechwood Clarion.) Schallert breaks up the ensuing scuffle, and Tom hurries away with Claire. Their car, of course, is still working….
Out in the woods, the Nelsons encounter one of the control devices, which Paul drives away by throwing a rock at it. “What an ugly creature!” sniffs Joan (huh! – says you, woman!), while Paul opines that “it must be some kind of cave-bat” (as opposed to the kind that hangs out on the beach, we assume). They set off again for the Andersons’, where Tom and Claire have just arrived. Tom has attempted to explain the “de-energising” of the world, but Claire is unconvinced – even more so, when she finds that their water is still running. Tom must explain to her again, not without a certain satisfaction, that for them, it’s different.
In Beechwood, Schallert is moving stalled cars out of the road, unaware that a “control device” is lurking in a nearby tree. The creature swoops, hitting the police chief in the back of the neck. It then dies. Schallert climbs to his feet with his hand on his neck, where two fine threads of metal are now embedded. Obeying a silent command, he disposes of the defunct device….
Paul and Joan finally make it to the Andersons’, where Paul is startled by Tom’s “guess” that their car simply died. Tom gives him a superior smile…. At the instillation, Pete Shelton wanders out for a word with Neill and Ortiz. (A nice touch here, as egghead Pete takes a moment to look through Ortiz’s comic book.) Pete remarks that even the hand-cranked power is off, while Neill wonders what effect the situation is having on “my wife’s big fat mouth” – hyuck, hyuck, hyuck. The point of the scene, however, is to reveal that General Pattick, whose jeep is of course out of action, has set out through the woods on foot – dum, dum, duummm…. Sure enough, the second device swoops towards the General and does the deed; and like his predecessor, Pattick swiftly hides the body.
Meanwhile, over drinks, Tom is disclosing The Awful Truth. Paul is incredulous, but nevertheless is fair-minded enough to play at, “Okay, let’s suppose….” He then asks Tom the sixty-four dollar question: if a “superior intelligence” from another planet is trying to take over the world, why isn’t he fighting it? Tom smirks, sips his drink, and produces an answer to warm the heart of any put-upon individual who ever dreamed of having a two-fisted big brother who could even up a few of life’s unfairer scores:
“Because – this superior intelligence happens to be a personal friend of mine!”
(At which point, the ladies get to put in their two cents’ worth: Joan, incredulous – “A personal friend of yours!?” Claire, sourly sarcastic – “Real chums.”)
Tom further announces that the Venusian is here to “rescue the world from itself”. Paul, of course, doesn’t think it needs rescuing, and demands that Tom tell him what, exactly, he thinks is wrong with it. Tom’s answer is a beauty: for one thing, he points out, even brilliant (and establishment) scientists like Dr Paul Nelson can’t get their research funded. (You go, Tom!) This, Tom expands, is just one example of the “stupidity, and fear, and greed” that is hampering mankind’s progress – but all that is about to change. Paul rejects the notion out of hand, but Tom is undismayed, assuring him that he will be “with us very soon”. Paul first asks for a lift to the lab, and then (when Tom remarks smugly that the instillation is “inoperable and useless”) for a lift home. Tom accedes, asking the Nelsons to wait outside for him. As soon as they have gone, Tom purrs to Claire, “Paul didn’t panic! There’s nothing like a logical, orderly mind!” Wet-blanket Claire retorts that the reason Paul didn’t panic is that – logically – he assumed Tom was insane. That word upon his wife’s lips gets through Tom’s armour of self-satisfaction. “I’ve had to put up with your lack of faith in me for years,” he tells her bitterly. “Now it’s time you stood by me!” Claire’s answer is one of the delicate script touches that conveys the depth of feeling between these two, as she chooses to regard as separate issues two things that at the time might have been considered one and the same; to divide duty from inclination, if you will. “I’ll stand by you, Tom,” she promises him in a sombre tone. “Not just because I’m your wife – but because I love you.” Tom then hurries to the communicator, advising the Venusian that the energy from his car will serve to give away Paul’s whereabouts….
(While I’m praising the screenplay, can I say how refreshing it is that Paul Nelson never rejects Tom’s schemes on the grounds that – as too often is the case in films of this era – there is really nothing wrong with the world at all? [For “the world”, of course, you may read “America”.] Paul’s argument is that the fixing must be done by mankind itself, because it desires something better, not forced be upon it by an outside power, no matter how benevolent the intention – an opinion he voices in the film’s famous concluding speech.)
Pattick finally arrives at the instillation, announcing that the area is under martial law and ordering Neill to march his men into the mountains at 1630 hours – “to observe”. Ortiz, not unreasonably, asks him how they’ll know when it’s 1630 hours – and Pattick hands over his own watch. Dum, dum, duummm…. Inside, the General tells the astonished (as well they might be) scientists that the loss of power is due to “a Communist uprising” (!!), and that they will remain at the instillation, in “protective custody”. At home, Joan and Paul wrestle with the possibility that Tom may actually be right. Outside, the town of Beechwood is being evacuated – the film-makers doing their best to convey “a mass panic”, with a grand total of about two dozen extras at their disposal. Of course, they trot out the traditionally cutesy “My dolly!” scene. (Hmm…. Musical crowd they’ve got in Beechwood: one evacuee is seen hugging his sax, while another carries a violin-case.) Since the Nelsons, significantly, have not been evacuated, Paul insists on going to investigate, and hops onto his bicycle. As he peddles off, he fails to see the control device that swoops towards Joan….
Paul arrives in town just in time to witness a shocking sight. The elderly newspaperman, Haskell, refuses to leave town, despite Schallert’s orders – so Schallert shoots him.
Few, if any, movie heroes have ever played their Death Battle Exemption© card quite so blatantly as Paul Nelson does here, as he bikes straight up to Schallert and demands (in a tone of no more than mild reprimand), “What is this?” Schallert explains that it is his orders, adding that Paul is to be taken into “protective custody”. As Paul resists, he is knocked to the ground – but then (for reasons best known to the screenwriters) Schallert receives a message that Paul is to be “one of us”, and so lets him go (!?). So Paul hops back onto his bike and peddles away again. Tom, meanwhile, is “bird-watching”, hoping to catch a sight of a control device. He explains to Claire how they work: that they “sting” and then die, like a bee. “But the people don’t die,” Claire retorts bitterly, “just their minds.” During the ensuing argument, Tom takes exception to Claire’s use of the word “victim”, preferring the term “the released”. Despite their disagreement, Claire is soon locked in her husband’s arms; and it is then that she tries to convince Tom that “emotion” has its positive side; and that, if forced into “progress”, mankind will lose more than it gains. “You can’t rub the tarnish from men’s souls without losing a little of the silver, too.”
Arriving at the instillation, Paul is immediately headed off by Pattick, who offers him a lift. The fact that the General’s jeep is working conveys nothing to bright-boy Paul: the penny doesn’t drop until Pattick uses that fateful phrase, “protective custody”. Paul succeeds in knocking out the General, and then steals his jeep – and his gun. Before long, he’s back at Tom’s, this time hurling accusations of “Filthy murderer!” as he describes what he has seen: men’s “minds, personalities, moral standards” swept away; people “herded like cattle”; and cold-blooded murder…. Tom is shaken, but rationalises events by pointing out that some of man’s biggest leaps forward have occurred after periods of “chaos, anarchy, and death”. He further informs Paul that “next to me, he wants you”. Paul revolts at the notion of “killing my own soul”, and then pronounces Tom’s condemnation: “Your hands are human, but your mind is enemy!” before storming off. Claire then puts the boot still further into her distressed husband by revealing that he’s just had “an undeserved stay of execution”; that Paul had a gun….
Out on the road, Paul learns the price of ticking off Beulah: his jeep cuts out. So naturally, he hauls his bike out of the back, and once again peddles off determinedly. It is after nightfall when he arrives home, and he is greeted by the puzzling news that his wife has just – had a shower!? Joan quickly claims that she couldn’t stand it any more, and so rigged up a bucket-and-rope arrangement; an explanation that satisfies Paul, who apparently hasn’t noticed that the lights are on…. (Actually, this scene draws attention to the fact that the film studiously ignores the true horror of Beulah’s takeover: no working toilets. Aack! I surrender! I surrender!) Joan then emerges from the bedroom with her hands behind her back, informing her husband that she has “a present” for him. She does, too….and as she releases the control device, she retires for “a short walk”, promising Paul that, when she gets back, he will feel much better….
But forewarned is forearmed, and Paul manages to defeat his device, impaling it with the inevitable poker.
The phone rings. Paul snatches it up, snapping, “This can only be Anderson!” Tom replies that, since Paul killed his device, he can’t be controlled for another week. He then invites him over for a talk – and an apology – rather tactlessly informing Paul that “Joan’s station-wagon will work”. Paul agrees to come over, but insists that he has something to take care of first….
Tom then gets the news that the Venusian thinks Paul has also had an “undeserved stay of execution”….
Joan Nelson arrives home from her “short walk”, and immediately speaks enthusiastically about “receiving his instructions” so that they may begin to “conquer the world!”. Paul comments slowly, “We’ll be this way forever, won’t we?” “For the rest of our lives!” Joan replies triumphantly.
At which, Paul draws his gun and shoots his wife dead….
This scene usually surprises a laugh out of the viewer, not because it is funny, but because it is so shocking and unexpected. The full implications of the phrase Better dead than Red have rarely, if ever, been so brutally rendered. Peter Graves’ acting carries the moment, however. Paul’s anguish, as he cradles Joan in his arms, is palpable.
(So much so, that I couldn’t possibly be churlish enough to suggest that Paul might have been better off waiting to find out whether or not the process was reversible….)
Claire finds Tom cleaning his rifle. She begins riding him, hard, taunting him with his role as “zombie”, as “slave”. Eventually, she produces the inevitable accusation: “This makes you feel like a big man, doesn’t it?” Claire finally provokes Tom into replying to her questions (after the two of them waste a little more emotion, in a passionate kiss), and he tells her what he knows about the Venusian – including where it is…. Claire recoils in horror when she hears that Joan has been “controlled”. However, when she demands to know why the one of the devices prepared for the mayor and his wife (who were, we learn, “killed in the crush of the evacuation” – yup, twenty-four frightened people’ll do that to ya!), Tom replies ominously that, “They’ve already been used….”
Just before dawn, scientist Ellen Peters is woken by a noise within the instillation. She climbs out of her cot, and we see that she is wearing only a slip. She could get dressed, but she doesn’t: she just throws her lab coat on over the slip. (You always wondered what we wore under those, didn’t you?) Ellen joins her male colleagues, and discovers to her amazement that the instillation’s equipment is working. However, Ellen’s mind is on other things: “Is there any coffee?” Floyd Mason says not, and suggests that she make some. But as she moves towards a locker, Pete Shelton objects that she shouldn’t bother, that he doesn’t want any. (Doesn’t want coffee!!?? Isn’t that warning enough, Ellen? Run, woman, run!) But the caffeine craving has the better of Ellen, and she opens the locker – screaming in horror as she sees the two dead control devices. Mason then comes towards her, commenting regretfully upon what she has seen, and advising her to “Relax! This won’t take a minute!” as he wraps his hands around her throat. Ellen struggles free, leaving her lab coat in his hands (and ensuring that she is clad only in her slip as she meets her gruesome end; Uncle Rog must have suddenly remembered he was making an exploitation film); but she has only postponed the inevitable….
With the morning, Paul finally arrives at the Andersons’. Claire has done her best – has pointed out to Tom the Venusian’s cowardly nature, that it is simply using him to do its dirty work, that it is so scared of strength, of Paul’s strength in particular, that it daren’t let him live free a week; but to no avail. “I must have the courage of my convictions!” insists Tom, adding, “Now I have to go out to meet him.” For a moment, it’s as if Lee Van Cleef is back in the world of the western – we almost expect him to strap on his six-shooters. Far from doing so, he doesn’t even take his rifle, as we shall see….
And suddenly, Claire Anderson finally snaps. Storming into the living-room, she switches on the communicator and utters an unforgettable speech:
“Look, I don’t know whether you can hear me or not, but if you can, you listen good! I hate your living guts for what you’ve done to my husband and my world, and I’m going to kill you! Do you hear that? I’m going to kill you!”
And so saying, she snatches up Tom’s rifle from its resting-place on top of the communicator. Making her way out through the garage, she waits until Tom has ushered Paul into the house, and then – oh, irony! – jumps into Joan’s station-wagon and drives off.
Inside, Tom learns of Joan’s fate. He is stunned, horrified – and all the more so, we feel, because for all Claire’s insubordinate behaviour, it has obviously never once crossed Tom’s mind that she might have to be “controlled”: subconsciously, he knows that then she would no longer be his Claire. Nevertheless, Tom argues against his own beliefs, insisting that Joan would still have been “Paul’s Joan”. Paul brushes this aside contemptuously, pulling his gun on Tom, who barely even reacts. But then Paul thinks the better of it, planning to get all he can out of Tom as “the war” is fought.
Well, the film is drawing to a close now; but there’s still time for one more philosophical debate between Paul and Tom. (These scientists do go on, don’t they?) Seeing his former friend stand unflinching before his gun, Paul comments that at least Tom isn’t a coward – “There’s that much of a human being still in you!” Tom dismisses this as flattery, but Paul insists it’s the truth – and furthermore, the crux of the whole issue, that the Venusian is using the very emotions it professes to despise to control Tom: his “loyalty”, his “desire to help his race”, his “dreams of freedom”. Tom is forced to concede that Paul is making a logical argument – and I have to pause once more to praise the screenplay of It Conquered The World. Countless films of this era smugly proclaim Homo sapiens (or at least, Homo sapiens americana) to be the universe’s supreme lifeform, because we have emotions; but this is one of the very few that bothers to try and articulate the idea behind this assumption. “An emotionless being is helpless when surrounded by beings with emotions,” Tom reasons slowly, “because they’ll defend one another – stand together – ” “As you want Claire to stand with you,” adds Paul, slipping in one below the belt. The two men then eye each other for a while before debating (in a surprisingly friendly way) whether they still want to kill one another, whether they will still kill one another, and under what circumstances that might happen….until Tom finally notices that his rifle is gone.
Claire, meanwhile, has made her way through the cave system in which the Venusian is lurking, and found her quarry. At first she recoils in terror, but then she gathers her courage, and the representative of the human race confronts the invader. Unfortunately, Claire opens her declaration of war in a less than heroic manner, making the same primary objection to the Venusian that Joan made to the control device.
“So that’s what you look like! You’re ugly!” she shrieks.
(Hey! Hey, now! It’s all right for you, Beautiful Bev! – but language like that just makes the rest of us want to side with the Venusian. Why don’t you try again…?)
“Go on! Try your intellect on me! You think you’re going to make a slave of the world? I’ll see you in hell first!”
And with that, she raises her rifle and starts blazing away. But, alas, alas! – the Venusian proves impervious to bullets. Lumbering forward, it clamps its claws about Claire’s throat and strangles her to death…. [*sob*]
Claire’s dying screams are (in a plot device most beloved of fifties SF makers) heard by Tom over his communicator. And that’s the end of it. Tom tells Paul that Pete and Floyd are “controlled” and sends him off to “deal with them”, while he deals with the Venusian….
Now, throughout all this, the soldiers from the instillation (remember them?) have been bivouacked out in the woods near the Venusian’s cave. Private Ortiz has been sent out to “rustle up” some food (literally), and he too hears Claire’s screams coming from the cave. He rushes in, fires a few futile shots at the thing that confronts him, then high-tails it out of there. Remarkably, Sergeant Neill believes his story about “the monster killing a girl”, and immediately orders action.
At the instillation, Paul finds Ellen’s body, which now for some reason is lying outside. (Lovely shot here: Paul in the background, Ellen’s dead body, slip-clad, posed most fetchingly in the foreground--- That’s exploitation!) Inside, Pattick, Pete and Floyd are laying out their plans. Pete is heading to Washington. (“The President will be the first to die – then the Cabinet!”) Suddenly, Paul bursts in, and – blam! blam! blam! So much for that alien takeover! But wait! Pattick is only pretending to be dead! Gasp!
The action then converges on the area outside the cave. (Ah, to be in Bronson Canyon now that the spring is here!) The soldiers charge in, the possessed Schallert takes pot-shots at Paul and Tom as they approach, Paul ambushes Pattick and finally kills him (so what was the point of his survival again?), and Tom kills off Schallert with (ick!) a blowtorch. Neill stations his bazooka squad (both of them) outside the cave, and gamely leads the rest of his men in. They find the Venusian, and Ortiz rushes forward to bayonet the creature, only to fall victim to its claws. (Hey! They killed off half of the Comic Relief! Way to go, Rog! [Actually, Ortiz nearly wasn’t the only casualty of this scene: Jonathan Haze wielded his bayonet so enthusiastically, he almost took out Paul Blaisdell, who was manipulating Beulah from the inside.]) The rest of the soldiers fall back, and the Venusian follows, revealing itself to the startled eyes of the world: a psychotic turnip; a rampaging pickle; a homicidal mangel-wurzel.
There is another casualty amongst the soldiers, and the bazooka squad fires, to no avail. Fortunately for humanity, Tom arrives with his blowtorch. Like Claire before him, he feels compelled to stop and make a speech before attacking.
“I made it possible for you to come here! I welcomed you to this Earth – you made it a charnel house!”
Tom then lunges forward and (ick!!) shoves his blowtorch into the Venusian’s eye, which erupts with a torrent of blood. (Meanwhile, inside Beulah, Paul Blaisdell found himself drowning in a backfired torrent of Hersey’s chocolate syrup.) The dying Venusian manages to get a claw around Tom’s throat, and the two fall together….
And then Paul finally rocks up – too late to do anything except deliver Tom’s epitaph (a full transcript of which, you will naturally find in Immortal Dialogue):
“He learned almost too late that Man is a feeling creature,” pronounces Paul solemnly, “and because of it, the greatest in the universe!”
Which, when you think about it, is kind of an interesting thing for Paul to say, given that so short a time before he, like the rest of a mocking world, was refusing to listen to Tom Anderson’s theory of life in outer space. You could even, if you wanted to, think of this speech as – as – a vindication of Tom.
Well – anyway – I like to think so….
Footnote: This review is dedicated to Paul and Christy with my love, and in the sincere hope that marriage turns out better for the second Mrs Paul Nelson than it did for the first.