They Came from Beyond Space
1967 / Freddie Francis
Hello and welcome to this essay about They Came From Beyond Space (UK, Freddie Francis, 1967), a film that has burrowed its way into my heart and hopefully will soon be deemed worthy of a rewatch by you, dear reader. However, before going much further there are a few points that I need to lay out before you.
To begin, I should introduce myself with true transparency, in hopes that my honest reveal will be acknowledged, then set aside in an attempt to see that what we have in common is more important than any accident of birth. (Might that be reflective of the plot of this film?) See, the truth is…I’m an American. Sorry. It’s not really my fault.
Now that’s out of the way I’d like to offer a little explanation about why I decided to take on this particular Amicus movie. Like most movie fans, I do have my preferences. I like blockbusters as much as the next guy, but my favourite categories are more niche. For example, I’m enamored with silent films and I find the music score and lack of dialogue innately frightening. Religious horror will get an immediate watch regardless of how good or bad it is rated. And science fiction is generally a pretty good bet. However, I’ve grown weary of modern films so focused on scientific probability or the in-depth explanation of quantum physics. No, I mean the good old science FICTION – from the time before space travel, when everything beyond Earth’s atmosphere was possible. Aliens could be out there, even beyond space, in any shape, size or colour. Are they friendly? Are they dangerous? Do they just look like a man in a cheap costume? And, as we have repeatedly seen on Doctor Who, do they all have British accents?
So when the opportunity to write about the films of this production company was offered, I immediately eyed the two sci-fi offerings. Then I watched, rather sadly, as each film was chosen, picked for the team, and Beyond Space seemed unwanted. I took it, determined to find the quality of enjoyment in any well-made B movie. The crew on this film make it seem quite promising: Freddie Francis as director and Milton Subotsky as screenwriter. It also includes a performance by Anglo-Pakistani actor Zia Mohyeddin, whose career was successful in both England and Pakistan spanning over 4 decades. It looked promising and on first viewing, I was pleased, so I was interested in finding out where it landed in most reviewers’ eyes.
Diving into research however proved challenging. Any reviews from before the Blu-ray edition are summed up as such: “It’s not as good as The Terrornauts.” Don’t we all like to be compared with the sibling that everyone prefers? “If you’d only be more like the OTHER Amicus films…” The audio commentary on the Blu-ray must have something to say, right? It’s 90 minutes of conversation focused on the movie that is, well, being commented on. However, even this is clearly just film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau using this film as an excuse to talk about any other film. (However, a special shout out to the Here Lies Amicus podcast’s episode “Amicus in Outer Space!”, where host Cevin Moore and guest Gareth Preston give They Came From Beyond Space the attention it deserves.)
How then can we rescue this Amicus offering without badgering it by comparison? By seeing it on its own, not as “the second in a double bill” or “made more cheaply than” or even “shot like an episode of (fill in 1960s spy TV series here.) Let us look together at this underappreciated little gem in the Amicus jewel box, and see it on its own, rather than how it compares to other movies. Oh, and spoiler alert. Not sure if that’s needed for a movie that’s more than 50 years old, but there it is. One of the best elements of this film, in my opinion, is the ending. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The script is based on the story The Gods Hate Kansas by Joseph J. Millard, first published in November of 1941. On the whole, it does stick fairly close to the original storyline, though there are a few odd changes that do not necessarily work for the movie. We will get to those as we walk through the plot, hitting on the highlights that should be noted: Our story begins with a farming couple witnessing a formation of lights in the sky that crash to the earth. Word is quickly brought to Dr. Curtis Temple, our American in-residence and the meteorite expert, who also seems to have a great deal of knowledge about trajectories and the moon (at least judging by the large drawing on his desk.) Unfortunately, Temple cannot travel to the site as he is still recovering from a recent automobile accident. An accident that has led to the doctors replacing part of his skull with a silver plate. Within the first few minutes, we have the plot established, with no unnecessary exposition, and important clues have been hinted at as well. The set of the observatory feels a little overdone, with the floor, walls and ceilings covered by maps of the stars and planets.
Quickly the aliens take over the bodies of the away team. In a moment of light humour, the invaders take the first step of asking for a loan at the bank, where the piece of the meteor is used to take over the staff. This incident makes good use of the limited effects budget by making the takeover simply a pulsating light on the rock and a bit of overly dramatic acting on the part of the actors. Meanwhile, the second group have gone to pick up Allan Mullane and Temple – but wait! The flashing-rock-taking-over-your-mind trick does not work on Temple. (Possibly because of the silver plate. Possibly because we Americans have thick skulls. It’s really not established.) Temple plans to give chase in his car but gets called into the boss, who questions all of the expenses coming in from the crash site, sent by Lee, Temple’s love interest and person in charge remotely.
Temple then decides to ignore his doctor’s orders (“Tell him I got better!”) and go see for himself. Here there is an odd encounter with a female petrol station attendant, which is an extra plot thread that really goes nowhere and is a deviation from the original storyline. Temple tries to get into the farm, which is now protected by armed guards, and Lee sends him off for being sentimental, going so far as to zap him with a ray gun. As you do. Temple is rescued by our favourite petrol station attendant and then when he returns he is stopped by Stillwell, Internal Security. When Stillwell tries to call in, he suddenly comes down with the Crimson Plague, which covers him with blood splatter and kills him instantly. And the doctor who checks him. But not Temple. Hmm.
Stillwell’s boss (Williams, Internal Security) warns him off from investigating the Scarlet Plague (wait. Red? Crimson? Scarlet? It seems the name of the disease is quite unsettled) and now he discovers his blonde bombshell is no longer pumping petrol. With no other options, Temple watches the farm, where he sees a night-time rocket launch out of the water. At this point, the viewer is given some fairly well-done miniature work by the special effects department, credited to Les Bowie, whose work at Hammer and on Superman (US, Richard Donner, 1978) led to his receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars. Finally, Temple shoots out the generator, hops the chain link fence and gets into the farmhouse. A fight with one alien-possessed person, a lift down to an underground bunker, and a revelation of bodies of the plague victims frozen in a pile before he is caught. Temple is imprisoned and finally gets some answers – the rocket goes to the moon, to bury the bodies far away. It turns out that most of the answers are false. It should be noted at this point that the set design, working within the limited budget, does some fairly clever workarounds to give the impression of movement. For example, the lift is not seen to move but instead indicated by a small red ball moving in a plastic tube. Creativity brought on by limitations – the best quality of B movies.
Of course, our hero knocks out his capture (with one good punch) then finds Lee and knocks her out (with one good punch.) Ever the romantic, he takes her unconscious body and loads her into a jeep, driving straight through the gate. Temple then finds his friend Farge and convinces him to melt down all his silver trophies to wear as a silver colander on his head. Silly, but it works. What also works is a cosmic ray gun that zaps the alien out of Lee. With a little planning, two motorcycle helmets with silver inserts, they go back in to rescue the rest of the science team. Their arrival is just in time to see everyone getting on the rocket, so they get in before take-off. The trio are discovered and brought before the Master of the Moon, who explains how they have evolved into the highest life form in the universe. He claims they have only borrowed the plague victims for manual labour, and Temple lowers his weapon. Bad move. He is shot, and strapped to a six-point star of an operating table, while Farge manages to grab a ray gun and run. Run, in fact, into the place where the prisoners are being held, and with the help of that ray gun, he breaks them out. Well, at least it breaks out into what appears to be a pro wrestling match. Which is the place to comment on the quality of fight scenes in this film. They are clearly choreographed, though none really last long enough for that to be disturbing. Once the prisoners are free they burst into the room where Temple is being prepped for surgery, at which time the climax of the movie occurs.
At this moment, the Master of the Moon laments that their race will now die so far from their home planet. He reassures the scientists that they never planned to harm anyone on earth, but would simply return them all when the work was done. Temple counters that the people of Earth would have helped them, all they needed to do was ask. In a gesture of good faith, the energy being leaves the Master, and the movie ends on an upbeat note: These two cultures will now work together to benefit each other.
And that is the moral of the story: two opposing sides can come to an agreement if they just talk to each other to reach an understanding. With so many science fiction films ending with a battle in which one side must conquer the other, it feels refreshing to have such an optimistic conclusion. Perhaps that is the best part of this movie, coming from an era before we had any idea what space travel would entail. There could be aliens who wanted peaceful interactions, not just ones who were bent on destruction and death. Such an optimistic outlook might be enough to overlook cheap special effects or questionable set design. At the heart of any good B movie is a solid story, and They Came From Beyond Space does have that in its favour. It had appeal to a younger audience who could just get caught up in the adventure, and still has appeal today to those of us who can just escape into that same childlike wonder. Taken on its own, without the unnecessary comparison to the double bill release or even other films of the era, They Came From Beyond Space can hold a special place in the hearts of both sci-fi fans and Amicus fans alike.