The ridiculous monster tends to get all the attention in Roger Corman’s 1956 alien body snatching movie. But with a clever script and good performances from Peter Graves, Lee van Cleef and Beverly Garland, it’s better than its reputation. 6/10
It Conquered the World. 1956, USA. Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Lou Rusoff, Charles Griffith. Starring: Peter Graves, Lee van Cleef, Beverly Garland, Sally Fraser, Russ Bender, Jonathan Haze. Produced by Roger Corman. IMDb: 4.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 5.6/10. Metacritic: N/A.
After spending a while reviewing curios “that got away”, mostly European and Latin American films, it feels good to get back to some proper low-budget Hollywood schlock, namely Roger Corman’s 1956 cult classic It Conquered the World, or as some would call it, “the one with the cucumber monster”.
As AIP’s movies tended to be, the film is set in a small South-Western town, and follows the goings-on around government satellite laboratory. The setting is beside the point, really, as the film follows two scientists and their wives, and their struggle with a Venusian invader who is hell-bent on conquering the world, or at least Earth. Misunderstood genius Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee van Cleef) has been warning scientists for years that venturing out into space will draw the attention of hostile aliens. Now, as a first satellite is being launched (Sputnik was still a year away), Anderson has managed to make radio contact with a Venusian alien, and discovered it isn’t hostile at all, it just wants to save mankind from itself. However, after it lands in a volcanic cave, where it must stay, as the atmosphere resemble’s Venus’, it is revealed that its idea of “helping” is not appreciated by everyone. Namely, it sends out space bats which sting the leaders of the small town in the neck, removing from them their emotions and thus making them slaves to the pure intellect of the invader. According to Dr. Anderson, this is actually a good thing, as it will free mankind from all its unnecessary baggage – passion, hatred, envy, greed – and love. The Venusian is the spearhead of the invasion, which will ultimately consist of the eight last surviving Venusians.
One who does not see the future of humans as walking calculators as a worthwhile achievement is Anderson’s best friend, Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), who is chief scientist on the satellite program. Neither is Tom’s wife Claire (Beverly Garland) happy about his husband’s project, nor is Paul’s wife Joan (Sally Fraser). The plot unfolds gradually, as we get to know the two couples, and Tom reveals his secret communications with the alien to Paul. Initially, neither Paul nor Claire or Joan believe Tom is actually communicating with an alien, as all they can hear on the other side is beeps and boops resembling static – and conclude Tom has gone slightly mental. However, when the alien lands and shuts down all power in the city – including water faucets and cars – and takes over the minds of the sheriff (Taggart Casey) and the highest ranking military on the satellite site (Russ Bender), Paul slowly becomes a believer. Not that he is in much of a hurry – the Venusian only has eight space bats, and it will take him two weeks to produce more. Still, one of them manages to tag Paul’s wife Joan, which leads to one of the most shocking scenes of all fifties SF movies – when Paul realises that Joan now no longer has any feelings, and that the creature before him is no longer really his wife – he shoots her dead, after first killing the space bat out to get him.
Paul then pays a visit to Tom, gun in his pocket, to try and talk sense into him. But Tom won’t budge. However, as Paul leaves, Claire points out that Paul could have killed him if he wanted, but because he was such a loyal friend, he gave him a second chance to change his mind, even though Tom had essentially killed Paul’s wife. Now Tom gets orders from his master to kill Paul, as he knows too much and might become a ferocious enemy. Claire scorns Tom, and tells him he is blinded by the feeling of power and recognition he gets from the alien – which he never got from his peers, and that it his own selfishness and pride making him turn on his best friend and mankind. Paul meanwhile goes off and later returns to Tom, this time hoping to either kill him or turn him. Meanwhile, Claire has stolen Tom’s rifle to go out to the cave and kill the monster herself. Paul is now able to make Tom see that the Venusian isn’t interested in saving mankind, but only uses Tom’s feelings against him in order to make him betray his own kind. And that it is feelings that make us human. Suddenly Tom realises that Claire has stolen his rifle, and turns on the radio set, just in time to hear Claire empty the magazine at the Venusian monster without any effect, and hear her death screams as it attacks her. He then makes up his mind to help Paul save mankind and kill the creature. But will they succeed?
It is probably no coincidence that It Conquered the World premiered in July 1956, four months after Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, review). The theme of aliens taking over the bodies of the inhabitants of a small town, robbing them of their emotions and free will, feels very familiar. Of course, it was not one that the previous film had invented. The trope of body snatchers from outer space was made famous in 1953 with two separate films; It Came from Outer Space (review) and Invaders from Mars (review). Even the production company American International Pictures had used it just a year previously in The Beast with a Million Eyes (review), which Roger Corman had also co-produced and co-directed. Another film that will immediately come to mind is, of course, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), in which Klaatu the alien stopped electricity from functioning all over the world in order to get the attention of the world’s leader. In It Conquered the World, the Venusian goes a step further, stopping EVERYTHING from working, including electricity, gasoline, gas, water faucets and steam(!). It’s somewhat unclear whether this applies to the whole world, or just this one village. And the idea seems not so much to be to get attention, but rather avoid it, as the power outages force the inhabitants to evacuate. Exactly how they are to evacuate is somewhat unclear, as the alien has inconveniently incapacitated all means of transport. However, the whole town flees head over heels, urged on by one out-of-shape sheriff with a revolver, whom Dr. Nelson single-handedly overpowers with ease.
It’s sometimes staggering to think of the pace with which the small outfit AIP churned out films in the mid-50’s. The embryo of the company was sown in 1954, when a young Roger Corman produced Monster from the Ocean Floor (review) with the help of director and fixer Wyott Ordung. The film was made on 20,000 dollars, and made back 850,000 at the box office. Fledgling producers James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff had just founded American Releasing Company (ARC) with the idea of making cheap exploitation films for the teenage market, and took notice of Corman’s work. They immediately bought his second film, the cult classic The Fast and the Furious (1954), which also became a hit. In 1955 Corman, with no real artistic background, took on the job of directing two films for the company that had now been re-christened AIP, one western and one SF film, The Beast with A Million Eyes (which he co-directed). After a film called Apache Woman, he took on the post-apocalyptic film Day the World Ended (review), which received decent reviews and became a box office hit. In between couple of cheap westerns, AIP contracted Corman to direct yet another monster movie, It Conquered the World.
The script for It Conquered the World originated with Lou Rusoff, who had previously written two westerns for Corman, as well as AIP’s The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955, review) and Day the World Ended. Rusoff had not convinced me with his previous SF scripts. The former has one of the most garbled and illogical scripts of any movie I have ever seen, and while Day the World Ended gets high marks from several critics, I have always found the movie unbearably slow-moving and redundant. It Conquered the World has some of the redundancy of Rusoff’s earlier scripts, but moves along at a much brisker pace, and scores several marks higher in the dialogue department. This is probably due to the involvement of Charles Griffith, who would go on to become one of Corman’s best screenwriters, responsible for such films as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Wild Angels (1966) and Death Race 2000 (1975). According to Randy Palmer’s book Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker, Corman thought Rusoff’s script was jumbled and incoherent, so he sent it to Griffith, who rewrote it in three days. In an interview with Senses of Cinema, Griffith says that Rusoff’s brother in Canada was ill and dying when Rusoff wrote the script, which would account for its weak quality.
Griffith thought the film was terrible, and asked not to have his name in the credits. However, despite the obviously borrowed and repurposed ideas, a large number of logic holes, a good deal of padding and the obviously silly premise, the script turned out to be one of the best of AIP’s 50’s science fiction efforts. But beginning with the oddities, it is difficult to wrap your head around just how the alien is supposed to do what the title promises. It is confined to a cave somewhere in the South-West of the US, and its modus operandi is to send out space bats — of which it has eight — in order to enslave the human race. Its first order of business when it has landed on Earth is to enslave two satellite scientists, a small town sheriff, and a mid-tier army officer — and for some reason, their wives. In order to keep the small town “enslaved” the Venusian must arrange for the rest of the inhabitants to be evacuated. He then must wait 12 days for biology to run its course, so it can “father” eight more space bats. If this is is the pattern for the rest of the invasion, then the alien must indeed remain secretive of the goings-on, lest the rest of California catch on and kick him out of his cave before the coming 12 days have passed. How long he has figured until he has the US under his spell is anyone’s guess, let alone the world. And this is even taking into account his seven Venusian friends, who can provide another 56 bats every other week. Another odd inconsistency is that the alien is able to stop steam power and combustion engines from working — but apparently not gunpowder or blow torches.
The final third act of the script is also marred with signs of Lou Rusoff’s haste, although I do feel that his two previous SF films share similar problems; that Rusoff has a hard time finding new things for characters to do after he has set up the basic premise and waits for the final conclusion. In order to fill out time, Rusoff tends to let his characters go through the same motions multiple times and move back and forth between different locations for little obvious reason. In The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues it felt as if the cast spent half the film walking through doors. In Day the World Ended the same triangle drama played out at least three times. In the third act of It Conquered the World Paul keeps driving back and forth between locations just to fill out time — at one point he drives to the satellite lab for no obvious reason, kills three people and then drives back to Tom’s house, where he just came from. His confrontation with Tom is cut up in two parts, so that Rusoff can have him go home in between and kill his wife. Rusoff knows he wants the army to charge in at the finale, but struggles with finding plausible way for it to do so. So he has the enslaved officer send them out on patrol in the nearby forest, where they hang around for the most of the second half of the film, until one of the soldiers just happens to stumble upon Claire and the monster in the cave, at the exact right moment.
These problems aside, though, this is a pretty strong script, partly, I would believe, because of Griffith’s additions to the dialogue. More than on the monster and its plans of world domination, what drives the film is the tension between Paul and Tom. They’re set up to be old friends, supporting and respecting each other, despite their strong scientific disagreements. What the film really portrays is Tom’s descent into fascism — a theme that resonates very strongly today with the history of recent years of school shootings and acts of terror carried out by young, embittered men who feel they are outsiders in society. Tom sees himself as a genius who’s been wrongfully treated and sidestepped by the scientific community because of his far-out ideas. In the Venusian he finds a strong father-figure and leader who he can look up to, but who is also very good at stroking Tom’s ego. As is often the case in films like these, the intellectual motivation for turning to fascism is simplified and caricatured into idiocy — few people, fascists or not, would welcome a society devoid of personal initiative and emotions. I don’t think there’s ever been an ideology aiming for the eradication of feelings such as love, passion, loyalty, anger, or hate — partly because these are among the very best tools by which you can control large populations. The trope of the invader wanting to rid society of emotion and free will has mostly been used as an anti-communist propaganda tool. However, It Conquered the World deftly turns the trope on its head, as Paul suggests to Tom that rather than wishing to help humanity get rid of feelings, the alien is actually using Tom’s human feelings against him by preying on his vanity, his need for recognition, his hunger for power and love. The back-and-forths between Tom and Paul (and Claire) are the best parts of the movie, partly because of Griffith’s dialogue, but most of all because of the three superb actors delivering the lines, Lee van Cleef, Peter Graves and Beverly Garland.
Garland’s Claire is one of the best written female leads in 50’s SF, wildly swinging between her deep love and loyalty for Tom and her fury over his actions. Her anger at him, it seems, is born more out of worry for what her husband is turning into than of the fact that the world might be soon ending. She has a number of great moments, as when she suggests that without emotion, she will not stand for “fulfilling his physical needs”, and that for that he might as well pick up a prostitute on the street. A great scene is the classic phonograph scene, where Tom has been given a broadside by Paul, and to soothe his nerves and calm his conscience, he puts on a record. A furious Claire glues herself to him, sarcastically taunting him: “That’s right, let’s have some music. Must be great to have the only working phonograph in the world. A gift from his majesty! That makes you feel like a big man, doesn’t it, just like you always wanted to be!” Sometimes the dialogue is what film historian Bill Warren calls “brittle”. I don’t know if this is some lingo I’m not familiar with, but I think I understand the idea. It’s just there on the brink of going from from clever and potent to breaking and falling apart. It does land on both sides of the fence from time to time, but generally it holds up.
This script is also unusual in the way that despite the demise of the monster at the end, the movie doesn’t have a happy ending. I think this is the only 50’s film, and one of the very few in general, in which I have seen the leading man kill his wife in cold blood after she has “turned”, and probably the only film from the 50’s in which both leading ladies die. This was something unheard of — usually you had a couple make it to the end, or perhaps even had the leading man die — but you never let the leading lady die and the leading man live. It just wasn’t done. As Robin Bailes at Dark Corners points out, it’s pretty cold of Paul to shoot his wife without trying any other options first, but the suddenness of the action makes it one of the greatest scenes in 50’s schlock.
Lee van Cleef, already well-known for playing sinister types, inhabits the role of the self-aggrandising and needy scientist, while wholesome, square-jawed Peter Graves gives him a worthy challenge. Their rapport is splendid, and any scene in which both are present is a joy to watch. A Corman favourite, Beverly Garland does one of her greatest roles of all her AIP movies, rounding out an iron-clad trio of main characters. Unfortunately, the strong acting from them only highlights Sally Fraser’s inadequacies. The rest of the cast consists mainly of AIP regulars. Worthy of mention is Russ Bender, as the top military brass at the satellite installation, going from goofy comic relief to something of a villain, as well as Corman stalwart Jonathan Haze, here in his biggest role to date as the Latino comic relief soldier who keeps on about “a strange-looking bird”, and eventually discovers the monster. There’s also a nice little bit by later character actor nobility Dick Miller as one of the soldiers.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is the monster itself, which we have yet to comment on. This is what the film is remembered for, and why it often gets a somewhat worse rap than it is worth. Often called “the cucumber monster” because of its resemblance to the cut-off tip of said vegetable, it’s name was actually “Beulah”, affectionately named so by its creator Paul Blaisdell. Blaisdell was the man that Roger Corman called upon to make the alien and its spaceship for The Beast with a Million Eyes, and he also designed and made the mutant for Day the World Ended – and acted inside it. Blaisdell went on to create the majority of Corman’s monsters in the 50’s, and usually operated them as well. For It Conquered the World, his brief was that AIP boss James Nicholson wanted something never seen before. Blaisdell was told the thing came from Venus and was here to take over the world. With a keen interest in astronomy, Blaisdell knew that the current info o Venus was that it had a high gravity and dense atmosphere and was considered more or less uninhabitable. Anything living there would be more vegetable-like than animal, he thought, and started thinking of some kind of hybrid beast/vegetable, something along the lines of a mushroom, and then concluded that because of the gravity and the density of the atmosphere, it would probably be squat, with a low centre of gravity. He came up with an initial miniature model, which looked much like the finished product, a conical monster with long arms with pincers for hands – the original idea was that it should be around 10 feet tall. As for the “bats”, the idea was that the Venusian would have been largely stationary on Venus, and reproduced asexually. Its offspring would do its bidding outside of whichever cave it lived in. Originally they were not supposed to look like bats, but were designed to be globular. However, afraid they would be difficult to operate with strings, Blaisdell changed the design. While we affectionately call them “bats”, they don’t really resemble the animal very much, but rather look like flying flatfish. James Nicholson loved the monster.
Blaisdell and his wife Jackie with assistance from fan and collector Bob Burns, built the monster on a wooden frame with chicken wire, with wheels underneath. The horns were modelled from latex, and the huge arms were made out of wood. Blaisdell also designed a wire rig which allowed the pincers to be opened and closed by an operator inside the monster, which was actually big enough for both Paul and Jackie to fit into at the same time. The eyes were operated by flashlights, which allowed the Blaisdells to both move the eyes and light them up in the darkness of the cave. There are several stories circulating, one instigated by Garland, that a first version was flimsy and small, and that Garland wound have kicked it over, leading to its redesign. However, Bob Burns has denied that any redesign was made, but confirms that Garland made jokes about “being able to kick it over”. Paul Blaisdell was well aware that the monster in its finished state didn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. It was smaller than it was supposed to look on screen, and looked more than a little silly in clear daylight. But the plan was originally that the monster would never directly interact with the actors, that it wasn’t really supposed to move, and that it was only ever to be shot in the darkness of the cave. Blaisdell had been worried from the beginning about shooting in a real cave rather than in a studio, but location shooting was one of Corman’s ways of cutting costs. Apparently what happened was that prior to the filming of the climax of the movie where the army and Lee van Cleef battle the monster, someone had forgotten to bring the lights for the cave. Corman, true to form, decided that instead of losing valuable time while someone picked up the lights, they should just drag the monster out of the cave into the sunlight. Blaisdell begged of Corman not to do it, but the director’s word is law. Poor Blaisdell now had to make the awkward thing move along the rocks on its small wheels, which it was never intended to do, and fight the soldiers – without pincers, since a careless stagehand had ridden a cart over the pincers, ruining the mechanism. At the premiere, the audience howled with laughter, and Blaisdell walked out before the end of the screening.
Roger Corman was loved by Nicholson and Arkoff because he was able to shoot fast, cheap and reliably. But several directors hanging around the lower tiers of Hollywood could churn out an exploitation movie in a week. The difference between Corman and every other director was that Corman’s 90,000 dollar movies tended to look like what other producers and directors would do on 200,000 dollars. A master at cost-cutting, Corman eradicated almost all overhead costs, shot with a skeleton crew, utilised on-location shooting in private homes, rented, off-season resorts, parks and canyons, rather than renting studio space and filmed with lightning speed. It Conquered the World was filmed in only five days. Corman would meticulously plan out his scenes, instruct the actors on where to stand and where to walk, and then shoot and move on. As Bill Warren points out in his book Keep Watching the Skies!, most of It Conquered the World is filmed in master shots only. But unlike directors like Edward L. Kahn, Willie Wilder or Sam Newfield, Corman never has his characters sit in a row of chairs in an office, discussing an alien in a static shot. There’s a dynamism and energy in Corman’s shots, the actors are constantly moving, changing positions, doing things and interacting with sets and props. Instead of cutting to a close-up, Corman has his actors come up to the camera. In a dialogue, instead of cutting between two talking heads, Corman has his actors switch positions. He goes from mid- to wide shot with a zoom, rather than a cut. He uses the depth of the set, the different levels and the diagonal space to create a sense of energy. And it isn’t that Corman doesn’t cut to close-ups or between characters, but when he does so, he does so with a purpose, often utilising dramatic angles and camera setups in order to bring a strong, punching image that highlights a line, a character or just to give a dramatic effect. All this is on full display in It Conquered the World, and is heightened here by the three unusually good lead actors who don’t need the personal, artistic direction that Corman so infamously did not give his actors, ever.
It Conquered the World was released on a double bill with The She Creature in the US in July 1956. In the UK, however, it got into trouble, as it got X-rated, meaning only adults could see it. The problem was not so much the general violence or its horror content, but rather because of its depiction of animal cruelty. This must have had Arkoff and Nicholson at AIP scratching their heads for a while, as there is no depiction of any animal mistreatment in the movie. However, it turned out that the censors were at a loss as to whether the alien should be classified as human or animal — and they settled on animal, and took offence over the final scene, where the alien is visibly hurt and bleeding (chocolate syrup) from a blowtorch. Sam Arkoff then had to convince the censors that the alien was human — a human from Venus. Apparently, human cruelty was a-okay for kids in Britain to see, and the British film board lifted the X-rating. In 1966 the film was remade for TV by schlockmaster Larry Buchanan as Zontar – The Thing from Venus. The Rocky Horror Show allegedly reversed the ethos of Peter Graves’ final monologue in It Conquered the World for its famous closing narration: “And crawling on the planet’s face: / Some insects, called the human race / Lost in time, lost in space / and meaning”. The film has been referenced by both Frank Zappa and French electronic group M83. In 1991 it was featured on MST3K.
The film got surprisingly positive reviews upon relesase. Variety called it “a definite cut above normal. […] The Lou Rusoff screenplay poses some remarkably adult questions amidst the derring-do.” According to the paper “Corman does a generally good job of mingling the necessary background setting with fast-paced dialogue, to achieve the strongest impact.” Critic Kove opined that “van Cleef turns in an impressive character-acting chore, while Graves, a steadily improving young actor, makes his properly dashing anti-Venusian resistance hero a man of some intellectual standing as well. Miss Garland continues to show increasing stature as a promising young actress, as well as a looker”. However, they also noted that “Corman would have been wiser to merely suggest the creature, rather than construct the awesome-looking and mechanically clumsy rubber horror. It inspired more titters than terror.” British Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin were both positive, with the first calling it “sharp, economical and really frightening”, and the second “exciting”. American The Exhibitor called the story “fair”, the direction and production “substandard” and the acting “passable”.
Today It Conquered the World has an IMDb rating of 4.9/10. Its lower-than-average audience score and the clash with the fair reviews by both contemporary and modern critics can once again be traced back to the film having been featured on the TV show Myster Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). Inclusion herein was always a mixed blessing — while fans found obscure films which they might not otherwise be aware of through the show, it also gave some of them an undeservedly bad reputation. Rotten Tomatoes critics give the film a sterling 80% Fresh rating, albeit with a 5.6/10 average score. AllMovie gives it 3/5 stars, with Robert Firsching writing: “Even Paul Blaisdell’s silly monster doesn’t take the edge off this entertaining low-budget chiller”. TV Guide calls it a “better than average flying saucer film”.
Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide gives It Conquered the World a solid 2.5/4 rating, calling it “well acted and interesting but awkwardly plotted”. In his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy writes: “Emphatically directed and surprisingly well acted, the film survives its silly monster”. In Keep Watching the Skies!, Bill Warren opines: “Much of It Conquered the World is unconvincing, or silly, or simply cheap. […] But what is good about the picture is very good. […] The ideas are sharp and intelligent, and Corman’s direction and pacing are effective. Ronald Stein’s score is also very good for such an inexpensive film”. In his book Spinegrinder, Clive Davies calls it “one of Corman’s best”.
Not all are impressed, though. Robin Bailes, in a toungue-in-cheek review at Dark Corners, takes offence at the fact that Peter Graves’ character kills as many people in the course of the movie as the alien, including his wife, without even trying to find out if they can be cured, and says that “the plot is taken from The Day the Earth Stood Still, but made dumb”. According to Bailes, this “is one of a handful of sequels where both the original and the remake is bad”. But Sylvia Bagley at FilmFanatic defends It Conquered the World, calling it “a decent entry in the sub-genre of mid-century Communist hysteria films […] Charles B. Griffith’s sharp script does wonders with scenarios that are otherwise laughable”. And Richard Scheib at Moria gives it 3/5 stars: “if one looks beyond the obvious B-budget tattiness you find a surprisingly high level of out-and-out entertainment”.
There’s much to be made fun of in the movie, such as numerous continuity errors, the most famous being the mystery of the lost footman: six soldiers enter the Venusian’s cave, but when we see them inside, there’s only five of them. The basic premise, that a space carrot would threaten to conquer the world with eight mind-controlling space bats, is of course wonderfully silly. Would it at least try to control someone who actually matters, rather than a small town sheriff’s wife? The dialogue is sometimes extremely purple, and the bizarre subplot with the soldiers camping out in the forest does no-one any favours. But to Corman’s and Griffith’s credit, the film works surprisingly well despite all its obvious flaws, and it is no accident that it has become a cult classic.
Roger Corman was an engineer who had gotten into films through a wholly mathematical exercise. When working as a glorified errand boy at a major studio, his engineer brain looked the money that was put into the production at one end and at the film that came out in the other end – and then at what happened to that money in all the stages in between. His conclusion was that roughly four fifths of the money was “wasted”. Studios had massive overhead costs that contributed nothing to the films. Bad planning meant days and weeks of shooting time went down the drain, either to set up shots, dress settings, doing endless amounts of unnecessary rehearsals and re-takes, indulging star actors who didn’t feel like doing scenes, or simply because there were too many cooks stirring the pots and one didn’t know what the other was doing. He saw art departments pouring money into lavish sets and intricate details that were completely unnecessary to make a decent film, lighting departments spending days on matching natural light, when the crew could have simply stepped outside and turned on the cameras, etcetera, etcetera.
Corman loved films, and he wanted his films to be as good as they could be on the budget that he had. But he didn’t have an acting background. He didn’t have training in either theatre, film or any other art. He didn’t enter the movie business in order to fulfil his artistic vision, he did it because he liked movies and he realised that he could make a career out of them, not because he was a brilliant director, but because he could make the same films that people made for 300,000 dollars for 70,000 dollars. And when he was first called upon to direct, with Five Guns West, he did it because he couldn’t afford a director. And he was terrified. In later interviews he has said that he was so terrified that he had to go to the toilet and throw up between takes. This was in 1955 — he had produced his first movie in 1954. He must have learned so incredibly fast: his progression is obvious from Day the World Ended to It Conquered the World.
In the beginning, Corman worked exclusively for Nicholson and Arkoff at AIP, but in the late 50’s started dividing his time between AIP and Allied Artists, an outfit with a slightly similar ethos as AIP, but generally with a little more money. His films primarily fell into three categories: science fiction, crime noir (often involving guns and cars) and westerns, but he also made the odd fantasy adventure film — and in 1957 he made his first “rock and roll” picture, as AIP was the first studio to realise the commercial potential of the teenage audience at the box office. While always extremely prolific, this was also the year that Corman decided to start making two films back-to-back whenever taking on a new project, in order to save money. While much of his output was still panned as low-brow exploitation, Corman also started to get critical recognition, for such films as Machine-Gun Kelly (1958) and the black comedies A Bucket of Blood (1959), and not least the celebrated cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). It was also at the turn of the decade that Corman decided to start his own company and went into distribution, dubbing and re-editing of foreign films, at the same time as he turned a new leaf in his creative book, as he asked AIP to double his usual budget of 100,000 dollars per film to make an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, in colour and shot over a — for Corman — massive shooting schedule of 15 days. House of Usher was released in 1960 to both commercial success and critical acclaim.
Because Corman’s career is so long and chequered, this is where we will end our biography on the man for this time. Corman produced and/or directed and/or wrote close to 50 films between 1954 and 1959, and would have been remembered as a remarkable cult director and producer on this 6-year output alone. The fact that he is still in business, as of September 2022, with over 50 directorial credits and over 500(!) productions credits is mind-blowing. None of his films have ever won a major award, but Corman himself has racked up dozens upon dozens of lifetime and hall of fame awards, including an honorary Oscar, a lifetime Saturn Award, a Bram Stoker Award, an Empire Award, a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, a New Media Film Festival award, etc.
Corman has over 150(!) science fiction credits on IMDb, and I am certainly not going to list every one of them. For now, these are the SF films Corman made in the 50’s: Monster from the Ocean Floor, The Beast with a Million Eyes, Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Not of This Earth (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), The Brain Eaters (1958) Teenage Cave Man (1958), Night of the Blood Beast (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959), Battle Beyond the Sun (1959) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). Among his many classic SF movies are also X (1963), Queen of Blood (1966), Death Race 2000 (1975), Deathsport (1978), Piranha (1978), Starcrash (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Humanoids from the Deep (1980) and Chopping Mall (1986).
Original screenwriter Lou Rusoff was Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law. Originally from Canada, Rusoff had been writing for radio and TV before joining AIP. As things went down at the studio, James Nicholson would mostly come up with a title and give it to an artist, who would then draw up a poster. After this, Nicholson would show the poster to the director, producer and screenwriter, and tell them to cook up a film top match it. Arkoff writes in his memoirs: “Often, he was working on five or six scripts simultaneously – not only his own but rewriting other people’s screenplays when emergencies occurred and the original writers were unavailable. He also eventually produced some of the AIP movies he wrote… More than any other writer, Lou had a real appreciation for what we were trying to do. He understood how to keep costs down by limiting the number of sets and locations. He framed his scripts beautifully into our titles and artwork. And he always kept a sense of humour, which was a real virtue under hectic circumstances.” However, Rusoff’s scripts were also often accused of being “hackneyed and dull”. Rusoff worked his way up at AIP to becoming producer and eventually vice-president. He passed away of brain cancer in 1963. He is perhaps best known for his last film, which he wrote and produced; the Frankie Avalon musical teen comedy Beach Party (1963). SF was not his forte: he wrote the scripts for The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, Day the World Ended and It Conquered the World, as well as Panic in the Year Zero (1962), a kind of retread of Day the World Ended.
However, it was Charles Griffith that became Roger Corman’s go-to screenwriter. Griffith wound up with Corman through actor Jonathan Haze, and the collaboration immedially clicked. Griffith wrote as fast as Corman directed. In an interview with Senses of Cinema, he says: “I got into the habit of writing very quickly without realizing it and, because I was raised in a radio family, I didn’t know that you were supposed to take a long time to write a film script.” In the late 50’s, someone at Columbia Pictures was convinced that Griffith was the real genius behind Roger Corman, and offered him a two-picture deal as a director. However, both films went over budget and schedule and flopped, so Griffith returned to writing. He wrote some of Corman’s most successful movies of the fifties and early sixties; Not of this Earth and Attack of the Crab Monsters, as well as A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors. In an interview for the book Faster and Furiouser, he felt slighted when Corman chose author Richard Matheson over himself to adapt his E.A. Poe movies, but continued to work with Corman over the years, including the script for the classic Death Race 2000. He also worked as second unit director on a handful of Corman films, and after his disastrous turn at Columbia, returned to directing in the 70’s, directing a handful of movies in the 70’s and 80’s, with little commercial or artistic success, really scraping the barrel with Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989), one of the most unlikely sequels in movie history. Apart from the above mentioned, Griffith also co-wrote the SF movies Barbarella (1968) and Up from the Depths (1979). Roger Corman called Griffith the “funniest, fastest and most inventive writer I ever worked with”. Film historian Tom Weaver said in a Los Angeles Times obit: “Griffith’s scripts were very imaginative and often quirky and kind of subversive, and when you look at any list of Roger Corman’s early pictures, those were the ones that put Corman on the map”. Quentin Tarantino considered Griffith one of his favourite writers, and after his death in 2007, Tarantino dedicated his film Deathproof (2007) to him.
Despite often latching on to good actors, Corman never used Peter Graves in another movie. That didn’t mean that Graves didn’t get to do his fair share of SF clunkers in the 50’s. He received his first leading role just after making his Hollywood debut, that of the middle-aged scientist apparently picking up the words of Jesus Christ broadcasting from Mars in the anti-communist propaganda clunker Red Planet Mars (1952, review). He went on to star in Willie Wilder’s Killers from Space (1954, review), fighting googly-eyed aliens, It Conquered the World, Beginning of the End (1957), The Clonus Horror (1979), and is perhaps best known to young viewers as Captain Clarence Oveur in Airplane (1980) and Airplane II (1982), the second which included SF elements. He also appeared in a cameo as himself in Men in Black II (2002). In between his 50’s B-movies and his comedy fame, Graves found TV fame — first in the lead as Jim Newton in the family western Fury (1955-1960) and then in the role that would define his career, Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), and its revamp (1988-1990).
Peter Graves was of Norwegian, English and German descent, born Peter Aurness in Minnesota in 1926. Graves was an old maternal family name. He changed his name partly so he would not be confused with his brother James Arness, known to SF fans as the Thing in the original The Thing from Another World (1951, review), and the rest of the world as the star of the long-running TV series Gunsmoke. Graves tells film historian Tom Weaver that despite never again working with Corman, there were no problems between them — Graves liked Corman and appreciated that he left the actors alone to do their thing. When asked how he felt about appearing in schlock films, Graves says that as a young, hungry actor, one didn’t think too much about the quality of the film, but rather the chance to work and improve one’s skill sets, and get one’s face up on the screen. In fact, Graves seems surprised to learn from Weaver that he only made one movie with Corman. From 1987 to 2001 Graves hosted the TV show Biography, which in 1997 received an Emmy for its episode on Judy Garland. He won a Golden Globe for his work in Mission: Impossible in 1966, and was nominated for a Globe in 1969 and 1970, and nominated for an Emmy in 1969. Peter Graves passed away in 2010.
For the longest time, Lee van Cleef’s nose caused him trouble. A decorated WWII navy veteran, van Cleef got into stage acting after being dismissed from the navy in 1946, and in 1948 got cast in the original production of Mister Roberts on Broadway, which won the 1948 Tony Award for Best Play and gave Henry Fonda a Best Actor Tony. While on tour with the play in Los Angeles, van Cleef was spotted by Stanley Kramer, who wanted to cast him as one of the heroic leads in High Noon (1952) – if he would agree to a nose job. van Cleef liked his nose just fine, thank you very much, and declined the role, and was instead cast in a minor role as a henchman. This would be his fate for the coming decade-and-a-half. His hawk-like nose, high cheekbones, pointy jaw and intense, blue eyes got him typecast in villainous roles, some small, some bigger, mainly in B-movies and TV. He almost lost both life and career in a 1958 car crash, which left him with knee pains for the rest of his life, and made it difficult for him to ride a horse. However, despite a several months long recovery, he was back in the saddle both figuratively and literally before the year was over.
While steadily employed and respected as character actor, van Cleef was stuck in the role as the evil henchman or oily gangster hitman, and probably jumped at roles like the one in It Conquered the World. While hardly Shakespearean, it did give him a chance tos how a different side of his talent. While it did not necessarily give him the chance to present a “new side” of himself, he must at least have been somewhat hopeful when he got the call in 1965 to play one of the main characters in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965). After all, the year before, Leone had made a bone fide movie star out of Clint Eastwood with A Fistful of Dollars (1964). And while his iconic roles in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) didn’t quite open the doors to A-list films the way it did for Eastwood, it at least made van Cleef an international star. For the rest of the 60’s and early 70’s, he was the centre of a small cottage industry of spaghetti films, primarily westerns, where he often played the heroic (or anti-heroic) lead. Some of the films were both commercial and critical successes, like the 1967 movies Death Rides a Horse, The Big Gundown and Days of Wrath, as well as Sabata (1969) and Storm Rider (1972). However, both the success and quality of his spaghetti westerns waned in the 70’s, and in Hollywood he was still mostly being offered roles as villains. Of his later roles, he is best remembered for the small but memorable character of police chief Hauk who spars with Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s dystopian classic Escape from New York (1981). Apart from this, Lee van Cleef did not do much SF. He appeared in a number of episodes of the kiddie show Space Patrol in 1952, and had a small but memorable role in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review).
Beverly Garland made her screen debut in a substantial supporting role in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1949), as Beverly Campbell. She married actor Richard Garland in 1951, and although the marriage only lasted two years, she kept the name. She worked mainly in B-movies of every conceivable genre, but also quickly established herself as a very popular guest actress on TV shows. Her first leading role came in a 1954 B-western and she did her first of a number of films for Roger Corman with 1956’s Swamp Women, followed by Gunslinger (1956), It Conquered the World (1956), Naked Paradise (1957) and Not of This Earth (1957). Other early genre outings were Curt Siodmak’s Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Roy del Ruth’s The Alligator People (1959).
Garland made her first TV splash in 1955, when she was nominated for an Emmy for a guest spot in the TV series Medic. She also turned heads in Decoy (1957-1958), playing the lead as a female police officer. Not only was her character the first female police officer in a starring role in an American TV series — the show was also, according to some sources, the first American dramatic TV show with a female protagonist. Garland’s mainstream breakthrough came with her recurring role as Barbara Harper Douglas on the CBS sitcom My Three Sons (1969-1972), and she is also remembered for playing Dotty West on the adventure comedy show Scarecrow and Mrs. King (1983-1987). Of her later film roles, worthy of mention are at least the Vincent Price SF/horror mystery Twice-Told Tales (1963), the crime comedy Pretty Poison (1968) and the family drama Where the Red Ferns Grow (1974), in which she all played the female lead. She also had a small role in the disaster film Airport 1975 (1974). Apart from the above mentioned, the she also appeared in the SF movies The Neanderthal Man (1953, review), The Rocket Man (1954) and If (2004). She also guest starred in a around 160(!) TV shows, a number of them SF, like: Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1956), The Twilight Zone (1960), The Planet of the Apes (1974), The Six Million Dollar Man (1977), and in several episodes of Lois & Clarke: The New Adventures of Superman (1995–1997) as Lois Lane’s (Teri Hatcher) mother. She was married to businessman Fillmore Crank for 39 years, who built named a hotel outside the Universal Studios the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn, today The Garland. After he passed away in 1999 she focused on managing the hotel along with her four children. She passed away in 2008.
We will have the opportunity to take a closer look at some of Roger Corman’s troupe of actors like Jonathan Haze and the inimatble Dick Miller in coming reviews. But a few words on one of the actors in the movie that does not turn up in that many of his films, Russ Bender. Bender has an unusually large role in this movie, as the highest-ranking military personnel in town. Bender’s tongue-in-cheek performance as the somewhat blasé brigadeer general is highly entertaining, and it’s unclear if his seeming lack of enthusiasm for the goings-on are acted or unintentional. As when he first laments the potential loss of an 8 million dollar satellite, before pausing and adding laconically: “Well, what the heck do I care, I’m not the one paying for it”. Bender, born 1910 in New York, made his living as a young man ghost writing detective stories for several New York magazines, before joining the army in WWII. After the war, he found the demand for detective stories greatly diminished, and instead enrolled in the Actors Studio. Upon getting his degree, he settled in Los Angeles, and started working as a stand-in for actor Eddie Albert. Through Albert Bender got his first screen appearence, in s small role in Rudolph Maté’s drama film Paula (1952). Bender carved out for himself a niche as a bit-part and character actor in over 100 films and TV series during the course of 16 years — he passed away in 1969. He had an uncredited part in George Pal’s The War of the World, and both small and featured roles in a number of SF B-movies: Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Panic in the Year Zero (1962), The Satan Bug (1965), Space Probe Taurus (1965) and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966). He also had several guest spots on The Twilight Zone. He also wrote a few movie scripts, including Voodoo Woman (1957), and wrote several plays for the Pasadena Playhouse. He was active in the Hollywood civil society, chairman of the local Red Cross, an active Democrat, a communications instructor for the UCLA and one of the founders of the Writers Guild Foundation.
Ronald Stein’s music may be a tad over the top at times, but all in all the orchestral score for It Conquered the World is surprisingly strong for this kind of film. In fact, most of AIP’s movies had strong scores, because they were almost all composed by Ronald Stein, who worked as AIP’s musical director. This is someting the shows AIP’s and Roger Corman’s savvy: they knew how important the musical score is for a movie and decided to hire a musical director who would score their movies instead of having someone piece together something from stock cans. Stein taught music and composition at the California State University, and later in Colorado. He came to Hollywood after graduating, very much like Roger Corman, with no background in film, but a passion for working in the industry, and was immediately hired by Nicholson and Arkoff — for a very little pay, but steady work. His music elevated many otherwise questionable films, and his scores for films like Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), Jack Hill’s Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) have been noted as particularly noteworthy.
Fans of Stein’s cite his premature death of cancer in 1988 as the reason he never got the recognition he deserved — that after his strong score for The Rain People, he was bound to go on to do bigger and better things. But the truth is that for 19 years between The Rain People and his sudden death, he did little worthy of note in film music, except a handful of super-low-budget films and a porno. His SF scores include: The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Invasion of the Saucer Men, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), Battle Beyond the Stars, Dinosaurus! (1960), Last Woman on Earth (1960), The Underwater City (1962), Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), Queen of Blood, Zontar: The Thing from Venus, Creature of Destruiction (1968), and Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tilly (1984).
It Conquered the World. 1956, USA. Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Lou Rusoff, Charles Griffith. Starring: Peter Graves, Lee van Cleef, Beverly Garland, Sally Fraser, Russ Bender, Jonathan Haze, Dick Miller, Taggart Casey, Paul Harbor, Karen Kadler, Charles Griffith, Marshall Bradford, Thomas Jackson, David McMahon. Music: Ronald Stein. Cinematography: Frederick West. Editing: Charles gross, Jr. Makeup: Larry Butterworth. Sound: Jay Ashworth. Special effects & monster design: Paul Blaisdell. Produced by Roger Corman for Sunset Productions and American-International Pictures.