“You think you’re gonna make a slave of the world… I’ll see you in Hell first!”
Directed by Roger Corman, It Conquered the World is best known for its baddie, an alien from Venus frequently described as a giant cucumber. It’s a surprisingly difficult film to get a hold of, considering its reputation and director – my copy is a second-hand VHS yet still manages to be one of the most expensive films in my collection. I bought it for two reasons: first, to see this infamous monster; and second, because it was later remade as Zontar: The Thing From Venus, by notorious badfilmmaker Larry Buchanan. Zontar is a pretty dreadful movie (which will be reviewed shortly), and I was curious to see how the two films compare. With regards to this film, I was pleasantly surprised.
Made right in the middle of sci-fi’s most prolific decade, It Conquered the World shares much with the other, better known films of the time. It’s now widely acknowledged that the sci-fi movies of the fifties exploited social and political fears – the threat of nuclear war or the spread of communism in particular – and this film is no exception. Lee Van Cleef is Tom Anderson, a scientist in direct communication with a being from Venus (or so he claims). Despite the scepticism of his wife Claire (Beverley Garland) and friend Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), neither of whom can hear anything other than static on Tom’s radio set, the scientist is convinced that the creature he’s communicating with is going to be of great benefit to mankind. Naturally, he’s deluded about its true intentions, and things rapidly take a turn for the worse.
It Conquered the World invites several comparisons. The alien, officially named Beluah by its creator Paul Blaisdell, lands on Earth and quickly stops all technology (except for that of its allies) – cars, house lights, telephones, even the water supply ceases instantly, at 3.03pm. Yet this is not a peaceful display of power, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but a way of stopping communications and making a human retaliation more difficult. It also has strange little flying creatures who bite human hosts and transform them into mindless pod people – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (made in the same year), these people look the same, but they are all controlled by their Venusian leader. The idea of one’s neighbours, family and friends suddenly becoming the enemy, without any visible indication of their new status, is a recurring one in 50s sci-fi, perfectly capturing the social paranoia regarding the apparent threat of communism. This was the final year of the Second Red Scare in America, when McCarthyism had reached its peak – anyone could be the enemy. Here, Lou Rusoff’s screenplay makes the metaphor blatant, with characters at one point even specifically discussing communism – it’s obvious now, but it’s still effective.
Like many of Corman’s movies, there are several interesting aspects hidden below the drive-in, teen-friendly narrative. Tom’s wife is a headstrong and determined woman (in a decade when women are almost always secondary characters) – her actions may prove futile in the end, but she is a strong and self-assured character, who at least attempts to stop the madness going on around her. Tom himself is an interesting leading man – far more interesting than the more steadfast Paul. He is utterly convinced that he is helping humanity, but this deluded arrogance is what enables Beluah to come and (attempt to) take over the planet. Lee Van Cleef, a classic bad guy (dark hair, little moustache), is cold and scientific – ruthless even, and cruel to his wife in particular. Van Cleef plays well against the traditional “good” looks (both in terms of physicality and character) of Graves.
Ultimately, however, it is Beluah itself that is the most memorable character here. The creature is truly a sight to behold – its flying minions are daft and never particularly visible, but Beluah is eventually unveiled in all its glory. Officially it’s a kind of sentient fungus, which is in itself a unique and intriguing concept, but it’s difficult to take the thing seriously. What does impress is the actual size of the creature – it’s a cumbersome, awkward and immobile object, with a pantomime villain’s expression, but when shown alongside the characters, is impressively large. That’s about all that’s impressive, however – it fails entirely as a horrifying villain, but I can think of few other creations that really match it in terms of visual entertainment (perhaps the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror come close; good ol’ Ro-Man should also get a mention).
Despite the obvious budgetary constraints, Corman does deliver. The film is surprisingly professional considering its meagre shooting schedule of just five days; it’s acted well, with a coherent narrative and some engaging, topical (if not particularly original) concepts running underneath. Viewed today, it’s enjoyably kitsch, predominantly because of Beluah. They don’t make ’em like they used to, that’s for sure.