“They Came From Beyond Space” was released the same year as Hammer’s cinema version of the BBC serial “Quatermass and the Pit”, starring Andrew Keir and Barbara Shelley, and is clearly Amicus Productions’ attempt to mine similar areas of science fiction fantasy. Sporting rich, beautifully bright Eastman Color tones and bearing a typically jazzy score from the period, it certainly looks all of a piece with Roy Ward Baker’s efforts to adapt Nigel Kneal’s innovative classic for the big screen, while also boasting a similarly breezy atmosphere to Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg’s two previously released Dalek films -- their own attempt to convert a successful black & white BBC TV franchise into worldwide cinematic box office success. Thus the film becomes an extremely pleasing watch for fans of this era of British film; it is confidently directed by Freddie Francis while at the same time being a noticeably inferior product all round in terms of its hidebound and superficial approach to combining Kneal’s familiar story tropes concerning possession by alien intelligence and societal infiltration/invasion.
Milton Subotsky’s screenplay -- an adaptation of a pulpy 1941 aliens-take-over-our-minds novel called The Gods Hate Kansas, by Joseph Millard – is a crude handling of similar material, still harking back to pre-Quatermass, Saturday morning matinee serial sci-fi; although full of the 1950s, cardie-wearing research scientist heroes, sinister British Government agents sporting trilbys and glamorous female assistants who are all also frequently to be found inhabiting Kneal’s three Quatermass serials and their Hammer films spin-offs, this low-budget effort reverts to archaic 1930s era fantasy cliché in the final act when Michael Gough is dragged in for a last reel cameo as the ‘Master of the Moon’: the alien leader who explains the plot while sporting a pink cape, lycra costume and garish white face paint while surrounded by burly shirtless alien guards in bright red tights. The same Quatermass-style formula initially essayed here, was to become the basis for Jon Pertwee’s tenure in his first few seasons on DOCTOR WHO, which started only a few years later; but besides their characteristic shared Home Counties settings, the contrast between the handling of this particular iteration of the formula and the later re-tooled BBC series is glaring in terms of the former’s pulpy comic book approach.
The film is also old-fashioned in its approach to casting, too. When Hammer produced “The Quatermass Xperiment” in 1953, the production company felt obliged to cast the head of the British rocket group, Bernard Quatermass, with an American actor in the lead role at the behest of their American distributor Robert L. Lippert, who required such changes to Hammer’s product as a way of maximising their films’ prospects of box office success in the states. Even the many British film series of the day from ITC and the like, often included an American actor in one of the lead roles for similar reasons. This was standard practice in the 1950s and early ‘60s but in 1967, with “Quatermass and the Pit”, Hammer could feel confident enough by now in the lure of its brand name to be able to cast the film more appropriately, with Scottish actor Andrew Keir. The smaller production house Amicus evidently still felt the need to rely on US-friendly casting methods for its foray into similar territory, though: greying American actor Robert Hutton finds himself uncomfortably placed as Dr Curtis Temple here -- head of a group of British radio astronomers searching the heavens from a Jodrell Bank-type facility for signs of extra-terrestrial life. Physically, Hutton seems rather middle-aged, stiff and uncharismatic a presence and no mention is ever made of how he came to be heading up this group of British boffins; at one point later in the narrative a peroxide blonde beatnik chic (Luanshya Greer), who works as a petrol pump attendant at a village petrol station, comes on to him when he stops to fill up his vintage bottle green jalopy (all very John Steed), but this awkward attempt at sexiness seems entirely misplaced. His colleague (Geoffrey Wallace) is a typical 1950s, pipe-smoking intellectual in a tweed jacket, while Dr Curtis’ love interest is a Rosemary Nicols/Linda Thorson/Barbara Shelley clone called Lee Mason, played by Jennifer Jayn -- whose both beautiful and demonstrably the equal of the dowdy male characters in her leadership skills and in her display of scientific nouse. Bernard Kay is a strong presence as head of Ministry of Space Research, Richard Arden – the head of a hush-hush Government Agency who turns up to task Curtis’ group with looking into a strange formation of meteors that has landed in some farmland in the heart of rural England in a perfect V formation, as if guided there on purpose. Unfortunately, it turns out that Dr Curtis has just recently been involved in a major motor accident which resulted in him having to have a silver plate put in his head to augment his shattered skull. His doctor won’t let him head up the mission until he’s fully recovered, so Lee Mason has to take charge of the investigation, and relay the team’s findings to Curtis back at base.
Mason and her colleagues travel to some picturesque British countryside to conduct an analysis of the strange alien-looking meteorites in a field, but during the course of their tests lava lamp-like flashes are emitted from the artefacts and the entire team, including Arden and Mason, become possessed by alien entities who speak to each-other in echo chamber voices but otherwise adopt an impatient, officious, mechanical tone when dealing with other humans. They turn the entire site into a top secret, sealed-off militarised zone; take over key officials, including soldiers and even bank managers, to help them finance their secret activities; and requisition supplies from the Government for lumber, cement, steel, electrical equipment and heavy duty cable. Furthermore, Arden and Mullane turn up at Curtis’ headquarters and attempt to use one of the glowing alien-mind-harbouring meteors to possess his body as well, managing to steal analysis which show that the meteors’ flight path indicates that they first originated on the moon. Their plan hits a snag though because the silver plate in Curtis’ head fortuitously shields him from their influence, making the yank scientist the lone official capable of understanding what is happening and putting an end to the alien plot. First of all though, he has to break into their heavily guarded new base and find out what is actually going on there.
The first act of the film works quite well since Subotsky’s screenplay sets out to consistently undermine the expected manoeuvrings of an otherwise hugely familiar plot: it’s initially a surprise when some apparently major characters like Arden, Mullane and Mason suddenly become transformed into the enemy -- with Dr Curtis’ formerly heroic girlfriend now seen authorising his death if he tries to break through the militarised barrier being maintained around the farmhouse near the original crash site, which has now also been converted into some sort of alien rocket launching facility. When he tries to reason with her and remind her of their love for each other he gets the classic alien brush-off -- ‘sentiment? ... I will not allow sentiment to interfere with our vital work!’
Curtis spends his time driving around in his vintage car taking in some luscious-looking countryside that scrubs up well in Eastman Color, occasionally meeting likely collaborators such as jaunty Internal Affairs agent Stillwell (Maurice Good) or the foxy female petrol pump attendant – but in each case they end up being struck down by a gruesome crimson plague which the aliens unleash in order to supply them with host human bodies on an industrial scale, to be transported to the moon on the rocket launches which are by now leaving the site on a regular basis. Shots of quaint village streets full of fallen bodies, each displaying the tell-tale blood-fleck marks associated with the infectious plague (luckily, Curtis’ metal head-plate also protects him from that as well!) introduce a much more sombre note to the proceedings and, at one point, Curtis breaks into the aliens’ underground complex and discovers rooms full of freeze-dried villagers, ready to be transported to the moon where they will be brought back to life as zombie slaves!
Freddie Francis was obviously working with a miniscule budget here but the film actually looks rather fine for what it is. There’s some handsome mobile camera work employed occasionally to keep things visually engaging, acceptable model miniatures, and, when Curtis hooks up with another of his scientific cardie-wearing boffin pals (Zia Mohyeddin), who just happens to live on the border of the infected village (lucky that!), we get some more of those psychedelic sixties lava lamp effects familiar from Roger Corman’s movies (and supplied here as usual by Les Bowie) as well as the use of some distorted lenses when they test their alien mind control-defeating gizmos on a captured Lee Mason. Hammer stalwart Don Mingaye is also around to supply slick art direction, contributing considerably to the agreeable look of this resolutely small-scale venture. The film, though only eighty minutes long, does start to sag a little in the middle, and the cheapness of the production begins to shine through when the silver helmet the duo prepare in order to protect Curtis’ assistant from the aliens’ mind possession, looks like nothing more than an ill-fitting upturned kitchen colander plonked on his head! The finale is something of a damp squib as well, played out in a black-and-silver minimalist futuristic alien base on the moon set (which looks similar to the set used for the Dalek city in “Doctor Who and the Daleks”) in which Michael Gough threatens to remove the protective plate from Curtis’ head with a spot of impromptu brain surgery and reveals the true objective of the moon-dwelling aliens’ plan, which turns out to be benign enough to make you wonder why they actually felt the need to bother with such a convoluted and invasive plan at all.
The DVD presentation from Studio Canal UK is actually very nice-looking indeed with a colourful anamorphic transfer (in the film’s original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) which is almost pristine apart from the occasional speckle. It’s a completely bare-bones release of course, but British horror and sci-fi fans will find much to delight them in this naive but charming slice of out-dated ‘60s Amicus science fantasy hokum. Older UK viewers should look out for a bizarre cameo from newsreader Kenneth Kendall, as well!
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night!