Van Cleef & Arkoff

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I’d always wanted to see IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, ever since seeing images of the monster, who seemed to resemble a prize marrow with a face and pincers, and ever since reading Roger Corman’s magnificent memoir How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (one of the truly wise books about cinema) which recounts how star Beverly Garland appraised her extraterrestrial co-star coolly, uttered the words “So you’ve come to conquer the world, have you?” and then felled the short-arsed visitant with a single kick to the forehead.

“Lesson one,” writes Corman, “Always make your monster bigger than your leading lady.”

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Lee Van Cleef plays a rogue scientist who befriends a Venusian who wants to invade Earth. Van Cleef thinks this is a swell idea and makes all the arrangements, communicating via a kind of ham radio, though the monster speaks only in a serious of musical parps and whines. Van Cleef understands every word, prompting Fiona to compare this with Charlie Brown’s conversations with his teacher in the animated show.

Fiona is fascinated by Van C’s tiny forehead. Kudos to Corman for avoiding typecasting the scientist role.

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The movie is centred on two couples, Van Cleef & Garland, who have a lovely dysfunctional relationship (“I’m going into town and when I come back I pray you’ll be sane,” she says) and the Peter Graveses, who keep dropping by. It’s sort of a WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? with a space alien in the role of the little bugger.

The Venusian “It,” known to fans as “Beulah,” is vaguely conical (and more than vaguely comical). “He” has floor-length skin ending in a trimming of tentacular tassels. When he is angry or aroused, space-bats come flying from under his fleshy skirts. He lives in a cave with a hot spring because it reminds him of Venus.

The title, like the title of Roger’s book, is a lie — IT doesn’t at any point conquer the Earth, but it does cut off all electricity. So IT CAUSED A POWER OUTAGE would be a more accurate title. Somehow it also stops everybody’s watch from working, which seems unlikely and has no effect on the plot. When hero Peter Graves jumps on a bicycle, I half-expected the wheels to refuse to turn. “The swine!” Graves would cry, shaking his fist. But no.

The space-bats stick implants into the back of people’s necks to control them, like in INVADERS FROM MARS. I guess Venusians have been studying the Martians’ techniques.

There’s a good bit Fiona spotted of townspeople fleeing for the hills (we never see them again): one of them is clutching a saxophone. So at least they’ll have music, wherever they go.

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Note also the woman left-of-centre smiling at the camera. She may be fleeing for her life, but she isn’t going to let a little thing like that spoil her day. Shades of REPTILICUS, whose terrified refugees had a kind of carnival atmosphere to them.

There’s more recognizably deliberate comedy from Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze as bumbling soldiers. Miller is always welcome, but Haze’s lame-brained Mexican act is appalling.

Strange dialogue, from Samuel Z. Arkoff’s brother-in-law and/or an uncredited Charles B. Griffith: “Your hands are human but your mind is enemy,” Graves tells Van Cleef. Ye-es.

 

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8 Responses to “Van Cleef & Arkoff”

  1. Skywatcher Says:

    There’s no denying that it is a thoroughgoing knock-off other movies of the period (including, rather weirdly, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), only cheaper and more wooden. One of the big problems with the alien is that it looks like something that might have been designed as part of a cartoon ad campaign for vegetables. I like Graves, but he is a strange choice as a hero who must display the importance of emotions, as his chief characteristic as an actor is coolness and calm.

  2. When Peter Fonda was suggested as casting in The Limey, Soderbergh said “No! Two stoics — that never works!” thinking he’d be too similar to Terence Stamp. And the person suggesting Fonda said, “Have you MET Peter Fonda?” and it turned out he was an ebullient sparkplug of a man.

    So yes, Graves is oddly unsuited to purpose, though perfectly decent. I think he’s only there because of Killers from Space. He’d become the go-to guy for neck implant movies.

    Everything about Beulah follows the rules of cartooning — big, expressive, Jack Black face — slapped onto the body, which doubles as a head, like on Michigan J Frog. It was an innovation to realize, with Alien, that a monster without a facial expression was more scary. It works on sharks, it ought to work on monsters.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    I have a long history of adoring this movie. THANK YOU, David. Having admitted that, though, let me say that I always attributed the good dialogue — when it occurs — to Lou Rusoff. He also wrote THE SHE CREATURE and DAY THE WORLD ENDED.

    Memory from the last time I saw it: Garland talking sadly to Van Cleef about a world where your every fetish can be satisfied … with the image of an African painting vaguely visible in the background, just to remind us what they (putatively) are discussing.

  4. Yeah, their interior design tastes deserve a whole blog post. A whole book. The faux-African “art” and the weird railings like bars with plastic vines “growing” up them, and the the curtained niche for Lee’s Venus kit. Had to be Venus because subtextually the film seems to be a rather tortured meditation on marriage.

    Don’t Griffith’s credits trump Rusoff’s though? Death Race 2000, Not of this Earth, The Wild Angels, A Bucket of Blood, Little Shop of Horrors… not all are solo credits, but enough are…

  5. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this. I remember some genuinely effective scenes from it but the most memorable scene is memorable for the wrong reason perhaps: Dr. Nelson is altogether too cold-blooded about murdering his wife once he perceives that she’s been puppet-mastered. But that just ties in with the other comments here about Graves’s slightly cold-fish demeanor as an actor. This reminds me of my pet idea about “Stalag 17”: the revelation about Price would have had more force had he been played by an actor who could project a warmer, more buddy-buddy personality, like Edmond O’Brien.

    Didn’t Corman have a good if misconceived reason for making his alien short and squat? He had the idea that Venus had a high gravity (it doesn’t–Venus’s surface gravity is slightly less than Earth’s–but it does have an atmospheric pressure ninety times that of Earth’s which maybe is what Corman was thinking about) so a Venusian alien would logically have a stumpy body.

  6. Beulah’s problems don’t end with the height issue, of course. Admittedly, any kind of inhuman monster was going to be an insuperable problem on a Corman budget at that time. Even a design genius like Gilliam struggled to make his Jabberwock believable, and that was twenty years later. However, I think it can be agreed that Beulah is the most epic fail of all the fifties monsters, which makes me rather fond of the old Venusian interloper.

  7. I once sat next to Beverly Garland at a screening (Ameircan Cinematheque at the Egyptian) of Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (available on dvd thank goodness; at the time of the screening there was only one print available, and it was Black’s own private copy). Ms Garland reminded me of the archetypal favorite aunt we all wanted but only a few kids were lucky enough to have, the one who hit the bottle, smoked too much, and doused her hair in peroxide. Although that was, perhaps, me projecting.

    She of course was something of a legendary figure in Hollywood (was indeed introduced from the stage, for the Q&A, as ‘the *legendary* Beverly Garland’) not least because she owned a Holiday Inn franchise in North Hollywood, near Universal Studios, and it was and still thankfully is oddly reassuring to see ‘Beverly Garland’s Holiday Inn’, in large letters gracing the view from the 101, reminding me I’m almost home, and in more ways than one.

    She and Black were very interesting at the Q&A but she was perhaps a little self-regarding on the subject of her own performance. After all, it’s a terrific movie but Pretty Poison belongs to Tuesday Weld. Then again, La Garland started the evening with a bit of a strop; there had been nobody to welcome her – she was the billed guest of the evening – and the box office was still closed when she (and, coincidentally, my partner and I) arrived early. Lots of rhetorical ‘Does *anybody* know what’s going on around here?!?’ which put me in mind of Joan Cusack’s operatic despair outside the bar in In & Out (‘Is *everybody* gay?!?’) But I digress.

    I have loved ICTW since I was quite young, and I gazed adoringly at the posters and lobby cards outside the fleapit Essoldo Cinema in Southend where it was playing – I was 8, and in those days the BBFC slapped and X rating on just about everything – and I treasured as if they were Coptic icons the images of the cucumber creature when they first appeared in my imported copies of Famous Monsters. But I don’t think anyone here has credited the monster’s creator – the redoubtable Paul Blaisdell, whose list of creations, including The She Creature, Invasion of the Saucermen, Beast with a Million Eyes, the mutant from The Day World Ended, were breathtaking triumphs of imagination and commitment over budgetary constraints. In partnership with Bob Burns, Blaisdell also founded, in 1962, an FM rival magazine, the short-lived but excellent Fantastic Monsters of the Films.

  8. Yes, Blaisdell left his mark on cinema, to be sure. There’s some very good stuff about him online. The satisfactions offered by his work may have had limits, along with the budgets, but I still think any of us would be proud to have a career like that.

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