Sunday, February 26, 2012

It Conquered the World (1956)

... aka: It Conquered the Earth

Directed by:
Roger Corman

Often dismissed as a cheap knock-off of the same year's hit INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, this one's main claim to fame for many is its incredibly silly-looking, Paul Blaisdell-designed alien creation, which many viewers compare to a giant vegetable. But if you can look past the creepy carrot, planet-hopping pickle, evil eggplant or whatever else you'd like to call it, and forgive some wooden performances and a clumsy final denouement delivered with stone-faced perfection by star Peter Graves, you'll find a good little film with heart and soul underneath. Like Snatchers, it's set in the contained environment of an ordinary small town, which works as an efficiently small scale reminder of what will happen to the rest of the world if the alien invader isn't stopped and stopped soon. It contains the same Cold War paranoia themes prevalent in so many other 50s sci-fi favorites and, like Snatchers, features a creature capable of possessing humans, who are then stripped of all of those pesky feelings that make us who we are. Conquered is, above all else, about the importance of human emotion - something else touched upon in Snatchers - but nicely expanded upon here. Screenwriter Lou Rusoff's message is not subtle, but it's given a sense of importance and urgency thanks to the firebrand performance of co-star Beverly Garland; playing the impassioned wife of a brilliant, though misguided, man who all but lays out the red carpet for the alien takeover.

Illustrious physicist and all-around genius Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef), who's retired because he's sick of not being taken seriously by the "fat heads" at the top, tries in vain to warn the military and NASA that their new satellite project is going to spell doom for the Earth. And when he says that we better keep out of the skies or else and that "alien intelligence watches us constantly" he means it. After all, he's been communicating with them by bouncing radio waves off of Venus for years! Everyone, including Tom's long-suffering wife Claire (Garland), thinks he's losing it when he says that Venusians are heading toward the Earth. Meanwhile, the satellite launched three months earlier has mysteriously disappeared. Military scientist Paul Nelson (Graves) - a friend of Tom's who's the head of the satellite project - and others try to get to the bottom of things. In the meantime, the satellite crashes by some nearby caves. Guess who hitched a ride on board? Why, one of the aliens, of course! It gets word out to Tom that it's finally arrived and he's kind enough to hand out the names of all the important people in town... including his best buddy. Coinciding with the alien's arrival, there's a strange power failure in most modern conveniences. Watches, clocks, cars, radios, phones, flashlights, airplanes and everything else has mysteriously stops working. Well, for everyone except those in cahoots with the alien.

Possession is achieved by use of "control devices:" small, flying, bat-like creature which latch onto the back of the victim's neck and sting them, making them blank-minded emissaries for the alien. The chief of police (Taggart Casey) is the first to get stung and goes on to gun down an innocent man for not cooperating and organizing an evacuation; herding the town's citizens into the desert. Next up is army general James Paddock (Russ Bender), who lies and tells his officers they're in the middle of a Commie takeover, as well as several other scientists at the military base. Dr. Nelson is even forced to gun down his own wife Joan (Sally Fraser) after she becomes possessed. Tom - lashing out at a world who has laughed at and ridiculed him over the years - is in full cooperation with the alien and its plans. Claire loves her husband regardless and makes some very sensible arguments against what he's doing. It all falls on deaf ears, though, so Claire finally takes it upon herself to try and stop the alien. During one of the most memorable scenes, Claire marches into the alien's cave dwelling brandishing a rifle and promptly informs it "You think you're going to make a slave of the world? I'll see you in hell first!"

Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze both have (rather useless) roles as army grunts and Charles B. Griffith (who'd go on to write LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and others for Corman) also appears in a small role. The score is by Ronald Stein and Frank Zappa's song "Cheepnis" was apparently influenced by this movie. Conquered was mocked on an episode of the cable series Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and was remade for TV by director Larry Buchanan as ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS in 1966. Academy and RCA/Columbia issued VHS versions but the film has yet to get an official DVD, which is insane.


El libro de piedra (1969)

... aka: Book of Stone, The
... aka: Stone Book, The

Directed by:
Carlos Enrique Taboada

Clearly inspired by Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (and no doubt the definitive 1961 film version of that story, THE INNOCENTS), you'll notice several similarities between the two right away: the new governess, the haunted or possibly mentally disturbed child, the huge remote mansion filled with whispers and secrets, the lush nearby garden, etc. Unlike the disturbed, overly emotional character of Miss Giddens in Turn (who very well may be imagining the "haunting"), the protagonist here is a kind, very sane woman who is imagining nothing. Something supernatural is definitely afoot and, because she lost a child of her own years earlier, she feels compelled to do everything she can to help the troubled child she's been hired to care for. The lady in question is Julia Septién (Marga López), who - as the film begins - shows up at the home of re-married, very wealthy widower Eugenio Ruvalcaba (Joaquín Cordero). He immediately tells her that his young daughter Sylvia (Lucy Buj) isn't just a normal girl. In fact, he believes she may be mentally ill. Ever since the family has moved to this new home, Sylvia has spent much of her time in hiding and even more time with her (presumed) imaginary friend Hugo. She finds amusement in doing cruel and perverse things and even has the strange ability to predict things before they happen. And every once in awhile, someone dies.

A tough nut to crack, Sylvia is initially rude to the governess, tells her she doesn't like her and that she's not welcome there, but through patience, kindness and an open mind, Julia is eventually able to win over the young girl's trust and affections. She learns that Sylvia pays frequent visits to the garden, where the stone statue of a little boy holding a book - her "friend" Hugo - rests. The statue - which is five centuries old and was brought to Central America from Austria decades earlier - houses the spirit of a young boy who's been dead for many years and the book he's holding is a book of (black) magic spells. We learn that the boy was the child of a witch who may one day return to life. Somehow, evil little Hugo has managed to take possession of lonely Sylvia, coercing her into helping him do evil things... or doing them herself.

Sylvia makes a six-pointed star out of salt to resurrect a dead lizard and, early on, leads the governess to an abandoned church, with intentions of making her fall to her death from the top. Julia isn't the only target, though. A former governess was scared away from the home in horror and a dog belonging to the father's painter friend Carlos (Aldo Monti) is killed after it scares the girl. Sylvia's young stepmother Mariana (Norma Lazareno) wants nothing more than to find a way to connect to the closed-off Sylvia, but Sylvia hates her so much that she decides to make her suffer with help from a voodoo doll. Eugenio and Carlos eventually go to an occult expert for advice, but can they or Julia save the bewitched young girl before it's too late?

This ghost tale is well-regarded by many in its home country and it's easy to see why. The performances are good, it's faintly eerie at times, paces itself out about right by revealing layers of the interesting story a little bit at a time, makes good use of the lush outdoor surroundings and a few of the supernatural scenes, with visions of the little boy's ghost seen several times reflected in mirrors, are well-done. It's a good film, no doubt, but overall it lacks the artistry and depth that makes something like the similar and aforementioned The Innocents an *excellent* film. Still, it's well worth your time if you can find a copy (it's never been released in America, though an English-subbed copy is out there if you look for it) and would make an ideal introduction to the genre for a child.

Director / writer Taboada also made the well-regarded HASTA EL VIENTO TIENE MIEDO ("Even the Wind is Afraid") (1968), DRIFTER IN THE RAIN (1968), BLACKER THAN THE NIGHT (1975) and POISON FOR THE FAIRIES (1984). El libro de piedra was remade in 2009 by director Julio Cesar Estrada.


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