We all want to be the alpha, the hero of the story. Col. Van Heusen is convinced he fits the bill. Made to order tall, dark, and handsome with the confidence of a man who’s only known success. He commands a spaceship whose crew includes his spouse, Ann, herself a beauty.
Heusen’s mission is to retrieve Col Carruthers the lone survivor from mankinds first expedition to Mars. Carruthers is suspected of going mad and murdering his crew immediately upon landing on the red planet. For Heusen, it’s not enough to bring Carruthers to Earth for trial. He wants to extract a confession en route.
Carruthers is the opposite of Heusen. Blond, quiet and composed. He can’t fully explain how his crewmates died after landing on Mars, only that it was sudden. He survived by shutting himself in his ship waiting for help from Earth.
Not soon after leaving Mars with the prisoner in tow, Van Heusen’s crew start disappearing. A stowaway boarded the vessel. A “space vampire” weathered on the harsh climate of Mars, wants to consume every drop of water from the bodies of the human crew.
Van finds himself mortally wounded by a slow infection following an encounter with the beast. From his gurney, he can only watch as any claim to being the alpha vanishes. After every unsuccessful attempt to defeat the monster, casualties pile up but Carruthers remains unscathed, not through any cowardice but as though protected by the divinity of his character. However the battle against the monster ends up, its clear Carruthers will survive just as he did on Mars.
Heusen’s crew start looking to Carruthers for leadership, checking for his approval before embarking on new schemes. In a proto-Peckinpah touch, Ann gravitates to the stronger man, tending to Carruthers’s scratches in plain view of Heusen, who can only writhe in agony.
You can argue that the success of “It!” was completely by chance. The cast and crew were all B-Movie lifers, the sets threadbare, the monster’s costume laughable. There’s nothing here that makes much logical sense. The ship is designed without much interest in how a real space vessel might function. The crew fire bullets and use explosive traps in their attempts to slay the monster, apparently with little concern for breaching the hull.
Yet “It!” is one of the great successes of its era. Besides the rich rich subtext, the film stumbles onto an incredibly effective staging for its monster. First hiding it in the airducts, picking off the crew slowly rather than rushing them en masse. And the design of the ship, separated vertically into five levels, with the monster climbing higher and higher as it smashes through the solid steel doors. Meanwhile the dwindling crew can only climb higher as their plans fail one by one.
John Carpenter counts himself a fan (and I first saw the film when he curated a night of TCM broadcasting) but the real acolyte of this film is Dan O’Bannon. The massive creature using ventilation ducts to pick off an outgunned crew, with an assist from an airlock found its way into Alien. The “space vampires” sucking the fluids away from their prey wound up in Lifeforce.