The Handsome Face of Horror in ‘I Married a Monster from Outer Space’
When classic movie fans think of the faces of horror, we rightly go to some of the most iconic creatures in film history: the Universal monsters and the images that have defined the look of vampires, Frankenstein’s monster and other creatures for nearly 90 years; grotesque aliens and horrific mythological creatures.
But let’s look at it in another way – a disturbing way – and consider when the face of horror is attractive, familiar and even loving. Like … what if you married a monster from outer space?
It happened – at least in the effective 1958 sci-fi horror film I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Seeing this movie again recently was a reminder of this subtle and insidious type of monster.
It was one of many films in the 1950s that fed off growing Cold War fears and anxieties about communism invading America with stories about alien invasions. Often these films had aliens taking over human bodies so we couldn’t see the horror right in front of us.
The best example of this film paranoia would be Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Don Siegel’s terrifying and masterful story of a small California town taken over by pod people. I find this film so unnerving that it’s difficult to watch.
Instead, I wimp out and watch movies that are easy to shake off.
Like It Came from Outer Space (1953) with aliens who crash in the desert and temporarily take over human bodies, but don’t mean any harm – for now.
Or Invaders from Mars (1953) with little David who sees a spaceship land near his house and then convinces a town – and the military – that evil aliens have taken over the bodies of his loving parents and respected townsfolk.
And especially the underrated I Married a Monster from Outer Space about a newlywed who realizes something is not right with her husband.
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The film opens with Bill (the tall, dark and handsome Tom Tryon) enjoying drinks with the boys the night before his wedding.
On his way home, he pulls over thinking he has hit someone and is grabbed by a grotesque glowing limb, enveloped in a billowing cloud of smoke and disappears all to a creepy musical cue.
The next morning, Marge (Gloria Talbott and her super short bangs) is nervously awaiting Bill who is late for their wedding. When he arrives, he’s out of sorts but everyone brushes it off. It’s downhill from there.
The honeymoon night is a disaster with Bill inexplicably cold toward his confused new bride. Things don’t improve. On their first anniversary, Marge is writing to her mother about her “horrible” marriage that has left her frightened and bewildered. “Bill isn’t the same man I fell in love with – he’s almost a stranger.”
Oh Marge, you have no idea how right you are.
She does more than wonder as inexplicable things pile on like Bill’s furious reaction to the anniversary gift of a sweet little dog and the dog’s quick demise. (Clearly the movie rule that you don’t hurt animals didn’t exist in the 1950s.) Marge seems to buy his excuse about what happened, but smartly doesn’t let it drop.
“If it weren’t so silly, I would say you’re Bill’s twin brother from some other place,” she tells him.
She’s getting closer.
Growing more troubled, Marge follows Bill out of the house, boldly running after him through the woods in a night gown and coat where she watches in horror as her husband is shrouded in that familiar smoke from which a creature emerges in front of a spaceship. The alien and its human hybrid face each other and it’s eerie even if the superimposed alien form isn’t too scary.
Marge seeks help but is stymied as male friends and the police all act in the same odd way and tell her to just go home. We can feel her growing paranoia as she realizes how far things have gone: she can’t make a long-distance phone call, can’t send a telegram and is stopped from leaving town.
Is there anyone she can trust? There is and his idea for finding help is genius and even ironic from the aliens’ viewpoint. But is it enough and how will other complications play into things? No spoilers here.
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A low-budget film with big-budget aspirations
I Married a Monster Space was made for only $125,000 and released with low expectations. It’s never gotten the fair shake it deserves most likely because of the campy title and matching publicity material. (Sorry, but an alien never carries the bride in her wedding gown.)
Yet it gives us more than we expect with a strong heroine, solid acting, two-dimensional aliens, surprisingly good filmmaking and a sci-fi yarn that delivers on suspense. (Moments where the alien’s face flickers briefly on its human’s is chilling.)
The trio of director Gene Fowler Jr., writer Louis Vittes and cinematographer Haskell Boggs gives the film higher production values than we are used to in sci-fi B-movies.
Framing of scenes is wonderfully tense with architectural arches often closing in on Marge, mirroring what is happening in her life. Physical distance is exaggerated between the young couple in their home.
The fact aliens can see in the dark is used for dramatic effect with shadows and entire scenes in darkness. Light is used as a jump scare as when Bill turns on a light to show his wife he’s been watching her in the dark.
The way Marge is written is refreshing. We expect the young housewife to be meek and spend the film screaming as similar characters have been portrayed in movies of the time. But she is smarter and tougher than she seems, as she looks for explanations into her husband’s strange behavior. She’s not afraid to ask questions and to confront him.
In one effective scene, Bill finds Marge in the dark and wants to turn the lights on to which she responds “you don’t need any.”
When he asks what she knows, Marge doesn’t hold back.
“I know you’re not Bill. You’re some thing that has crept into Bill’s body. Something that can’t even breathe the same air we do,” she answers
When Bill asks, “Aren’t you afraid to be telling me all this?” we’re thinking the same thing.
Yes, she is afraid but is resilient. Love, it seems, can make you fearless and Talbott plays the scene to great effect.
Presenting Marge that way elevates the film as well as actress Talbott who has been labeled a Scream Queen in sci-fi and horror films. She shows she’s better than that.
I like that the story makes the aliens multidimensional. They are desperate creatures who face extinction from an unstable sun that has killed all the women on their planet. The yuck factor is that they’ve come to Earth so human women can breed their children. Since it’s a 1950s film, it is only talked about in theory as Bill shares it’s not possible yet.
They also aren’t immune to human emotions and that comes through in the one honest conversation between Bill the alien and Marge.
Bill: “Something happened that we hadn’t foreseen. Along with these bodies, we inherited other things as well …. human desires, emotions.”
Marge: “Are you telling me you’re learning how to love.?”
Bill: “I’m telling you I’m learning what love is.”
Well that was unexpected.
And that’s the appeal of I Married a Monster from Outer Space. You may think you know what you’re getting in a film with such a sensational and direct title, but it has its surprises making it a marriage worth watching.
How you know them
Gloria Talbott. Gloria started as a child actress in films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but was given the title of Scream Queen after starring in such films as The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Cyclops (1957) and The Leech Woman (1960). One of her most notable performances was as Jane Wyman’s daughter in All that Heaven Allows (1955).
Tom Tryon. The handsome actor starred in a variety of films including The Longest Day and The Cardinal as well as television work in Western shows and as the title character in Texas John Slaughter movies for The Wonderful World of Disney. But you may know his name more as an author. He left acting in 1969 to write horror and mystery stories and was a success with such novels as “The Other” (1971), which he adapted for film, and “Harvest Home” (1973).
Gene Fowler Jr. The producer and director had a long career as a film editor for the likes of Fritz Lang and Samuel Fuller and those skills are evident in I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Although he won a Golden Globe and four Emmy awards, he remains best known as director of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.