The ‘It’ Factor of Classic Horror Titles
Two simple letters that form the most innocuous of words, one that we use hundreds of times a day without thinking.
And that’s the point of the word that is defined as “easily identified.”
Not so in the world of classic horror films where “it” is used as a way to not identity the terror, leaving viewers to imagine what horror awaits.
Think about these film titles where “it” means everything from a sea monster to various alien forms and even a killer tree(!) :
Other words were used for the same ambiguous effect during the 1950s when sci-fi and horror titles were mysterious (Them!), vague (The Thing From Another World), curious (Day of the Triffids) and downright silly (Gog and The Twonky).
Today, we know the “It” in It Came from Beneath the Sea, the nature of the beast in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and what was causing the Beginning of the End.
But not so when these films were originally released. When people attended films decades ago, it was without the benefit of social media, television ads and detailed interviews with stars. Today we can learn almost as much as we want before seeing a movie, photos and all. Where’s the fun in that? Instead, imagine going to see a movie where you had no idea what horror awaits.
Many of these indistinct words were repeated so often, they created their own genre.
Beast movies: War of the Colossal Beast (1958), The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955), Man Beast (1956), The Bride and the Beast (1958), Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), and that fun Western-horror-dino mashup Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956). Then the greatest of all beast movies, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) with stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen.
Monster movies: The Monster that Challenged the World (1957), The Monolith Monsters (1957), Monster from Green Hell (1958), The Invisible Monster (1950), Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus (1958) starring Troy Donahue, and Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1954).
Outer space movies: Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), Queen of Outer Space (1958) with Zsa Zsa Gabor as a vampire alien, The Space Children (1958), Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956), First Man into Space (1959), Battle In Outer Space (1959), our beloved Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and the ominous I Married A Monster from Outer Space (1958).
I enjoy those dramatic titles that refer to an unidentified impending doom: Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End (1957), World Without End (1956), Day the World Ended (1955), The Night the World Exploded (1957), The Day the Sky Exploded (1958). Each brings a unique terror: giant grasshoppers, atomic war, asteroids, earthquakes.
A favorite title (and movie) is Them! (1954) which features a great B-movie title drop when a traumatized little girl awakens from a catatonic state and repeatedly screams “Them!”
If you come across a classic horror film you haven’t seen that has a cryptic title, do yourself a favor and don’t look it up. The unknown is usually better or at least more fun – even if the monster looks like a cucumber.
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The “it” movies
Here’s a brief look at five “it” films, one of my favorite genres.
It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). Top of the list for me and a true genre classic. The title at least gives us a hint that something horrible is coming from the sea. Still, I don’t think 1955 audiences would have expected a giant octopus of such size and strength that its tentacles could rip apart the Golden Gate Bridge. Our creature again comes from the fertile imagination of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen.
It Conquered the World (1956). Roger Corman produced and directed this “it” film about an alien from Venus that wants to take over Earth. A misguided scientist (Lee Van Cleef) believes the creature when it says it wants to help us by ridding us of our emotions. He learns the truth – but is it too late? It might be scary if the triangle-shaped “it” didn’t look like a cross between a cucumber and watermelon. Peter Graves and Beverly Garland co-star.
It Came from Outer Space (1953). One-eyed creatures are the inhabitants of an alien spaceship that crashes in the desert. Richard Carlson is the amateur astronomer no one believes; Barbara Rush is his smart girlfriend who lends a hand. I like these aliens. They have the power to transform into anything they want, including humans, without killing the original. “We have souls and minds and are good,” as one says. I enjoy that funky eye-vision effect as we get the point-of-view shot through that alien eye. I also like that this film has deeper meaning as the aliens repeat they mean no harm but are pushed to extremes by scared humans. Notable co-stars are Charles Drake as the doubting sheriff and Russell Johnson (the professor on Gilligan’s Island).
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). In 1973, rescuers head to Mars and find the lone survivor of a previous mission. They return to Earth not knowing their ship carries a killer stowaway. Hmmm … sound familiar Ridley Scott? This film, starring Marshall Thompson, often is cited as the inspiration for Alien and I can see why. Unfortunately, “it” looks like what it is: a guy in a suit with oversized three-fingered claws and a creepy reptilian face.
From Hell It Came (1957). Good idea for something different. “It” is a killer tree and the location isn’t the often-used desert, but Polynesian Islands. But the film looks cheap and the acting is bad. Baranga, the killer tree, is the result of a curse from a wrongly accused man put to death. The creature is person inside a static costume who shuffles along at a slow pace. You’ll be reminded of the talking tree in The Wizard of Oz, but in Oz the tree’s face moved and it talked, adding to a creepy factor missing here.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
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.