With Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” about to set down, I thought it might be fun to revisit my 1979 story about “Alien” and “It! The Terror from Beyond Space.” This story originally appeared in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where I worked as entertainment editor. A second version appeared in “Cinefantastique” magazine.
by Glenn Lovell
Here’s a riddle for you. What came first, the creature or the alien egg?
Put another way, is “Alien,” 20th Century-Fox’s $9-million release, the innovative shock show critics from coast to coast have rushed to call it? Or, is it simply a flashy retread of a number of low-budget 1950s creature features, like “The Thing from Another World” and “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”? With the alien-hitches-a-ride movie already well over the $40 million mark and reaching daily for a spot beside “Jaws,” “Close Encounters” and “Star Wars,” a backlash has begun among onetime admirers who are now asking, “Just how original is ‘Alien’ anyway?”
What they’re discovering ‒ with a little help from horror/sci-fi aficionados ‒ is that “Alien” is not only a first cousin to some of the seedier ’50s monster movies, it is also something of a rip-off of these exploitation numbers.
Although other titles have been bandied about ‒ like “This Island Earth” and “Forbidden Planet” ‒ the two films “Alien” most resembles are “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958) and “Planet of the Vampires” (1965). The storyline, almost scene for scene, comes from “It!”; the eerie lighting and stylized, expressionistic landscapes are pure “Planet,” an Italian SF/fantasy shocker by Mario Bava.
For those of us who can recall the summer of 1958 and the release by United Artists of a $110,000 quickie titled “It! The Terror from Beyond Space,” watching “Alien” for the first time evoked a strong sense of déjà vu. The new script, credited to Dan O’Bannon, seemed nothing less than a verbatim replay of what director Edward L. Cahn and screenwriter Jerome Bixby had supplied in the way of extraterrestrial fright.
Briefly, in “It!” a spaceship lands on an uncharted planet to search for survivors of a downed rocket and, unbeknown to the crew, picks up a deadly, blood-sucking hitchhiker. As in “Alien,” the thing from another world hides in the ventilation shaft, is warded off by a crew member with a blow torch, and is finally sucked into deep space where it dies from lack of oxygen. What the makers of “Alien” have done is change the shape of the creature (theirs is insectoid, Cahn’s was humanoid with reptilian features) and assault us with more sophisticated shock effects.
Still, the stories bear an uncanny resemblance.
Aware of this, we contacted 20th Century’s “Alien” office for the official word on whether the brains behind the hit were conscious of copying an earlier film or had latched onto a project they assumed was original. British director Ridley Scott escapes complicity because he is unacquainted with most American sci-fi. His U.S. collaborators, however, are another matter. At least three were aware of the striking similarities between “Alien” and “It!” One of the film’s producers even admitted screening portions of “It!” during production “to make sure we weren’t doing a bald remake.”
Producer David Giler: “We only began to hear about ‘It!’ toward the end of production. I haven’t seen it, but t I know of the film. We were convinced we were doing something new stylistically, even if the basic outlines were the same. I gather the alien-hiding-on-a-spaceship idea is pretty much a classic premise with science fiction writers, like the gunfight in the Western. So the similarities you refer to didn’t bother us.”
Interestingly, Giler was only too happy to brand O’Bannon “a fake” and “rip-off artist.” Giler said he and co-producer Walter Hill wrote most of the script but lost out to O’Bannon in an “idiotic” Writers Guild arbitration. He called O’Bannon’s original draft “amateurishly written ‒ just awful! Basically, it was a pastiche of ’50s movies thrown together. If we had shot the original script we would have had a remake of ‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space.’ ”
When pressed, Giler confided: “I know some of the more esoteric SF magazines have commented on tie-ins between ‘It!’ and ‘Alien.’ But I’m not a regular reader of these magazines. Personally, I think that’s a question you ought to put to O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (co-author of the ‘original story’). If somebody is responsible for stealing the idea, it’s them. They signed a paper saying it was an original idea. If it isn’t, they lied to us. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Dan O’Bannon stole the idea, I must tell you.”
For a different perspective, we contacted “It!” screenwriter Jerome Bixby. He had not seen “Alien” but, through his sons, was aware of plot similarities. We talked him into viewing the film, then reporting back to us. He called two days later.
“Frankly, I feel like the grandfather of ‘Alien,’” chuckled Bixby, whose credits include 1,300 short stories and segments of “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone.” “There’s a whole roster of similarities between what I wrote and the new film. They’re both about a small group of people trapped aboard a spacecraft with an inimical creature out to get them and which, in fact, knocks them off one by one. No problem there; that’s a pretty general plot outline. In both stories the creatures use the ship’s air ducts. In both stories they are held off with gas and electricity. And at the end of both stories, they’re dispatched by suffocation, by evacuating the creatures from the ship and depriving them of air.”
Although Bixby wouldn’t say whether he intended to take action against O’Bannon and 20th Century, he did say he was in touch with his lawyer about the matter.
“In all honesty, my story was also derivative,” he allowed. “Essentially what I did was take Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing’ and play it aboard a spaceship. But I didn’t copy the storyline; I used the film ‒ a masterpiece in the genre ‒ as inspiration for my story. The Hawks film has long been a model for SF writers.”
Bixby said he enjoyed “Alien” but believed the film’s extravagant budget and f/x covered for a weak storyline. “When I think what we could have done with that kind of money …,” he mused. “A lot of people saw our little grade-B flick because there was something of a science-fiction boom back then. But it was nothing like we have today.”