A number of meteors crashes onto a field belonging to a farm in Cornwall. It’s the most curious thing though – usually, meteors don’t fly in a V-formation. The UK government thinks the phenomenon requires investigation and decides to send a group of scientists lead by an astronomer with special interest in the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton), to Cornwall.
There is a tiny problem, though: Temple’s love for vintage cars (slightly prefiguring the Third Doctor, like some of the film’s tone, if you ask me) has resulted in an accident some months ago that left the astronomer with a silver plate in his head, and – at least that’s the opinion of his doctor – still too sick to work away from home, even though he’ll act as fit as James Bond throughout the movie. We all know about the dangerous wilds of Cornwall, far away from civilization, after all.
So there’s nothing to it than to send Temple’s colleague and girlfriend, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne) to lead the expedition and send all pertinent data up to Temple.
Alas, things at the crash site fastly become problematic. The meteorites contain alien consciousnesses that take over the scientists, break off all contact with the outside world and slowly begin to infiltrate a close-by village too (starting with the local banker, of course, as if that were necessary). Then, the aliens begin to requisition large amounts of building materials and weapons through government channels.
After a time without news, Temple, as well as someone in government, realizes that something’s not right at all (an attempt by the aliens to take the astronomer over too but fails thanks to that practical silver plate helps Temple’s thought processes there). Temple’s investigations in the village and around the crash site turn up curious developments: it’s not just that the scientists and the dozens of people they have taken on are obviously not themselves anymore, they have built an underground lair all the better to be able to shoot rockets to the moon. Fortunately, Temple is one of those two-fisted scientists from the 50s, and his astonishing abilities (yeah, I know, he must have survived World War II, but how many astronomers really were astonishing commandos and still were when they hit middle-age?) at fistfighting, shooting, and escaping from cells will be very helpful in thwarting the plans of the aliens and their leader – the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough). Not even a strange alien illness part of the aliens’ overcomplicated plan can touch Temple; I suspect the illness is afraid to be infected by Hutton’s well-known right-wing real life opinions about everything.
Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a 50s alien invasion movie in 1967. This time around, much-kicked Hammer rivals Amicus are throwing their shoestring budget at that old stalwart of British cinema, the alien invasion movie with the American no-name actor in the lead role. One suspects Quatermass and the Pit might have had something to do with that decision, though They Came counters the complexity and intelligence of the Quatermass approach to SF with a tale of a properly dumb alien invasion with a badly delivered 60s peace and love twist at the end that wants me to believe that the two-fisted American scientist whose adventures we have witnessed up to the point is willing to shake hands with aliens who wanted to kill him or make him their slave because they say they now think better of it – twice. Let’s not even talk about these aliens’ idea of secrecy (or the idea of the film’s UK government about how a quarantine works; hint: generally, letting people come and go as they please isn’t a part of it).
This may sound as if I were rather dissatisfied with They Came, but nothing could be further from the truth. The alien invasion plot may be dumb, it is however dumb in the most delightful manner, easily convincing me that I may not live in a world where this sort of plan would sound logical, but I really rather would. Not only are the aliens’ plans and the film’s hero – who reminds me of a more conservative version of one of these non-professional Eurospy movie protagonists – a delightfully groovy age version of 50s traditions (a total improvement on the model, obviously), the way to thwart them is just as beautifully insane, seeing as it consists of knocking one’s possessed girlfriend out, kidnapping her, and using her as a test object while working on a (of course very silly looking) anti-alien-possession helmet, even sillier alien detection goggles and alien re-possession methods with a friendly scientist (Zia Mohyeddin) who just happens to live somewhere in the country close-by, owns many silver trophies and utilities to melt metal. In an especially pleasant development that helpful man is a Pakistani Englishman, not a joke, doesn’t have to die to prove how evil the bad guys are, and will turn out to be save-the-day-competent. Given his role, and how competent Lee is allowed to be once she’s not under alien control anymore, it’s pretty obvious this is a film that may love to indulge in silliness for silliness’ sake but that also has a clear idea of which parts of his 50s models just don’t cut it anymore in 1967.
When people – though too few of them do – talk about They Came‘s special effects, they unfailingly mention their quality to be comparable to contemporary Doctor Who (this was the time of the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, if you’re not quite up on important historical dates). That’s an old chestnut when talking about British SF cinema, yet in this case it is indeed true. Consequently, the effects’ execution has more than just a whiff of cardboard and spit, but it also shares the other, more important part of the Doctor’s legacy, a decidedly British visual imagination that makes up for the unavoidable cheapness and threadbareness. My favourite set piece is the yellow and black striped elevator that sits right inside a typical British country home, exemplifying at once the loving absurdity and the Britishness (for wont of a better word) of the film’s production design. It’s the mix of the local and the strange that gets me every time.
What the Doctor generally didn’t have at the time (though the show did have some good ones) were directors quite like They Came‘s Freddie Francis. Francis, veteran that he was, was someone seemingly unable to not put real effort even into his cheapest and silliest films, and he works his magic here too, milking every possibility to turn the cheap yet creative sets and the landscape of the locations into a cheap pop art dream that feels saturated with colours even when the surroundings are rather brown more often than not, and that builds visual interest even from the smallest thing.
The movie’s pop art feel is even further strengthened by James Stevens’s score that belongs to the jazzy swinging kind you often find in Eurospy movies, though it has a peculiar habit to just fall into an unending series of drum rolls when Hutton punches people in the face.
The cheap pop art feel of, well, everything about They Came From Beyond Space is sign of a film made to treat the old-fashioned tropes of the 50s alien invasion movie with the sensibilities that produced the Eurospy movie. In a wonderful turn of event, Francis’s movie actually succeeds at that mission, for words like “groovy” and “awesome” come to my mind quite naturally when I think about it.