It’s difficult to know what you’re walking into with most 1950s sci-fi & horror titles. Parodic, post-modern appreciation of the era has trained us to expect that every 50s genre cheapie with an explicitly paranormal title will be a so-bad-it’s-good laugh riot, but that’s often not the case. I expected I Married a Monster from Outer Space to be a campy indulgence, one of the rubber suit Roger Corman monster movies that are typically afforded the MST3k treatment instead of full, rapt attention. The signs are all there. The sensationalist title is absurdly verbose. The titular monster is one of the rubber Roger Corman mold, wandering around cheap wooded & suburban sound stage sets to the victims’ shrieking terror. The effect is far creepier than it is campy, however, and the film even manages to make a substantial point through its paranormal metaphor. There were certainly implications that this would be the case. Not only was I Married a Monster from Outer Space packaged on a double bill with the cult classic The Blob, but it was also produced by Gene Fowler Jr., who similarly struck better-than-expected genre gold in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which practically invented the coming-of-age teen body horror. Still, I’ve been culturally conditioned to not take these things seriously, so it’s always a surprise when one knocks me on my ass.
If you’ve seen any movie with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type plot where spouses have been mysteriously replaced with space alien doppelgangers, you can likely predict this film’s plot beat for beat. Our protagonist is a terrified, eager-to-please house wife who cannot figure out why her newlywed husband is acting so cold & distant to her in what should be the couple’s honeymoon period. She soon finds herself to be the lone conspiracy theorist in town who’s convinced that he – along with the other husbands, cops, and male authority figures – have been replaced with a space aliens who plan to breed with human women. A They Live! style device emerges where lighting flashes reveal the true, hideous faces of the creatures pretending to be suburban husbands, but the monsters mostly go by undetected until it’s almost too late. The story is familiar, but flows incredibly naturally from scene to scene with an editing room finesse atypical of this genre territory. The special effects also feel above par for the material, from the head-to-toe detail of the rubber monster suits to the distorted faces of the lighting strikes to the weaponized fog the creatures deploy when abducting their victims. All the surface level narrative details of I Married a Monster from Outer Space are exactly what you’d expect from its title; the attention to detail in its craft just happens to be a cut above.
What makes this film an underappreciated gem is not its story or craft, however, but its deployment of the suburban invasion metaphor. While many 1950s horror films reflect political or xenophobic angst about foreign menace hiding in plain sight among us, I Married a Monster from Outer Space instead condemns the power dynamics of marriage in its era. Before the aliens ever arrive, men are shown to be drunken brutes who feel burdened by their wives, who in turn don’t know their husbands form Adam (or atom). There’s a distinct kind of terror in marrying a total stranger, especially one who will have legal & physical power over you, something that happened often in the time when you were socially pressured to marry the first person you wanted to fuck. The alien husband replacement is terrible at small talk, cruel to animals, and threatened by suggestions that he should be checked out by a fertility doctor to assess why the couple can’t bear children. When his wife dares to leave the home to ask for help, other men are just as threatening. At best, they assume she’s drunk, hysterical, or looking to cheat on her husband. At worst, they’re also aliens in disguise, deferring to her husband’s authority and returning her to his arms. As presented here, 1950s marriages were a nonstop nightmare, whether or not you were married to a space alien in disguise. I was never a housewife in the 1950s, personally, but I totally believe it.
It would likely be best for me to fight the instinct of not taking these 1950s monster movies seriously at face value. Growing up in the hangover haze of Gen-X’s weaponized sarcasm & apathy has shaped my viewing habits in ways I should learn to challenge & counteract. If I’m being honest, though, my underestimation of certain pictures also plays to their advantage when they’re able to prove my skepticism false. I went into I Married a Monster from Outer Space expecting campy schlock. Instead, I found an eerie special effects creep-out & a damning exploration of the power dynamics of marriage in the 1950s. Having your expectations challenged in that way is a best-case scenario for any movie, no matter the genre or era.