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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Teenagers From Outer Space

Undeservedly assailed as a 'worst movie ever,' Teenagers From Outer Space (TFOS) has its points of interest. Criticism for amateurish acting and cheap special effects are misplaced. Almost all the actors were amateurs. The production was done on a tiny budget. Despite these hurdles, TFOS does rather well. More impressive, however, is that TFOS overcomes the almost-always crippling hurdle of being produced, directed, edited and acted in by the same man. Given that, TFOS is surprisingly straightforward. The title may suggest a silly or spoof-style movie, but half a dozen people are killed, so it's no comedy. TFOS is an earnest tale of compassion rebelling against heartless despotism, innocent fondness and noble self-sacrifice. TFOS ran as the B feature to another of Warner Brothers' cheapies, the english dubbed version of Gigantis, the Fire Monster (Japan 1955). Classic drive-in fare.

Quick Plot Synopsis
An alien ship lands on earth. The aliens are looking for a planet on which to raise Gargon, an animal they use for food. One of the young crewmen, Derek, discovers that the planet (Earth) is home to some intelligent life, so objects. He is overruled. He rebels, is arrested, but escapes. The captain sends another young crewman, Thor, to recapture him. Derek finds his way to town and is taken in by a grandpa and his granddaughter, Betty. Derek is taken with earth life and the winsome Betty. He becomes aware of Thor's murderous pursuit of him, so the idyl is short-lived. Thor is hit during a shootout at City Hall. He eludes the police, captures Derek and Betty and demands medical attention. While Thor is woozy from the extractions, Derek and Betty escape. Thor, revived, pursues them to the cave where the test Gargon was kept. It, however, has attained monster size and escaped. The city is saved from the giant lobster by Derek, using Thor's ray gun hooked up to power lines. The alien fleet with more Gargons approaches. Thor crashed his car and is placed in police custody. Derek frees Thor from jail. They both go to the landing site. When the scout ship lands, Derek professes to have become loyal again. He asks to guide in the fleet. He locks himself in the saucer and instructs the fleet such that they crash instead on his ship. All the aliens and Gargon are destroyed. Derek kept his promise to never leave Earth. Betty and Grandpa walk off.  Love is lost, but Earth is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
For a cast of amateurs, and a neophyte director with little budget, they did pretty well. The story keeps moving. While it's not highly original, it is at least uncluttered.

Cold War Angle
This is subtle, but it's there. Note that the nasty alien culture, which wishes to take over "our" home for their purposes, is an oppressive dictatorship. The alien culture has no room for love and "family". All is subsumed by the state. This is how 50s America viewed the communist state -- the antithesis of all that is good and wholesome.

Notes
One Man Band -- Tom Graeff was another of the peripheral small-time Hollywood movie makers. He wrote the screenplay for TFOS, produced it, directed it, edited it (usually where one-man-shows fail) and even acted in it. He play the role of Joe, the reporter. As a one-man-band, Graeff did reasonably well. He managed to avoid cryptic (or artistic?) tangents and kept the pace moving. Even though shot in and around LA, Graeff managed to frame his shots to maintain a fairly generic 'anytown' look.

Son of Klaatu -- The "good" alien, Derek, is pulled from the Klaatu mold. He wants to help Earth. He takes a room among earthlings, wears earthling clothes and gets friendly with an earth woman. There is even the hunted-down trope. In a similarly Christ-like self sacrificing spin, Derek purposely forfeits his own life to save mankind. The closing scene of Derek's face among the clouds even fits with the Biblical account of the resurrected Christ rising into the clouds.

Insidious Book -- Early in the film, Derek's insubordination is blamed on a banned book. Many 20th century revolts had "a book" in their foundations, but Derek's book seems more introspective than insurrectional. He seems more focused on family bonds, love and doing what's ethically right. Since the alien dictatorship is cast as a parallel to communism, perhaps the parallel is that Derek's book is a Bible. Somewhat salient for today, the Bible is often banned as part of statism.

Failed Exploitation -- The posters pander to the adult angst over teenage rebellion (and teen desire to rebel). "Teenage hoodlums...rampage!" or "Thrill-crazed...kids..." Obviously aimed at the teenage drive-in demographic, the marketing seemed to be trying to appeal to vicarious rebels. The movie fails to deliver. In a classic dualist mood, Derek is the "good" alien. Thor is the thoroughly "bad" opposite. The teen on a "horrendous ray-gun rampage" is actually the conformist to his despotic culture. The rebel is the kind-hearted hero. This isn't the adult stereotype, but is how many "misunderstood" teens like to see themselves.

Lobster Solves World Hunger -- It is too bad that Derek had to kill the Gargon so soon. Imagine how a controlled herd of fast-growing Gargons could take care of world hunger on Earth. Growing that fast, one Gargon could feed a hundred people. Graeff deserves a nod for having his aliens not want to rule earth, or take our women, as aliens usually do. Instead, they rather callously just wanted our planet as a ranch to raise their food. In this, there is an unexplored analogy to colonizing nations moving into third world lands to grow plantation crops, quite without regard to what impact this had on the local population (human and animal).

Favorite Cave -- Some viewers may recognize the cave the aliens stash their Gargon in. It is that favorite B-movie cave in Bronson Canyon -- home base for Ro-Man in Robot Monster ('53) and others.

Bottom line? TFOS was under-appreciated when released, but has developed a cult following as late night TV fodder. As a public domain movie, it shouldn't cost much to acquire and does offer some entertainment value. Rather than gripe about the amateurish acting and cheap special effects, admire how much Graeff did with next to nothing. It is very 50s.

3 comments:

Randy Wilharm said...

This is definitely the most favorable
review for this movie I have ever read .
Reading this makes me want to watch it again!

You can actually download this from
archive.org:

http://www.archive.org/details/TeenagersFromOuterSpace

Better to get the 2gB version
as it is quality (no squares).

Nightowl said...

Thanks Randy,
Yes, it's too easy to kvetch about old B movies not being perfect. (so very few movies are). thanks for the link too. TFOS does seem to be available via downloads from a few sources.

Darci said...

I wonder if Graeff had seen Republic's next-to-last serial, 1955's Panther Girl of the Kongo? It also featured enlarged aquatic arthropods as monsters. (It's sometimes seen with the alternative title The Claw Monsters.)
Thanks!