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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Unearthly

This little B-film is more in the horror genre than sci-fi. Yet, like Frankenstein, is typically categorized as sci-fi. Like most B-movies, they cost so little to produce that they only had to achieve modest ticket sales to be profitable. What Unearthly does do, is follow the tried-and-true formula for B-movie success. Have monsters. Have beautiful young women whom the monsters can menace. This was sure to tug at enough young male instincts -- "Protect the women" (at least the desirable ones.) The producers (who will also bring you Beginning of the End later in 1957, made sure they had the beauties. Misguided Dr. Sharon is Marilyn Buford, former Miss California and Miss America of 1946. Sally Todd, who plays Natalie was Playmate of the Month for February 1957. The female lead, Allison Hayes, was the female lead in many B-movies and would reappear in 50s sci-fi as the "50 foot Woman," in 1958. There were simply too many beauties to not sell some tickets.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The opening shot is of big Tor Johnson looming over a screaming blonde woman on a bed. She's "clawing" his face. A non-sequetor hook to start the movie. Starting in earnest, an old doctor brings his young brunette patient named Grace to a remote house, the private 'hospital' of Dr. Charles Conway. She's there for rest and treatment for a nervous breakdown. Right away, viewers know it's a set up. The old doc brings victims to Conway for experimenting upon. A man who calls himself Mark Houston, comes to the house pretending to be lost, but Conway recognizes him as an escaped killer: Frank Scott. Conway offers sanctuary in exchange for cooperation. Conway is trying to implant in people a 17th gland which will produce hormones that yield immortality. Houston wants no part of it, but cannot speak out. The expected love interest develops between Mark and Grace. Things come to a head when another resident, Natalie, disappears. Conway operated on her, but the experiment failed. She prematurely ages. Conway has Lobo (Tor) try to bury (alive) another failed experiment, but Mark rescues him, unknown to all. Mark, Grace and Danny make an attempt to escape but are caught. Things unravel quickly. Mark escapes, but Danny is shot by Lobo. Mark calls in the police. He's actually an undercover cop investigating mysterious disappearances. Amid the chase and struggles, the zombie-like man Mark saved from being buried confronts Conway with a knife and stabs him dead before Lobo clubs the zombie dead. The police find a cell below the house with many deformed wolf-man-like failed experiments living in it. The horror is over. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Amid the otherwise mediocre acting are little nuggets like John Carradine (Conway) who just has a great screen presence. Tor Johnson in his typecast role as "Lobo" is fun to see reprised. While almost predictable, Unearthly is still fairly watchable.

Cold War Angle
There is no Cold War here. The plot is Frankenstein rehashed.

Tor Returns -- Tor Johnson played "Lobo" to Bela Lugosi's "Dr. Vornoff" in Bride of the Monster ('55). He plays the same hulking simpleton with a soft spot for "purdy gurl". Here, he's more sympathetic than frightening -- despite the opening minutes which suggest a rape scene. He's just a big dumb minion with a soft spot.

Medical Work -- Later sci-fi would become more limited to space travel and gizmos, but in the 50s, medical science was still a valid topic. Conway gives Mark a fair bit of mumbo-jumbo talk about the sixteen glands of the human body controlling everything and his plan to insert a 17th gland to stop aging. No mention is made of just how Conway acquires these glands. Not one to let a little failure get him down, however, Conway had apparently been trying dozens of times, never getting it right.

Good Love / Bad Love -- in Unearthly there are two love relationships on display. The "good" love is between Mark (the undercover cop) and Grace, the naive beautiful woman -- the very picture of innocence. In contrast is the "bad" love which Dr. Sharon has for the demented Dr. Conway. Her devotion to him compels her into being an accomplice for his ruin of many lives. Mark is the image of selfless love. He'll risk his life to save Grace. Conway is blind to Sharon's love and can think of only his potential fame.

They're After Our Women -- At one point, Tor does carry off the nightgown-clad Natalie, ample chest thrust high, in the stereotypic abduction image. It's worth noting that we see Conway actually experiment on the pretty young Natalie, and fail, and attempt to experiment on pretty young Grace. Even though we see men as failed prior experiments, Conway is on screen going after "our women." The bad guys scheming to get our desirable women is a frequently recurring trope in B-movies. As a note: all the brutish monster men on the poster do not menace the women. They stayed locked up and only get 30 seconds of screen time at the very end.

Bottom line? If you're a B-movie horror fan, you'll get a kick out of Unearthly. If you're a sci-fi fan of rockets and aliens or robots, you may not be as keen. Nonetheless, despite its many B qualities, it's worth watching for the experience of 50s sci-fi. They can't all be epics.


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