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Monday, July 30, 2012

Alien Terror

The second of Boris Karloff's "last" sci-fi films was Alien Terror (AT) It was shot mostly in Mexico as one of four Columbia cheapies, AT's Mexican title was "Invasion Siniestra". This was the weaker of the two. It still had Juan Ibanez as one of the writers, and Jack Hill as one of the directors, but new collaborators did not improve the team. Set sometime in the late 1800s, the story is a patchwork of alien-takeovers, sabotage and a psychopathic woman-killer. The killer is played by Yerye Beirute, who also played Karloff's dim assistant in the sister film, The Fear Chamber

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. John Mayer (Karloff) and his assistant, Dr. Isabel Reed conduct their experiment but the chamber produces an explosive " beam" straight up through the roof and out into space. This attracts the attention of some aliens in a saucer. They land and decide to destroy the beam machine for the safety of the universe.They need a human to "inhabit" and control to carry out the sabotage. They select Thomas, a psychopathic killer of women, because he has a weak, (controllable) mind. Mayer performs his ray demonstration successfully for a group of dignitaries and generals. Possessed-Thomas enters later, giving a "gift" to Mayer. In the box is a glowing blob alien that inhabits Mayer too. The two of them then set about changing the machine to be a spectacular failure, so mankind will never try it again. Isabel and Mayer's pretty blonde niece, Laura, are suspicious of the creepy Thomas. Isabel sneaks off with some of the alien's advanced math. Thomas keeps being creepy and kills a couple more women. He kills Isabel too. Laura confronts Thomas too, so he starts strangling her. Paul (handsome hero who likes Laura) comes in, saves Laura and fights Thomas. Mayer, whose mind struggles against his alien controller, turns on the ray machine and zaps Thomas in the face. Badly hurt, Thomas goes outside to moan, wail and get killed by the mob of angry villagers. The glowing blob alien leaves Mayer and inhabits Laura. She tries to get to the machine, but Mayer knocks her out. Mayer has her lying on a table, about to kill her with his ray (and the alien). This bluffs the glowing alien blob to come out of her and sit (handily) in the focusing ring of the ray machine. Mayer sets the machine to overload and all three leave. Boom, explosion, sparks and fire. The house is in flames. Mayer muses that he learned a lot of things from his alien "guest" that will help mankind, but they must never mess with "the ray" again or the aliens will return. The aliens leave in their saucer vowing that mankind shall never get nuclear technology. Roll credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Almost all the fun of AT is in Boris Karloff. Despite the absurd script and his failing health, he delivers his lines with sober sincerity. Some of the tropes are of nostalgic value too. A lone genius working in a remote mansion, using bailing wire and bricks, creates a nuclear energy beam -- ah, but aliens from a saucer, inhabit human bodies to try and destroy his machine. All very 50s.

Cold War Angle
Once you clear away the psycho-killer fluff in the story, the remainder is classic 50s cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear power. Aliens arrive (like Klaatu) because mankind is not responsible enough to handle such power. The aliens succeed in stopping Mayer's ray from becoming a weapon, but apparently did not return to mess with The Manhattan Project.

Klaatu As Pod Person -- AT is a curious hybrid of The Day the Earth Stood Still ('51) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56). Instead of the benign Klaatu, we get "sinister" aliens who inhabit humans to prevent mankind from developing nuclear power. The energy-beings taking over human bodies is also reminiscent of the Diaphinoids from the Gamma One film, War of the Planets ('66) and Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires ('65)

Plot Conflict -- It's almost painfully apparent that the writers, (Juan Ibanez, Karl Schanzer and Luis Vergara) were telling two different stories. One is the sci-fi story of aliens, take-overs and ray weapons. The other was a twisted tale of a psychopath who compulsively killed young women. AT's runtime would have been far too short for a feature film with only the sci-fi parts. Instead of developing the usual other subplots (romance, professional betrayal, international spies, etc.) the writers opted for gruesome killings. Odd and unnecessary plot elements include: Isabel being scarred from some earlier experiment, yet "hot", cleavage-y and lonely; Thomas having a limping girlfriend who knows he's a killer but loves him anyway (?) but he kills her at the aliens' urgings (why?), catacombs as meeting social place, pretty blonde adult daughters of villagers who wander around alone in the woods even though many women have been killed already -- yet after several are killed, the villagers still haven't called in the police.

Don't Need No Body -- A plot quirk which was poorly explained (or not thought out) suggests that the aliens could not directly affect things on earth because they were "pure thought." This is why they needed to inhabit Thomas and Mayer. That doesn't quite explain the silver-suit pretty-boy alien. He had a body. It's almost suggested that the silver alien might be visible only to Thomas, so he doesn't really have a body, just a projected vision of one. The trouble with that theory is that Silver Boy hands Thomas a box. He could affect matter then. Perhaps Silver Boy is an inhabited other-alien-race body needed to pilot the ship full of thought beings. (because they couldn't reach the pedals).

Sounds Wrong -- Listen for an odd bit of dubbing when Mayer finishes his demonstration for the generals. Still with his welding helmet on, a voice -- very much NOT Boris Karloff -- says, "This is our gift to the future, gentlemen. A way to destroy obstacles in the path of progress." Then Boris takes off the helmet and it's his voice again. What was all THAT about? A sound edit that needed fixing after Boris had died? Surely someone could have been found with a voice closer to Karloff's. A continuity error where the alien was supposed to be inhibiting Mayer? (this happens later). It's just odd.

Bottom line? AT is a very strange movie, almost more determined to be about Thomas and his compulsion to kill young women, than it was about aliens. The alien take-over part is of some interest, even if most of that story is told by Boris giving exposition. Viewers not fond of murder movies will probably want to skip AT. Fans of alien take-over films might find some redeeming value. Fans of Karloff get a rare glimpse of the man in his final year. Obviously weak and frail, he still had great stage presence.

1 comment:

kochillt said...

As it turned out, this was Karloff's final film, as the actress Julissa, cast in the three previous Mexi-movies, was replaced by German-born Christa Linder, who worked extensively in Europe and Mexico.