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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Unearthly Stranger

A fitting digression following Karloff's Alien Terror is this film from 1964. Unearthly Stranger (US) is a British production, released in the UK in '63, but in America in '64 via American International. The story is solidly in the invading aliens-in-human-disguise genre. US is the product of obscure producers ("Indpendent Artists"), a serviceable (but lesser-known) director and written by a man whose prior effort was the strange The Brain That Wouldn't Die.  US stars John Neville (later famous as the Baron von Munchausen). The angelic Gabriella Licudi co-stars as the unearthly stranger.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Mark Davidson runs along the dark streets of London, panic in his eyes. He runs to his office and starts to tape his story, since he expects to die soon. (Flashback begins). A Professor Munroe is a key researcher in a project to harness the power of the human mind to teleport human consciousness to other planets. (better than rockets) In his office, a whirring sound starts. He clutches his ears and drops dead on his desk. Major Clarke (Security) tells Munroe's boss, Prof. Lancaster, that several American scientists and a couple Russian ones, all engaged in the same line of research, died the same way. Mark Davidson is Munroe's likely replacement. He is told nothing. Clarke puzzles over Davidson's new bride who doesn't seem to have any documented history. Davidson is curious about a trace element found in Munroe's body -- an element thus far only found on returning space capsules. He goes downstairs to check out Munroe's body, but the casket is full of bricks. Then the casket is just gone. Davidson muses to Lancaster, about whether "others" out there, might have solved the mental teleportation thing first and are on earth already. He someone wonders about his bride, Julie. He's never seen her blink. Davidson invites Lancaster over for a surprise dinner. She blinks obviously, but Lancaster happens to oversee her take hot casseroles out of a hot over with her bare hands. Full suspicion falls on Julie, but Davidson defends her (love is blind). Davidson refigures out the formula that Munroe had worked on and thinks he has it. He arranges for Lancaster to meet him at the office, but Clarke is there instead. He takes the folder with the formula, but is stricken dead in the outer room. The folder is a pile of smoking ash. Davidson and Lancaster figure that the aliens must have to concentrate pretty hard to keep up their human form. If they were unconscious, say from Ether, they could see their true form. They agree to try it on Julie. Davidson goes home. Julie confesses being "one of them." Her assignment was to meet him, seduce him, then kill him, but she fell in love instead. They can't just run away. "They" will find them. The noise whirrs. Davidson holds Julie tight, but she disappears. Only the robe remains. Davidson runs to his office (end flashback). He's making his tape when the secretary, Miss Ballard comes in. She is one of them and tells how her kind have been on earth for 20 years, they're all around, thwarting man's attempts to get into outer space. Now it's his turn to die. At that moment, Lancaster comes up from behind Ballard and slaps a gauze full of ether over her mouth. After much struggle, she falls out a window. When they rush to the sidewalk, only a white lab coat remains. The crowd of pedestrian gawkers have creepy stoic faces. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
US is proof of how a well crafted story can be told on screen with a very small budget. The story is well told, not giving away too much too soon and with a few false trails to keep things mysterious. The acting is good, never feeling like actors reciting lines. The fact that there are ZERO special effects makes US all the more remarkable.

Cold War Angle
Much in the same vein as Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56), the paranoia of the Cold War drives the plot. People might seem like one of "us", but all the while really one of "them." At one point, David suspects his wife is a Russian spy. Who else could it possibly be?

Credit Worthy -- The credits say the story was "based on an idea by" Jeffrey Stone (an actor who played mostly minor roles). Stone's "idea" seems based on the 1937 novel "To Walk The Night" by William Sloane. The Carlton/Stone story in US has several similarities, but also enough deviations. Central to both, is a mysterious beautiful woman with no documented past, who doesn't fit in well. She is married to a man doing very advanced research -- in a field where top researchers keep mysteriously dying. Her mission is to kill the men in that line of research. The deviations occur in the several characters and their relationships. The research in US is teleportation, not time travel. And, in keeping with the Body Snatchers mood, there are many of them, not just the one woman. Still there are enough similarities that Sloane deserved some credit.

Camera Angles -- Perhaps best for a second viewing -- after the story is familiar -- note the camera work Fisher uses. The camera work knits together smoothly, so individual shots don't stand out as a distraction. There are tilted-cam shots for the "something's not right here" mood. There are long shots of cars driving away, but also extreme close ups of a screaming face. Even in those close-ups, Kirsch opts for deep depth of field compositions -- A close-up face on one side of the screen, and some distant objects, like an attic door, or down a spiral stairwell on the other. Kirsch keeps things visually interesting.

Memorable Creepy -- One great scene stands out, among several. Julie, returning from grocery shopping, stops by a playground to watch the kids playing. She smiles at their fun. But, one by one, the kids stop playing, stand still and stare at her. Then, en masse, they slowly back away, never taking their stare from her. Nothing is said. It's all body language talking.

The Power of Love -- Like in several other alien invader stories, the alien is "turned" by the power of human love. Julie was sent as an assassin, but experienced human love. This is usually male aliens falling for our obviously desirable earth women. I Married a Monster From Outer Space ('58) comes readily to mind.

Bottom line? Unearthly Stranger is definitely worth seeking out, even if it's airing at 3 a.m. on some obscure cable channel. It's a well told story, well acted and very well filmed. It has no special effects to speak of, but never feels cheap. This is first rate B movie sci-fi entertainment.


Randall Landers said...

A remarkable film that caught my eye as a young child. Very creepy at times, in fact, and very well acted. Not quite a MUST SEE by my account, but certainly a SHOULD SEE.

Nice catch on the tilted camera angles. Happens a lot in movies in the 60's to varying degrees of success, but very successful here.

geralmar said...

One of my favorite science fiction movies. (I bought the imported PAL DVD with no way to play it.) It uses much of the talent responsible for the British television series, The Avengers. One plot point that has always bothered me is that protagonist John Neville spends most of the movie trying to convince his unreceptive colleagues that his wife is an alien, then when he finally succeeds he adamantly denies that she IS an alien. Histrionic acting ensues.

John Neville (1925-2011), among many accomplishments in the theater, was director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada (1985-89), and later had a continuing role on The X Files. Other actors with noteworthy careers include Philip Stone (1924-2003), who appeared in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining; Jean Marsh (1934-),was a regular in the popular PBS imported television series, Upstairs, Downstairs, and appeared in several episodes of Dr. Who and The Love Boat; Patrick Newell (1932-88) had a continuing role as "Mother" in The Avengers; Gabriella Licudi (1941-),alas, had a negligible acting career before retiring from the profession in the 1970s.

Screenwriter Rex Carlton's (1915-68) only other notable screenwriting credit was The Brain that Wouldn't Die. He committed suicide when he was unable to repay a mob loan.