February 6, 2012

Sci-Fi That's Up Close and Personal

Unearthly Stranger (1964)

What iconic image or scene comes to mind when you think of sci-fi? The jaw-droppingly large imperial battle cruiser slowly taking over the screen at the beginning of Star Wars: Episode IV? The elongated, drooling head of the Alien coming within an inch of a terrified Ripley? Maybe even the big green guy, Godzilla, lumbering through Tokyo, raking the city with his radioactive breath?

Sci-fi, as everybody knows, is supposed to be grand and sweeping and exciting and terrifying and full of gadgets and special effects. Otherwise, what's the point? Sure, the filmmakers might not have enough of a budget to pull off every effect with perfection, and certain elements might not quite gel, but the goal is to show audiences something spectacular they haven't seen before. Bigger is better.

That formulation works for most people, but then, this blog is dedicated to movies -- and their fans --  that like traveling off the beaten path. Unearthly Stranger from the UK is a very small film with practically no special effects that generates its interest and suspense through mood and interactions among a handful of characters. Even though it was picked up by American International Pictures (AIP) for a U.S. release, it features no American stars for wider, trans-Atlantic commercial appeal (unlike the first two and far better known Quatermass films from Hammer, The Quatermass Xperiment, 1955, and Quatermass II: Enemy from Space, 1957, which featured tough-guy American Brian Donlevy badly miscast as the urbane scientist Bernard Quatermass).

Unearthly Stranger is high concept and very low budget. It's a fairly late entry in the aliens-sabotaging-humanity's-attempts-to-conquer-space subgenre that was so popular at the beginning of the space age. Perhaps reflecting the public's worry about intercontinental missiles that could rain down on American cities with no warning, such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), War of the Satellites (1958), and the hilariously inept The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) featured worried alien civilizations attempting to shut down man's atomic and space programs. Unearthly's distinction is its conception of space travel not powered by primitive chemical or even atomic rockets, but by the power of the mind. Now there's a program that might worry an advanced alien civilization bent on eliminating the competition in its corner of the galaxy!

Unearthly Stranger opens on a dark, foggy night (is there any other kind in England?) with an exhausted man running for his life down rain-soaked streets (compare this title sequence with another UK sci-fi potboiler, The Atomic Man, 1955, reviewed elsewhere in this blog). He runs into a building, The Royal Centre for Space Research, climbs a vertigo-inducing circular staircase, and stumbles into an office. He starts up a tape recorder, picks up the microphone, and breathlessly and matter-of-factly says, "John, in a little while, I expect to die… to be killed by something you and I know is here…"

"In a little while, I expect to die..."
The tale told in flashback features fantastic, speculative ideas, but precious little of the special effects and action that audiences associate with good sci-fi. With just a handful of characters and a couple of sets, it looks like it was faithfully adapted from a play, but the credits only mention that it was based on "an idea" by Jeffrey Stone. Undoubtedly the production's small budget limited what the filmmakers could bring to the screen, making it look like a filmed stage play. For the more open-minded viewer, this is not a fatal flaw. In concentrating on just a few characters and a relatively simple plot, the film draws the viewer more into the emotional "action" of the characters, as if he's a bystander just off camera watching things happen in real time.

In brief, strange things are going on at the Royal Space Research facility. One of its key scientists, Prof. Munroe (Warren Mitchell) has died on site under very mysterious circumstances. Munroe had just solved a formula vital to a special project investigating space/time travel using the harnessed power of thought (no need for any old-fashioned needle-nosed chemical rockets!). The government's lead investigator, Major Clarke (Patrick Newell), confides to facility director John Lancaster (Philip Stone) that, while the official cause of death is a brain hemorrhage, Munroe's brain was literally boiled in his cranium by some mysterious, extremely high-powered force. To add to the mystery, British Intelligence has learned that rocket scientists in both Russia and the U.S. have been killed under eerily similar circumstances.

The investigation quickly turns its attention to another scientist, Mark Davidson (John Neville), who with Munroe's death is in line to become project director. It seems Dr. Davidson has a brand new wife that he met in Switzerland, and whom he married after a whirlwind romance. Some obvious warning bells go off for Clarke as he interviews Davidson about the wife, Julie (Gabriella Licudi), and the circumstances of their meeting. In a nice double entendre bit of foreshadowing, Clarke asks Davidson:
"She's an alien, isn't she?"
Davidson (visibly irritated): "Born in Switzerland."
Julie looks positively unearthly in her sleep.
Clarke's (and others') suspicions of Julie are based on a lot more than her national origin. In a nice bit of eerie business, Davidson himself is shaken when he comes home unexpectedly to find his wife lying dead still on the bed, her eyes wide open, but unseeing. In another well-conceived and chilling scene, Julie stops at a fenced-in playground to watch the school children play, but they quickly sense that she is out of place in a big way, and they silently back away from her en masse (see the clip below). These scenes require no special effects whatsoever, but help to solidify the film's dark, chilling mood.

Unearthly Stranger doesn't just excel in the mood department. At times, the characters' interactions and confrontations seem very plausible. Major Clarke and Dr. Lancaster have a passionate argument about the merits of security vs. open scientific inquiry that is still relevant in these paranoid, security-conscious times. In other scenes, the film and its characters come off as hopelessly naive: Davidson seems to have given little thought to the way his wife suddenly appeared out of nowhere and won his heart; and for a location hosting classified research, the Space Centre inexplicably has no guards, badges, or any other observable security measures (except for the dogged investigator Maj. Clarke, played to skillful perfection by Patrick Newell).

One of the user reviews on IMDb mentions the similarity of Unearthly Stranger's plot with a little-known 1937 science fiction novel, To Walk the Night by William Sloane, and wonders why Sloane wasn't credited. It is indeed uncannily similar to the film, involving the new wife of a former confirmed-bachelor scientist who has appeared out of nowhere, has no traceable history, and seems to leave the bodies of dead scientists in her wake. There are enough differences however, that the similarities can be chalked up to coincidence, or perhaps one of the writers read the novel at some point and subconsciously inserted elements of it into the screenplay. (While I'm on the subject, William Sloane was a master of enigmatic science fiction complete with strong, sympathetic characters in richly described locales. His other classic novel, The Edge of Running Water, 1939, provided the inspiration for the Boris Karloff sci-fi/horror thriller, The Devil Commands, 1941.)

If by chance you're in the mood for a dark, suspenseful and understated sci-fi tale that substitutes strong characters and acting for whizzbang special effects, you might take the trouble to track down Unearthly Stranger. It's available on DVD-R from ShockTherapyCinema.com and Sci-Fi Station.


Julie Davidson (Gabriella Licudi) has an unearthly effect on babies and school children:

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