Sunday, January 15, 2012

Unearthly Stranger (1963? 1964?)

Panicked and sweating scientist Dr. Mark Davidson (John Neville) speaks his terrible story onto a tape machine.

Davidson is a British scientist working on a way to transport humans to other planets through the power of their minds, whichever doctorate you may need for that sort of thing. While Davidson is on holiday in Switzerland, his project leader dies under mysterious circumstances that seem pretty unnatural for natural causes. Davidson is made the dead man's successor. What the security chief of the project, Major Clarke (Patrick "Lestrade" Newell), fails to mention to Davidson, but tells the scientist's boss and friend Professor Lancaster (Philip Stone), is the fact that this wasn't the first death connected with the project, or rather, related projects in the USA and the Soviet Union have taken the same losses, under the same circumstances. One might think someone or something does not want humanity to reach for the stars. And why is it that the dead man's blood contains a substance that can only be found in outer space? Davidson soon enough finds out that his job may be a death sentence, but, being British and all, he keeps comparatively calm and carries on.

During his Swiss holiday - which must have been pretty epic - Davidson also met and married his new wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi). Something is a bit strange about her, though: not only is her body language exceedingly weird, but one night, Davidson realizes that she sleeps with her eyes open, doesn't breathe and doesn't blink. And, as is revealed when Major Clarke investigates her background, she also does not seem to exist. Unlike the audience, Davidson isn't quite ready to realize the obvious at that point. It will, however, come to him sooner or later; perhaps too late.

Unearthly Stranger is a decidedly British production (as in, doesn't contain a visible monster and nobody who is square-jawed) directed by John Krish whose filmography suggests your typical journeyman film-maker to me, and whose work here shows a clear noir influence in his staging of emotional scenes as well as in his use of shadow and light. It's a fine little low budget SF/horror movie that convinces through a clever script, some excellent acting, and Krish's slightly melodramatic yet moody direction.

In style and content, the film has a lot in common with some of the anthology TV shows of the 60s, especially the original Outer Limits, sharing these shows' ability to take a silly basic idea and elevate it by treating it seriously and with an eye on contemporary anxieties, as a proper piece of SF horror should. Rex Carlton's script may play fast and loose with its science, it does, however, show a sure hand juggling the film's themes - the paranoia of the "they are among us" invasion movie, some surprising (in a film of this place and time) barbs in the direction of the classism of UK society, and the fear of (certain) men of women (especially well realized in the film's brilliantly creepy last shots). There's also a bit of the old "alien woman gets hit with human emotions" trope that wasn't much better in the 60s than it is today, but the film handles that part well enough not to annoy.

It's also only fair to praise the actors for helping the film work. John ("Sherlock Holmes"/"Well-manicured Man") Neville's performance is quite intense, selling the moments of paranoia and distrust as well as those of tenderness, while Licudi convinces by using a body language just alien enough to neither be too ridiculous nor too normal.

All in all, Unearthly Stranger is exactly the sort of film I'm happy too stumble upon: clever, cheap yet stylish, and pretty damn unknown.


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