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Unearthly Stranger

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
John Krish
John Neville
Philip Stone
Gabriella Licudi
Patrick Newell
Jean Marsh
Bottom Line: 
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‘It seemed to me like an explosion had taken place right in the middle of his head!’…

This is how the tweedily bluff, bow-tie twirling Major Clarke -- avuncular head of security at the rather cramped offices of the British Royal Institute for Space Research -- in John Krish’s “Unearthly Stranger”, describes the demise of the former head of the Institute’s top secret space travel research programme near the start of this bizarre, little-seen cult science fiction alien invasion thriller, which is now getting some out-of-this-world HD Blu-ray restoration treatment courtesy of Network Distributing. His words could just as well have been used as an apt description for what must also have taken place inside the heads of those who actually came up with the plot of this likably dotty Home Counties excursion into low-budget, Cold War paranoia era sci-fi territory. “Unearthly Stranger” might be just the kind of obscure little picture you’ve probably never heard of before, let alone one you might have actually seen -- yet it’s also the kind that feels instantly familiar as soon as you have, despite being designed only to fill out the lower end of the bill for some A-feature or other that’s probably equally forgotten by now. The film has all the hallmarks of a mid-to-late sixties episode of “The Avengers”, and the plot is just as surreal as anything that would have been encountered at that time by John Steed and his film series companions Emma Peel and Tara King during the series’ heyday, in this case spinning parochial English xenophobia and misogyny into the stuff of an outré space fantasy that hardly ever leaves its London offices.

This Avengers ‘feel’ is hardly surprising given both cast and crew alike are replete with talent familiar from that series or who were destined to become central Avengers alumni in just a few years’ time. The movie was produced by Independent Artists for distributors Anglo-Amalgamated, the latter more famous for backing Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and more usually associated with second feature British film quota fillers like The Merton Park Studios’ Edgar Wallace B film series. Independent Artists consisted of respected producers Julian Wintle and Lesley Parkyn: another tiny British production team, with a track record of instigating a series of second features for the Rank Organisation (and who would later find success as the producers of “This Sporting Life”), while working out of their tiny Beaconsfield Studios home base. They’d recently established a good relationship with Anglo-Amalgamated with a censor-challenging horror thriller called “Circus of Horrors” (1960), and had recently followed it with occult classic “Night of the Eagle” (1962) -- which is where producer Albert Fennell joined the team. When Parkyn retired from the industry after Independent Artists folded soon afterwards, Wintle and Fennell moved into TV production and were instrumental in pepping up “The Avengers” format for the American market in collaboration with Brian Clemens. Director John Krish, meanwhile, was a former documentary filmmaker now looking to break into features. Wintle and Fennell would later employ him on episodes of “The Human Jungle” and three classic 1965 colour episodes of “The Avengers” in which a  similar style to that established here in “Unearthly Stranger” – a TV movie efficiency combined with inventive use of tilting ‘Dutch’ angles and distorting lenses for the occasional key ‘surrealist’ sequence -- was more than prominent. With art direction by Harry Pottle, the legendary mastermind behind the Op-Art stylisation in classic Avengers episodes such as “The House that Jack Built” (Pottle worked on all twenty-five black-and-white episodes of the first Emma Peel series), it’s not surprising that the film seems as familiar in approach as it does, although its miniscule budget ensures that the space-age aspects of the production do not extend much further beyond a nifty modern-looking spiral staircase that Krish films, in the customary fashion, from above using a wide-angle lens.

The film got off the ground after its credited screenwriter Rex Carlton sold his own re-write of a screenplay he’d recently purchased for $10,000 from an ex-actor called Jeff Stone to Wintle and Parkyn, who were still on the lookout for genre fare they could use to interest Anglo-Amalgamated. Carlton was, and is, better known for mounting his own Z grade B features like “The Brain that Couldn’t Die”, and many have speculated since how unlikely it is that the same man who wrote “Blood of Dracula’s Castle” could also have come up with this bonkers but still competently written and occasionally even poignant effort. In fact, Krish claims (as reported in John Hamilton’s excellent book “X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film 1951-1970”) that Carlton’s script, retitled “Unearthly Stranger” from a Stone screenplay called “The Left Handed Marriage” and relocated to the English Home Counties – was rejected outright by Anglo-Amalgamated, forcing Independent Artists to hand Krish the task, at extremely short notice, of knocking it into shape with another re-write that had also to take account of a virtually non-existent budget that provided precisely no pence whatsoever for seeming Sci-Fi movie necessities such as monster makeup and space craft special effects! The result is a masterpiece of scripted minimalism that makes up for any lack of on-screen extravagance by embroiling the trimmed down cast of five (not including Warren Mitchell, the Scots Head of Research whose head ‘explodes’ from the inside within the first five minutes) in a high concept scenario that spirals increasingly off into the outer limits of the twilight zone.

The entire film, apart from the climactic sequence, plays out in extended flashback (and at some points includes flashbacks within flashbacks), narrated into a reel-to-reel tape machine by a sweat-drenched John Neville (an acclaimed actor more at home on the stage as part of The Royal Shakespeare Company, but especially selected for the lead here by Krish) who reveals that the aliens are already among us, circulating in invisible form and killing indiscriminately. Neville plays Dr Mark Davidson, who is recalling in these opening moments how he was chosen by his boss Professor Lancaster (Philip Stone – a much employed British character actor who, as well as starring in the first ever episode of “The Avengers”, has since been a familiar face in several Stanley Kubrick films, including the sinister ghost of Delbert Grady in “The Shinning”) to be the replacement head of a top secret research programme that’s competing with the Russians and the Americans to get humankind into space and travelling to other worlds. The research being conducted here seems mad, but the logic behind it probably has a lot to do with the fact that it bypasses the need for any model rocket miniatures, etc., to tie up the budget with unneeded extra expenses: the team maintain that humans can travel to other worlds simply by thinking about it really hard! They’ve discovered a dormant region in the human brain called TP91 that theoretically could be exploited to achieve this very aim by allowing the power of concentration to project the body onto the surfaces of other plants. The film being the no money production that it is, this strictly hush-hush Government programme operates out of a research establishment consisting of two offices so close together that Davidson can overhear every word uttered by Professor Lancaster and security head Major Clarke (Patrick Newell) while they’re heatedly discussing at the top of their voices how the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Davidson’s predecessor Professor Munro should at all costs be kept tightly under wraps! It turns out that Munro had solved part of the formula that would allow the researchers to achieve their aim, thus rendering his mysterious death even more suspicious, and understandably leading to Davidson getting slightly jittery since he’s now sitting behind the same desk. Although he does ensure that he has Munro’s chair -- complete with the former project head’s bum dent still prominent in the leather seat -- removed forthwith, just in case!

Paranoia and suspicion rages between the members of this small crack team of would-be astral projectionists and their secretary Miss Ballard (played by Jean Marsh) as a result of such rum goings on. Most of it centres upon Julie Davidson, played by Gabriella Licudi – a Moroccan-born actress of Spanish and Greek blood, who is cleverly dressed here as an exemplary English rose type in order to enhance the understated suggestion of there being a certain otherness about her demeanour. She’s Mark’s new wife, and Major Clarke in particular is convinced there’s something altogether fishy about this interloper of a woman, since Davidson has always previously been a staid and unadventurous bachelor, and the marriage took place quite suddenly and out of the blue while he was on holiday. Lancaster still hasn’t been invited to meet her, despite being Mark’s best friend of fifteen years. There’s no record anywhere of her existence when Major Clarke attempts to run a background check; and if that wasn’t cause for concern enough, she’s actually Swiss!

Basically, the girl can’t be trusted because she’s a foreigner is the basic message behind this amusingly blunt exercise in stiff-upper lip xenophobia. It’s impossible to be offended by it though since the main mouthpiece for the idea is Patrick Newell’s Major Clarke, who is by far the heart of the film’s appeal. Newell, off course, is the film’s most visible Avengers connection. He played the part of Steed and Tara’s spymaster “Mother” in twenty episodes of the series throughout 1969 (and several other characters between 1965 and 1967). He’s essentially playing the same role here, with the same fruity comic dialogue and over-the-top mannerisms dominating the performance. As a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor his character is also intensely suspicious of women full strop, and he doesn’t need any evidence at all to see that despite Julie’s appealing, devoted housewife act, there’s something altogether not quite right about her.

It’s not really giving an awful lot away to reveal that the portly Major is spot on in his speculations, of course.  But Professor Davidson has already been given enough clues himself by then to enable him to have come to a similar conclusion if only he had been willing to accept it. Davidson almost has a breakdown after he confides to Lancaster that he has discovered that his beautiful wife sleeps with her eyes open, never blinks, and has no discernible pulse! Nevertheless, he and his colleagues are more inclined to think she’s an foreign enemy agent rather than an actual alien from another world, even when Professor Lancaster is invited to dinner in the Davidsons’ primrose-lined cottage and catches out the other-worldly housewife in a basic mistake, when she removes a scolding casserole dish from the oven without putting her oven gloves on first. (Apparently, she’s a decent cook, though!) After all, one doesn’t want to have to be the one that breaks it to a chap that his gorgeous new bride is really an alien projecting itself across the stars into a human form.

The viewer, though, is made aware of the truth quite early on, during a discrete section of the film which is also the most memorable, in which we follow Julie Davidson on a shopping expedition in town and come to realise that, despite her mission of sabotage and murder, she’s actually quite a sympathetic sort, who likes human babies and little kids but finds her alien otherness is more apparent to them than it is to the adults: little ones start caterwauling and screeching in their cots whenever she leans in to tickle their chins; and when she passes a local primary school the entire playground full of kiddiwinkles stops its games, goes completely silent, and steps away from the school perimeter one step at a time, until finally fleeing indoors en masse! It turns out that between them, Stone, Carlton and Krish have sort of anticipated one of the themes of Jonathan Glazer’s recent “Under the Skin”, in which an unknowable alien entity’s experience of being projected into human society in a female form comes to destabilise its core sense of being. The experience with the playground kids causes Julie to cry human tears – an intrinsically human experience to which she is unaccustomed, so much so that the tears melt great track marks into her artificial face! Later Julie admits to Mark that she has ‘become involved with human emotions’ and by the end of the picture even seems willing to sacrifice herself rather than follow through on her instructions to murder him when he discovers the same formula that led the invaders to do away with Munro. It seems that the aliens do not want humanity replicating their own method of interstellar-travel-by-thought-transference, but just when the impeccably British heroes appear to overcome their alien foes, there’s a nice little coda that seems to hint that, like Major Clarke, the writers had it in for the female sex even more than they did for all those dubious foreign sorts!

“Unearthly Stranger” is extremely nutty and more than slightly old-fashioned, but it’s a hugely entertaining slice of British Sci-Fi nonsense that sees openings for alien threats to the British way of life lurking in the promise of domestic marital bliss and odd foreign accents, ramping it up to Cold War levels of paranoia and suspense thanks to efficient direction by Krish, a rousing jazz-inflected score by Edward Williams, and atmospheric cinematography courtesy of Reg Wyer, who’d just photographed “Night of the Eagle” for Anglo-Amalgamated in a similar proto-noir style. It comes to UK Blu-ray as part of Network Distributing’s British Film Collection, and looks extremely fine. The disc extras are rather light and consist only of an amusingly overwrought theatrical trailer (‘terror beyond all human comprehension; suspense beyond all human endurance!’ promises the tag line. Entertaining though the movie is, that is something of an exaggeration!), an image gallery and some PDF promotional materials. Nevertheless, this is one that most collectors of Brit horror and science fiction will be looking forward to adding to their collections.

Read more from Black Gloves at his Blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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