Unearthly Stranger artwork by Mister G

Unearthly Stranger

Unearthly Stranger artwork by Mister GDirector: John Krish / Screenplay: Rex Carlton (based on idea by Jeffrey Stone) / Editing: Tom Priestley / DP: Reg Wyer / Music: Edward Williams

Cast: John Neville / Philip Stone / Gabriella Licudi / Patrick Newell / Jean Marsh / Warren Mitchell   

Year: 1963


A Close-Encounter of the Crap Kind…


They did things differently back in 1963… Yes, there were still huge budgets on-offer for Hollywood’s ‘tent-pole’ releases (i.e. Cinerama’s How the West Was Won or Fox’s Cleopatra), but the majority of American features released that year, carried average budgets of around 10-15 $Million; a figure that ensured credible talent for the posters, sufficient production values both to dazzle & justify the ticket price and a marketing spend.

British films on the other hand, had less money from the start, due to a smaller domestic audience and the fact that very few British features crossed-the-pond, unless they’d managed to snag a Hollywood star, Hollywood dollars or both… 1963’s roster of British films does throw-up its fair share of enduring classics however: Billy Liar, for example. Dr. No. This Sporting Life, to name just three. Yet the budget for ‘Sporting Life? £230k…

Which brings me to the notion of the ‘B-Picture’…

GlassesRemember old 7” singles? Those precious black-vinyl discs that ate through record-player styli and our pocket-money with equal speed? Generally, you’d have ‘The Single’ on the ‘A-Side’. Only after you’d grown bored of it, worn-out its grooves or scratched it, would you bother flipping it over to the ‘B-Side’. Pot luck ensured you never knew what you were going to get: an album track, an instrumental version of the A-Side or something entirely new, depending on the artist’s energy or generosity.

Cinema planners back in the day, thought along similar lines when it came to offering an evening’s show. Up until the early Sixties, a night at the cinema represented a choice by the audience member, made in preference to other activities outside the home, i.e the pub, bingo, theatre, etc. Radio, certainly in the UK, was still the main outlet for ‘home broadcasts’ as TV sets were still expensive and the BBC, being then the only broadcaster, still only had one channel. Cinema offered the chance to get out, watch something in colour and be ‘transported’ to somewhere magical… Audiences were giving their entire evenings to the movies and in-return, studios were giving them reasons to be there: hence, the ‘Double Bill’. There’d generally be a cartoon to kick things off, while patrons found their (unbooked) seats and a ‘B-Movie’ to settle them in, before an interval and the ‘Main Feature’. 

By ‘63, few studios either in the USA or UK, were still making actual B-Movies, as the audience had become more sophisticated in their tastes and as a result, less tolerant of the genre’s usual shoddiness. However, studios still liked the idea of the B-Movie. For a start, they could be a cost-effective way of trialling new stars as much as new talent behind-the-camera. As a result, B-movies evolved to become low-budget features in their own right. They were used to pad-out thin release schedules, allow pre-packaged Double-Bills and give studios a toehold in new, otherwise overlooked niches. B-movies tended to have lower artistic ambition, thanks to their lower-tier filmmakers. They were also unburdened by large budgets; a difficult problem to have, if you wanted to make something cutting-edge, because a studio’s conservatism grew in-proportion to every ‘zero’ tacked-on to the budget. Cheaper pictures could afford to be riskier, more exploitative & schlockier. The more, the merrier, in-fact: a little notoriety is the easiest way to build word-of-mouth, for a picture lacking a meaningful PR budget.

These days, of course, the B-Movie has evolved into ‘Independent Film’, though its ethos has largely remained the same: to produce tightly-budgeted, creatively-produced features that have the power to startle audiences grown complacent on a diet of mainstream pap…. I’ve reviewed a number of Indie films on this blog and long may I continue to champion their cause.

GlassesWhich brings me back to Unearthly Stranger; one of ‘63’s forgotten films. A British B-Movie if ever there was, produced by the low-budget studio Independent Artists (the clue’s in the name), it’s been given a pristine transfer to Blu-Ray, courtesy of the BFI, Studio Canal and Network: big names for such a small picture… Does it deserve its belated place in the spotlight?

It starts promisingly enough, as a man runs for his life, down the Thames Embankment on a dark, rainy night. As the main titles run-on, accompanied by Williams’ stirring kettle drums & jagged strings, we follow his progress towards an office somewhere in ‘The Royal Institute For Space Research’. Director John Krish, as if acknowledging his lack of resources, is using wonky camera angles to throw our sense of equilibrium out of kilter for lack of anything else; whatever building he’s hired for the night, has a great, atrium-filling spiral staircase stretching-up four or five floors. Naturally, Krish puts his camera up-top and looking down, as if to induce near-vertigo in his audience, as we watch the runner pant and wheeze his way to the top. It’s all nuts & bolts stuff however and matters aren’t helped at the extent Krish drags it all out; keeping the camera rolling as the runner approaches a floor-at-a-time… 

Even now, scant minutes in, I’ve a feeling the eighty-minute running-time has been padded

GlassesOur reluctant athlete finds a reel-to-reel tape-recorder (cutting-edge tech for ‘63) and gives the following – breathless – testimony: ‘In a little while, I expect to die. To be killed by something you and I know is here.’

Powerful, mysterious stuff, delivered with real conviction here by John Neville as Professor Davidson. An acclaimed graduate of RADA, Neville would eventually emigrate to work in Canadian theatre as local opportunities slowed. Despite a memorable returning cameo in the original X-Files TV-show, I remember him best as the lead in Terry Gilliam’s wonderfully overblown The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).

Krish chooses that moment to flash-back to an earlier point in time, to show another colleague, Munro (an unrecognisable Warren Mitchell) arrive for work; yep: the movie we’re about to see, is one, long flashback… Munro excitedly tells his secretary Miss Ballard (an early role for the wonderful Jean Marsh) that he’s ‘cracked the first part of the formula’ which, given what comes next – death by a burst of ‘eery’ white-noise – must rank as a very foolish admission to have made. You don’t know who’s listening…

Later, Munro’s boss, Prof. Lancaster (the first headlining role for the undemonstrative-yet-confident Philip Stone) is being gently quizzed by the cuddliest officer from an un-named branch of British Intelligence, I think I’ve ever seen. The Bunteresque Patrick Newell is Major Clarke; a character who, with his constant intake of humbugs and with a waistline to match, looks like he’s one burst of activity away from a coronary; he can’t even give ‘em away, so is forced to guzzle the lot over the course of the picture. Still, if it gives Newell a piece of business to futz with I’m not complaining, as he’s on great form here. Lifts it, I’d say, with his Puckish wit and quizzical expressions; no wonder that people talk to him as, like all the best spies, he’s so unassuming. Ironically, Dr. No would that year launch a character the polar-opposite of Clarke yet, given what little I know about The Service, it’s probably Newell’s character who paints the more realistic portrayal of the age…

The Major elicits the first inkling of what’s going on when he asks Lancaster: ‘What are you fellows really up to here?’ Such a perceptive question deserves a concise answer: ‘Our experiments are focussed in an attempt to harness the powers of concentration, so it would be able to project one’s mind with such intensity, that Man can be wherever he wants to be, just by using the power of thought’. 

GlassesOh, well. I’m sure back in ‘63 this was a plausible swirl of possibilities, but today? Sounds like a precursor to some fiendish mind-control experiment by the CIA, yet here we are, in a cheap, British B-movie, exploring the idea that there are nodules in the human brain’s back-end, producing something called ‘TP91’ and that, if collected & harnessed, might make the end-goal achievable…

Enter: Davidson, looking a lot smoother & more composed that we know he’ll become, later. He’s to take-over Munro’s desk but first, Clarke wants to know about his new wife ‘for security’, asking ‘She’s ‘Alien’, isn’t she?’ Davidson replies ‘She was born in Switzerland,’ as if that’s any kind of answer, yet no-one’s flagging-up the real bombshell here: that he’s only known her for a few weeks!  

Talk about Positive Vetting

Davidson’s also unconvinced about the details surrounding Munro’s death, though wouldn’t you know it? There’s a Pathology Lab IN THE BASEMENT (because, of course). He sneaks-in to take a look at the body, only to discover that the coffin’s full of bricks… Stunned at the truth, he drags Lancaster down to see for himself but – naturally – it’s missing when they return. Instead, who should be there but a guilty-grinning Major. His boyish guilty-shuffling lasts as long as it takes for Davidson to pull-out Munro’s file from an (unlocked) cabinet (yet more incompetence from Clarke) whereupon are revealed traces of ‘Triamorphonide’; an ‘exotic’ sedative found ‘inside returning space capsules’. 

GlassesRemember that, back in ‘63, NASA was still ironing-out the wrinkles in the Mercury programme, so the nitty-gritty realities of space travel were still largely unknown by the wider public (they still are, come to think of it). A screenwriter such as Rex Carlton could write lumpen fare like this and have it accepted by an uncomplaining, ignorant audience who knew no better.

So, Davidson returns home, to find wife Julie asleep in-bed, her eyes wide & unblinking. Next day, he tells this to Lancaster, adding ‘She had no pulse, either. I thought she was dead!’ Strange, right? Almost… Unearthly. You’ve known your wife all of three weeks and you’ve only just noticed? 

Newlyweds obviously slept in different rooms back then, for the sake of propriety. 1963 and all that.

Things don’t improve from there, I’m afraid. As the Terrifying! Weird! Macabre! truth emerges, dragged-out from what should’ve been an hour-long ‘Play For Today’ over at the Beeb, the bare-bones of the production now becomes painfully clear. The piece spends a good sixty of those eighty minutes, shuttling back and forth between two offices, via Jean Marsh’s connecting corridor. What little exterior work was done, involves Neville’s sprint (itself ludicrous, once you know the circumstances), repeated set-ups of a Jag, driving up and down a country lane (along with two uses of that staircase) and Julie (a waste of Gabriella Licudi) shown repelling a yard full of school-kids, by the simple expediency of having them walk backwards

GlassesB-Movies of the time, would usually have employed someone in a latex monster-suit to reveal the alien’s true selves once unmasked, but ‘Stranger’s lavish F/X budget was exhausted with a couple of poster-sized blow-ups of the Moon’s surface, used to decorate the offices. The more I stared at them – and the more Krish trained his lens on them – the more I thought the following: that, for Lancaster, Davidson et-al, staring at the poster would be the closest they’d ever get to their goal, despite banks of ex-GPO telephone-exchange gubbins lining their office walls (note to self: Krish missed a trick here, by not giving us at least a glimpse of a colander-cum-skullcap c/w mysterious cables linking it to The Machine: now THAT would’ve convinced me they’d ‘harnessed the powers of concentration’!).

When it came, the end was about twenty minutes overdue and although resolved with suitable mystery, it just felt anti-climactic, lacking answers as to how the ‘threat’ might be countered. At least in previous movies featuring ‘shape-changing aliens’ (i.e. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956)) there was usually a resolution in humanity’s favour, yet in ‘Stranger, such omission leads to a weighty conclusion unsupported by the screenplay. There’s one notable speech in the piece, from Davidson that leads us there, but pacing throughout is so slo-o-o-w, as to be frustrating rather than stirring, given that I – along with any contemporary cine-literate audience – had worked it all out long-before… 

GlassesIn regard to this reissue, some commentators have described the film (and I’m paraphrasing here) as an ‘overlooked gem’ or ‘a forgotten classic’. On reflection however, I’d have to disagree. As far as I can tell, the reaction to the film is a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. 

Perhaps, in this case, there was a reason why ‘Stranger got overlooked in the first place?

While individual performances are diverting (especially Newell’s, who reminds me of a young Robert Morley), both material & budget are stretched too thinly to hang-together for the length of a true feature. Any sense of threat or menace is under-cooked and rendered laughable in the absence of higher stakes, a plausible script and a variety of sets in which to play, leaving this as perhaps the best One-Hour drama about shape-shifting aliens never made

Then again, a long-running, low-budget franchise about a shape-shifting alien made its debut on the BBC that very year – and can still be seen, most Saturday nights! The only difference being, that Doctor Who never took itself seriously…

It’s an illusion. And we have learned to live without illusions.


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