Saturday, 25 April 2015

Psych fiction... Unearthly Stranger (1964)

In these austere times it’s good to watch a film that has made the absolute most of its limited budget and Unearthly Stranger epitomises the cut-priced have-a-go heroes of early sixties British cinema.

Director John Krish manages to generate a genuinely-oppressive atmosphere throughout the film as he uses every trick in the book to convince the viewer that aliens might well be amongst us. There are no special effects, no flying spaceships or explosions and, amazingly, there are no alien-looking aliens just one scene involving minimal make-up. Somehow – in spite of a story so full of holes you could strain boiled vegetables through it – he puts the strange and the unearthly into the mix.

The film also benefits from a super cast who put their all into animating what could have been a very dull affair; from Warren Mitchell’s exploding brain to Jean Marsh’s properly prim secretary and Patrick Newell’s boiled sweet addicted spook: if James Bond ate nothing but Fox’s Glacier Mints for forty years, that’d be him!

John Neville
The film starts as it means to go on with a terrified Dr. Mark Davidson (John Neville who later went on to play the Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files) racing over Westminster Bridge away from some unknown terror. He careers across the darkened West End somehow ending at a sleek art deco building housing the Royal Space Research Institute. There’s a great shot downwards as he runs up the circular stairway inside before pausing at the top to check for any pursuers.

Soaked in sweat and exhausted he staggers into his office and starts talking into his reel-to-reel… he doesn’t think he has long as he tries to warn his colleague of a truth they have both suspected. The highest stakes are involved and it’s all a lot worse than they ever imagined…

Warren Mitchell
Cue the flashback as we see the Institute in calmer circumstances as an unexpectedly Scottish Warren Mitchell arrives in the guise of one Professor Geoffrey D. Munro. He greets his secretary Miss Ballard (Jean Marsh) and enters his office. As he reads some papers in front of a giant image of the Moon he convulses in pain and slumps dead on his desk.

Switch to the aftermath as the institute’s head, Professor John Lancaster (Philip Stone) discusses the case with the sweet-munching secret service man, Major Clarke (Patrick Newell). There’s a marvellously English interplay between the men, respect, rank and duty defining their relationship: Lancaster would rather do without the man from the ministry but he knows he has no option.

Philip Stone and Patrick Newell
Davidson arrives back form holiday – his honeymoon as it turns out – and we find out more about this special project as he is offered Munro’s job as its lead… The Institute is experimenting with projecting thought into space. Rather than rockets, flesh and blood, its aim is to send our consciousness across space to unknown worlds: to boldly know where no man has thought before (sorry).

They’re not alone in this cerebral space race with the Americans and the Russians also experimenting. Both, like the British, have suffered similarly-harrowing deaths. Davidson senses something is up and the polite pressure of the munching Major does little to allay his fears.

John Neville, Jean Marsh and Philip Stone
Looking for answers he goes to look at Munro’s corpse only to file his coffin full of bricks… his body has been taken for secret tests? But whilst his own people are against him, Davidson may also have strange issues at home. For such an intuitive man it seems odd that he hasn’t really considered his own situation: he met and married his wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi) in a matter of weeks, running into her in Swizterland when his car temporarily lost power. Their relationship proceeded at pace and before he returned they were married.

All is perfectly in love but there’s just one thing… Julie doesn’t blink.

Gabriella Licudi, John Neville and Philip Stone
Davidson invites Lancaster to dinner and whilst Julie is perfectly charming, the Professor is alarmed to see her handling hot dishes in the oven without using gloves and then he too notices that she doesn’t blink before Julie laughs it off and starts forcing her eyelids down.

One of the best sequences in the film sees Julie enjoying a carefree walk – smiling at a baby in a pram before the poor thing cries in terror – before coming to a junior school. She stands at the fence admiring the children at play until gradually, one by one, they stop staring at her in fear and, as one, edging back step-by-step.
Julie realises that the children can see what the adults cannot...
Julie flees home in tears but as she throws herself in misery on the bed, the door rings and she’s goes down stairs to see the suspiciously avuncular Major Clarke waiting… her face has two trials cut into her face as if her tears had been of acid.

Meanwhile Clarke spots Davidson and Lancaster rooting around for Munro and warns them off. But the mystery is too great now to be ignored and it seems quite clear that they need to talk about Julie…
The Major...
No spoilers… The tension mounts as the realisation dawns that Man is not alone in thinking his way into the future. Davidson has his run and there’s a most impressive twist at the end… about which I will say nothing…

The idea of mind projection is a pretty one to take but as with a lot of science fiction, it is merely a device to reflect contemporary concerns about the collapse of society from within: a home counties version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

Julie relishes the streets of London
Of the performers, the lovely Gabriella Licudi deserves special mention for a) holding her eyes open for so long and b) investing her character with so much other-worldly longing.

Dusty verdict: Well worth watching for the dynamic atmospherics and the unflinching early-sixties belief in the power of science!

Unearthly Stranger is available at budget price direct from Network as either a Blu-ray or DVD.

The school kids retreat

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