UNEARTHLY STRANGER. An Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors Presents An Independent Artist Production. United Kingdom, 1963. 1 hour 20 minutes. Aspect ratio 1.66:1
Director: John Krish. Screenplay: Rex Carlton. Story: Jeffrey Stone. Cinematography: Reg Wyer. Music: Edward Williams. CAST: John Neville (Dr. Davidson), Philip Stone (Lancaster), Gabriella Licudi (Julie), Patrick Newell (Major Clarke), Jean Marsh, Warren Mitchell (Dr. Munro).
Unearthly Stranger is an interesting low-budget science fiction programmer from early sixties, badly dated in some respects, drawing upon certain types of socio-political anxieties in the British society as it was moving out of the phase of immediate postwar reconstruction and into the era of the Mod and James Bond. John Neville plays Dr. Davidson, a top scientist in a government research facility that seems to be dabbling in a version of Remote Viewing practices. The science in the film is terrifically confounded rubbish: the British scientists have apparently located an energy source found in human brains that can be reduced to a biochemical (or mathematical?) formula called TP91. In a Richard Matheson-like conceit, TP91 is supposed to allow human minds to engage in an interstellar travel without having to rely on spaceships or other types of hardware.
When Dr. Munro (Warren Mitchell), one of the team members working on the TP91, is found with his brain fried from inside out, a jolly, sweet-toothed national security agent, Major Clarke (Peter Newell, "Mother" from TV's Avengers series), investigates. Meanwhile, Davidson begins to notice strange things about his beautiful Swiss wife, Julie (Gabriella Licudi, who later became a producer after a series of minor roles in TV and films like Casino Royale ): such as the fact that she does not blink her eyes, casually takes out a burning-hot casserole pan from the oven with bare hands, and (in a cheaply done but striking scene) streaks of tears leave furrows in the flesh of her cheeks, as if her face is made out of clay. Needless to say, Julie is an "alien" in both sense of the word, and she has traveled to Earth precisely using the same method under development by Davidson's team.
Severely limited in budget (Dr. Davidson's lab looks like a drab office of any kind, with a few extras seen walking around in white lab coats) and with no scene involving special effects (not even rear projection cinematography), Unearthly Stranger tries to rope us in by mobilizing powers of suggestion and by drenching the film in the atmosphere of paranoia. From today's perspective, the closest approximation as a viewing experience might be an early season, b & w episode of Avengers (an association strengthened by the presence of Newell), minus the latter's twisted sense of humor.
John Neville (The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen) is an unusual choice for what the script calls for is an intelligent but naïve bookworm, hopelessly in love with his wide-eyed, doe-like wife, even though she had literally dropped into his life out of nowhere. Neville gives a fine performance, but lacks the kind of dashing romanticism that could have brought out the dimensions of sexuality into the fore in Davidson's conjugal relationship. Philip Stone (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) is his square-jawed colleague, and Jean Marsh, one of the essential personages in the history of British SF TV, is his put-upon secretary.
The gender relations in the film are rather fascinating. Julie makes for an unexpectedly sympathetic alien agent, although infants and children sense something is wrong with her. In one scene, a bunch of school-children simultaneously stop playing and silently gaze at Julie, and then begin retreating in lockstep with one another, but the way it is directed, the expression-less children come off as little Pod People and Julie a normal person, baffled and disturbed that her welcoming smile is returned by dead, cold stares. In addition, the film throws in a fairly effective yet awfully anti-feminist plot twist at the end, once more connecting it to the Avengers series, this time a disturbingly wacky episode, "How to Succeed… at Murder" (1966), which is admittedly more subtly ambivalent than this film about the rise of the female workforce and what it could mean for the postwar British society. I am not going to divulge the nature of the twist but its gender politics is archaic by today's standard… I am tempted to say "anti-suffragist," yet is historically fascinating for its conflation of the foreign, the female and the insidiously monstrous. This twist comes too late for us to call it one of the film's thematic concerns: had it been fleshed out, Unearthly Stranger would have made a great double bill with Burn, Witch, Burn (1962).
Blu Ray Presentation:
The transfer of the black and white print, masked at 1.66:1, is not exactly immaculate but is very clean, with suitable levels of depth in dark scenes and appropriate layers of grain. The audio does not fare as well, sounding rather canned and shrill at the higher pitches. The dialogue comes off reasonably clear. Network's Blu Ray disc is housed in a super-thin plastic keepcase, which looks rather fragile but is actually helpful in saving shelf space. Recommended purchase for a serious fan of the pre-Star Wars Anglophone SF cinema.
Network/Studio Canal. The British Film Series. BD-25. Region B. Video: 1080p High Definition 1.66:1. Audio: English Mono. Subtitles: English. Supplements: Original Theatrical Trailer, Image Gallery, Promotional Materials in PDF. Street Date: November 3, 2014
Network and Studio Canal is releasing a bunch of interesting and somewhat obscure SF and other genre films in the Region 2 DVD and Blu Ray market. I have never heard of Unearthly Stranger before (unlike Amicus Production's Terrornauts which I had enjoyed enormously as a child when it aired at AFKN) so it was a blind buy on my part: while the film is definitely not a classic, I am glad I did.