Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Unearthly (AB-PT Productions, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran the film The Unearthly as a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation, preceded on the show by two “educational” shorts which the MST3K crew found it all too easy to ridicule, Posture Pals and Appreciating Your Parents. Both of these were audio-visual presentations obviously aimed at grade-schoolers — and if these were the lessons public schools were wasting their students’ and teachers’ time on it’s no wonder the U.S. had this gargantuan public freak-out when the Russians launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957 and sparked a back-to-basics movement that jacked up the amount of science and math taught in the schools. For some reason, though the color segments featuring the MST3K cast looked normal, the black-and-white films were all shown with a blue tint reminiscent of the one routinely used in the silent era to signify scenes taking place outdoors at night.

The Unearthly was one of the films I first saw on the local precursor to MST3K, Schlock Theatre, aired from 1980 to 1982 on XETV Channel 6 in San Diego, which had even lower-tech production values (the two hosts MC’d it from a parked car in the middle of the XETV studio) and differed mainly in that the snarky comments on the movie were run as subtitles rather than spoken over the soundtrack. Produced by a company called “AB-PT Pictures” and written and directed by Brooke L. Peters (which according to was a pseudonym for Boris Petroff), The Unearthly was your typical Bela Lugosi mad-scientist script — only by the time it was made Lugosi was already dead, so Peters/Petroff got John Carradine for the lead role as Dr. Charles Conway, who thinks he’s discovered the secret of eternal life by inventing a new gland — that’s right, inventing a new gland (the hysterical — in both senses, overwrought and funny — bit of dialogue Carradine delivers celebrating this achievement is the moment at which The Unearthly goes from being just another bad sci-fi cheapie into Worst Movies Hall-of-Fame-dom) — and transplanting it into his research subjects, whom he’s collected with the help of a corrupt associate, Dr. Loren Wright (Roy Gordon), solemnly instructing him to pick only people without any surviving family members so that, like the people on the Lord High Executioner’s list, they never will be missed. What actually happens to them, of course, is they become catatonic and their hair starts looking like they went to the Bride of Frankenstein Salon.

The Unearthly also has some other delights, including Tor Johnson as Lobo — the same character name he used in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster — and he actually gets to fracture some simple English dialogue in that incredible dumb-Swede voice of his (so Plan Nine from Outer Space is not the only movie in which Tor Johnson spoke!), and the leads are Myron Healy as Mark Houston, who’s an FBI agent (though that isn’t revealed until the final reel) pretending to be a convicted murderer pretending to be a homeless person in order to infiltrate Conway’s estate, and the interesting Allison Hayes (whose sluttish bad-girl character added immeasurably to the entertainment value of Zombies of Mora-Tau) who gets wasted in a nothing role as a therapy patient entrusted into Dr. Wright’s care by her parents and turned over to Conway despite his warnings that none of his research subjects should have families.

It’s also amusing that the synthetic gland Conway implants into people looks like the worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle (maybe if you watched this movie drunk on tequila it would actually seem good!), and that though the movie is called The Unearthly there is absolutely nothing extraterrestrial about its plot. The Unearthly is one of those movies that comes across on MST3K about the same as it does “straight” — its actual dialogue is almost as silly as the commentary — and it’s good bad-movie fun even though John Carradine walks through this part as if he’d rather be doing almost anything else (he took the money he made from these cheapies to fund a small L.A. acting company that performed Shakespeare) and one has to regret the trajectory of this man’s career, from John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island and The Grapes of Wrath in the 1930’s to Edgar G. Ulmer’s cheap but marvelous Bluebeard in the 1940’s, The Unearthly (which at least has a certain professional polish — Brooke Peters/Boris Petroff clearly had a larger production budget than Ed Wood ever got!) in the 1950’s and The Astro-Zombies, a truly abysmal film that looks like a grade-schooler shot it on Super 8 and recorded it on cassette, in the 1960’s.