Monday, March 1, 2010

Teenagers from Outer Space (Topaz/Warner Bros., shot 1957, released 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” for the evening was a movie I’d been reading about in the latest issue of Filmfax magazine and which, out of curiosity, I’d downloaded from Teenagers from Outer Space, made in 1957 but not released until 1959 when Warner Bros. needed a second feature to release with a Japanese movie they’d picked up from 1955 called Gojira no gyakushû — actually Toho Studios’ first sequel to Godzilla, though since American International, U.S. distributor of Godzilla, had copyrighted the name, Warners had to change both the title and the monster lizard’s identity, so they called the film Gigantis, the Fire Monster.

Teenagers from Outer Space had been produced in 1957 by Tom Graeff, who also wrote, directed and played a key supporting role as reporter Joe Rogers, boyfriend of female lead Betty Morgan (Dawn Anderson, former child star Dawn Bender) until she meets and falls in love with alien visitor Derek (David Love). Graeff, who took his acting credit as “Tom Lockyear,” and Love, whose real name was Charles Robert Kaltenthaler (and who was so credited as “production associate”) were a Gay couple off-screen. The film was produced in the Ed Wood manner, on an ultra-cheap budget much of which was provided as “investments” from its cast, and it has all the superficial indicia of a typical awful sci-fi cheapie from the 1950’s: a silly exploitation title, tacky special effects, daylit scenes whose dialogue tells it’s supposed to be nighttime, somewhat stilted acting and an eventual appearance on the parody TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Charles and I watched it “straight,” though — and that was a good thing, because Teenagers from Outer Space actually turned out to be a quite good movie despite the budget and technical limitations. Its plot makes sense within the conventions of the sci-fi genre, its script is relatively literate (though occasionally clunky) and the dilemmas of its characters are genuinely moving and make political and social statements without hitting us over the head with them. The film begins in an observatory, where a couple of scientists (one of whom has an outrageously fake prop beard) are discussing the spacecraft that seems to be heading earth’s way; then we cut to a blob in the sky that seems to be forming a shape like a hypodermic needle — a quite convincing effect in a film that has a surprising number of good ones — though when it touches down what we see is the usual outrageously phony pie-plate flying saucer.

Four crew members disembark from it — Derek (David Love), Thor (Bryan Grant), Saul (Bill DeLand) and Moreal (Ralph Lowe) — and when a dog comes running up to the spacecraft, Thor pulls out his “focusing disintegrator” ray gun (actually a popular toy of the period, the Hubley Atomic Disintegrator, but with a mirror stuck in its barrel so light from the filming lights would reflect off it and give the illusion that the gun was actually emitting a ray when fired) and zaps the pooch to doggie heaven, leaving behind only its skeleton. The mission of the crew — the ones who got out and the spaceship captain (King Moody, later the first actor to play Ronald McDonald), who stayed behind to maintain contact with the ruler of their planet — is to find a place where they can grow Gargons, lobster-shaped monsters who grow too fast and are way too vicious to be allowed on their own planet but are nonetheless an important source of food for their race. Derek notices that the dead dog was wearing a tag, which identified him as “Sparky” and gives the name and address of its owner, and from that he intuits that there is an advanced civilization on this planet and therefore they should allow it to live instead of taking Earth over to grow Gargons, which will obliterate the native species. The other three call him a traitor and arrest him, but he escapes and flees, seeking out the address on the dog tag — which turns out to belong to Betty Morgan (Dawn Anderson) and her grandfather (Ed Wood regular Harvey B. Dunn).

The two have a room for rent — it used to belong to Betty’s brother until he left to get married and live on his own with his wife — and in a sequence Graeff pretty obviously borrowed from the original The Day the Earth Stood Still the Morgans agree to rent Derek the room for no money up front if he agrees to pay them eventually once he finds a job. Meanwhile, back at the spaceship the crew decide to park their Gargon (which was temporarily stunned by the high nitrogen content of earth’s atmosphere, but quickly came to again) in a cave (Graeff shot in Bronson Canyon, locale for many cheap Westerns and sci-fi movies, and the cave in which the Gargon dwells is the same one Phil Tucker had used as the headquarters of Ro-Man in Robot Monster four years earlier). Thor volunteers to stay outside the spaceship and hunt down Derek so he can be arrested, taken back to their home planet and prosecuted for treason, and he wages his quest with a chilling indifference to human life that has left some writers suggesting that Teenagers from Outer Space was the prototype for the original Terminator.

Much of Teenagers from Outer Space turns on the contrasting reactions of Derek and Thor to the (human) world around them. When Betty and her grandfather explain that her brother left home when he got married, Derek is perplexed by the whole idea because on his planet children are taken away from their parents at birth, raised in group homes, never know who sired them and certainly never get to build family bonds with them — a common theme of a lot of movies of the period, reflecting the belief many Americans had that kids in Communist countries were raised this way, though presented here in a much more understated way than usual. Love’s gawky and rather stilted performance (in fact all the acting here is a bit stilted, thanks to Graeff’s unusual shooting procedure for his film — more on that later) actually makes us believe that he’s a newcomer to an unfamiliar planet, just getting his sea legs and trying to wrap his brain around earth’s culture, and also speaking a language he’s been able to pick up remarkably quickly but which is still not his own. Thor is presented as a monomaniacal killing machine, convinced that earthlings are an inferior species and therefore can be killed with no more compunction than you or I would feel towards swatting an annoying fly; indeed, later in the film Derek refers to him as a homicidal maniac, indicating that he’s crazy by the standards of their world too. Derek’s growing affection for earth in general and Betty in particular is presented in simple, economical (dramatically, not fiscally, though they were that too!) scenes.

Graeff turns out to be a director of real promise with a flair for suspense and terror — Thor’s off-handed killings are genuinely frightening (many similar scenes in less accomplished 1950’s sci-fi “B”’s are risibly inept), and there’s a scene straight out of Murder, My Sweet or some other classic noir in which Thor, wounded by police bullets, comes to in the office of the doctor he’s blackmailed into removing them and Graeff gives us an amazing point-of-view shot as Thor tries to recover from the wounds and the drugs he was given and pull his wits together to escape. (He ultimately gains the strength to do so from a nurse who, not knowing the doctor and Betty wanted him kept helpless, gives him a bandage and an injection and thereby successfully restores his strength.) Graeff clearly deserved the chance to make more movies and have access to bigger budgets; not only is his direction surprisingly accomplished, his script is full of felicitious touches — Derek’s growing love for Earth (symbolized by his growing love for Betty) is movingly portrayed and there are neat touches like the in-joke in which a watchman, about to be overwhelmed by the Gargon, is shown passing the time by reading Donald Keyhoe’s book The Flying Saucers Are Real.

Teenagers from Outer Space has its flaws, and most of them are due to the film’s ultra-low budget as well as Graeff’s quirky decision to record the entire soundtrack first, then have the actors lip-synch to it when the visual portion was shot. None of the surviving participants interviewed in Filmfax seem to recall just why he did that, but Graeff wasn’t the first director to try it: Orson Welles recorded the entire soundtrack to The Magnificent Ambersons prior to shooting, asked the actors to mime to it — and abandoned it after two days because the actors couldn’t duplicate the exact rhythm and cadence of their pre-recorded dialogue in front of the cameras. Welles tried it again in Macbeth, figuring that since Shakespeare’s dialogue was in regular poetic meter it would be easier for the actors to lip-synch to it than it had been for them to do it to the prose dialogue of Ambersons, but he still broke down and went back to live sound-on-film shooting for much of Macbeth.

Graeff gets surprisingly good lip-synch from the technique in Teenagers from Outer Space, but the pre-recording of the dialogue gives the acting a rather stilted quality that works wonderfully for David Love and Bryan Grant as the aliens but is harder to take from the actors who are supposed to be playing ordinary humans. Also, the effects work is variable; some scenes work beautifully (even the dime-store ray guns, with their mirrored barrels bouncing the film lights back towards the camera for a marvelously sinister effect) while others look silly: the final attack of the Gargon is staged by holding a lobster up to a light and having it cast a black shadow, badly matted into the action with some pretty inept process work. What’s more, the film’s final apocalypse — to save earth, Derek gives the other spacecraft in his planet’s fleet coordinates that will crash them into earth and his own ship, destroying the entire fleet — isn’t shown at all; realizing that he didn’t have a big enough budget even to begin to duplicate the scene he’d envisioned in his script, Graeff settled for a badly cut-in stock shot of an explosion and a character describing in voice-over what was supposed to have happened. (This is particularly jarring because until the end Teenagers from Outer Space has been refreshingly free of the illusion-destroying overuse of stock footage that marred many a 1950’s indie.) And the same prop skeleton is used every time Thor zaps a human with the Focusing Disintegrator and burns off all their flesh and muscle — clearly obtained from a medical supply store since it has a hook on top so it could be hung in a lecture room and bolts holding its joints together.

Nonetheless, despite these occasional bits of tackiness — and one genuinely awful performance from Dawn Anderson, who looks like she couldn’t have acted her lines with any degree of competence even if she’d been able to say them on camera instead of pre-recording them — Teenagers from Outer Space is a film of real quality, the work of a filmmaker who obviously thought about and believed in what he was doing and wasn’t just making a cheap quickie in hopes of a fast profit and a career boost. It’s even quite creatively scored; though the sources for the Filmfax article suggest that the movie was entirely finished when Warners picked up the distribution rights, I suspect Graeff may have done some of his post-production at Warners and almost certainly had access to their music library. The film not only has the virtually continuous music that marked a lot of Warners’ own productions (Warners’ musical director Ray Heindorf recalled Jack Warner telling him, “I want the music to start when it says ‘Warner Bros. Presents’ and not stop until it says ‘The End’”), the music itself is a good deal better than the junk one usually got from rent-a-scores in 1957 ( credits Geordie Hormel, William Loose, Spencer Moore and Fred Steiner with stock music for this film).

Plot-wise, Teenagers from Outer Space borrowed from some previous science-fiction movies — including the alien-boarder from The Day the Earth Stood Still and the alien who is so taken with earth’s culture that he sabotages his planet’s plans to colonize ours from This Island Earth — but also anticipates some more recent ones. Indeed, the central premise suggests that The Terminator may not have been the only James Cameron film that drew on Teenagers from Outer Space; there’s certainly quite a lot of Avatar here, albeit with earthlings as the victims instead of the victimizers in a story of outer-space conquest and occupation.

Teenagers from Outer Space has been relegated to bad-movie hell — most of the reviewers when it was new commented on the tacky effects and overall cheapness instead of the thoughtfulness and effectiveness of the drama; it got a nomination for all-time tackiest monster in the Harry and Michael Medved book The Golden Turkey Awards; and it got ridiculed on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (as did such better-than-usual cheapies as Rocketship X-M, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Jack Arnold’s flawed but haunting The Space Children), and the tacky title and even worse slogan (“Teenage hoodlums from another world on a horrendous rampage!”) Warners’ marketing department stuck on it didn’t help. But on its own merits it’s one of the best low-budget sci-fi entries of the 1950’s, made with real quality and thought that makes Tom Graeff’s eventual downfall — one which makes the latter years of Ed Wood’s life look normal by comparison — that much more tragic.

Graeff tried to get the money to produce another science-fiction script, Orf, and even got so desperate that he took out an ad that claimed (falsely) that Robert Wise and Carl Reiner were attached to his project. Later Graeff went off the deep end, became convinced that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ (a fate oddly hinted at in some of the mild religious speculations in his dialogue for Teenagers from Outer Space), petitioned a court (unsuccessfully) to have his name changed to “Jesus Christ II” and formed his own church, where he preached, sold records of his sermons and advertised in the Los Angeles Times. (One of the actors in Teenagers from Outer Space recalled going to one of Tom’s services just for old-times’ sake — and having that used against him in a hotly contested divorce case: his wife said that a man who would go to a church led by someone who claimed to be the returned Jesus Christ was obviously not a fit person to hold a marriage and family together.) On December 19, 1970 Tom Graeff committed suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning at his home in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa — a sorry end to a potentially interesting filmmaker with at least one flawed but quality credit on his résumé.