Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Unearthly (1957)

A rather predictable, low-budget but strangely watchable film

Directed by Boris Petroff
Produced by Boris Petroff, Robert A. Terry
Screenplay by John D.F. Black, Jane Mann
Story by Jane Mann
Music by Henry Vars
Cinematography: W. Merie Connell
Production company: AB-PT Pictures
Distributed by Republic Pictures
Running time: 73 minutes


John Carradine: Dr. Charles Conway
Myron Healey: Mark Houston
Allison Hayes: Grace Thomas
Marilyn Buferd: Dr. Sharon Gilchrist
Arthur Batanides: Danny Green
Sally Todd: Natalie Andries
Tor Johnson: Lobo
Roy Gordon: Dr. Loren Wright
Guy Prescott: Police Captain George Reagan
Raymond Guth: Police Officer Miller
Harry Fleer: Harry Jedrow
Gloria Petroff: Screaming Woman
Paul McWilliams: Police Officer Ed

With the start of a new year (2017) we now complete our look at science fiction films from the year 1957 with the 60 year-old sci-fi / horror gem, The Unearthly.


Read on for more……

Spoilers Follow Below…..

Professor Charles Conway, an archetypal mad scientist, attempts to develop the long sought after fountain of youth

At his isolated psychiatric institute, he uses patients who have no family as subjects in his research into increasing human longevity

Conway’s method involves surgically implanting an artificial gland in their skulls. 

Conway will not let scientific ethics stand in the way of his research. 

His research has so far had disastrous results for his subjects!! 

Who can put a stop to Conway’s scheme???

The title, The Unearthly suggests that the film will contain “not of this world” elements that are typical of the science fiction genre. It also suggests that it will be dealing with matters beyond the natural order of things, an essential ingredient of horror genre films and stories.

At the beginning of the film, our attention is immediately drawn to an image of an illuminated upstairs window of an old house. Our view shifts to the room’s interior where to the accompaniment of a woman’s high-pitched scream, we catch a fleeting glimpse of a monstrous bald figure attempting to strangle a desperately struggling young woman. Title and credits are then shown over the painted image of the old house.

After a car pulls up to the house, a man and woman ring the front doorbell. Lobo (the character we saw in the upstairs room) opens the door to Dr. Loren Wright and Grace Thomas who are greeted by Dr. Charles Conway.

Dr. Wright introduces his patient, Grace to Dr. Conway. The beautiful Grace appears to be very quiet and subdued. They then proceed to the study where they meet Dr. Conway's assistant, Dr. Sharon Gilchrist. Sharon’s manner of dress and speaking suggests that she has a very impersonal, clinical and rigid type of personality. Her icy coldness reminds me of the Borg character “Seven of Nine” from Star Trek Voyager.

Dr Wright informs Conway that Grace has agreed to “place herself in your care.” To Conway, Grace expresses her hope that “you’ll be able to help me.”

Already an unequal power and dependency relationship based on establishing trust is being set up between Grace and Conway. It is a relationship with the potential for exploitation.

After Sharon takes Grace to her room, Dr. Wright makes mention of Grace's father to which Conway angrily asks, "Father? What's this business about her father? Our agreement was that patients you brought to me were to have no relatives. No ties whatsoever!" Dr. Wright calmly responds, "Grace Thomas committed suicide. Yes. Her bag and coat will be found floating in the bay."

Self-assured under the seemingly protective blanket of lies and deception, Dr Wright and Conway toast each other with, “To youth! To eternity!” Grace has entered a world in which the perceived ends justify the all too real means used to achieve those ends.

The above point is made all too clear when we witness the results of the last experiment on a “subject” named Harry Jedrow who is being held in the basement.

He sits motionless in a chair and is in a catatonic state, or according to Conway he has “slipped into this state of suspended animation.” Conway believes that Jedrow’s brain has “internal radiation burns” and advises that they “must have younger subjects.”

A complication arises when Dr. Wright declares that Jedrow has a living relative, a sister who is trying to locate Jedrow.

Conway visits Grace in her room. She reveals to him that she’s “always so frightened” and that she “often (wants) to cry – just cry.” Conway displays his manipulative side whereby he uses a kind of grooming and moulding technique. Playing on Grace’s vulnerability, he tells her to “trust “him “implicitly.”

Another complicating factor stands silently in the background, her seemingly impervious emotionless mask covering a seething cauldron of tension and jealousy. Perhaps it is Sharon who should be taking the sedative as she witnesses Dr Conway’s attentions being focussed on the beautiful Grace.

After Dr. Wright drives off, a man stealthily enters the grounds. He is wearing a leather jacket and jeans and is obviously up to something as he checks his revolver and hides it in nearby foliage. Suddenly Lobo the large appears on the scene and grabs hold of the man and takes him to the house where he announces to Conway, “I found him in the garden.”

The captured intruder claims that he is lost and that his name is Mark Houston. Conway tells him point blank, “you told me a fabricated story that wouldn’t convince a child.” (This is quite an ironic comment considering later revelations!) Conway then accuses him of being Frank Scott, a killer and thief wanted by the police. Conway had obtained this information from a newspaper story.

For Conway, information is power and he is quite prepared to use it to blackmail Mark into cooperating with his nefarious scheme. He informs Mark that, “I’m willing to offer you sanctuary – here!” and that “I might easily use a man like you.” The offer is too good to refuse especially as Conway points out “you’re a killer Scott, a hunted man.” It appears that Mark has no choice but to comply.

Seeing that Mark appears to be check-mated, Conway’s hubris is further stoked as he declares, “I’m a scientist. Thinking is my business.” To which Mark observes, “Doc, I’m afraid you’re a very clever man.”

The next morning at breakfast, we meet two more of Conway’s “subjects.” There’s Danny Green who appears to be very agitated as he complains to Natalie Andries that his meal is cold and that he is fed up of “six weeks of ‘get up, do this, don’t do that!’”

Gorgeous blonde off-the-shoulder Natalie, calmly continues to read her pulp romance fiction which only further ignites Danny’s volatile temper as he shouts at her, “idiots like you spend your time reading it!”

Mark soon walks into this maelstrom of bickering outrage. Natalie seems quite interested in Mark and Mark quickly becomes fed-up with Danny’s antics. Before blood can be spilt, Sharon enters the room and takes Danny upstairs to see Conway.

In the lab, Danny is given an injection (“the usual amount of R16”) which quickly settles him down. He seems to be displaying all the signs of drug addiction. In fact, when Mark enters the lab to offer his assistance, he tells Conway, “I’ve seen guys go through that before.”

Conway informs Mark about his research on human glands and describes it as being a medical project “beyond the realm of possibility!” Lobo was an early test subject in a process that employed a seventeenth gland that can control aging. Conway offers Mark the opportunity to be the first man to remain “eternally young and vigorous.” In other words, he can attain “eternal life!”

While Conway believes that he has the “secret of life, of growth and the cause of death” and that he is able to “take every precaution,” Conway sums up his achievements by using Lobo as an example: “Now you’ve got yourself an overgrown moron as a pet.”

Conway’s complete lack of scruples and ethics is revealed by his view of human subjects as being little more than “rungs in the ladder” he has to climb.

Unable to convince Mark to cooperate willingly, Conway resorts to blackmail. If Mark tries to disclose what is going on, it would merely come down to the word of a reputable scientist versus that of a hunted man. Conway threatens to turn Mark over to the authorities and certain death in the electric chair.

As a plastic anatomical human torso stands somewhat ironically between the two men as if transfixed by their conversation, Mark appears to have no option but to swear to secrecy, while Conway declares, “Old age will be conquered!” Yes, but at what cost? People’s humanity stripped down to a collection of removable parts for constructing inhuman plastic facsimile dummies of people?

Later on, Dr. Wright informs Conway over the phone that Jedrow's sister is determined to find out about her brother. Conway orders Wright to make out a death certificate for Harry Jedrow. After hanging up the phone, a somewhat surprised Sharon declares, "But he's alive!" Conway corrects her, "No, my dear. Harry Jedrow is dead." Another nail in the coffin containing the deceased mouldering remains of ethics and morality!

When Natalie arrives for her appointment, Conway tells her she has improved over the last three months and that she is “almost well enough to leave.” However, rather ominously she is told that she needs to undergo “one final treatment’ before she can leave in a day or two.

At dinner Mark, Grace and Danny are joined by Conway who proceeds to play a work by Bach (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565) on the organ. Our minds are immediately turned to all those horror movies featuring mad scientists or vampire counts in which such music is played on an organ in order to create a creepy and suspenseful atmosphere.

While the music plays in the background, Lobo enters with a tray and Sharon spikes Natalie’s soup with a sedative. Lobo leaves the tray for Natalie and monosyllabically orders her with the words, “You eat!”

Lobo later takes the unconscious Natalie to the operating room and places her on a gurney. Sharon tells him to send all the others to bed. When he re-enters the dining room, Lobo in a slightly syntactically strangled sentence announces, "Time for go to bed."

After the others have supposedly gone for to bed, Sharon and Conway prep for surgery on the hapless Natalie. This is to be “the final test.” During the course of the surgery, Conway calls for the all-important “No. 23 scalpel” followed by a small dark and pulsating gland.

Mark meanwhile calls on Grace in her room to inform her that she is in danger and that Natalie is gone. Mark then tells Grace about Conway's plan, but she responds by telling him, “I can’t accept what you’re saying Mark!”

Natalie now undergoes the final part of the procedure which involves calibrated exposure to electricity. With clipped efficiency, figures are read out and checked: “Plus 2.48…. Increase slowly to 55.” Finally, current is allowed to surge through Natalie.

Eight hours later, Sharon and Conway check on Natalie. Her scarred and horribly disfigured face bear witness to the results of Conway’s grotesque experimentation. Conway cannot see past personal failure: “No! It can’t be...I took every precaution!”

Sharon too can only see the results of the experiment in terms of Conway’s potential for eventual success: “Don’t be discouraged Charles, you’ll succeed.” Meanwhile their victim, poor Natalie, a ruined rung on the ladder to success, lies there moaning.

Conway later continues to work on gaining Grace’s confidence. He tells her she is improving, that Natalie “made a perfect recovery” and that he released her himself. In order to drive a wedge between Grace and Mark, Conway advises Grace to “limit (her) association with Mark” on account of him being “a dangerous man" who is “suffering an advanced persecution complex.” It appears that Grace has acquired almost complete emotional and psychological dependence on Conway as she tells him, “you’re so good to me Dr Conway.”

The exchange between Grace and Conway opens a fissure or two in Sharon’s seemingly impervious façade out of which begin to flow lava streams of hot jealousy. She tells Conway she loves him and suggests Grace be the next test subject. Conway observes, “you’re sounding like a jealous woman” and he assures her that when the time is right, Grace will be the next test subject.

As Mark searches the house, he locates the basement entrance and descends the stairs. He soon spots Jedrow in a locked room. Mark then returns to Grace's room to bring her down to the basement where she will see “positive proof” she’ll have no choice but to believe.

When Mark and Grace enter the basement, they find that Jedrow is no longer there as Lobo had not long before come down there and removed him. They then stumble across Natalie's room where they both see the horrific results of Conway’s work. “How could he?” Grace asks in horror.

Lobo meanwhile carries a coffin outside. It is obviously quite heavy and it contains the body of Jedrow. Lobo lowers the box into a hole and starts to fill it in with dirt until a dog’s barking alerts him to the presence of someone on the grounds. As Lobo goes to investigate, Mark finds the coffin and opens it to reveal that Jedrow is still alive. Lobo soon returns and continues to fill in the hole.

Mark pays a visit to Danny, explains the situation to him and convinces Danny to join him later. Later that night, Danny joins Mark and Grace in the living room. Mark tells Danny to take Grace away from the house to safety, but before they can proceed, Conway, Lobo and Sharon suddenly appear on the scene. Danny and Mark are taken to the basement while Conway takes Grace to his office.

In the basement, an escape plan involving distracting the slow-witted Lobo is put into action but Danny is shot in the process. In the lab, while Grace is being prepared for surgery, Conway is confronted by Mark who has him covered with a gun. 

Conway is now aware that Mark is a policeman and he quickly makes a bid to escape. Mark calls the police and then searches the grounds for Conway who has meanwhile returned to the house. The police soon arrive and are deployed to search for Conway.

While Lobo escapes the room in which he had been locked in the basement, Conway encounters Jedrow in the living room and a shocked Conway blurts out at him, "No. You're dead. I had you buried." Jedrow who has been holding a knife uses it to stab to death the cause of all his suffering.

Loyal to the last, Lobo disables Jedrow just as Mark and Captain Reagan enter the living room. Lobo and Sharon are arrested and Grace is located unharmed. Unfortunately, they also find Danny’s dead body.

In perhaps the most unnerving and chilling part of the film, Officer Ed and Reagan opens a door on to a scene from a demented hellish nightmare. Conway's previous disfigured subjects are crammed together, imprisoned in a small room. Within this segment of purgatory, they aimlessly wander hither and thither screaming and moaning incoherently. In response to the observation, “it’s a good thing we have institutions to take care of them,” a horrified Reagan exclaims, "Good Lord, what if they do live forever?"

After this scene, the last couple of seconds of film don’t really matter…..

Points of Interest

The film, The Unearthly seems to be more at home with the kind of horror pictures featuring mad scientists that were produced in the 1940's. By the 1950s, such films had all but died out to be replaced by the scientist-hero saving the world from alien invaders and the monstrous products of the atomic age.

The film does adequately make do with what its meagre budget allowed for. For instance, most of the action takes place inside the single locale of one house with only a couple of scenes away from the house itself. With such budgetary constraints, much of the film focussed on the tensions developing between the characters. 

Perhaps the best feature of The Unearthly is the cast that was assembled for this film:

First, there is the familiar and unforgettable John Carradine with his gaunt, contour-lined and furrowed facial features, along with his booming, authoritative and stentorian voice. Who better to play the mad doctor role than the man who made a career of playing such parts?

Next, there is beautiful B-movie actress, Allison Hayes who had roles in The Disembodied (1957), The Undead (1957), Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), The Hypnotic Eye (1960) and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), a cult classic that will be featured in this blog later.

Marilyn Buferd who plays Dr. Gilchrist was Miss America in 1946. It was a shame that at the end of her scenes, she was almost left hanging by seeming to stand in one spot pointlessly until the scene ended. Instead, there should have been close-up shots focussing on those beautiful eyes of hers to reveal her inner thoughts and feelings locked behind her emotionless facial mask.

Sally Todd who plays Natalie was Playboy's Playmate of the Month in 1957 and I certainly wouldn’t worry about what she was reading if I were Danny!

[There’s just something about women on screen back in that era that can’t be matched these days! There’s a certain appeal, style and presentation factor that seems to be absent in the modern era. Maybe it’s just me?]

Myron Healey who gives quite a competent performance as the uncover cop was a familiar supporting television actor with about 300 performances to his credit.

Of course, we can’t leave out wrestler Tor Johnson, who also appeared in Bride of the Monster (in which he also plays the character of Lobo}, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Night of the Ghouls (1960) The Black Sleep and I think probably the worst film ever made, The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961). Ed Wood obviously saw something in him!

Perhaps Tor started a trend that has continued to the present day in which former and current professional wrestlers embark on film careers with varying degrees of success: Randy Orton, The Miz, John Cena, The Rock Dwayne Johnson, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Ah well, there’s always politics! Just ask Mr Ventura and Rhino!

The value of the film, The Unearthly lies in its handling of issues to do with power and its abuse as well as of trust. How much power and control should we hand over to individuals, organisations, institutions and the State just because they tell us to trust them? Should we unquestioningly accept their dictates and control over our lives and affairs based on their expertise, traditional function and prestige?

Our individual medical, psychological, financial, relationship, and other difficulties are often either self-inflicted or a product of forces beyond our control resulting from ailing, destructive and dysfunctional global, national and community structures and processes.

Remedies for such losses of individual control are sought from individuals and institutions which are perceived to have the power to redress our problems. Immediately an unequal power relationship is established that leaves the way open to exploitation. The danger lies in the exercise of that power, the purpose for which it will be used and for whose benefit?

The danger signs of the abuse of power can be recognised when people are no longer seen as being unique individuals but are instead dehumanised by being viewed as being nothing more than “subjects,” part of a “cohort,” “these people,” “them,” “consumers,” “recipients,” or any number of collective nouns.

We’re also well on the road to the abuse of power when the achievement of the ends, or final outcomes takes precedence over the processes or means taken towards achieving those outcomes. People tend to get hurt when this happens.

Power often provides the wind to blow the sails of personal prestige, status and glory. It is often the case that ordinary trusting individual people provide the rungs of the ladder used by the unethical and unprincipled few to climb higher and higher and higher…..


You can trust me, I’m a doctor! 
Then why do I feel sicker? 
Vote for me, I’m your voice! 
Do I really have a choice? 
Your future’s secure, I’m a financial advisor! 
So how come I’m suddenly poorer? 
Feel safe as I watch every move you make. 
Will my privacy be the last thing you take? 
Have faith in me, I’m a God! 
An Ipad app and tune on my Ipod? 
If you wish to go on,
Click the “next” button….

Well, that was 1957 and what a year that was! Next, we’ll be moving on to the year 1958 and many of the wonderful sci-fi classic films from that year. See you soon.

©Chris Christopoulos 2017

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