Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Unearthly Stranger (1963)

Unearthly Stranger is a modestly budgeted but quietly creepy little 1963 British science fiction movie.

Project TP91 is a top-secret British research project investigating the possibility of a revolutionary method of space travel. The idea is to harness mental energies to enable a kind of high-tech astral travelling. This would allow someone to make a psychic voyage to another planet and then to physically materialise on the distant planet. It might be a nutty idea but it’s certainly intriguing and original and Rex Carlton’s screenplay develops the idea rather cleverly. The outlandishness of the idea makes the movie rather reminiscent of the classic 1960s science fiction television series The Outer Limits.

The story is told in an extended flashback. The opening sequence shows us an obviously terrified man through darkened streets, but what is he running from? The man is scientist Dr Mark Davidson and when he reaches his office he recounts his extraordinary story in the form of a tape recording.

Professor Geoffrey Munro (Warren Mitchell) had been the man in charge of Project TP91, until he met his untimely death. Officially he died of a heart attack. Major Clark (Patrick Newell) from the Security Service knows it was no heart attack. Dr Davidson takes over as head of Project TP91 and pretty soon both he and his boss Professor John Lancaster (Philip Stone), the director of the space research establishment, also know it was not a heart attack that killed Munro.

Major Clark has some other concerns about Project TP91. He is rather worried about Dr Davidson’s new young wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi). He has done a background check on her and it seems that no such person exists, or ever has existed.

Mark Davidson is also puzzled by his wife. She does appear to blink and she also does not appear to have a pulse. He met her just a few weeks earlier in Switzerland and they married after a whirlwind romance. He actually knows nothing whatever about her.

Dr Davidson believes he is close to a breakthrough on the project. In fact he is closer than he thinks to finding an answer but it’s not the answer he  expects, or wants.

Apart from the nifty central idea the movie’s biggest strength is the very fine acting from all the principals. John Neville does well as the increasingly harassed and concerned Dr Davidson. Patrick Newell is a delight as the jovial but shrewd security chief. Philip Stone is excellent as Davidson’s sympathetic but worried boss. Gabriella Licudi is suitably mysterious as Julie while Jean Marsh (a very fine actress) makes the most of a fairly minor role as Davidson’s secretary. 

Director John Krish had a lengthy if not terribly distinguished career. He does a fine job here, wisely opting for an unobtrusive approach that allows the weirdness of the material to tell its on story although he does make occasional and judicious use of techniques such as Dutch angles.

This is science fiction with a dash of horror, but horror done in a moody low-key way.

It’s also the kind of science fiction that works very well on a low budget, where the material is chosen in such a way as to allow intelligent science fictional themes to be pursued without the necessity for elaborate special effects. In fact this film employs no actual special effects at all, because they are not needed. This kind of budgetary constraint can (and in this case certainly does) work in a movie’s favour, encouraging imagination, atmosphere and intelligence rather than spectacle.

The movie was shot widescreen and in black-and-white. 

Both stylistically and thematically it’s slightly reminiscent of Wolf Rilla’s superb 1960 John Wyndham adaptation Village of the Damned. In fact the story itself has some affinities with Wyndham’s work.

Network’s Blu-Ray presentation is  pretty good although I’m not totally convinced that older black-and-white movies really need to be released on Blu-Ray - they usually look just as good on a high quality DVD release. Nonetheless Network are to be commended for making this interesting oddity available to us.

Unearthly Stranger is a quirky little gem of a movie. It’s a very weird idea that is approached with subtlety and restraint and that approach makes it all the more effectively eerie. Highly recommended.

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