Tuesday, 13 September 2016
Unearthly Stranger (John Krish, 1963)
(written in 2009 and previously unpublished)
To the sound of a pulsing alien hum that intensifies into an ear-splitting squeal, a forlorn and desperate Dr Mark Davidson runs through the inkily damp, lamplit London streets to his office at the Royal Institue for Space Research, where he charges up the spiral staircase, parks himself in front of a Grundig reel-to-reel, waits for Edward Williams’ music to stop, and then begins to speak his final words into the microphone: ‘John, in a little while I expect to die ... to be killed, by something you and I know is here, visible, yet moving unseen, amongst (here fixing the viewer with a significant raise of his eyebrows) us all, each moment of the day and night. There were times when you thought I was insane, but listen to this tape I beg you, so you know what it is you have to fight. Or is it too late? Even if I had known what I know now, could I, or anyone, have held back … the terror?’
So begins Unearthly Stranger, John Krish’s treatment of the ‘they are here with us already’ fiction. In truth, its dramatic start is a little at odds with the fairly low-key approach of the rest of the film, nearly all of which takes place in an office suite, a cottage and a car in a lane, and whose best bits are in the details rather than the overall conception. (Its opening is nothing next to the ludicrously inaccurate text used for the posters; anyone enticed into the cinema with the words ‘Terrifying … Weird … Macabre, Strange things walk among the living to quench their vile desires’ would have nursed a justifiable grievance on their exit). In terms of the plot, the real beginning comes with Professor Munroe (a Scottish Warren Mitchell) announcing to Miss Ballard that he has solved the first part of a formula and that she should immediately telephone his colleague with the news. Well, Jean Marsh’s face full of foreboding is unlikely to be a wasted on the minor role of a secretary without an ulterior motive. Very soon afterwards, the alien shrieking (seemingly made up of strings, squealing train wheels and ghostly cries punctuated by the occasional whiplash twanging of overhead train lines) fills the air, the camera tilts, there is the sound of an explosion and Professor Munroe, brain ‘blown out of existence’, is no more.
Called back from Switzerland, with his mysterious new wife in tow, Dr Davidson takes over Munroe’s job at the experimental research unit. An intense, pursed-lipped boffin, with little more than a slide-rule to help him solve the unit’s pet theories of harnessing the power of concentration to enable minds to travel across time and space, he is also – surprisingly for one engaged in such research – unerringly and irritatingly dim to the conclusions that certain facts, such as his unblinking wife not having a pulse, might awaken in others. In fact, characterisation in the film is inconsistent throughout, with knowledge and scepticism regarding who knows and suspects what passed around like a game of pass the parcel. ‘You will find there must be some logical explanation,’ says the momentarily sniffy Professor Lancaster of Munroe’s mysterious death, moments before outlining his Department X theories of mind-space travel using ‘a hitherto unknown force that lodges in the back of all our minds – the force we call TP91’. Not being mentioned again, this mysterious force remains unknown for the remainder of the film too.
As security chap Major Clarke, Patrick Newell brings his enjoyable Dr Watson-ish persona to the mix, switching between sweetie-sucking Bunterish bonhomie and sly scepticism, occasionally even turning on an assassin’s grin. He unwittingly hits the nail on the head to Davidson when he asks him about his new wife: ‘She’s a alien isn’t she?’, ‘She was born in Switzerland,’ flat-bats Davidson in reply. When the Major visits said wife Julie in her home, his enigmatic, man-in-the-moon face seems to imply that he could well be an unearthly stranger himself, though this tricksy notion is soon quashed when he, and Davidson’s precious documents in his hand, are zapped by an attack of the alien squeals.
The film makes good use of simple effects, such as picturing Davidson against a blind which makes shifting binary pattern criss-crosses with the lined opaque glass behind it, or the tear tracks that scald Julie’s cheeks after she has made a baby cry and repelled a playground full of children by simply staring at them over the fence (her particular ‘vile desire’ being to fall in love with the human being she is meant to kill). Notable too is the film’s dramatic music from composer Edward Williams (who would go on score David Attenborough’s Life on Earth), especially the moment when his romantic ‘new wife waiting at home’ theme curdles into something more sinister as Davidson enters the house to find Julie cataleptic on the bed.
Unearthly Stranger makes a few pointed barbs along the way about integration of foreigners into a society, not least when Davidson notes that the programme director’s wife wouldn’t need to undergo the same level of scrutiny as his, being from ‘a nice respectable English family’. Such lines add another dimension to the film that perhaps grew out of Krish’s own experience as the son of a refugee and who had also, in 1960, made the film Return to Life for the Foreign Office to celebrate World Refugee Year. This context makes Miss Ballard’s final lines linger in the mind. ‘You talk a lot about love,’ she says to Davidson, ‘love of freedom for example, but do you have it? Do you really have it? It’s an illusion, and we have learned to live without illusions.’
Lancaster and Davidson’s answer is a clumsy attack that sends her through the window, ignoring her warning that there are already too many of them to combat – something they soon realise the truth of as they lean over her empty coat and find themselves staring up at the encircling faces of ordinary women, who before that moment they would have passed in the street without a second glance.