Unearthly Stranger (1963, directed by John Krish) often showed up on late night television from the late 60s through the 70s. Naturally, there is always a risk in revisiting a movie first seen during adolescence. Chances are that it may not hold up—and more often than not, that is the case. Or, one my find value in it, but for very different reasons.
Subdued, with a distinctly British flavor, The Unearthly Stranger has qualities similar to The Quatermass Experiment (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), I Married a Monster from Outer Space(1958), “The Twilight Zone,” and the “Outer Limits.” Shot on a low budget, this Independent Artists production does not rely on special effects, which would have inevitably dated by now anyway. Although short on action and surprises, its virtues are atmosphere, dialogue, and solid performances.
Unearthly Stranger opens with Dr. Mark Davidson ( John Neville, best known for The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen ) running through an empty city at night before reaching his apartment. Finding a tape recorder, he leaves a message: “In a little while I expect to be killed by something you and I know is here,” which segues into an extended flashback.
Shortly after the mysterious murder of fellow researcher Dr. Munro (Warren Mitchell), Davidson and Professor Lancaster (Phillip Stone) resume work on their government funded project, one which enables people to telepathically travel to other planets and potentially contact alien life. In addition to investigating Munro’s death, project supervisor Major Clark (Patrick Newell) has taken an abnormal interest in Davidson’s new Swiss wife, Julie (Gabriella Licudi). Lancaster, a close friend of Davidson’s, is also curious and surprised that he has not been introduced to the new bride.
Rather than putting any potential mysteries to rest, a dinner invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Davidson leads to a startling discovery when Lancaster catches sight of his friend’s wife removing a roast from a 250 degree oven without gloves on. Nothing in the film’s remaining time is as subtly chilling. One very curious theme is the finale’s revelation that all the women in the film are aliens and all the victims male. It is, perhaps, a misogynist’s nightmare that ends suddenly, without further exploration or explanation. While not a classic like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Unearthly Stranger is an obscure sleeper well worth seeking out.
Unfortunately, it is only available on a U.K. Pal Blu-ray. However, the DVD is available on a (rare) drive-in double feature from Sinister Cinema.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the almost equally obscure Chamber of Horrors (1966, directed by prolific TV producer Hy Averback), which falls into that category of a film from adolescence that doesn’t hold up, but is fun for sheer trashiness alone. Equipped with the “Fear Flasher” and “Horror Horn” to alert viewers of grisliness ahead, it’s a gimmicky film in the spirit of William Castle. Originally filmed as a pilot for a television series named “House of Wax” that never materialized, it was released (by Warner Brothers) as a theatrical feature. Despite being a box office success and ending in a cliffhanger, no sequel was ever made, which may explain its relative obscurity.
An unofficial remake of a 1953 film directed by Andre De Toth, Chamber of Horrors is the type of lurid pulp that, like its source inspiration, requires a ham performance at its center. Fortunately, Patrick O’Neal fits the bill once occupied by Vincent Price. With the decision to release the film theatrically, a few new scenes needed to be added to up the gruesomeness quota. In addition to that, the distributors needed a gimmick to hook its potential audience. Taken from a story by Ray Russell (who also wrote for William Castle), Chamber of Horrors is an odd hybrid, alternately feeling like a bland TV movie, a William Castle film that was never made, and a blatant ripoff of House of Wax.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see contains scenes so terrifying the public must be given grave warning. Therefore, the management has instituted visual and audible warning at the beginning of each of the FOUR SUPREME FRIGHT POINTS. The FEAR FLASHER is the visual warning. The HORROR HORN is the audible warning.”
Delightfully black-hearted lunatic Jason Cravette (O’ Neal) forces a priest, at gunpoint, to perform a marriage ceremony. However, the bride to be is a corpse whom Cravette had strangled. After kissing his bride and paying the parson, Cravette meticulously lays the dead woman out on the ceremonial wedding bed. Naturally, the priest runs to the local police station, and naturally the authorities arrive a few minutes too late. Fortunately, we do not witness any acts of necrophilia, although we gather that was case when, later, Cravette reenacts the scene in a brothel with a prostitute substituting for the dead woman. Caught and found guilty (after a psychedelic trial), Cravette escapes the train taking him to prison by taking an axe and chopping off his hand, which was handcuffed to an iron wheel.
Barry Kroeger (Chun Sing) fashions an array of hooked weapons for Cravette, which naturally our antagonist is going to use on unsuspecting souls. With the police and public believing Cravette drowned during his escape, his crime sagas have become fodder for the local House of Wax museum, run by busy character actors Cesare Danova and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Rather than enjoying the anonymity of being a dead celebrity, Cravette uses the prostitute Marie (Laura Devon) to lure the judges who condemned him into a hooked revenge, which ends with their murder and dismemberment.
O’Neal is perfectly cast, campily enunciating every line and melodramatically drawing attention to himself even in the way he lights his cigar. Tony Curtis has a cameo along with Patrice Wymore, Errol Flynn’s widow, but only Hyde-White can compete with O’Neal when he delivers the line “Anyone who can carve a paperweight out of a dead body deserves to be taken seriously.” The enthusiasm of both actors is contagious in this trash entertainment, which ends with the promise of more murders to come. Oddly, they never did. It is available on DVD as part of drive-in double feature from Warner Home Video (coupled with the equally trashy Brides Of Fu Manchu, starring Christopher Lee.