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Sunday, October 19, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 14: Not of This Earth (1957)

Screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna
Directed by Roger Corman

Paul Birch:  Paul Johnson
Beverly Garland:  Nadine Storey
Morgan Jones:  Harry Sherbourne
William Roerick:  Dr. F. W. Rochelle

And "Richard" Miller as the vacuum cleaner salesman, before he was Dick

It was the late Fifties, the age of Sputnik and the epoch of the TV dinner. A time when--in movies, at least--the monsters had to have some kind of scientific explanation for existing. Audiences expected to be thrilled by aliens and robots, not golems and werewolves. I'm guessing that ghost stories weren't particularly profitable at this point, and independent studios lived and died by the way they were able to respond to trends. They paid attention to what made money and what lost it, or they faded out of existence. But even if someone (like, say, Roger Corman) was making a movie about the vanguard of an alien invasion, they knew enough about the horror genre to take elements from something that was a smash hit a couple decades before when coming up with their story and grafting the old material on the new framework. Instead of a Hungarian-accented aristocrat we have a businessman in sunglasses. That's right--this movie is 50s sci-fi Dracula.

The film starts with the obligatory Threat-Establishing Casualty. You don't know there's a monster out there unless someone gets their ticket punched before the opening credits. In this case the sacrifice to the gods of narrative is a teenaged girl who hops out of a car after cutting short a necking session with her boyfriend. She's got a curfew, and is going to miss it because she gets ambushed by a stocky man wearing sunglasses at night. She gets taken out by his brain ray powers and he opens his briefcase, revealing a portable exsanguination kit. He takes off the shades to show super-creepy silvery milky eyes and the credits roll.

The story proper starts once we're done reading all the actors' names. The shades-wearing man parks his gigantic roadbeast of a car in a no-parking zone and goes into a medical clinic, where he requests an immediate transfusion and sets off the audience's warning bells immediately when his dialogue reveals a near-total lack of knowledge of basic postwar American society. He also refuses to get his blood tested before the transfusion and when the doctor's intercom goes off the buzzing seems to cause him physical pain. He uses "Paul Johnson" as his Earth name and expects the doctor to just take his word for it that he's type O. When he sees that just making demands of the doctor isn't going to pay off he picks up a scalpel and slices his hand, but there's no blood from the wound. The doctor is fascinated, but still won't go ahead with the transfusion without further tests.

"Johnson" decides his spent enough time making nice with the hairless pink monkey that won't put blood in his veins and uses mind-control powers on him in order to secure his help and keep him from telling anyone about his fascinating new patient. The doctor draws blood from his new patient and we get lots of somewhat convincing-sounding SCIENCE TALK! about the way Johnson's blood is decaying in his veins. Apparently thinking that he doesn't want to drive to the clinic whenever he's a pint low, the alien first hypnotizes his doctor into ordering the nurse to transfuse him (and the doctor can't explain why even while telling Nadine Story to hook Johnson up to the IV drip). Then he takes the pragmatic step of vastly overpaying Nadine to be his live-in transfusion nurse.

When he gets ready to leave, Johnson sees a motorcycle cop writing him a ticket for the four simultaneous traffic laws he broke while parking his behemoth car. Nadine says--truthfully--that Johnson was in imminent danger of death when he parked his car the wrong direction in a no-parking zone in front of a fire hydrant on the wrong side of the street and he doesn't get the ticket. Officer Sherbourne does take the opportunity to harass Nadine a bit at the scene, and then Johnson goes home with a police escort.

Every Dracula needs a Renfield, and Johnson has one to take care of his mundane affairs--a petty criminal named Jeremy Perrin. He spots the motorcycle cop instantly (and it turns out that Sherbourne recognizes him in return). Johnson orders his chauffeur to prepare a room for Nadine; when he catches his henchman spying on him as he puts blood in his fridge (and it's full of blood bottles), he paralyzes his lackey with his brain powers and then says the next time Perrin pokes his nose into Johnson's business it'll be a death sentence. Perrin lets Nadine into the house when she arrives and sleazes at her as only a Jonathan Haze character in the late Fifties can. And we get another "not from around here" clue when Johnson locks Nadine into her bedroom from the outside after she retires for the evening. He says that where he comes from--not that he names the place, of course--nobody would ever sleep in an unsecured room overnight.

In his living room that night, Johnson turns on his space Skype machine and talks to his leader, who informs him that their race is in danger of extinction and that they need more blood--all the races they've conquered to feed themselves are getting used up. We get a length-padding sequence where the five phases of Johnson's mission are told to him by the commander and then repeated back. He's to study humans, send more blood back to the planet Davanna, send a live human through the matter transmission beam to be vivisected on his home world, and test to see if human blood will kill him (if he dies during phase 4, it is considered a mission failure; I love weird dark jokes like this). Phase five will be one of two things--either the subjugation of humanity to serve as a food source for Davanna if our blood is nutritious to the aliens, or the destruction of the planet if we're of no further use to the Davannans. The entire conversation is done via telepathy, which means there's lots of shots of immobile faces with voiceovers throwing dialogue around and it looks kinda goofy.

Perrin's making breakfast the next morning (with a gun in a shoulder holster; personally, I prefer my chef to remain unarmed until the dishes are cleared away). Johnson doesn't eat a bite of the no doubt tasty breakfast, but puts some fizzies in a glass of water and makes the Davannan equivalent of Tang. When he delivers Nadine's breakfast, the pair talks for a little while about the sheer oddness of their mutual employer. Renfield is willing to put up with quite a lot of strangeness for $300 a week (which shakes out to $2,540 a week in 2014 dollars; I'd put up with a lot for that much myself). While talking about the things Johnson expects him to do for that salary, Perrin says one of his duties is taking little gold nuggets to pawn shops and jewelry stores to get them converted to American currency. Then he's an impertinent jackass to Nadine and she slaps him. Good.

Later on, Johnson is feeling much better after a transfusion and he gives Nadine the afternoon off. Which means that she's out back swimming in the in-ground pool when DICK MILLER! rings the doorbell and tries to sell Johnson a vacuum cleaner (door-to-door salesmen were the telemarketers of 1957). It's a neat little scene, as all Dick Miller performances are. He talks his way inside so that he can demonstrate the vacuum cleaner in the cellar. Johnson hypnotizes him, zaps him with his alien mind-blast powers and Miller's body gets stuffed in the furnace, completely drained of blood. Later on, out for a drive (Renfield's behind the wheel as Johnson is willing to admit he's not up to snuff driving in California), the car gets cut off and when Perrin hits the horn it hurts Johnson and he curtly reminds his driver never to do that.

And while they're out for a spin, Nadine notices there's smoke coming from the chimney and sneaks downstairs to see what's going on. She finds some empty jars that we the viewers know were Johnson's blood containers but the nurse doesn't get the significance at all. She happens to leave her bathing cap downstairs for Johnson to discover later. Doctor Rochelle and a friend of his (who is some kind of higher-ranking police officer than Sherbourne) stop by; Nadine and the cop talk while Johnson and Rochelle confer about the alien's condition. The doctor hasn't figured out why Johnson's blood is evaporating in his veins but has some promising avenues of research going; also, honestly, he's been working on this disease for less than a week. The transfusions appear to be keeping Johnson stable, which is something the invader needed to know for one of the phases of his plan.

The police start monitoring Johnson's house because they know he's got a small-time hood working for him, and somehow they miss Perrin inviting three Komedy Drunk homeless men over for dinner. Johnson kills all three of them with his mental powers and drains their blood while Nadine and Officer Sherbourne go for a walk in the park. Back at the house, the cop tells Nadine that he has a funny feeling that he can't quite articulate about Johnson and Perrin and whatever they're up to. And when we get a scene back at the police station, the viewer finds out that thirteen bodies have been found with puncture wounds in the neck and bled dry. They express relief that the newspapers aren't blaring that story yet (but it's got to be just a matter of time before someone finds out that there's a spree killer who thinks he's a vampire on the loose in the city). There's also a missing persons case that the police mention--a vacuum cleaner salesman vanished on his route.

Johnson asks Nadine about chemotherapy and cancer treatments; she's not qualified to answer the questions, so the invader switches to subtly (for him) trying to find out whether or not anyone will go looking for his nurse if she vanishes suddenly. He decides not to risk it and instead mentally compels a random Asian dude on the street to come home with him and walk into the teleporter beam in his hidden closet so he can get sent to Davanna and sliced to pieces while he's still alive. The mental conversation takes place in what I think is Mandarin Chinese, so either Johnson knows that language or his mind-control powers work as a universal translator--which I think is pretty neat. It makes sense that a purely mental command would be understood by the recipient, right?

During the "send a random innocent person to the alien homeworld to be vivisected" scene, Johnson has another conversation with his leader. Riots are everywhere on Davanna and Johsnon gets a three day deadline to establish whether or not Earth blood will kill him. Meanwhile, Nadine and Perrin are talking in the kitchen. Perrin shows that he's a cheap hood but not a completely conscienceless sociopath by mentioning the three winos and the Asian dude that entered the house and never left it--he knows something weird is up but I'm sure "actually the brusque asshole who pays my salary is a stealth vanguard for an alien race bent on planetary conquest" is not the first thing he's thinking. Maybe the fifth or sixth. Nadine takes a sample of the Science Drink that Johnson has every morning and sneaks it to the clinic to have it analyzed.

Johnson tells his Renfield that he found Nadine's bathing cap in the cellar, and is not happy about that at all. Meanwhile, at the clinic, Nadine asks the doctor to analyze the TrueBlood sample and another nurse brings in a sample of blood from a rabid dog that's kept in the fridge next to all the other blood samples, which is probably really safe (even if the nurse labeled it carefully that seems like quite a contamination risk to me). Nadine tells Dr. Rochelle that she's meeting Sherbourne at a local restaurant called the El Dorado for dinner, and the doctor says he'll bring the test results along that night.

Another alien shows up--this one's a woman moving hesitantly in the alien (to her) world. She meets up with Johnson at a newsstand and they have a telepathic conversation where she reveals that the planetwide war on Devanna is spasming to an end. The blood supply is very low and she fled to Earth during a riot via Zeta beam. Johnson says she'll be his assistant on Earth (which means Perrin's probably getting brain-zapped in the very near future). The newcomer also tells Johnson that they're stranded on earth; when the human vivisection victim made it to Davenna he was crushed to a pulp and compressed to the size of a paperback. Humans can't survive matter transmission to Davenna and there's some mumbo-jumbo about the aliens not being able to return for the same reason.

So now it's time to check in with the happy couple at the El Dorado along with Dr. Rochelle. He's figured out that the drink is some kind of superconcentrated nutrient that's far beyond anything on Earth and Nadine gets the following wonderful line that is even better out of context:  "Do you think it's possible to reproduce Johnson's unit?". When the doctor finds out that Johnson is the source of the wonder nutrient drink the telepathic geas that he's under won't let him talk about it any more and he gruffly orders dinner.

While everyone's out of the clinic, Johnson and the other alien sneak in for an unauthorized transfusion. Johnson figures out how to rig up the drip feed for his companion but hooks up the rabid dog blood, as everyone watching the movie has been waiting patiently to see. When the transfusion is done Johnson sends the alien woman to a hotel, correctly predicting that they'd be much more suspicious together than either one would be alone. She collapses outside the clinic and the doctor happens to see her freaky alien eyes as she expires. The doctor calls the police who notify Nadine to get the hell out of the house.

Being a feisty Fifties heroine in a Roger Corman movie, she sneaks around and tries to find out what's going on instead. She and Perrin find the space radio and transmat beam in Johnson's closet and when the alien returns home he listens in on a phone conversation that tells him he killed the other alien by accident and that everyone on Davanna would have to flee to another, less devastated world in order for the transfusion cure to work. But the good news is that a complete blood transfusion will cure Johnson's blood condition once and for all.

During a confrontation, Perrin pulls his gun on Johnson and finds that it's a bad idea to bring a pistol to a brain-destroying mental power fight. Johnson grabs Nadine but her piercing scream hurts him so badly that he lets her go. She flees on foot and the alien sends this goofy-ass octopus/bat/umbrella creature after the doctor before chasing her; the one-scene wonder monster lands on the doctor's head and kills him (and the blood that trickles out is the first blood actually spilled in the film; all the other blood was neatly collected and stored). Nadine calls the police station and a jerk cop blows her off until Sherbourne overhears the conversation and charges to the rescue on a police motorcycle (along with another cop who serves as backup and will inevitably get killed to increase the tension during the final chase).

Nadine, under hypnotic command, walks back to Johnson's house slowly while the chase proceeds at a much more rapid pace--and the crosscutting between the two differently paced sequences is a real treat. Sherbourne hits the siren on his motorcycle and the pain distracts Johnson enough to drive off the road, crash and burn. His secrets go up with the car, although his tombstone gives us the movie title:  "Here Lies a Man Who Was Not of This Earth". At the graveside, Sherbourne actually sympathizes with Johnson a little bit, while Nadine is happy he's dead and isn't going to manufacture a drop of sympathy for the guy who tried to kill her.

And the last shot, of course, is another man in a black suit and sunglasses, carrying a Ronco Pocket Blood-Drainer in a briefcase, walking towards the camera.

Man alive, Corman keeps his movies jam-packed with incident. This one's only an hour and seven minutes long but we get all kinds of things happening start to finish. A budget-minded alien invasion, mind control, comic relief winos, some fantastic "I am totally an alien" dialogue whenever Johnson talks to someone, a brief scene of Beverly Garland in a swimsuit, a dinner scene, and a floating monster that gets brought into the film for exactly one scene, never to be heard from again (I like to imagine the monster and Dick Miller getting lunch together and complaining about how little screen time they get in the film). He might have been making movies as quickly and cheaply as possible but he wrings adequate-to-great performances from his actors and it's great to see how he updates vampirism for a science fiction scenario rather than a supernatural horror one (Johnson shows up in mirrors and can walk around perfectly well in the daylight, for example, because the only thing Corman needs from the vampire legends is blood drinking. And for that matter they use needles and IV drips to feed the blood to their creature; "Paul Johnson" is a perfectly rational vampire for an age of science and rationality). And the human race gives the invader a decent burial and a headstone after he's gone, which shows that humanity isn't just the race of cattle to be dominated that the Davannans thought we were. It's the little touches that make the movie as entertaining and good as it is. There might not be as much spectacle or production values as you'd get in Forbidden Planet, but then again, this movie actually made money at the box office.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  The Nest

Yes, I Know:  Nosferatu, the Vampyre

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