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DVD SAVANT

THE Unearthly


The Unearthly
Image Entertainment
1957 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 70 min. / Street Date August 6, 2002 / $24.99
Starring John Carradine, Myron Healy, Allison Hayes, Marilyn Buferd, Arthur Batanides, Sally Todd, Tor Johnson
Cinematography W. Merle Connell
Art Direction Daniel Hall
Film Editor Richard C. Currier
Original Music Henry Vars
Written by Geoffrey Dennis and Jane Mann
Produced and Directed by Brooke L. Peters (Boris Petroff)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An outfit called AB/PT attracted a lot of industry attention in 1957; it was a joint production venture by the American Broadcast Company and Paramount Theaters, a pioneering teaming of a theater chain and a TV network. For all the attention, it must have been some kind of corporate decoy - the three measly films produced by the company, Eighteen and Anxious, Beginning of the End and The Unearthly, made no waves, even in a market anxious for original product. The real mystery of AB/PT is why such big companies joined to make such low-grade grindhouse fodder.

The exhibitors who were offered The Unearthly must have been awed by its total lack of excitement - there were plenty of monster 'thrillers' coming out at the time, but few as minimal as this. The marquee presence of John Carradine was about all it had to offer, as the cult reputations of Allison Hayes and Tor Johnson were years away from forming. Yet for all its crudity, The Unearthly is strangely watchable, especially on this perfect-looking DVD.

Synopsis:

Patient Grace Tomas (Allison Hayes) arrives at the country clinic of Dr. Charles Conway (John Carradine), there to join Natalie Anders (Sally Todd) and Danny Green (Arthur Batanides) for the doctor's psychological cures, overseen by his helpers Sharon Gilchrist (Marilyn Buferd) and Lobo (Tor Johnson). Unbeknownst to them, Conway is conducting experiments in immortality through gland transplants and radiation therapy, which has unfortunately resulted in a cellar-ful of mutated, mindless zombies. Into this mix comes an escaped crook, Frank (Myron Healy). Rather than be exposed by the doctor, Frank agrees to keep quiet, a pleasant enough accomodation considering that Grace is around. But the more Frank sees of the doctor's secrets, the less he likes it.

First of all, this must be the movie that Woody Allen was thinking of when he created his mad doctor parody in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, the episode where Carradine gleefully shouted, "Imagine, birth control for an entire nation - at once!" Carradine's not nearly as animated here, but he shows a lot more oomph than in his depressing one-day assignments in things like Invisible Invaders, Half-Human, The Incredible Petrified World, or Invasion of the Animal People. He's actually quite touching, when he finds out that yet another of his gland transplants hasn't had the result he hoped for. We expect rage, and instead he just looks inconsolably sad. Many mad movie doctors have altruistic reasons for their crazy experiments, but poor Dr. Conway comes off as a not-too-bright guy who just didn't pay enough attention in med school.

The Unearthly is one of those pictures where the plot makes so little sense, the events of the story seem to be happening in a different Z-picture world. Suffering from nervous attacks, Grace allows herself to be interned in a very-ordinary house, checking in without any bags, for a 'treatment' that's never explained to her. For a person with shot nerves, she takes the sight of the hulking, mentally impaired Lobo at the front door remarkably calmly. Doctor Loren Wright (Roy Gordon) refers the patients who become Conway's guinea pigs, and drives some of them up to the house himself. How he expects to evade police questioning about all the people who vanish under his care, is a mystery. Dr. Conway is conducting ghastly surgeries, yet he makes no provision to keep his curious guests from wandering outside their rooms. The first thing Conway does when he confronts Frank, a stranger, is to tell the presumed escaped killer every detail of his illegal operation. Why does he allow such a loose cannon to poke around? Conway catches Frank sneaking about more than once, yet suspects nothing.

John Carradine, who in these years was augmenting stage work by taking nearly every screen offer that came along, surely knew what he was getting into. For a substandard acting fee, his famous name would be used as bait for yet another pitiful film, further tarnishing his reputation. He's certainly professional. The other actors are clearly seeking a good showcase for their faces, and probably happy to be working in anything. Myron Healey gets his name misspelled in the credits, but shows he's capable of better things. He had a healthy career as a character actor, after long years playing bits (in just 1948 and 1949, the IMDB has him appearing in 27 movies!). Allison Hayes, for all her cult fame now, has an awkward screen presence, even though this was her eleventh film. She's far more interesting in the next year's Attack of the 50-ft Woman. Sally Todd (Frankenstein's Daughter) is the definitive Playmate turned actress, and has more presence, but the few lines she's given prove she's no great actress either. Arthur Batanides does his best to impress with his grumpy act, and perhaps his nothing character helped get him work, as he also had a long career on television and the occasional film. As Conway's jealous assistant, Marilyn Buferd has the thankless role, but perhaps the most interesting career: Miss America of 1946, she worked for a decade in Europe in twenty or so films, among them Touchez pas au grisbi, one of the last of the hot '50s French crime films not to come to DVD.

Tor Johnson is even given a few dialogue lines, but he's not all that interesting, and neither are the 'shocking' makeups of Dr. Conway's victims. Sally Todd's pasty wrinkles look exactly like what they are, something applied to her face in a big hurry. The bunch of overweight, hairy monsters left behind in his basement would be more appropriate if Conway were trying to create cavemen, not immortals. The film's silliest scene is when Frank catches Lobo burying one of Conway's zombified victims, alive. Frank opens the half-buried coffin, the victim sits up, and then Frank pushes him down again!


Image's DVD of The Unearthly is one of those nigh-perfect, clean-as-a-whistle jobs that occasionally slip through the usual transfers of last-surviving, beat-up projection prints. This must have been the perfect original negative and track, untouched since the first release. The good news is that there are lots of fans who've only seen it on grim greymarket tapes, and they'll be thrilled by the clarity of sound and picture here. The only time the slightest hint of grain appears, is on a few shots that were probably given an optical blowup. Otherwise, it looks like a fresh lab copy from 1957. If only all of our favorite genre titles looked this good.

Image graces the cover with the film's attention-getting poster artwork, a cluster of shadowy monsters ogling an hourglass figure in a tight dress - Sally Todd's? The only extra is a gallery with a few stills and a lobby card. David Del Valle provides some pleasant liner notes, that end with a funny Tor Johnson story he heard from makeup man Harry Thomas.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Unearthly rates:
Movie: Poor+
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Still selection
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2002




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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