Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)
Today we have a classic b-movie from the Golden Age of science fiction. This is another cheaply and quickly made little movie that has been unfairly stomped on by film critics for the last 50 years. It's not good by any means, but it did a pretty darn good job of entertaining me right up to the last frame, and since I have the attention span of a sugared-up 8-year old, that says a lot. The title is just a way to get idle teenagers to come see it at the drive-in, it really has no bearing on the story, other than that the aliens do appear to be youngish.
Let's get it on...
We open at an isolated location near an old mine shaft in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles. A UFO comes down to land out of the dawn sky. Out come four humanoid aliens who look exactly like twentysomething white middle-class American kids, except for their matching jumpsuits with "V" stripes on the front. They wander around doing atmospheric tests, using some funky machines and spouting technobabble. One of them, named Thor, has a shoot-first mentality to every situation and uses his cool-beans RayGun to vaporize a stray dog that was sniffing around them.
Exiting the spaceship hatch, we only see this one angle of it (probably all there was built).
"I have brought to you, oh people of Earth, this holy cheese grater."
They bring out a baby Gorgon to see if it can survive the atmosphere. The Gorgon is just a lobster filmed in half-light with some spooky music cues, but a lobster can be pretty scary all on its own with those googly eyes and chittering claws. The Gorgon isn't a fan of Earth's atmosphere and croaks. This is bad because this is why the aliens landed here to begin with, to see if Gorgons could survive here. These aliens harvest the Gorgons for food, but because they quickly grow to mammoth size overnight, they have to find planets to act as breeding and grazing lands. They can then safely harvest them from the air.
One of the crewmen has the vanilla whitebread name of Derek and he will be our film's hero. While the other aliens are busy taking air samples and salivating over the prospect of turning Earth into grazing lands, Derek finds a tag in the dog skeleton and decides based on that that this is a civilized planet (like you couldn't detect anything from orbit?). Derek (idealistic youth personified) protests that they need to leave, he's been reading banned books and thinks that all life deserves respect. He even pulls out his RayGun and demands they leave. Wow, he looks like Harry Connick, Jr., doesn't he?
Derek and his forbidden book (maybe it's a Dan Brown novel).
Derek may have big dreams but he's pretty wimpy and is quickly disarmed and held captive. But the rest of his crewmembers aren't any more bright than he and Derek is able to escape when the captain goes back into the ship to talk to HQ and the other guys are distracted by something shiny. After Derek is gone (no one thinks to run after him and tackle him?), the captain tells them that he just learned that Derek is the son of their Leader and thus the heir to the throne, though no one knew this until now, so he must be captured alive.
After Derek flees, the Gorgon suddenly revives itself, it is now flourishing, having somehow "gotten used to" the atmsphere. They decide to put it in the nearby mine shaft for the rest of the day and then come back tomorrow and see how it does (and bring thousands more, just in case). They have to leave immediately (why?) but the captain picks the violent Thor (who has a grudge to settle) to go after Derek and bring him back here for when they return with the fleet tomorrow. Armed with his trusty RayGun, Thor sets off in pursuit.
Thor and the captain talk (you can tell he's the captain by the two stripes).
Meanwhile, Derek has wandered into the outskirts of Los Angeles and is amazed at the breadth of human civilization (but not too amazed, populated alien planets must be common). All he has is the address from the dog tag, and he stops at a gas station and asks the attendant (remember when stations had those?) where it is. The address matches a small suburban house on a quiet street. There he meets Betty, a perky young woman who will be our romantic lead. Betty is pure 1950s, with an awesome curled and bobbed haircut and a torpedo bra thick enough to stop a howitzer round. The only thing annoying about her is her squeaky voice, which sounds like Shirley Temple on speed.
Betty, she has one white, scoop-neck, low-hem dress that she wears the entire movie.
Betty lives here with just her Grandpa, and they happen to have a room for rent. Since he seems like a nice boy (if distant and odd), they offer it to Derek, even though he doesn't yet have a job to pay the rent. Derek is inquisitive about human family relationships, as on his planet siblings and parents are kept away from children from birth. He also can't answer any questions about where he is from, though he's able to distract them enough that they stop asking after a bit. Betty is going to a swim party down the street and she invites Derek along (good thing he has a normal name!). It should be clear to everyone by now that Betty is smitten with this handsome, mysterious stranger.
Anybody see Starman?
Betty teaches Derek how to drive a car on the way over and he's suddenly an expert (though he is from a technologically-superior alien race and a car can't be more complicated than a spaceship). At her friend's house, he meets the skanky bikini girl in the pool who hits on him two seconds after he arrives. He drops the dogtag accidentally and now has to explain to Betty that her dog Sparky is dead (what was her dog doing way out at that mine anyway?). She's understandably not in the mood for swimming, saving Derek the embarrassment of having to put on swim trunks and have them see that his species keeps their genitals on their kneecaps (anyone...?).
Derek drives Betty out to the old mine shaft to see Sparky's skeleton, and while he doesn't come out and say it, he describes the RayGun and hints that it's otherworld technology. Betty, a bit naive at times, misses this and suggests that they go visit a science teacher she knows at the local college. Because, you know, scientists know everything about alien technology.
Remember when boys put on a suit coat and dress pants to go to a pool party? Good times.
Meanwhile, Thor has caught a ride into the city with a passing motorist, learning how to drive along the way (we listen to a fifteen second explanation of how a car works, which really is about all you need to get started behind the wheel anyway). At the same gas station Derek stopped in at, Thor's driver pulls in. When he learns that Derek was in the area recently, Thor freaks out and nukes the attendant and the driver with his RayGun and steals his car. Thor kills without remorse or pity, a quality that he never loses throughout the entire movie. The effects of the RayGun on humans are like the dog, all that remains are bleached white skeletons. Later we learn that these weapons work by destroying living tissue at the molecular level, which is fine, but what about clothes, watches, boots, etc? Also, the skeletons are still fully articulated, even when handled, making you wonder what ligaments are made of it not living tissue (and the prop still has company marks and hanging pins on it, but that's ok, they had to return it to the costume shop in the same condition they borrowed it in). The optical effect for the RayGun zapping is just a mirror attached to the end of the barrel and an off-screen light reflected off it. Cheap, yet vastly more effective than scratching lines on a negative in my opinion.
Thor goes to Betty's house (the attendant told him someone wearing similar clothes went there), where Grandpa tells him they went to the pool party. Despite Thor's gruff and demanding demeanor, Grandpa figures that they are both with some military unit and is happy to help. Thor goes there but finds only the bikini girl in the pool. She tries to put the moves on him (best neighbor ever!) but when Thor gets agitated she tries to escape by swimming away. Apparently not realizing that young girls in swimsuits are at a premium here on Earth, Thor nukes her as she reaches the ladder. Slick filmmaking as they fake boiling water around the skeleton by tossing in baking soda right before turning the camera on.
Dude, seriously, go roast your own women, leave ours alone.
Once he returns to Betty's house, Grandpa tells an extremely not-in-a-good-mood Thor that the kids went to down to the college to talk to the teacher (Grandpa doesn't know what problems he's causing). At the college, which looks more like an elementary school, Derek and Betty have some mix-ups with timing and Thor gets to the teacher first and nukes him when he doesn't have the answers he demands. Derek, Betty, and the teacher's unsettlingly hot secretary come across the skeleton of the old man in his desk chair and Derek instantly knows that one of his fellow aliens is on the loose in the city.
The hot secretary and the kids react to the horrible sight, she's going to have to get a new job now.
Realizing he's putting Betty in danger, Derek tries to get her to leave and go somewhere safe, but she refuses to leave his side. This is the first of a half dozen instances where Derek tells her to leave to protect herself and she steadfastly refuses and Derek just meekly says, "Yes, dear." In fact, she never really does anything he tells her to do. For a 1950s movie, it gets amusing after a while seeing Betty flat out ignore him and do whatever she feels like doing. It's Betty's idea to call the cops and drive downtown to police station.
"Derek, I have listened to your demands and your reasoning and have decided to disregard them completely. Now be a nice boy and go make me a sandwich."
Thor goes storming back to Betty's house a third time (he doesn't know where else to go) and kidnaps Grandpa (too fat to run away effectively), forcing him to drive him down to the police station to intercept Derek. Both cars arrive there at the same time and Thor gets into a gunfight with the group of armed cops standing on the front steps as Derek and Betty run for cover. Two cops are nuked but Thor takes a couple of bullets to the arm and chest and has to slink off. Where before I lauded them for not using negative scratches for the RayGun, here I have to pound them for using that same old technique for the cops' pistol fire. When you don't have enough money in the budget for blanks, you know you are running a shoestring production.
The badly wounded Thor manages to hide in a car and kidnaps Derek and Betty as they later walk by and forces them to take him to a local doctor, who has a practice in his house (remember those days?). The Doctor digs out the two bullets without drugs (on Thor's orders, and under gunpoint, he needs to keep an eye on them) but he's not doing well at all. In a delirious state, Thor tells Derek that he's the heir to the throne. He also tells him that after he ran off the Gorgon revived itself, and that the fleet is coming in the morning to bring tens of thousands more. Thor loses consciousness eventually and they all escape, driving down to the police station again.
I don't know what he just dug out of Thor's shoulder, but that's way too big to be a pistol round.
The Doctor's Kitty Foreman-esque nurse shows up for work just then and finds Thor passed out on the floor of the office, bleeding badly. Kudos to her for jumping right in there and triaging Thor's wounds, even giving him a morphine shot to kill the pain. Of course she doesn't realize he's an extraterrestrial killer and when he awakes he takes her captive. He makes her drive him to the old mine shaft.
Remember when nurses poked you full of morphine without even asking your name? Really good times.
Oh, right, there's also this young newspaper reporter named Bill who is either Betty's boyfriend, friend that is a boy, or a family friend, it's never really explained, but if he was romantically involved with Betty she's totally moved on from him. Bill has been on the fringes of the story for a while and gets his first big scene now as he and another guy (a plainclothes cop?) go out to the old mine shaft to investigate. The cop goes into the cave and is eaten by the Gorgon. The Gorgon has grown larger by the minute and is now a beastie not to be trifled with.
Bill there on the right.
Bill jumps in his car to flee just as crazy Thor arrives, and there's a car chase down the curvy mountain road. The nurse jumps from the speeding car (!) and hops up unharmed (tough old bird, probably went ashore with the first wave at Tarawa fifteen years ago). Thor is still woozy from the morphine and he runs his car off the road and down a steep ravine. The cops show up and take the knocked-out and injured Thor to the hospital.
Once Bill reports the monster in the cave (now gone and presumed in the area), teams of searchers go out looking for the Gorgon. We see one group as they find it and are driven off with several killed. The "special effect" for the Gorgon has been lampooned for decades now, but it bears some coverage here as well. Simply not having the budget for a full-size monster suit, or even a Styrofoam claw on the end of a pole, or even that b-movie stalwart the back-projection screen, they just held their regular lobster up behind a glass plate so its reflected shadow appears on the screen as a blurry-edged, almost ghostly apparition that the on-screen actors interact with. But, seriously, is that any worse than a lot of the other b-movie monsters you see from the 1950s? The Gorgon is on the loose, ever-growing and threatening Los Angeles now. Hey, where is the military? Oh yeah, stock footage clips cost money back then, my bad.
They died from shame.
Derek knows that only Thor's RayGun can stop it, and since the cops didn't find it, it has to be somewhere near the car wreck still. He and Betty go out that night to the ravine to look for it. In a cutesy moment that you all knew was coming, Betty slips in the wet grass and falls into Derek's arms and he doesn't let go. Under the moonlight in the warm California night they kissy-kissy and Derek promises to never leave Earth (remember this). He tells her his big secret, that he's an alien from outer space, but she doesn't really care (ah, love...). There's more kissing and it looks like there might be some interspecies lovin' about to take place.
Ever try lying in the grass with a pretty girl? Chiggers, lots of ticks and chiggers, just sayin'.
The Gorgon takes this inopportune moment to attack! This is, of course, proof that premarital sex, even with aliens, will be punished by monster attacks, just like your mom warned you about. Derek finds the RayGun under a rock (?), but its power cell was damaged in the crash and it won't fire. Showing that it's totally possible to outrun a Gorgon (at least when it's this size), Derek and Betty reach the car and burn rubber.
Attack of the Gorgon.
Back home, Derek tries to fix the broken RayGun at the kitchen table with a screwdriver and a paperclip, but realizes that what he needs is a massive power source to energize the destructo-zappokillo'beam mechanism. It's Betty, actually, that gets him thinking about all those electrical power lines out on the street and he foments a brilliant plan. They jump in the car and go off in search of the Gorgon, which they find out in the woods outside the city. Hey, shouldn't the USAF be pounding the crap out of this thing? It's Southern California in 1959, there were like 30 Air Force Bases down there and a thousand jets that should be dropping everything not tied down on that beastie. Did I mention that stock footage costs money?
It needs a new thingamahootchie.
Betty uses a nearby emergency callbox by the side of the road (remember those?) to call the operator (remember those?) to connect her to the power generator station. She uses a combination of sweet talk and terrorized-girl hysteria to convince the guy at the station to first turn off the power while Derek climbs up a utility pole and cuts a wire loose, and then turn it back on when he gets back down and starts to fiddle with it. All this is accomplished by flipping two random, unmarked levers in a room that seems to have just a table and a telephone.
You'd think that he'd fry himself like a pancake by grabbing live wires in his bare hands, but clearly Derek's alien body chemistry is different than ours. By simply holding the sparking ends of the power line against the side of it, Derek gets the RayGun working just in time and kills the Gorgon. No surprise that there's no Gorgon skeleton, though, just a shadow-lobster sliding to the ground.
Killing the Gorgon.
But Derek knows the invasion fleet is on the way and he knows there is no other way to stop it and save Betty than to make the ultimate sacrifice. He's fallen in love with an Earth girl, and with the human culture in general, and he's afraid that it will all be destroyed soon. So Klaatu goe...I mean Derek goes back to Betty's house and gets his spaceman uniform and puts it on.
Derek knows the plan.
He forces Bill to drive him to the hospital and help him bust Thor out. Derek seems to have given up his recalcitrant ways, and claims he has had a change of heart and is now all for letting the Gorgons eat up the human race. Thor licks his lips with evil delight and they drive out to the old mine shaft to greet the fleet. By now the skies are thick with UFOs as the alien armada has arrived in preparation for the great Gorgon stampede. We get numerous shots of people looking up into the sky off-camera and gasping and pointing (vastly cheaper than actually showing the UFOs).
The point ship of the fleet lands and out comes the Billy Mays-lookalike Leader! He and Derek share a moment and he tells his son that he's been watching him for years from afar as he's made his way up through the ranks. Derek doesn't seem too phased with meeting the Leader face-to-face, nor the fact that he's his son, but he does ask for forgiveness for his rash actions from before. The Leader says it's ok, it was all the fault of those banned books he was reading, and when they get back to their planet they will rule the galaxy as father and son (come to the Dark Side...).
The Leader, is that a fake beard?
Derek asks about the leadership void back home, and the Leader says that it's a good thing that no one knows he's off-world because there might be a revolution (dumdumdum!). Derek then requests that he be allowed to send the landing orders to the robot spaceships hovering above carrying the Gorgons. He goes into the spaceship, but locks the hatch behind him! In there he commands the robot landing ships to crash land on top of him, saving Earth with his sacrifice. A quick stock footage clip of Mount Vesuvius exploding in 1944 and we're done. Betty and Grandpa have shown up by now and they lament the loss with tearful weeping. Unseen is the follow-up armada of laser-armed cruisers that lays waste to Earth in retribution, leaving it a smoldering barren rock for the next hundred million years.
Derek on the mic, breakin' it down for the peeps, shibbashibbashibba.
You know, this was such a cheaply-made movie that I can't help but wonder just how much would I have to spend to re-film this movie today (2009). Let's go over the list...
Cast: I'll be Derek, of course, and my lovely wife Suzie could be Betty (she'd Chernobyl on me if I kissed another actress, even for the sake of cinema). Our friend Waylon could be Thor, he's already got the military haircut and the desire to dominate the planet (only person I know who would seriously join a militia if he had the chance). Our other friend Cynthia and her genetically-perfect supermodel body can be the bikini babe in the swimming pool, my father-in-law could be the portly grandfather, and I'm sure we could find a dozen or so other people to rotate through the extra roles. Most of our friends would surely work for free (we'd just be asking for an hour or two total time each), but a couple of them would stay longer for a case of beer or a free pizza. Waylon would work all day and night just for a chance to see Cynthia in a bikini.
Props and Costumes: We need a few gray jumpsuits and some tacky belt buckles, shouldn't be a problem. Plus some masking tape for the pin-striping and $17 for hair gel to get my 'do to look like Derek's. Suzie's going to need an atomic-powered curling iron to get Betty's bob, but she's already got a cute dress and 3-inch pumps. [Editor Pam: I suggest that she just go with a wig, it'll be a lot easier. I think Betty's hair may have been a wig, anyway.] For the spaceship set I'd just need some sheet metal and an aluminum trashcan lid or two. The ship interior set could be the darkly-lit basement of a house with ten bucks worth of glass bottles lined up on a table. The RayGun (only need one) I could get in the toy department at Wal-mart, lots of choices. Hit it with a can of silver spray paint and presto, RayGun. The atmospheric testing gear could be my old KitchenAid three-speed blender spray-painted black with some assorted do-dads glued on. Lobster is $6.47 a pound down at Kroger's market. The Gorgon cage? Two bucks worth of chicken wire and two 3-quart stockpot lids turned upside down should do the trick. Cars would be easy, everyone has a car. The problem would be the nurse's car that crashed down the ravine. Maybe I could find a stock footage clip and match it up with an existing car? The skeleton? Mail order, I'd say, unless I could borrow one from the high school in town, surely the science department has one. The cop's guns? Waylon has a .38 (to hold off the Taliban paratroopers/Obama's communist stormtroopers), for the others I assume I could buy toy guns at Wal-Mart and spray-paint them, just keep the camera from lingering on them and no one will know. I'm going to have to buy a better suit.
Locations: It could all be filmed around where I live now, there are lots of country roads and gravel pits. Not sure about a cave, though there is a rock quarry nearby that might have something. A lot of larger public buildings in Fort Wayne could easily be used for various exterior locations. I could use my ex-wife's house to pose as Betty's house, I suppose, she still likes me a little. I don't know anyone with a swimming pool, but I could probably find an apartment complex somewhere up in the city that I could sneak into and film a few minutes in (that's the advantage of our modern digital camcorders, they are small enough that you don't have to lug around fifty pounds of power cords and tripods). I know I should get permits, but as long as I keep the motor running, they can't catch me.
Technical issues: All I should need is my DVD-RW camcorder and maybe a wired boom mike like they sell at Radio Shack. Just the basic video editing program that came with Vista should suffice for post work. Burn a soundtrack from library music and some quirky indie-rock albums (less chance the lawyers will eviscerate me) and it should all stitch together nicely.
I figure if I plan it all out ahead of time, storyboard my scenes, get all the props and costumes ready, I can get this puppy in the can in a week. Another week or so in editing time, helped greatly by the fact that I'm copying editing cuts from the original source material, and we're done. Total cost? I can't imagine why I couldn't bring it in for under $300. Slap it up on youtube, pimp it on my sites, and zing, internet sensation!
Wow, I think I might actually give this a go... I'm taking casting head-shots, just email them to me.
[Editor Pam: Sounds like a plan, Nate. I'd like to audition for the part of the alien leader. I've always wondered what I'd look like in a beard.]
The (other) End.
Written in November 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...