Unearthly Stranger (1964)

One of a number of fondly remembered British sf films made in the early 60s (The Night Caller and The Mind Benders being otherly), Unearthly Stranger provided a rare early leading role for John Neville. Here he is superbly supported by Philip Stone and Gabriella Licudi in a story which, to my surprise, is not based on a novel, but on an original idea. The idea, of course, is old hat, even by the sf standards of the early 60s, but it's interesting to see a maturity of treatment which is all too rare in science fiction in the cinema.

A private research laboratory appears to be on the verge of making a breakthrough in space exploration - not by means of sending ships, but by flinging the human consciousness onto other worlds. The question is - have aliens already flung their consciousness to earth? When scientists on the project begin to die, Neville suspects yes. In the meantime, he is newly-married. His wife, ostensibly foreign, permitted him to notice her on a dark Italian road with mysterious powers in attendance. She does not satisfy the company's security checks - she has no personal or family records. She also has a number of oddly inhuman quirks on the feminine/domestic side - she can't blink, but when she learns to do so it is with the self-conscious flutter of a coquette. Neville's colleague watches her remove a hot dish from an oven without wearing oven gloves. Salt tears leave vivid scars on her cheeks. Neville is well aware of what all this means - after all, it was his his idea that aliens maybe already be present - he just refuses to believe it of his wife, which is where the film gets most of its drama, as well as some of its absurdities. Licudi's is quite a disingenuous character - she obviously has sexual and maternal instincts, but they are not complete; her very lack of design must seem beguiling to scientists. When she looks to her husband to complete her things begin to unravel, because he looks to his work for answers.

There are a number of quite striking scenes, the best of which is Licudi's brief stop outside a schoolyard; she watches the children at play, until they become aware of her not-quite-right presence and retreat en masse to the school building, no bell necessary, except perhaps the alarm bells set to ringing in their heads. And it is interesting to watch Stone move Neville to the inevitable conclusion during a series of increasingly fractious encounters between the two men - as Licudi's character struggles with its mission, the two men are almost cruelly discursive, but it's hard to see how it could be any other way.

Ultimately, the aliens are all female, as confirmed by the striking final shot. I'm almost tempted to speculate that there is no better position to abuse than that of perennial female assistant, or demure wife, and that the aliens are aware of this and use it to their advantage - that our weak spots are prejudices and inequalities because they can be exploited in ways we can't imagine by beings who understand them as strategy rather than as tactics.

Unearthly Stranger is, for the most part, brilliantly shot, acted, and directed and well-worth seeking out. It is something of a rarity and it would be a real treat to see it cleaned up for a DVD release.

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