In 1971 (when I was 15) John List cold bloodedly killed his wife, mother and three children in their suburban Westfield, NJ home. He first murdered his wife and mother, made himself lunch, and waited for his three children to come home from school before ending their lives as well. He then cleaned up the murder scene, moved their bodies into their living room, and quietly disappeared for 18 years. The bodies weren’t even discovered for almost a month. The murders caused a sensation, and were on the front page of the New Jersey newspapers every day for weeks.
The List murders profoundly affected me. I couldn’t (and still can’t) comprehend a crime where a supposedly loving father brutally ends his cherished loved ones’ lives. The fact that the murders took place only several towns away from me made it a lot worse. For a while, I truly thought List was hiding out, and that he would look for another family to kill (like mine). That thought terrified me, and I wasn’t alone. For the next few weeks, I saw mothers in my neighborhood keeping their kids close and not letting them wander. It just seemed that List’s act wasn’t committed by a human being at all, but by something inhuman, evil, and totally alien. I even remember thinking that maybe List didn’t come from earth. Perhaps he was an alien in disguise.
Recalling my feelings about the List killings reminds me of sci-fi films where an alien comes to earth and assumes human form (it probably should remind me of serial killer movies, but it doesn’t; yes I’m weird). It’s such a delicious film concept that touches on the primordial fear of strangers from our childhood. Those fears go back to classic fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”
In the 1950s, these dormant childhood fears reared their head again when Americans became obsessed about communist infiltration. We were told that they were here, and that they looked like you and me, but wanted to destroy our way of life. Senator Joseph McCarthy began his hearings on un-American activities, and the drama was played out on TV in front of an entire nation. His obsessive search to find communists forced friends to betray friends; while it also ended careers and destroyed lives. And while this human tragedy played out, a new type of film emerged in the theaters: the alien in human form. These were films where the newcomer looked like you and me, but whose motives could either be good or evil.
The first (and best) example of this sub-genre is 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (TDTESS). The film tells the simple story of an alien named Klaatu (the great Michael Rennie) who comes to earth to warn us about our unchecked development of atomic power. Unable to get the nations of the earth to meet with him, Klaatu goes underground in an attempt to understand the people of earth. He is befriended by a single mom (Patricia Neal) and her son (Billy Gray). Intelligently directed by the great Robert Wise, “TDTESS” remains a phenomenal sci-fi film. Powerful, thought provoking, and thrilling, the film was a terrific first venture in the alien in human form film. But while TDTESS was one of the first, it certainly wasn’t the last. So let’s take a look at how films from different decades treated the idea of the alien next door…
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1. STRANGER FROM VENUS (AKA IMMEDIATE DIASTER) (Princess Pictures, 1954) – Director: Burt Balaban
In the rural English countryside, the locals see a UFO approaching. American Susan North (Patricia Neal) is distracted by the approaching craft, crashes her car, and is seriously injured. However, a mysterious stranger (Helmut Dantine) arrives at the wreck and heals her wounds. Later, the stranger goes to a local pub/inn and requests a room. His strange behavior puzzles the innkeeper. When Susan’s fiancé (Derek Bond) demands to know where she is, the stranger assures him that she is safe. Later that night (after Susan has returned to the inn), the visitor goes to the innkeeper’s room and cures his limp. The next day under repeated questioning, the stranger informs everyone that he is from Venus and that he is here to meet with world leaders to discuss earth’s use of atomic weapons. When government officials question him, he tells them that a ship with Venusian leaders will arrive in two days. The officials (including Bond) scheme to capture the craft. To further complicate matters, Susan is falling in love with the alien, as he is with her. Will the inhabitants of two different worlds be able to save the Venusians from the greedy earthlings?
Does this synopsis sound familiar? “Stranger from Venus” is one of the most blatant sci-fi rip offs of all time. Not only does the movie steal the basic plot and one of the stars of TDTESS, but it also steals the Christ-like qualities of the alien visitor. But while Robert Wise handled this aspect very subtlety in TDTESS, director Burt Balaban drives it all home very clumsily. Here, Dantine isn’t just observing earth behavior like Klaatu, he’s routinely performing miracles. Dantine is also one of the major problems with this movie. While Michael Rennie had tremendous charisma as Klaatu, Dantine is cold and colorless as the Venusian. Even worse, the film doesn’t show any of the alien’s superior technology. There aren’t even any interior scenes on the Venusian spacecraft! So while “Stranger from Venus” is earnest and does try to say something, its main problem is that it’s all been said more intelligently once before.
Quotable Movie Line: “Many months before our actual takeoff from Venus, elaborate preparations were begun. As part of that preparation, I spent 12 consecutive days conditioning my respiratory system to your atmosphere. This is not a simple task physically.”
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2. TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE (Topaz Films, 1959) – Director: Tom Graeff
A strange spacecraft lands in the California Hills. Humanoid aliens emerge and take readings with their instruments. When a local dog approaches them, the pup is fried to a skeleton by Thor (Bryan Grant). Shipmate Derek (David Love) chastises him, and believes that this strange planet has intelligent life on it. The other aliens scoff at Derek’s idea, and bring out a creature from their planet called a Gargon (it looks a lot like a lobster). The aliens believe that the earth’s atmosphere will make their Gargons grow into huge monsters (better alert the Red Lobster restaurant chain!). Derek runs away and Thor is sent to retrieve him. In the nearby town, Derek finds the owners of the slain dog (Dawn Anderson and Harvey B. Dunn). Both take pity on Derek and think that he’s just the new, sad kid in town. Later, Thor comes gunning for Derek. And that rather puny looking Gargon starts getting mighty large… and hungry!
I will never forget the first time I saw “Teenagers from Outer Space” when I was around 11. I caught it on a Saturday afternoon on CBS’s “The Early Show.” I thought it was so weird. I liked the idea of a runaway alien teenager, but so many other areas of the movie were spectacularly bad. Well, we now know that “Teenagers from Outer Space” is one of the most jaw droppingly peculiar films ever committed to celluloid. It features unusual-looking actors, flaccid direction, bad special effects, and oddball dialogue. But even with all this, the film remains watchable. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The actors seem unnatural and act very stiff. That could be because director Graeff recorded the sound for the film first, and then had the actors lip synch to their voices while they acted! For the disintegrating effects, Graeff had low-budget effects man Paul Blaisdell insert a mirror into the barrel of the toy ray gun prop which would then reflect a bright light back to the camera simulating a beam. Then Graeff would cut to a skeleton with dry ice around it. “Teenagers from Outer Space” is really odd and strange. You’ll either think it’s one of the worst movies ever made or just an eccentric no budget sci-fi flick.
Quotable Movie Line: “We live like parts of a machine. We don’t know our fathers or mothers. We’re raised in cubicles.”
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3. THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH (20th Century Fox, 1963) – Director: Maury Dexter
Scientist Dr. David Fielding (Kent Taylor) is one of the hottest scientists on planet Earth. He’s just successfully landed a robotic probe on Mars. The only problem is that the probe was destroyed just six minutes after landing on the red planet. An exhausted Fielding returns to California to be with his wife (Marie Windsor) and two kids. But while he’s there, he begins to see duplicates of his family, while his wife sees a duplicate of him! Is Fielding going crazy from overwork? It turns out that Martians have traced the radio waves from the probe back to Earth, and they’re none too pleased to have their world explored. Now they’re on Earth, and they want to replace Fielding and his family in order to sabotage the Mars’s Explorer project. Fielding’s determined to stop the invaders, but how can beings of energy be destroyed?
“The Day Mars Invaded Earth” is a neat low-budget sci-fi film. Director Maury Dexter abandons traditional sci-fi action and instead strives for mood and feeling. And he succeeds. The movie was filmed at the Doheny mansion in California, and Dexter does capture the emptiness and eeriness of the vast setting as Taylor walks around searching for the evil doppelgangers. This emptiness resonates with the viewer because it seems to reflect the emotional emptiness of the Fielding family. It’s unsettling seeing Taylor walk around, because you really don’t know when the aliens will pop up. It also helps that the aliens themselves are quite unusual; they are just clusters of energy that take a human shape. That’s an intelligent interpretation of alien life which has rarely been attempted in movies. Add these elements to the film’s downer of an ending (something quite rare for sci-fi in the 1960s) and you wind up with a minor classic. “The Day Mars Invaded Earth” is a rare treat; a smart and satisfying earthbound thriller.
Quotable Movie Line: “We’re not torturing. We’re observing. Even we can’t imitate without first studying our subjects. When the time comes, we’ll try to be what you people call humane.”
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4. THE HIDDEN (New Line Cinema, 1987) – Director: Jack Sholder
Detective Tom Beck is having a rough couple of weeks. He and his partner Cliff Willis (Ed O’Ross) have been searching for a brutal serial killer named Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) who has been carving a path of robbery and murder for the past 14 days. After a vicious car chase, DeVries is shot multiple times and is taken to a hospital where he lies in a coma. Beck believes the case to be over, but his superior (Clu Gulager) assigns Beck to a new partner, strange FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan) who insists that they go to the hospital immediately to see DeVries. When they arrive, DeVries is dead, and Gallagher tells Beck that they now have to look for the man who was in the bed next to DeVries. Beck is stunned when that man (who has no connection to DeVries) starts to commit the same robberies and murders that DeVries did. It’s only later that Gallagher (who has some strange habits of his own) tells Beck the truth; he’s an alien law enforcement agent who’s inhabiting a human body and searching for another alien in a human body. The problem is that the alien Lloyd is looking for likes to do only three things – rob banks, steal fast cars, and murder people. Beck desperately tries to comprehend the situation while the murdering alien sets his sights on inhabiting a new human host; an ambitious US senator who wants to be president.
If there was ever an overused genre in the 1980s, it was the cop buddy movie. “The Hidden” takes this hackneyed idea and turns it on its head. The film is a total delight from the opening car chase to the final, tender, emotional ending. Screenwriter Bob Hunt adds tremendous amounts of characterization to all the roles (including some of the minor characters). Beck is the hard driving, honest cop who lives for his wife and daughter, while MacLachlan is quite sympathetic as the lonely alien who wants to catch the killer that murdered his family. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the alien slug transfers itself from a paunchy businessman to an exotic stripper (played by heartthrob Claudia Christian). Christian is great as she looks in the mirror and slowly runs her hands over her form realizing that this new human shape has a unique power over the bodies of the men that it usually inhabits. Brimming with action and explosive set pieces, “The Hidden” is both a great cop buddy thriller and a unique and satisfying sci-fi film.
Quotable Movie Line: “Look doc. He killed twelve people, wounded twenty three more, and stole six cars, most of them Ferraris. He robbed eight banks, six supermarkets, four jewelry stores and a candy shop. Six of the people he killed he carved up with a butcher knife. Two of them were kids. He did all that in two weeks. If anyone deserves to go that way, it sure in the hell was him.”
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5. THE PUPPET MASTERS (Hollywood Pictures, 1994) – Director: Stuart Orme
In a small Iowa town, a group of young boys see a strange object land in a nearby forest and go to explore it. Meanwhile, the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI) receives a report of the landing and sends in a team to investigate. The team consists of director Andrew Nivens (a dapper Donald Sutherland), his son, agent Sam Nivens (Eric Thal), biologist Mary Sefton (Julie Warner), and agent Jarvis (Richard Belzer). Arriving on the scene, the agents find a “fake” flying saucer built by the boys who first saw the real UFO. The boys’ strange behavior (they refuse to look down Warner’s open blouse) convinces the team to go to the local TV station which ran a story on the real UFO and then ran a retraction. At the station, the program manager tries to shoot at Andrew and is instead shot by Sam. It’s only then that the team notices the slug-like creature that’s attached itself to the manager’s back. The team is able to capture the creature and bring it back to Washington. They realize that the creature is part of a hive with one voice that is intent on conquering the planet. It’s then a race against time as the OSI team try desperately to stem the ever-increasing number of humans who are carrying alien slugs on their backs.
It’s a real (and reel) shame that “The Puppet Masters”, the great seminal sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein, was turned into such a dull, homogenized film when it was finally brought to the screen by Hollywood Pictures (that’s Disney, folks). The novel was ripped off for decades by unscrupulous movie producers who used its basic plot without giving credit where credit was due. The novel screamed for a proper and reverent treatment. Instead, the resulting film is a tedious affair. One of the major problems is that is director Stuart Orme fails to inject any real energy into the film. Its pace is far too leisurely. The viewer needs to be thrust into a world where human life is in danger of being usurped by another stronger parasitic life form. Instead, all of the government officials treat the situation as if it were a minor flu problem and not the world-ending threat that it is. Another problem is that there is no chemistry between the three major stars. Donald Sutherland is so low-key as Andrew Nivens that he almost disappears. Nivens needs to be a Quatermass-like dynamo; instead it seems like he’s sleep walking through the role. Even worse are Eric Thal and Julie Warner. They generate no passion for each other. When Thal goes to back to Iowa to rescue Warner from the slugs, you want to scream at the screen “DON”T WASTE YOUR TIME!” “The Puppet Masters” was a troubled production. The screenplay was revised many times before production began. For a blow-by blow description of the agony that screenwriter Terry Rossio went through with the film, go to http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp15.Building.the.Bomb.html. It’s a great essay on how Hollywood destroys the creative process. The studio’s ability to destroy worked to perfection on “The Puppet Masters.” It was turned into one of the most disappointing alien invasion films ever.
Quotable Movie Line: “Wait a minute. Are you saying that these slugs are using us like puppets?”
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There are so many more alien next door movies (see below for a partial list) that they have become an institution themselves. I suppose that we will always be fascinated with the idea that that weird person next door might not be from this planet. I mean human beings would never do real horrible things to each other, right?
Additional Alien Next Door Movies:
1. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)
2. Alien High (1987)
3. Alien Predator (1987)
4. Bad Taste (1989)
5. The Body Stealers (1969)
6. The Brain from Planet Arous (1958)
7. The Brain Eaters (1958)
8. The Cosmic Man (1958)
9. Enemy from Space (1957)
10. The Human Duplicators (1965)
11. I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)
12. Invaders from Mars (1953 and 1986)
13. Invasion (1966)
14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978, 1993)
15. It Came from Outer Space (1953)
16. Men in Black (1997, 2002)
17. The Night Caller (1965)
18. Not of This Earth (1957, 1988, 1995)
19. Satan’s Satellites (1958)
20. Species (1995, 1998, 2004)
21. Strange Invaders (1983)
22. The Thing (1982)
23. They Came from Beyond Space (1967)
24. They Live (1988)
25. Unearthly Stranger (1963)
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Palmer, Randy. Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1997.
Schoell, William. Creature Features. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2008.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.