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Ickiness / Dread / Paranoia = NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957)

This is written in conjunction with Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear‘s MONSTER MASH blogathon.  The rule is simple:  write about a movie made between 1950 and 1959 that centers on a monster…

By 1957 Roger Corman had produced and/or directed enough movies, and his screenwriting partners had generated enough scripts, that they knew how to hook the youth audience and get a rise out of them. 

Gunslingers, car races, and alien invasions had been distilled and kicked around by his creative unit as they climbed the artistic ladder from rudimentary moviemaking to layered filmwork while still working within quick-burn, strait-jacketed budgets.  However with NOT OF THIS EARTH they quantum-leaped their dream machine:  mashing up elements that disturbed midcentury Adolescent and American sensibilities while delivering this quease-fest through a simple, lockstep narrative.

Into that empty vessel of something amiss / something not right that creators used for collecting their ideas for horror and monster films, the key creatives poured the midcentury dread of invasion and of nuclear side effects, added civic and generational paranoia of subversive authority figures, and smeared the whole shebang with an unresolved ickiness of blood, needles and eviscerating disease.

Whether these were conscious or subconscious artistic choices, if they were trying to tap into the paranoia of the Cold War or if the daily dread of nuclear war back then just naturally found itself inside a story from that era (as could also be debated about another 1957 paranoia opus, BLOOD OF DRACULA), might never be settled.  But these queasy feelings, despite their packaging in a bloodthirsty-alien-from-another-planet B-Movie, magnified the ghost-like dreads hanging around both the Average American Psyche and the Teenage Soul of the 1950s.

NOT OF THIS EARTH‘s title referred to an extraterrestrial alien sent from the planet Davanna (great name for a fan dancer, BTW) and living in Southern California under the Average Joe alias of Paul Johnson.  His marching orders were to send humans and their plasma back to Davanna, whose population was dying from a blood-degenerating, nuclear war induced plague.

Johnson’s character threw a 360° net around the USA’s notions of “foreignness,” “strangeness” and “otherness” of the Eisenhower Era.  He wasn’t the charming kind of ‘fifties foreigner like Leslie Caron; instead his look, gestures and speech were from the “Ew, he doesn’t belong here” school of high school and middle American thought.

This had a solid alignment with the zeitgeist of wondering whether your neighbor were a Soviet spy.  Additionally it pinged around the high school norms of conformity, of feeling superior to someone who knows less contemporary culture than yourself.  While being creeped out by the alien presence of Paul Johnson, one can still feel (as I’m sure a multitude of teens did) superior and exasperated to someone who doesn’t know how to drive a car or understand figures of speech.

Yet Johnson’s character had an even darker quality that could plug into Cold War paranoia and teen angst:  he could read your thoughts.  An inability to lie to authority — the ultimate teen horror — and the blanket Cold War fear of foreign surveillance are funneled into a single persona under the aegis of Corman’s key scenarist, Charles B. Griffith.

NOT OF THIS EARTH was one of seven scripts Griffith wrote for Corman in 1957.  The guy was hip and smart:  one of those scripts, THE UNDEAD, about a medieval witch reincarnated as a prostitute, was originally written in iambic pentameter.  (Hours before laying down shots, Corman ordered a rewrite since Roger showed the script to somebody who said he didn’t understand it.)  Soon Griffith’s gifts would be entrenched in demented overdrive as he generated black comedies such as BUCKET OF BLOOD and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Griffith also supplied the voice of its carnivorous plant:  Audrey, Jr.).  But here Griffith is rubbing against the Teenage Codex of behavior and the mid-century American Worries of Concerned Citizens.  Even though lots of the topics are non-issues today, the way he and Corman presented these psychic violations can still scare the hell out of an audience. 

NOT OF THIS EARTH's "evil monkey in the closet"

Making infrequent appearances through the story is the movie’s ‘evil monkey in the closet.’  Coming on with the authoritarian, disembodied presence of a high school principal on the PA address system, this guy — who looks more like an insurance salesman than an alien commander — appears periodically via a transporter hidden in the living room closet.  His totalitarian demands could quickly get a rebellious rise from a fractious teen or free world denizen watching in the audience, while his oppressive dictates underscored a significant paranoia-inducing concept — the idea that threats of domination come from multi-tiered systems of coercion.  At the same time his communiqués bring the audience back to the McGuffin, reminding us that the aliens’ raison d’être on Earth is to find a deliverance from their entire race’s slow, radiation-induced cancer death.

And that deliverance means human blood.  Not just blood in the abstract sense of something pulsing through a body, but needles and plasma and transfusions.  (None of which escape frequent onscreen appearances.)  Über-alien Paul Johnson’s temporary respite from terminal blood-degeneration is by transfusions administered by a live-in nurse, played by Corman diva Beverly Garland.  (The doctor who is Garland’s boss assigned her to live and work in the alien’s home after being brought under the control of Johnson, laying another mind-bender issue on the movie:  betrayal due to lies from someone you had looked up to and trusted.)

A flying, vampiric space insect helps Johnson in his deeds.

The subconscious landscape of NOT OF THIS EARTH evidently continues to resonate since has been remade twice since 1957.  The fears of that time hit something in us, work on getting the subconscious involved, and projecting us into this narrative to ground us in its unidentifiable and unmanageable primitive fears. 

Like never-resolved mind-clawing feelings of the Cold War — when nuclear war was a perpetual threat and peace a protracted standoff — the ending of NOT OF THIS EARTH was left open-ended.  Closure and resolution could not be bestowed, not after examining our collective darkness.  We will always have our communal shadow beside us, and seldom do we have so many of its facets simultaneously exposed as we find here.

After years of crappy bootlegs floating around, NOT OF THIS EARTH is now available on DVD as part of a Corman Triple Feature boxed set.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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16 Comments to “Ickiness / Dread / Paranoia = NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957)”

  1. Great review, particularly with your well-analyzed insights on 1950s culture and how its paranoia played into popular horror films. I haven’t seen this particular movie, but its plot and characters sound similar to another Corman opus, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, which also has an alien transmitter machine kept in the living room(!), as well as an alien exerting mind control over the humans it contacts. This one sounds fascinating (plus it also has wonderful Beverly Garland), so I will definitely check it out.

    • Doug says:

      I’m also a huge fan of IT CONQUERED THE WORLD and used to live down the street from the Beechwood Canyon shopping center where much of it was filmed. So many treats in it: Beverly Garland goin’ after the creature with a shotgun in a Cadillac convertible, the creature itself which looked like a cucumber, Lee Van Cleef’s appearance, the ripoffs from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, etc. Thanks for the comments!

  2. “Evil monkey in the closet” — that is falling down funny.

    Not of This Earth is one of my favorite Roger Corman films, simply because of its kitschy loopiness. This is also the movie that made my Mom a big Beverly Garland fan. Great write-up!

  3. To adapt a remark alledgedly made by Edith Head to Mitch Leisen … *every* story needs an “evil monkey in the closet.”

    • Doug says:

      Chris, you stumped the chump. What’s the original quote ‘twixt Head and Leisen??

      • This was me adapting a remark half-remembered from the Chierichetti (?sp?) book of Leisen interviews. Gist of the anecdote: Head shows Leisen a drawing of a female low-life. Leisen says to Head, “But there’s no one like that in the script!” To which Head responds “EVERY story needs a trollop!”

  4. Rachel says:

    Not of This Earth has one of my favorite posters of the ’50s sci-fi era. It’s so distinctive and compelling. And I love that tidbit about the iambic pentameter script. Now that’s a screenwriter!

    Interesting, thoughtful review about the emotions of the genre. It gave me plenty to mull over.

  5. KC says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Charles Griffith. He’s one of my favorite screenwriters. Little Shop of Horrors in particular was so amusingly offbeat. He was perfect for Audrey’s voice as well. I tell you, multi-talented!

    • Doug says:

      I totally agree, KC. CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA with its references to THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT is a peculiar masterpiece.

  6. Wow…after reading this I really wish that you could have participated in our last blogathon, which was coincidentally about Roger Corman! Fascinating stuff…I feel like many of Corman’s best films from the 50s were written by Griffith: Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors are two prominent examples. It almost sounds like they were the Martin Scorsese/Paul Schrader of 50s B-movies!

    Thanks again for participating!

  7. Erin says:

    As a writer who’s always looking for the deeper meaning in horror movies I love how you explained how this movie tied into the Cold War; I honestly think of Corman as a purveyor of shlock but I shall have to pay more attention.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks, Erin. As someone who worked in TV and movies, I constantly witnessed how people’s troubles and concerns spilled over into their creativity. It’s an interesting topic to explore. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Lyn Price says:

    Since “Not of this Earth” is on YouTube, I was able to watch it twice. Interesting but strange. I wonder how their eyes were able to wear those strange contacts. I don’t think they even had contact lenses in 1957. How did they put something in his eyes?

    • Doug says:

      Interesting question, Lyn. I remember an interview with Tony Randall for the fantasy film 7 FACES OF DR. LAO, where he said he had to wear various colored contact lenses to play various characters in the film. According to Wiki, contacts were available in the 1950s but very expensive. And NOT OF THIS EARTH’s producer/director Roger Corman was really tight with a nickel. Do you suppose it was makeup applied over the eyelids to make it look as if they had those strange eyes?

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