❉ Paul Abbott on a B movie that’s about as cult as it comes!
“Teenagers From Outer Space is a strange legacy to leave behind, but there is an addictive charm to it. For all its seemingly comical low-budget moments, there’s a core and ambition to the movie that has to be admired. That’s not to say you’re not going to laugh at it, but there’s a special something in there that makes it worth viewing.”
“I shall make the earth my home and I shall never, never leave it…”
There are many amongst us who, with friends, enjoy a particular shared passion. For a small group of my close pals our infrequent “B Movie Club” is an opportunity to share some of the stranger film discoveries we’ve stumbled upon. This might be something like the truly bizarre horror musical Poultrygeist from Troma or Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid, or the phenomenal monster mockumentary Big Man Japan through to B Movie horror and science fiction selections culled from the Public Domain archives.
Thanks to the peculiarities of US copyright, it was easy for films to fall out of ownership and become freely available, something that internet sites and dozens of cheap compilation DVD manufacturers have taken advantage of. Trawling through websites such as archive.org reveals titles that tantalise: Bloody Pit of Horror, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Mesa of the Lost Women and, one the most compelling titles of all, Teenagers From Outer Space – a sci-fi flick from the mind of Tom Graeff.
Graeff, the writer/director, is also credited as cinematographer, special effects supervisor, music supervisor, editor and producer. He also acts in the film. His own story was a more fascinating and tragic one than any he managed to commit to celluloid himself. Having found his way into the UCLA arts program, his poor academic record was balanced by his producing a well-received film about fraternity life. After producing another independent picture, sadly lost to history, he worked with Roger Corman and this gave him enough insight into the industry to encourage him to seek investors for his next picture, the project that would become Teenagers From Outer Space. The only investor to come forward was a British actor, Bryan Grant, who exchanged $5000 on the stipulation that he and his wife could appear in the film. Their post-film relationship soured and a legal attempt by Grant to get his share of the profits proved fruitless. There were none. Not long after this Graeff announced in the LA Times that he was an emissary from God and sought to have his name changed to Jesus Christ II. This, combined with the fact that he was openly gay and would make radio addresses about the ‘perversion of heterosexuality’, led to his being variously committed, arrested and subjected to electric-shock therapy.
After disappearing into obscurity for a few years, he later reappeared, announcing his presence in an advert for his new script, a film known as ‘Orf’, which he was willing to sell for the unfeasible sum of $500,000. There were no buyers. He then released, via mail order, a record of one of his lectures, preaching the benefits of bisexuality, but by 1970 – his filmmaking future still bleak – he had committed suicide. Teenagers From Outer Space is a strange legacy to leave behind, but there is an addictive charm to it. For all its seemingly comical low-budget moments, there’s a core and ambition to the movie that has to be admired, not least for the DIY approach to movie production that it represents. That’s not to say you’re not going to laugh at it, for reasons Graeff never intended, but there’s a special something in there that makes it worth viewing.
Released in 1959, with distribution from Warner Bros no less, Teenagers From Outer Space combines the twin obsessions of the time, the space race between the US and Russia, and the rise of the relatively-newly defined ‘Teenager’ – the post World War II generation who were not troubled by any call to arms and who had increased spending power and a media industry aiming to get them to exercise it. After moral panics such as that caused by the release of “The Blackboard Jungle” in 1955, the film adaptation of Evan Hunter’s novel – a gritty story of juvenile delinquency in the classroom – a certain taming of the teenager had happened as regards their portrayal in films, TV and music, with the clean-cut teen-idols Frankie Avalon and Bobbie Darin occupying the spaces left by the rebellious James Dean and the raunchy Elvis Presley following their relative fates of death or national service.
It is from the clean-cut, but misunderstood, mold that our main Teenager From Outer Space is cast. Cursed not only to live his life as part of a planetary research mission, hunting for suitable breeding grounds for the Gargons, the main food crop of their people, he also carries the emotional burden of not knowing who his father is and, to top it off, in a crew full of aliens with names like Thor, Moreal and Saul, he goes by the name Derek. Horrified by the crew’s willingness to allow all life on Earth to be exterminated in order to provide the Gargons with space to grow, and influenced by a forbidden book which has taught him the concept of ‘Love’, Derek jumps ship and the rest of the film is taken up with the hard-headed Thor’s attempts to recapture him. Of course, it turns out that Derek is also the son of the alien king. I remember having to deal with something similar when I was sixteen.
Having witnessed the callous murder of a dog (within the first two and half minutes of the picture), Derek decides he’s had enough and luckily stumbles across young Betty and her grandpa as well as other assorted characters, including the saucy Alice and Betty’s supposed boyfriend, Joe, played by director Tom Graeff himself. A variety of policeman, doctors and scientists and bystanders round out the cast and take turns to be reduced to bones by the awesome power of the “Focusing Disintegrating Ray”. This special effect is fantastic. By the magical power of the cutaway we see the victims turned into skeletons. Well, we see them turn into the same skeleton – a lab skeleton with the bones still linked and the hooks for display hanging occasionally visible.
Fortunately Derek takes quickly to earth customs such as driving and kissing. Luckily for Graeff, his choice of actor for the lead role is one of the more effective elements of the film. David Love carries the movie with his naive charm and other-worldly delivery and there’s a sweetness to him that makes you want to see him succeed with Betty, his quest for freedom and with preventing the Gargon inhabitation.
Oh yes. The Gargons. You’ve got to admire the way low-budget filmmakers solve problems. How do you represent a space monster in small, unthreatening form? Simple – pop down to the fishmongers and get a Lobster. They look weird enough. How do you represent the same space monster once it’s grown to its full, terrifying size? No worries! Hold the aforementioned lobster closer to the camera so it looks massive! Job done. Other cost-cutting measures employed by Graeff include getting his actors on set to act along to their pre-recorded lines, thus avoiding the need for complex post-production ADR and plenty of ‘staring-off-camera’ moments. It’s much cheaper to show people looking at monsters and UFO space fleets than it is to actually show monsters and UFO space fleets.
It is, in all honesty, an inconsequential movie in many respects. But in other ways it’s a fantastic product of the time in which it was made and it’s full of moments that stick in the mind (the swimming pool death scene is fabulous as is the obligatory drunk-man sequence). If you’re looking to fill 85 minutes with some entertainment, then take a look at Teenagers From Outer Space and consider it not just as the schlock sci-fi it seems to be, but also as the legacy of a filmmaker who, like his protagonist, seemed to be sensitive, misunderstood and unable to find a place on this earth.
❉ Teenagers From Outer Space is freely available on the internet. Suggested link: https://archive.org/details/teenagers_from_outerspace
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.