Because the Future is Fun

View on the Blu: Unearthly Stranger (1963)(U.K. Blu-ray)

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unearthly-strangerTitle:  Unearthly Stranger
Label:  Network
Release date:  3rd November 2014
Format:  Blu-ray (also on DVD)
Video format:   1080p
Aspect Ratio:  1.66:1
Soundtracks:  LPCM 2-channel Mono:  English
Subtitles:   English
Runtime:  76 mins + extras
No. of discs: 1 x BD-25
Region Coding:  Region B
Rating:  BBFC PG
Buy from: Network’s website; Amazon UK

Official Synopsis
A cleverly conceived, eerily atmospheric sci-fi chiller, Unearthly Stranger stars future Baron Munchausen John Neville as a scientist engaged in an experimental project like no other; Gabriella Licudi is his beautiful but otherworldly wife, who becomes the subject of great interest for his government superiors. This original, intelligent and compelling feature from award-winning Avengers director John Krish is presented here in a brand-new transfer from the original film elements, in its as-exhibited theatrical aspect ratio.

TP91 is a secret and highly complex formula which will enable man to project himself through time and space, but when Dr Munro succeeds in solving the first part of it he is found dead before he can pass on the invaluable result. His successor quickly senses that both he and his new wife are now in grave danger…

Review
A crisp little gem that deserves its newly minted high definition status for genre fans, Unearthly Stranger has given us pause to reflect on both genre films of now versus then, but also the relative ambitions of those who aim to do genre films on low budgets. While fans of British films and television of the era will be the first to snap this up given its director, cast and style, we believe this is deserving of a wider SF audience.

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Based on a story from 50s TV star and model Jeffrey Stone, the script by American writer-producer Rex Carlton is a model of economy, while English writer-director John Krish makes good use of Beaconsfield Studios (now the site of the prestigious National Film and Television School) and what looks like a handful of exterior shots at a school and on the South Bank leading past County Hall to that building still just opposite South Bank square, doubling as the exterior of The Royal Centre for Space Research. The excellent John Neville, Philip Stone and Warren Mitchell play the senior scientists working there, all British stiff upper lip and dedication to science and their top secret project. The young but already terrific Jean Marsh brings some wit to the workplace as assistant to Stone’s Professor Lancaster, as does avuncular Patrick Newell, although his humour is leavened with a sinister tone befitting his senior M.I.5 man Major Clarke. Finally, the lovely Gabriella Licudi plays Julie, the new Swiss wife of Neville’s Dr. Mark Davidson and potentially the titular character.

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We’ve seen other reviews laying out every detail of the plot and its twists for readers which, to our minds, defeats the purpose of picking up the film and watching it. Rather than ruin the suspense the film is still perfectly capable of generating even now, and if such a quality cast early on in their careers isn’t enough to convince you nor the director behind it, then let us instead draw some parallels with other more well-known genre fare to give you an idea of whether this excellent British B-picture (a brisk 76 minutes, barely an ounce of fat on it) is for you. Avengers fans will feel right at home with the visual and acting styles of the piece, given it features the man who will be Mother and comes from the director of three 1967 episodes and two producers of that show (one of whom was Albert Fennell, who would produce several famous British genre pieces of film and TV). Neville, Stone and Marsh certainly have their fans and all do sterling work here, conveying just the right moods and tones as the mystery unravels, wringing some real emotion out of moments that could have been horribly overwrought in the American style. Licudi who would go on to play bigger roles, though none memorable to the public at large, is superb, a revelation with some emotional scenes, and she works well with Neville as their characters’ marriage is put to a very trying test indeed. Fans of both the Quatermass serials and their Hammer feature adaptations should definitely give this a go; it treads similar territory, though in a cheaper and therefore more restrained fashion (to its credit). Finally, British SF TV fans should also give it a go, as well as anyone who has consumed the many American SF B-pictures of the same period but has yet to delve into the British cycle.

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As such fans (of all of the above!) ourselves, we nevertheless went in expecting something terribly hokey and threadbare. What we got was the kind of smart, propulsive tight little SF drama that Britain used to do so well, where the low budget and limited means force a reliance on a solid script, first-class acting and good direction. The production design is simple but perfectly judged, especially when a handful of very basic effects are required. We were gripped from start to finish, and moved by the emotional climax to the Davidson’s marriage, then chilled by the further revelations. When it was over we tried to think of an equivalent modern film, achieving the same level of quality when made with the same limited level of resources, and we just could not come up with one. Sure, there are low-budget British SF films this century, but few have the cast to be able to carry the whole film this way, while all the ingenuity is applied to trying to mimic bigger-budgeted films or reference the director/writer’s favourite genre outings. Even TV directors of this century are often trying to replicate things they love about American blockbuster cinema on their resources instead of looking at those resources and creating the best original storytelling possible. There are examples of this in the horror arena, but far less so in SF, as everyone seems convinced SF needs huge amounts of money thrust at it or the illusion of that amount on-screen. Unearthly Stranger fully deserves to be taught in the school that now occupies the studio where it was filmed, as a model of achievement through economy that retains its power decades later. Most of all, it deserves to be seen and enjoyed by fans of all ages, and this fine presentation by Network is the best way to do just that.

Video & Audio
Superb on both counts. Despite some white flecks here and there and occasional tiny debris or print damage obviously attributable to the age and relative preservation of the source material, this looks great.  Lovely crisp black and white, some wonderfully delineated shades of grey. The soundtrack is clear and about as clean as it’s going to get, with the somewhat melodramatic score front and centre but then giving way to the dialogue.  Great stuff from Network and Studiocanal once again.

Extras
Not a huge amount, but the two on the blu-ray are good examples of how the film was sold at the time:  the Original Theatrical Trailer with its steadily built-up voiceover, and an Image Gallery that includes international posters as well a U.K. ones and stills.  Missing from the blu-ray but presumably on the DVD is the Promotional Material PDF.

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Conclusion
A wonderful surprise for us, this blast from Britain’s SF cinema past slots right in with the current exploration of SF by the BFi and the BBC, and even more fittingly has been given the high-definition treatment by archive specialists Network. We cannot recommend its purchase strongly enough, not least to anyone looking to make their own SF films today. Buy, enjoy, show fellow fans, enjoy again.

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