Film

Don’t Open That Door! #22: 'The Unearthly' aka 'House of Monsters' (1957)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: John Carradine escorts us through the nightmare of The Unearthly.


The Unearthly

Director: Boris Petroff
Cast: John Carradine, Allison Hayes, Tor Johnson
US release date: 1957-06-28

Alternative titles: Attack of the Five-and-a-Half Foot Woman; Teenage Lobo-tomy

POSITIVES:

  • Well-paced, creepy thriller with plenty of zip.
  • Terrific cast includes sultry Allison Hayes, hulking Tor Johnson and hatchet-faced John Carradine as a mad scientist.
  • Effectively unnerving surgery sequences (but it might just be me—operating rooms make me queasy).
  • Spooky use of shadows and creeping claustrophobia.
  • Fun twist at the end—several of them in fact.

    NEGATIVES:

  • Limitations of a paper-thin budget are often visible onscreen.
  • Not exactly action-packed, as most of the drama is internal, which might not be considered a "negative" by some.

    SYNOPSIS: Creepy Dr. Conway has escaped from his anorexia treatment clinic and is now conducting strange experiements in a secluded manor house (is there any other kind?), ably asisted by his Hulk-like sidekick, Lobo. When lovely but breathless Grace arrives seeking help for anxiety attacks, the doctor lines up a course of treatment, all right—not exactly the kind of treatment she expects, if the scar-faced sap locked in the basement is any indication. Further complicating things is the sudden arrival of Frank Scott, a thief, murderer and fugitive from the law. Conway coerces him into staying on for the duration, and we discover Conway's ultimate goal: the secret of eternal life, which he apparently believes can be achieved by sewing new glands into your neck. Y'know, sometimes those "visionary dreamers" really are nuts.


    As failure follows failure, Dr. Conway loses none of his conviction, and turns his attention to the remaining "patients" under his care. Scott, however, has a baad baad feeling about all this, and convinces Grace to get the hell out of Dodge while there's still time. But this isn't as easy as it sounds, especially with vicious guard dogs popping up unexpectedly, not to mention Lobo shuffling around the halls, carting coffins on his back. Finally, Scott and Grace team up with fellow inmate Danny to flee but find themselves stymied by the pistol-totin' doctors. With time running out and the situation growing more dire by the second—not to mention Grace strapped onto a hospital gurney and sucking ether, never a good development in a film like this—whiny pathetic loser Danny is suddenly transformed into a slick-talking, quick-thinking action hero Danny. You just never know how people will react to stress.

    This fine, fun movie treats the viewer to not one, not two, but three surprise twists at the end, which would be criminally unfair to reveal to reveal here. Suffice it to say that the great performances continue right up to the end. And, maybe, even after the end…

    Best line of dialogue that deserves its own bumper sticker: "I am a scientist—thinking is my business!"

    What gets reduced to a non-human state: a guy; a woman; a bunch of other guys; another guy; a mad scientist. Oh and apparently Lobo himself used to be a lot shorter, but also much smarter.

    Did you know? The organ piece played by Dr. Conway a half hour into the movie is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, better known as The Only Piece of Organ Music That I Can Actually Name. A horror-film standard, it also did duty as the theme music for 1975's Rollerball starring James Caan. The version played here is strangely truncated.

    Moral of the story: I love you just the way you are, darling.

    Survived? Hell, their careers flourished: John Carradine (Dr. Conway) had over 300 movies and TV appearances in his 65-year career, beginning with Bright Lights (1930) and ending with Bikini Drive-in (1995). In between, his appearances included roles in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940) alongside Henry Fonda, The Ten Commandments (1956) with Charlton Heston, and Woody Allen's 1972 Everything You Always Wanted to know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), in which he plays—of course!—a hilariously demented sex scientist. Horror remains the genre that Carradine is best known for; his starring role as a serial-killing artist in Bluebeard (1944) is supposed to have been his favorite. This was followed by House of Dracula (1945), The Night Strangler (1972) and far too many more to mention. Nor did Carradine ever "outgrow" this tendency: among his last movies were Evil Spawn (1987) and Buried Alive (1989). Allison Hayes (Grace) is justly famous as the star of ultimate bodice-ripper Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). Tor Johnson (Lobo)'s unmistakable face appeared in numerous Ed Wood classics, including 1955's Bride of the Monster, the venerable Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) and Night of the Ghouls (1959). Strangely enough, he also featured in the film version of Rogers and Hammerstein's musical Carousel (1956). Today his face is most often seen in Halloween mask form, especially at NFL games. That bald, grimacing rubber mask so beloved of Raiders and Packers fans? That's Tor.


    BOTTOM LINE: A killer cast and oodles of atmosphere make this one to savor. Play it for a friend who thinks you've got crummy taste in movies.

    NEXT WEEK: Godzilla aka Gojira (1954)

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