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'The Unearthly' (1957): A Review

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The Unearthly

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The name John Carradine is not one that inspires much confidence in audiences despite the fact that the man has been in a number of critically acclaimed classic films. Perhaps that’s because in addition to being in such films as ‘Stagecoach’ (1939), ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1940) and ‘The Man who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962), Carradine also starred in Boris Petroff’s 1957 schlock of a picture, ‘The Unearthly’, which, despite its title, has absolutely nothing to do with extraterrestrials, or undead beings, or anything that’s actually ‘unearthly’ in nature.

Carradine stars as Dr. Charles Conway, just you’re typical mad scientist who dreams of unlocking the secrets of eternal life by introducing the “seventeenth gland” to the human race, as we all do from time to time. In his isolated mansion which serves as a private mental asylum, Conway experiments on various mental patients (because who better to grant eternal life to than a bunch of mentally unstable people?), but in lieu of making them immortal, only succeeds at transforming them into hideous monsters (Don’t bother asking questions. They won’t be answered).

Enter police-detective Mark Houston (Myron Healey), who goes undercover as a patient at Conway’s “mental asylum” and soon discovers what the doctor and his cold-hearted assistant Dr. Gilchrist (Marilyn Buferd) are really up to, and seeks to stop them with the help of the other mental patients. At least, that’s what Houston does near the end of the film – the proceeding seventy minutes or so being filled with long, dull scenes wherein he and the other characters all sit around and talk about their neuroses, or how weird Conway and his assistant Lobo (Tor Johnson) are.

Petroff’s film fails on so many levels, that were it not for the fact that his other directorial credits were just as ineffective or poorly crafted, one would think that Petroff set out to fail on purpose (perhaps as a favor to his masters, the dreaded Mole People?). Repetition is one of the film’s most notable flaws, as ‘The Unearthly’ assaults us with scene after scene of people walking up and down staircases, or Carradine sitting in his basement laboratory and playing Bach on a pipe organ. None of these things are particularly horrifying nor relevant to the plot, yet Petroff insists on showing these things over and over again, as though he were trying to stretch out thirty-minutes of story into a seventy-minute feature.

The set-design and mise-en-scene are also noticeably paltry. Despite being filmed in an old, antiquated mansion (the golden standard of horror films), there is nothing particularly memorable or haunting about the house, despite the fact that the entire movie takes place in this single location. Nothing stands out or remains memorable, nothing helps to convey or inspire mood, or set the audience up for the dull scares that don’t so much lurk around the corner as they linger, and then even, don’t jump out until several minutes too late.

Not that Petroff can be blamed for the entire fiasco all his own. His cast – though composed of some well-known names like the aforesaid Carradine, and cult-actress Allison Hayes as one of the mental patients – doesn’t do much to help improve the already dire situation. Carradine chews the scenery up like he’s on an all-scenery diet, while Tor Johnson utters such quotable gems as “Time for go to bed” whilst shuffling clumsily about the film set like an ape caught in the middle of the evolutionary process. Then of course you have Myron Healey’s performance as Det. Houston, which carries with it all of the charm and personality of a plank, as well as Arthur Batanides, who in addition to playing a mental patient, also admitted in later interviews that he was drunk during most of the filming of Petroff’s movie (that’s all you need to know to get a feel for how his performance came out).

The ultimate consensus? Petroff’s ‘The Unearthly’ is a boring, repetitive, and under-developed horror picture with no scares and even less common sense. Even fans of “so-bad-its-good” cinema will have a difficult time sitting through Petroff’s film, its seventy-three excruciating minutes a challenge to even the most hard-willed purveyors of awful cinema. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, than by all means rent this schlock of a picture, but those seeking genuine scares or actual entertainment would be wise to look elsewhere.

Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.

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