Review of Unearthly Stranger (1963)
Seen in 2022.
Without realizing it, a scientist working at a British institute of space research marries a psychic apparition from another planet. Indeed, the institute’s research is all about psychic projection; despite the ongoing space race, it has nothing to do with physical travel. However, despite the psychic expertise of the crack research team and their assistance from military intelligence, nobody figures out that the scientist’s wife is an alien who never blinks, who sleeps with her eyes open, is completely insensitive to temperature, immediately frightens even all school-age children, and cries acid tears.
On the face of it, the characters are all grossly incompetent even when it comes to saving their own lives, and the plot is virtual nonsense. I therefore hope that the film is actually a metaphor.
Though it does not adopt the style of Breathless (1960), instead sticking to 1940s film noir storytelling with special effects used only for the tears, the fashions are distinctly 1960s. At that time, the role of women in British society was changing rapidly. Miss Ballard, who turns out to be an alien mastermind, says she’s been working at the institute for some years, and is evidently more competent in her real function there than the men; she is even able to shut down Major Clarke. Julie, on the other hand, is a young housewife, which goes against the 1960s trend. Julie’s emotional trauma upon being rejected by children can be read as sublimation of a fear of being trapped in her traditional role by having children, thus falling behind the times. It can also be read as a fear of failing in her traditional role by not having children, as I assume would actually be the case in her circumstances. Ballard, the powerful working woman, regards Julie, the miserable housewife, as some sort of renegade, undone by love. The last shot shows two more aliens, also women, also young enough to represent the rising generation that would increasingly reject the role of the housewife and assume more power than their mothers. The metaphor, then, would have something to do with the battle of the sexes and the stumbling humanization of women in the public sphere. In that metaphor, the male characters’ universal blindness to the alien threat—even when it’s literally staring them in the face—would represent the inattentional blindness of British men to the concerns of real women, making the sexes unearthly strangers to one another.
That feminist subtext is more interesting than superficially similar US SF metaphors about the threat of communism, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or, with smaller premises, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). However, the feminist reading is almost certainly too charitable. Unearthly Stranger looks as if it was made primarily to showcase John Neville’s good looks. Even in its short runtime, the complete failure of every single character to accomplish their goals is bathetic.