Teenagers from Outer Space / The Gargon Terror (1959) -****
These days, everybody who has even a passing interest in B-movies knows who Ed Wood is, and most of the true devotees will recognize the names Phil Tucker and Coleman Francis as well. Namedrop their contemporary, Tom Graeff, on the other hand, and hardly anyone is going to have any idea what you’re talking about. At a certain level, this makes perfect sense, since Graeff has but a single movie to his credit (unless you count the editing work he did on The Wizard of Mars), but at the same time, Graeff’s anonymity is a sad state of affairs, because that one movie is a specimen of that rare breed of film in which absolutely everything is somehow cockeyed, fucked up, misaligned, or maladjusted. Teenagers from Outer Space was obviously as pure a labor of love as anything released during its decade; Graeff wrote, directed, produced, edited, acted, assembled the stock-music score (some of which would turn up again nine years later in, of all things, Night of the Living Dead), and did just about everything else necessary to its creation, with no studio backing until the day Warner Brothers picked the movie up to use as a supporting feature for Gigantis the Fire Monster. But as labors of love so often do, Teenagers from Outer Space went so comprehensively wrong that it is all but guaranteed to inspire dedicated fans of the very worst in 50’s sci-fi to a nearly religious sort of awe.
The first questionable move on Graeff’s part comes even before the main titles. The younger of a couple of astronomers in a hilltop observatory spots a strange object in the sky for just a couple of seconds and mentions it to his older colleague. Now in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with starting the movie this way, but neither one of these characters will have anything to do with the rest of the story. In fact, we’ll never see them again. Not only that, the conversation which the younger scientist’s observation sparks is ludicrously top-heavy, and it tips us off immediately to exactly how poor a writer of dialogue Tom Graeff is. He’d have done himself a small favor by starting with the landing of a nearly unique UFO (so far as I know, the screen would not see the like of its tapering, drill-like hull again until Transformers: The Movie, some 27 years later) in the desert outside of an abandoned mineshaft, giving us something cool to look at before slapping us upside the head with world-class ineptitude. Regardless, after the alien ship has burrowed into the ground, burying itself up to its conventionally flying-saucer-shaped control module, the first action of its crew upon our planet is to kill a little, black dog. Crewman Thor (Bryan Grant) incinerates the animal with his focusing disintegrator pistol, for no better reason than that it was there. As we shall see, this is Thor’s default response to just about every stimulus. Thor is one of four youths (the “teenagers” of the title) under the command of a somewhat older and even more belligerent captain (Robert King Moody); their mission on Earth is to determine the planet’s suitability as a grazing range for the Gargon herds which are evidently the aliens’ primary food source. After a chemical analysis of the local air and soil determines that it meets the minimum requirements for Gargon survival, the captain orders his men to bring out a Gargon hatchling to confirm their preliminary findings. You’re never going to believe this, but the baby Gargon is nothing but a perfectly ordinary lobster in a little glass cage. Seriously— it’s a fucking lobster, and well… that’s just sad, you know? While the other two Teenagers from Outer Space manhandle the lobster— I mean, Gargon— out of the ship, an argument breaks out between Thor and the captain on one hand and Crewman Derek (David Love) on the other. Derek, you see, has found the collar on the skeleton of the dog which Thor killed earlier, and he instantly makes the deductive leap that only intelligent beings would outfit an animal with an identification tag. Derek contends that the presence of intelligent life automatically makes the Earth unsuitable for Gargon husbandry, partly because of the damage the natives might do to the herds if their weapons are powerful enough, but mostly because the voracious, fast-growing creatures will eventually overrun and destroy any other organism they come into contact with. Why else do you think the aliens do all their cattle ranching offworld? The topic of debate soon expands to encompass the entire philosophical underpinning of the aliens’ society, and it ends with Derek pulling his disintegrator on his comrades. Then the baby Gargon begins to sicken, and Derek flees into the countryside as soon as he has satisfied himself that the “nitrogenic compounds omitted from our initial analysis” are lethal to the overgrown bugs. He ought to have stuck around a few minutes longer, though. If he had, he’d have seen the Gargon regain its vitality, and he might have caught the captain’s teleradio conversation with the Leader (Gene Stirling, sporting one of the least convincing paste-on beards I’ve ever seen), wherein it is revealed that Derek is in fact the heir to his homeworld’s throne. The captain and two of his remaining three crewman return home; Thor is left behind to collect Derek, by any means necessary.
Derek figures his first order of business should be to track down the dead dog’s owner, and apologize on behalf of his crew for destroying it. A gas station attendant gives him directions to the address listed on the dog tag, and thus it is that Derek meets Betty Morgan (Dawn Anderson) and her grandfather (Harvey B. Dunn, from Bride of the Monster and Night of the Ghouls). Since neither of them has ever seen Derek in town before, their first guess is that he has come to rent their spare bedroom, and Derek is unable to get a word in edgewise on the subject of disintegrated pets while they give him the grand tour. Nevertheless, the boy from outer space is so charmed with both Terran living arrangements and his prospective hosts that he decides on the spur of the moment to move in. Betty is obviously pretty taken with Derek, too, and you might expect at first that the alien’s presence is going to cause friction between her and her boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Rogers (Graeff himself). But Graeff, in his capacity as screenwriter, either didn’t notice the obvious potential conflict, or decided he already had enough going on in the film as it was. In any case, Joe will be too busy over the next couple of days to worry much about what his girlfriend might be up to with her new housemate, because his paper puts him in charge of investigating the killing spree on which Thor embarks as soon as he reaches a populated area.
Basically, everywhere Derek and Betty go, Thor is one step behind them, using his focusing disintegrator on anybody who gets in his way. He vaporizes the gas jockey who told Derek how to get to Betty’s house. He flash-fries the man who was dumb enough both to give him a ride into town and to explain to him how to operate a car. He boils Betty’s lecherous friend, Alice (Daddy-O’s Sonia Torgeson), right in her backyard swimming pool when she refuses to tell him where his quarry went after her pool party broke up. He kills the head of the local college’s science department (James Conklin) when he gets it into his head that Derek might have sought the professor out in an effort to alert the Earthly authorities to Thor’s presence. In fact, just about the only person Thor doesn’t disintegrate is Grandpa Morgan, who, in a state of blissfully befuddled ignorance, helpfully keeps the trigger-happy alien hot on Betty and Derek’s heels. The pursuit finally terminates in a shootout between Thor and the police, which leaves the alien wounded. And while he escapes to extort medical treatment from physician Dr. Brandt (Frederic Welch), Thor winds up in the hands of the law anyway when he rolls his stolen car down a hill while trying to catch back up with Derek and Betty.
That may neutralize Thor effectively enough, but it still leaves the small matter of the Gargon. Derek’s crewmates left the hatchling behind when they blasted off for home, on the theory that the creature’s growth between then and the time of their return with the full herd would provide a baseline from which to extrapolate the likely developmental rate of its species on Earth. By the time Joe and his police escort discover the Gargon in the old mine, it has become very large indeed, and it eats the cop before snapping its shackles and running loose in the hills overlooking Betty’s town. (The monster rampage portion of Teenagers from Outer Space is truly staggering. The adult Gargon is still the same lobster from earlier in the film, only now it’s dead, and somebody is operating its carcass like a marionette from off-camera. The matted-in lobster is so woefully underexposed that in most shots it looks like little more than a shadow, and the matte effects themselves are so bad that the Gargon is also transparent more often than not.) And even once Derek recovers Thor’s disintegrator and uses it to kill the Gargon, that does nothing to address the problem of the fleet which is even now on its way to Earth with tens of thousands more.
After the fly-by-night production values, the most conspicuous thing about Teenagers from Outer Space is how much more elaborately plotted it is than the typical late-50’s sci-fi B-movie. Though it is only slightly longer than the comparable films AIP and Allied Artists were cranking out at the time (just shy of an hour and a half, as opposed to 75 minutes or less), it tells a much busier, more involved story, and seems to follow the five-act structure of Elizabethan drama rather than the more familiar three-act model favored by most filmmakers. There are three separate climaxes, involving three different aspects of the extraterrestrial threat, and the relatively short running time allows for hardly a minute’s pause along the way. Much of the charm of Teenagers from Outer Space stems from the imbalance between Graeff’s grand ambitions and the paltry resources he was able to bring to bear in furtherance of them. Though the title implies nothing more than a quicky attempt to cash in on two waning genres while there were still a few dollars remaining to be squeezed out of them (and incidentally, it amazes me that nobody thought to combine alien invasions and juvenile delinquents in quite this way until 1959), Graeff tried instead for something nearly epic. And yet all he was able to bring to the table with which to do it were twenty-some obvious non-actors, one scrap-metal flying saucer, a skeleton on loan from somebody’s high school science lab, a toy raygun from the corner dime store, and a three-pound lobster to stand in for the space monster! Only Robot Monster features anything comparable in terms visionary overreach.