Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
The “auteur theory,” introduced by Walter Julius Bloem and James Agee, respectively, refined by Andre Bazin and Roger Leenhardt, popularized by Francois Truffaut, and coined by Andrew Sarris, has had a rocky history. As the digital age has proven, movies can indeed be the work of a single individual, an author, if you will. If you so desire, you could take out your phone and make a film completely solo. Whether it’s good or bad really isn’t the point. The point is, it can be done. Prior to the availability of such technology, however, the creation of a film was exclusively a collaboration between a varied number of individuals, each bringing their own talents and expertise to put the puzzle pieces together. Certainly, the director should receive credit for steering the entire production, but any number of collaborators, often the producers and/or stars, can assert their own creative control and distort the director’s intent. On the one hand, a director who puts a personal stamp on their or another’s material has a right to claim authorship of the final product as an extension of their own vision. But, why should a director receive all of the credit if there were dozens, if not hundreds of other individuals who were vital in one way or another to bringing that vision to the screen? In the case of 1959’s Teenagers from Outer Space, there is absolutely no doubt that it is the work of one man. The auteur theory, which is admittedly helped when there are multiple films to examine, is still on full display since Tom Graeff is the credited writer, producer, and director, but in truth, he was also the uncredited cinematographer, editor, music coordinator (of the stock music), special effects supervisor, as well as an actor, playing the supporting role of Joe Rogers.
A key problem with many exploitation or quickie cash-in films is their inherent lack of a personal stamp. No doubt, these movies have plenty of outrageous and hilarious elements meant to shock and amuse, but it’s rare for those films to have any real passion. In other words, the films are made for profit, not because a person or a group has a burning desire to tell a story. The release year of Teenagers from Outer Space is telling since one of the most famous bad movie auteurs, Edward D. Wood Jr., would release Plan 9 From Outer Space around the same time. Teenagers may not be as famous as Plan 9, but it has a charm all its own and dare I say it, a much better script.
We begin with a cold open featuring a pair of astronomers. Sounding like an eight-year old using his ‘big boy’ voice, a Dr. Mason shrugs off his assistant’s claim that he saw something. We next see a flying saucer landing which looks like a cross between an egg beater and a power drill. The ‘teenagers’ of the title pop out, looking more like mid-20's or early 30’s ‘teenagers.’ One of them promptly zaps Sparky the dog with the infamous Focusing Disintegrator Ray. This is Thor (Bryan Grant, the film’s villain). He is an asshole. Our hero Derek (Chuck Roberts, here credited as David Love), studies the remains of the dog, now nothing but bones, and notices its identification tag. He sees this as proof that there are intelligent lifeforms on this planet. The entire opening scene, complete with appropriately choppy alien dialogue, is quite good, but there is certainly a lot to take in.
In a nutshell, these aliens are looking for a planet to offload a race of ferocious creatures known as Gargons. They need to test the atmosphere to make certain they can survive on the chosen planet. Why? Because when they’ve grown disproportionately large, they’ll be harvested later for consumption. Derek has been reading a subversive book that’s never identified and promptly breaks rank with his fellow travelers. Although the alien’s society is never named, they refer to themselves as a “supreme race” and forbid families or relationships. Derek is part of an underground movement fighting against the government’s oppression. Derek is to be punished for his insolence, but he slips away, causing a major fuss as the alien leader reveals that Derek is his son, therefore the heir to his throne. Derek isn’t aware of this development. The aliens send Thor to retrieve Derek and imprison the Gargon they’ve brought inside the iconic Bronson Canyon, seen in such classics as Eegah!, Robot Monster, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Star Trek VI, The Searchers, and Army of Darkness. In a less thoughtful script, this scene would probably be half as long. Here, the distinctive characteristics of each alien brings an understandably talky but accurate conversation.
Wasting no time, Derek seeks to relocate on Earth and, likely prompted by his reading, shows compassion by searching for Sparky’s owner. We meet Betty (Dawn Bender), who fluctuates between being a very smart cookie and a gullible moron, and Gramps (played by Ed Wood veteran Harvey B. Dunn, Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, The Sinister Urge), who mistake him for a renter. People in the fifties were certainly too trusting and too nice because they welcome him with open arms. No worries about paying for the room anytime soon, even though he acts like an absolute weirdo with no luggage. This genial family atmosphere is confusing to Derek but he seems to like them very much, especially Betty.
Meanwhile, Thor is on the hunt for Derek, mowing down anyone that comes in his way. The ray gun, famously a dime store toy, is shockingly lethal. Although it’s an obviously cheap effect that is barely an effect to begin with, it does have some value as a gruesome way to die. People go from being flesh and blood to a dried-up skeleton in a snap. Thor disintegrates a gas station attendant and the poor schmuck who gave him a lift. Literally the same skeleton is used each time, but it’s charmingly low-grade fun.
The welcome wagon plows ahead as Betty, whose boyfriend(?) Joe, played by Graeff, can’t make it for a swimming date because of work, which will later end up involving the double murders Thor has committed. Betty takes Derek instead. This is all ridiculous, but the force of Betty and Gramps’ hospitality nearly cancels it out. One detail that is absolutely, positively insane is the fact that Betty is not the one driving the car. Derek, who literally doesn’t even know what a car is, is given the wheel. She thinks it’s funny and kind of cute that he doesn’t know anything about anything. They arrive at the home of town tramp Alice (Sonia Torgeson), swimming in her pool. He’s introduced as Derek, to which Alice replies “I like that.” She likes his name? Her parents are out and there’s a clear indication that she wants to bang them both, but Derek decides this is the perfect time to let Betty know that her dog is dead. Talk about a boner-killer. They arrive at Derek’s landing site just as Alice is coming on to Thor. He’s all business, however, and disintegrates her. What’s unique about this death is the attention to detail. Her skeleton falls back into the pool but there is also a dry ice effect on the surface, indicating the water became extremely hot. Even with the limited resources and mistakes, there is genuine filmmaking craft being applied here.
Gramps, who has already helped Thor once and inadvertently caused Alice’s death, once again points Thor in the kids' direction, resulting in another death, this time of a Professor Simpson. You think he will have something to do with the plot but he turns out to be merely cannon fodder. The best moment here is Professor Simpson’s secretary first screaming at the skeleton then immediately quitting her job. There’s a lot of phone tag here and a decent amount of suspense. The police have finally caught wise to the multiple homicides around town and there’s a showdown between the cops and Thor, who wastes all of them. It’s too bad this movie is from the 50’s as the correct response to these guys getting vaporized would be “Holy shit!” or as the Critters said, “Fuck!” Thor is shot in the shoulder and forces the captured Derek and Betty to get him to a doctor. Once again, Betty is the only one who knows how to get to a doctor, but Derek drives. It’s as if women were not allowed to drive back in the fifties.
One of the screenplay's greatest strengths is its clear sense of plotting. There are so many logic leaps in low budget sci-fi flicks, often due to poor writing or too-small of a budget to cover different locations. Graeff’s script has a complex but sensible approach to cause-and-effect. They make it to the doctor (another actor using his ‘big boy’ voice), who removes the bullet from Thor’s shoulder. He refuses drugs to numb the pain, so he starts to black out. Well-edited with blurry POV shots and a groggy Thor pointing his ray gun at them, they manage to escape. Since Thor has only had the bullet removed, it’s believed that he’ll be incapacitated for quite some time without any medical assistance. The doctor, who also talks like an alien for some reason, drives them back to the police station but remembers his nurse is due to arrive at his office any minute. He races to call her, but she’s already arrived. Seeing a wounded man and no doctor to be seen, she injects him and bandages his wounds. Thor recovers quickly and takes her hostage. This whole sequence gains a surprising amount of momentum. Sweet, innocent, and very naïve, Betty has been roped into this whole mess and Derek finally reveals who and what he really is. Earlier she’d been making some pretty good guesses about what the origins of the ray gun were, but I guess her fragile mind couldn’t make that last giant leap. The description of his home world sounds like Nazi Germany, particularly in the extermination of the weak and sick.
Thor has pretty much said ‘fuck it’ to his mission and forces the nurse to drive him to the cave where the Gargon is being held. At the same time, a cop and Joe (why a reporter is part of an investigation, I don’t know) find the cave and the cop is instantly torn apart offscreen. Joe sees Thor’s car and gives chase, resulting in the nurse falling out and the car crashing. It’s later reported that he sustained minor injuries, but it’s a helluva crash, so I’m dubious whether he’d have survived. Also, for an alien who’s never driven, he’s surprisingly good at a quick reverse-and-drive. Crazy enough, to again compliment the script’s attention to detail, he did grill a driver about how to operate a vehicle, so I guess the joke’s on me.
The Gargon has escaped and Derek and Betty search for Thor’s disintegrator ray. Derek pleads with Betty to find a safe place, but she won’t leave him. They eventually end up in each other’s arms. In a simple but very well-written piece of dialogue, Derek says, “You make me very angry, but I like you very much.” It’s a funny line, yet it’s absolutely right for his character. They kiss at a very inopportune moment, because the Gargon attacks! We finally see one of the most fearsome beasts in the entire galaxy and... it’s a lobster. Check that. The ‘shadow’ of a lobster. It’s...unfortunate. I didn’t expect something grandiose, but this is pretty bad. It has an odd scream and only appear on one side of the screen, clearly superimposed. They escape, but the Gargon kills some hunters. The town is told to take shelter and there are several well-placed shots of deserted streets, giving a real scale to the events unfolding.
Derek realizes that he must generate the power needed to activate the ray gun. At the final showdown with the Gargon, Betty calls a power station and convinces the attendant to give them more electricity for the gun. I enjoyed the attendants’ brief reluctance which quickly turns into a “fuck it” attitude. Her explanation of what’s happening is actually pretty convincing. I’d have done it. Levers are pulled, sparks fly, and the Gargon is defeated, or at least the lobster is tipped over.
Derek retrieves Thor from the hospital and tells Betty he’s leaving. She’s upset, of course, but he appears to have a plan. He proceeds to the landing spot with Thor but Betty, Joe, and Gramps follow them. The supreme leader arrives to welcome his son back into the fold, which Derek accepts. The characters look up at the sky and describe the hundreds of ships entering the atmosphere carrying thousands of Gargons. Of course, we never see any of this due to the budgetary restraints, which is a shame. With all of the complaints about technology and CGI taking the place of actual story, it’s sad that the lack of effects here weakens the strength of the script. There’s real attention to detail as Derek convinces his father to let him guide the ships to their location. Derek, sacrificing himself and killing his own kind, gives phony instructions, resulting in the entire fleet crashing to their deaths. All of this is shown using stock footage of an erupting volcano. Betty, Joe, and Gramps walk away, ending the film on a surprisingly tragic note.
The real tragedy here is the life of the film’s auteur Tom Graeff. Gifted with a great deal of ambition, he directed some shorts and a poorly-received feature called The Noble Experiment (1954) before working with Roger Corman on Not of this Earth (1956). It’s unclear why Graeff only worked with Corman once, since Corman is just the type of person who might have been able to help get Graeff’s career off the ground. I can imagine Graeff following a similar path as Bogdanovich by doing any odd job that Corman needed and slowly moving his way up to directing.
Instead, he wrote the script for Teenagers and raised the $14,000 budget through his co-stars Bryan Grant (Thor), Ursula Hansen (Hilda, the funny secretary), and Gene Sterling (The Alien Leader). Thanks to his economical direction, I actually had no idea the film was made in Hollywood even with the presence of Bronson Canyon and Hollywood High School. It actually felt like a sleepy little desert town due to the limited number of people and relatively indistinct locations.
It’s unlikely that Graeff was able to live openly as a gay man, which may have contributed to his own difficulties later in life, but he cast his boyfriend in the lead role as Derek. Chuck Roberts has a teen idol look and plays the part very well. I’d like to see him in a non-alien role to compare with this one. There are plenty of performers who give terribly wooden readings of their dialogue. For Roberts, his dialogue is intentionally stiff and wooden, so it’s nearly impossible to tell whether he’s a good or bad actor. In this movie, I’d say good.
Fantastic behind-the-scenes tidbits include a detail that the ray gun had a mirror attached to it and the flashing is actually a reflection off of the sun when it’s pointed at the camera. It looks more like a flashlight, but either way, it works. I feel a certain kinship with Graeff because of this next story. He bullshitted his way into shooting at a woman’s home by presenting his UCLA student ID. I kept my film academy ID for this same purpose. I was able to get away with shooting at a ton of locations by pretending to be a student. Another reason I respect Graeff for this is because I wanted to film my wife receiving an award but videographers were not allowed to shoot. I had noticed a small radio/tv station about a mile down the road, so I just strode into the auditorium and set up. When an event organizer told me I couldn’t shoot, I pointed out that I had just come from the studio down the road and I’m doing a video for the school. Am I proud of lying to her? No, but in retrospect, I’m pleased with my boldness. Speaking of bold...
Have you ever seen Drunk History? I’m sure you have, but just in case; they record an interview and performers later lip sync the dialogue in recreations of scenes from history. Pretty straight-forward and honestly pretty easy for the actors involved. It’s almost the same as singing along to a song on the radio. Well, Tom Graeff decided to go a different route here. He pre-recorded dialogue and then the actors were required to speak in time with the pre-recorded tracks. Not only is this completely bonkers, but remember that these actors have no way of modulating their performances because the dialogue is locked in. Ennio Morricone famously recorded his scores for Sergio Leone films before they were shot so Leone could play the music on set, but this is just odd.
(Tom Graeff as Joe the Reporter)
Despite Graeff’s best efforts, the film was bought by Warner Brothers for much less than the meager budget and was plopped at the bottom of a double bill with Godzilla Raids Again (1955, billed then as Gigantis The Fire Monster), not a particularly good entry in the Godzilla canon. Bryan Grant, perhaps channeling Thor, sued for profit shares since it had been bought by a major studio, but it never went into profit. Still, Graeff was forced to return Grant’s $5000 investment, likely ruining him financially. Possibly due to this and other events, Graeff had a nervous breakdown, proclaiming himself the second coming of Christ and eventually committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage on December 1, 1970.
Sure, the effects are hokey or non-existent, the bit players are stiff as a board, and the movie uses your average stock music. None of that bothers me in the least. This movie has heart, plain and simple. Thanks to some good work by its leads, clear and uncluttered direction, and especially a well-executed screenplay, Teenagers from Outer Space is very good, indeed. An underrated gem? Compared to other movies that deserve that status, no, but compared to other sci-fi flicks from the fifties, this one is something special.