Spouse Invaders

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THE NIGHT CALLER

I wasn’t aware of UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1964) but I had seen THE NIGHT CALLER made the following year. Both are British sci-fi movies, both feature stand-out turns from Warren Mitchell, and both are weirdly, creepily misogynistic.

MARS NEEDS DUMB WOMEN

Briefly, in THE NIGHT CALLER, someone is advertising for models and when the swinging London dolly-birds turn up to audition, they get disappeared. A female scientist investigates, using herself as bait, and is murdered. Finally, the intrepid John Saxon confronts the extraterrestrial responsible, who confesses that his dying planet, devastated by war, desperately needs nubile young women, so he’s been advertising for them and whisking them off to Mars or wherever. He also reveals that Martian men are hideously disfigured by radiation but that using mind control he can prevent the dolly birds from realizing this. Saxon and the rest of the representatives of Earth are touched by his plight and agree that what he’s been doing is basically fine. Then they remember about the murder and ask about that. “She was a threat to us — she was too intelligent!” says the space chappie, and everybody agrees that, though it’s of course regrettable that she had to die, it was probably for the best. Too intelligent. Can’t have that.

Very disturbing viewing, and a commercially released genre picture, albeit a low-budget one. John Gilling of Hammer fame directed it. It’s actually like a film made by the warped-by-aliens men in Joe Dante’s alarming Masters of Horror episode, The Screwfly Solution.

Warren Mitchell, famous as TV’s Alf Garnett (comedy sitcom bigot, prototype of Archie Bunker), has a moving bit as father of one of the missing girls — so real and human he blows the doors off the film, and all the more disturbing when it gets to the end and his loss is swept under the rug.

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SEX IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE

Now. UNEARTHLY STRANGER, like TNC, starts smoothly and doesn’t reveal its bizarre sexual politics until quite late, but when it does the effect is striking.

Good cast! John Neville, who was about to be Sherlock Holmes in A STUDY IN TERROR, and would play Baron Munchausen for Terry Gilliam and have another run-in with aliens in The X-Files as The Well-Manicured Man, is a scientist working on a scheme of astral projection to enable mankind to travel into space by will alone. Philip Stone, the sinister waiter in THE SHINING, is his head of department. (Oddly, THE NIGHT CALLER features two Kubrick stars too, Marianne Stone who dances with Peter Sellers in LOLITA, and Aubrey Morris, the camp social worker in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I really do think Kubrick did all his casting from British B-movies.) And Patrick Newell, Mother in The Avengers, plays the security man whose job is to find out why Britain’s top scientists keep having their brains incinerated from within.

(“The brain drain” — a newspaper scare story about British talent being stolen away by countries with higher salaries and lower tax, was very much in the media at this time.)

(The movie is produced by Avengers head man Albert Fennell and directed by documentarist John Krish who also filmed that show’s credits.)

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Suspicion eventually falls on Neville’s wife, “an alien” — meaning she’s Swiss — or is she? Sympathetically played by Gabriella Licudi, she sometime forgets to blink, takes the casserole out the oven without gloves, has no pulse, and weeps acid tears. It seems the aliens have invented astral projection first, and they’re here. And they’re all women.

Nicely shot but confined to a couple of offices, the Neville family home, and a car — apart from an effective bit of Licudi wandering suburban streets and upsetting the children she meets, who all instinctively know she’s Not Right — the film suffers from an excess of wordiness and a lack of action and visual variety. But it’s short and somewhat original. Then the big reveal happens, and the further twist comes that secretary Miss Ballard (Jean Marsh) is also an alien. A struggle ensues with Neville and Stone trying to chloroform her — like the vampire-stakings in Hammer flicks, it’s filmed like a rape. She goes out the window, but by the time our panting heroes have descended the loooong flight of stairs, she’s vanished like Michael Myers. But just to drive its non-point home, onlookers start turning to the camera. Women onlookers. Staring with sinister womanly eyes. You’re next! You’re next! Watch the skies. God help us in the future.

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MOTHER, JEEVES AND BOSIE

Where does this fear and loathing come from? Sexual liberation may have stirred up some anxieties, I guess. The makers of The Avengers were an odd lot — celebrating kinks and campery, but treating Linda Thorson shabbily and establishing a “no-blacks” rule because “the show has got to have class.” A good part of UNEARTHLY STRANGER’s unease feels curiously homonormative (now there’s a word you really don’t get to use much). All the women are aliens and all the men are a bit fruity. Warren Mitchell’s cameo involves a PERFECT Scottish accent, the kind of posh one that’s slightly camp. John Neville had been Bosey to  Robert Morley’s OSCAR WILDE, and has a neurasthenic, dandified quality that’s pleasantly un-macho. “Mother” describes himself as a confirmed bachelor and is of course camp as knickers: this may be the best movie role he ever had, and he chews it up greedily, joyously. And Philip Stone, with his prissily plummy, theatrical diction… well, he doesn’t conform to any notion of sexuality, really: his characters always seem scarily inward. He’s magnificent, though: one can see why Kubrick loved using him. With Neville he forms a kind of cut-rate Richardson/Gielgud double-act. I wish they’d done a whole series of movies together.

Check it!

what’s inside a girl? from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I told you: this movie is just bizarre about sexual relations and society and everything.

The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset

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16 Responses to “Spouse Invaders”

  1. I would expect nothing less than this from Philip “I corrected them” Stone.

  2. He’s great at parties.

  3. Golly! Also, I had not – until this clip – realised how much Jean Neville looked like John Louis Barrault.

  4. Tragedian cheeks! Missed opportunity for a version of Children of Paradise set in Blackpool.

  5. Kids of the Gods.

  6. John Krish also directed the unspeakably awful “Decline and Fall. . .of a Birdwatcher” Presumably an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall it’s full title indicates they weren’t aiming at a Brideshead audience. Had they cast Kenneth Williams in the lead and called it Carry On Evelyn it might have made more sense.

  7. I think that one gets mention as part of the Decline and Fall of British Cinema in the 60s. Quite an impressive cast, but no doubt prey to that with-it approach that believes anything the filmmakers do will be cool and adorable. Surprised Mike Sarne wasn’t lurking at the back of it.

  8. Suddenly the casting of Philip Stone in a very small but memorable role in another British-made science fiction film makes a certain amount of sense.

  9. You’ll also find a masked John Osborne in that one.

  10. Osborne isn’t masked, I don’t think. He does play another priest though. Peter Wyngarde is masked.

    “When I die, what about if I sort of RIP my mask off?” he asked Hodges.

    “No.”

  11. If only Wyngarde had insisted on singing a song! “Flash Gordon” would have been truly great. Well, even greater than it already is. (I admit, the sheer fun of the movie grows on me more and more over the years while the leaden, epic pretensions of films like “The Empire Strikes Back” seems more and more tiresome.)

  12. Oh, Flash Gordon is magnificent. Smart enough to be silly and vice versa. And it has a nice song already.

  13. Stephen H Says:

    The Avengers’ “no blacks” rule was ditched by the time Mrs Peel arrived, wasn’t it? Paul Danquah’s jungle native character is revealed to be a well-spoken leftenant in ‘Small Game for Big Hunters’. It would be nice to think the gag was an acknowledgement of/apology for the awful rule, but maybe that’s just being wishful.

  14. I’ve seen an Honor Blackman episode with a prominent black character, so I’m not sure about when that rule was applied. Maybe they lifted it because they had a good story idea. The vast majority of the Emma Peel episodes (and Thorsons) are all-white affairs.

  15. AvengersTrivia Says:

    The Avengers “no blacks” rule was actually brought in at the same time that Mrs Peel arrived, by Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell when they took over running the show.
    When Diana Rigg left, Clemens and Fennell were fired for reasons which remain mysterious. They were replaced by one of the Blackman-era producers. He hired Linda Thorson, and managed to complete three episodes before being replaced by Clemens and Fennell again.
    Two of these episodes featured speaking parts for black actors, and in one the main guest star was the mighty Johnny Sekka.

    Gabriella Licudi also tested as Diana Rigg’s replacement.

  16. Thanks, that clears up some of the puzzles, and of course adds a new one. It also explains why poor Linda had such a bad time on the show, since her bosses weren’t the ones who’d hired her.

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