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Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

[Ephebiphobia] Teenagers From Outer Space (1959)

Teenagers From Outer Space - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
A scouting group of extraterrestrials land on earth to determine if the conditions are suitable to support their primary food source, a mysterious creature called the gargon. When the results come back positive, they plan to leave one gargon behind as a test subject, and return later with the rest of the intergalactic livestock in tow. Sensitive alien Derek realizes that the planet is populated with civilized beings and doesn't want to turn it into a feeding and breeding ground for the lethal gargon. Dubbed a traitor and threatened with torture by the rest of his crew, he flees the scene. Alpha-male Thor is dispatched to capture him while the others return to base.

Derek becomes entwined with the pretty human Betty and her kindhearted Grandfather, accidentally placing them in danger as Thor vaporizes anyone who stands in his way. Derek has to not only stay one step ahead of his pursuer, but also find a way to halt the impending invasion that will leave the planet in decimation...and maybe, just maybe, find love.

All of the marketing for this picture is slightly misleading. The taglines read "Thrill-crazed space kids 
Teenagers From Outer Space - Newspaper Ad
From The Sarasota Herald-Tribune 06.22.55

blasting the flesh off humans!" and "Teenage hoodlums from another world on a horrendous rampage!", but both Derek and Thor are only ostensibly teenagers. In fact, their ages are never given, and they both appear to be quite a bit older. Writer-director Tom Graeff had originally titled the movie INVASION OF THE GARGON, but after it was picked up by Warner Brothers for distribution (to be double-billed with GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER), it was retitled TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE in order to cash in on the teenage movie trend and put more youthful asses in seats. They did their best to make it sound like a real wild romp, but the whole teenage angle wasn't played on at all. Anyone wanting a real teenybopper-style movie with aliens will have to check out 1964's PAJAMA PARTY instead, with Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Tommy Kirk as a Martian named Gogo.

The film was produced on a very small budget, and it definitely shows. The performances were often stiff and wooden, which may work when it comes to the aliens, but is a detriment to the human characters. The special effects nearly all the way around were of the cheap variety, but it was never so apparent as when the gargon, which had become monstrous in size, made its appearance. Seen only in shadow, the creature is obviously a lobster being backlit by a powerful lamp. If the aliens are feasting on giant lobster every day, they must be living pretty large on their home planet.

Teenagers From Outer Space - Thor & The Focusing Disintegrator Gun
Thor & The Focusing Disintegrator Gun
The Focusing Disintegrator Gun, as the aliens’ weapon was called, was reportedly just a Hubley's brand Atomic Disintegrator toy (some sources state that it was a Buck Rogers cap gun) that many children of the era recognized as being part of their own collection. When aimed at a living creature, the ray reduced it to nothing more than a skeleton. It's actually a pretty damn cool effect...the first time you see it. Unfortunately, it's used so frequently that it loses its appeal after a while. When the focusing ray is directed at the giant gargon, it does indeed die, but it is not skeletonized, which, amazingly, has confused some viewers. The aliens themselves tell us at one point in the film that the ray disintegrates all but the solid parts, i.e., the skeleton. The lobster, of course, wears his skeleton on the outside, and, presumably, the gargon does too. We have no reason to believe that the gargon's fleshy insides were not disintegrated just as everyone else's fleshy outsides were.

TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE has something of a cult following, and some view it as a minor camp classic. This may be due in no small part to its appearance on an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, not to mention ELVIRA'S MOVIE MACABRE and other horror host features.

Watching it straight as I did, though, didn't hold nearly as much appeal. I initially found it rather dull and not nearly as much fun as I was expecting. It's a good bad movie, but not any better than most of the good bad movies that came from this era. However, a little research lead me to discover that the real life story which unfolded behind and around the scenes was much more fascinating than that which was captured on camera—and it made me appreciate the end result all the more.

Teenagers From Outer Space - Derek & Betty
Derek & Betty
Tom Graeff had only three short films and one full-length comedic feature under his belt when he was hired on as assistant to the director Roger Corman for the 1957 movie NOT OF THIS EARTH, where he also appeared onscreen as "Car Park Attendant". Inspired to create his own science fiction film, Graeff posted ads in the trade papers, seeking investors for his next project. These ads were answered by actors Bryan Pearson and Gene Sterling, who supplied funding in exchange for roles in the film.

Pearson had previously acted on numerous shows for the BBC and was cast as the villainous Thor (billed as Bryan Grant). Sterling portrayed the alien Leader, and made only one more appearance in film (the 1961 Western HALFWAY TO HELL) before retiring from the industry. Pearson's then-wife Ursula got in on the action, too, as college secretary Hilda. Billed as Ursula Hansen, this was her only appearance in film, but some may know her as the author of Surviving the Judas Factor: A Childhood Entombed in Nazi Germany, her memoirs of the time she spent under Hitler's regime. Graeff cast his boyfriend David Love (real name Chuck Roberts) as our hero Derek, and even cast himself as reporter Joe Rogers (credited as Tom Lockyear). Most of the other actors in the film had few, if any, memorable credits aside from this one, with two notable exceptions: Harvey B. Dunn, who played Gramps here, also appeared in Ed Wood's BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955), NIGHT OF THE GHOULS (1959), and THE SINISTER URGE (1960), while King Moody, who portrayed the captain of the spaceship, is most well-known as Shtarker from GET SMART and the TV movie follow-up GET SMART, AGAIN. Although it is difficult to tell beneath all of that greasepaint, he was also the original Ronald McDonald on television commercials from 1972 to the mid-1980s.

The movie was shot guerrilla-style around Hollywood in the fall of 1956 through the winter of 1957. After several name changes and multiple attempts at selling the film, it was finally purchased for distribution by Warner Brothers for a reported $28,000—roughly twice the film's meager budget.

Teenagers From Outer Space - Attack of the Gargon
Attack Of The Gargon
TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE premiered in Los Angeles on June 2, 1959. Because of the conditions of the sale, Graeff never received a portion of the film's profits. The movie was slammed by critics (though some did have a few kind words for Graeff himself), and the stress of the situation seemingly caused a mental breakdown that would become a part of his unfortunate legacy. He took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times, proclaiming that Jesus had spoken to him and put him in charge of spreading his love across the globe. The following month, he took out another ad, this time declaring that he would be changing his name to Jesus Christ II, and giving a list of dates and locations where believers could gather to hear a sermon that he would be delivering. The ad was pulled from circulation quickly, but not quickly enough that Time Magazine didn't pick up on it, mocking both Graeff and the newspaper that accepted his ad.

Graeff did indeed appear at the locations that he listed, many of them without permission. People showed up, too, mostly out of curiosity and to see him be escorted off the property. He filed paperwork to legally change his name to Christ II, but it was denied after a protest by the Christian Defense League. His antics continued, becoming more and more outrageous, until he was arrested and found himself facing criminal charges of disturbing the peace in early 1961.

Graeff was sentenced to 90 days in jail, but he fled from justice. He was eventually caught and forced into residency at a mental institution, where he received electroshock treatments. He was released, and in 1964 he edited the film THE WIZARD OF MARS for producer David Hewitt. It would prove to be his final film credit.

In 1968, Graeff placed an ad in Variety announcing that his screenplay, entitled ORF, was for sale to interested parties for the exorbitant sum of $500,000. Los Angeles Times columnist Joyce Haber caught wind of the farce, and she lambasted Graeff for insinuating that Robert Wise and Carl Reiner were attached to the project—which Wise, at least, denied. Graeff fired back at the columnist with an open letter, claiming that Haber had misquoted him and was altering the facts in a purposeful attempt to inhibit the sale of the script. Haber retaliated once again, this time calling attention to the fact that Graeff was the same man who had pronounced himself to be Christ a decade or so earlier.

Publicly humiliated and unable to find work, Graeff abandoned hope of his film career and moved to La
Teenagers From Outer Space - Tom Graeff
Tom Graeff
Mesa, California. There, he created a mail order business called Evolutionary Data Foundation, which sold vinyl records of a lecture that he had once given at a church. The lecture stated that man was bisexual by nature, and that forced heterosexuality was oftentimes the cause of suicide among young people who were unable or unwilling to deal with their true feelings.

That this record was promoted as something of a cure to these suicides makes the end of this story even sadder. On December 19, 1970, Graeff was found dead at age 41, having committed suicide in his garage by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was buried a few days later, without receiving so much as an obituary. And just like that, this strange, mad little man was gone from this world.

Graeff left behind three short films (TOAST TO OUR BROTHER, THE ORANGE COAST COLLEGE STORY, and ISLAND SUNRISE), two features (THE NOBLE EXPERIMENT and TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE), at least one unproduced script, and a bizarre record album; but out of all of these projects, the only one that is readily available is the film covered here. As he was never truly in the public eye, much of the information about Graeff is untrustworthy at best, as speculation, rumor and gossip have taken the place of actual fact.

Indeed, entire decades passed where the public at large believed that Tom Graeff and David Love were actually the same person. It wasn't until the eleventh issue of film journal Scarlet Street was released in 1993, featuring an article on Graeff by Richard Valley and Jessie Lilley in which they interviewed Ursula Pearson, that the truth finally started to come out. I have done my best to separate the fact from fiction (even on the rare instances when the fiction was more interesting), but it is still quite possible that a few fallacies have slipped through.

There are two upcoming projects which may be of interest to fans of TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE, both of which I am greatly looking forward to (and both of whose websites were invaluable to the completion of this article). The first is the biography Smacks of Brilliance: the Forgotten Life of Filmmaker Tom Graeff, currently being written by author Jim Tushinski. The second is the documentary THE BOY FROM OUT OF THIS WORLD from Attention Soldier Productions. Both projects have the unenviable task of sorting through the fallacies to find the real story, as well as connecting the dots between one known event and another.

There are some out there who refer to Tom Graeff as "the gay Ed Wood", but really that comparison is unfair to both filmmakers. Sure, they both worked outside the studio system and acted as writer-director-producer-performer-etcetera on their projects. However, Wood was an extremely prolific filmmaker, and to compare him to some-one with such a small filmography would only serve to belittle the tenacity that it took to achieve that. And while both Wood and Graeff were all passion when it came to their movies, Graeff had a certain competence that Wood could never approach. Both had their own separate strengths, and Lord knows they had their own separate weaknesses.

That being said, though, if Tim Burton decided to craft a biopic of Graeff in the same manner that he did for Ed Wood, I would be the first in line to buy a ticket.

--J/Metro

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