It all began when Sparky the dog was zapped by the alien’s’ death ray. The dog was curious, just minding his (her?) own business when the alien ship from an unknown planet landed in Hollywood, and humanoids bearing death ray pistols stepped out, preparing to colonize the Earth with a cattle-like food source called Gargon (er, an unhappy, caged lobster slowly drying out in the Los Angeles sun).
The crew’s captain (played by King Moody, soon to play Ronald McDonald in TV commercials) orders his men (in English) to bring out their delicate gear to test the elemental components of the planet’s atmosphere (though said testing device is actually the production’s audio “Multichannel Mixer,” as printed on the visible, albeit upside-down, faceplate).
Among the men is trigger-happy (and Sparky’s killer) Thor (Bryan Grant). There’s also Derek (David Love, aka Chuck Roberts), a soldier whose mind has been poisoned by a banned book (a Bible?) that preaches love and understanding. When Derek discovers Sparky’s name tag by the pooch’s bleached- white skeleton, he realizes Earth in inhabited by smart people, and objects to the implementation of ‘Project Gargon,’ which will cause the creatures to rapidly enlarge, and devour humanity in a matter of days.
Derek is restrained, but he eventually runs into the Hollywood hills, where he wanders to a nearby town and seeks out Sparky’s owners (as per the name and house address stamped on the tag) hoping he can save humanity before more aliens and Gargons come to Earth.
His timing is perfect: Sparky’s owners – Betty Morgan (Dawn Bender) and “Gramps” (neck-challenged Harvey B. Dunn) – are looking for a tenant to rent an extra room. Derek’s V-striped jumpsuit is assumed to be military gear, and as an assumed military man, his personal and professional oddities aren’t to be questioned. Rather, Betty invites Derek to a pool party at Alice Woodward’s (Sonia Torgeson), and hopes to welcome him into the community.
And so begins one of the best bad movies of all time, though like Ed Wood, Jr, writer-director Tom Graeff meant to make a fun movie; the puzzlement for viewers is figuring out exactly how much of the film’s ridiculous dialogue and loopy plotting is designed to be tongue-in-cheek, because one suspects Graeff was being completely earnest in his script, trying to string together an epic sci-fi battle within the confines of an average suburban California neighbourhood.
The ‘ol alien vs. human conflict may be shield the director’s own morality tale of finding one’s bliss, and making noble sacrifices for the good of humanity. The film’s aliens encounter nothing but good-natured, ordinary folks who themselves are always trying to help another fella or lady, and they’re completely non-judgmental – as evidenced by their selfless acceptance of Derek. Even when Thor is reducing masses of people into skeletons, there’s no vigilante force on his tail: he’s arrested, and later transported from the hospital to jail with complete civility.
Graeff’s worldview – at least in Teenagers from Outer Space – seems to be based on an ideal that either comes from popular small town clichés, or the clichés of idyllic American communities, as cranked out in sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver.
The film’s low budget may have precluded filming in a shiny new postwar suburb with gleaming new family sedans, but Graeff’s chosen locales are reflective of his socially progressive philosophical views. Although the alien ship lands in a canyon and stores the test gargon (er, lobster) in what’s clearly the Bronson Caves, characters have to park their cars at an end-of-road corner that’ll eventually be connected to a new suburban tract slated to be erected on the recently cleared land. (Tractor and utility vehicle treads smother a flattened terrain.)
The small town – reminiscent of the fictional mountain town of Santa Mira in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – is also a contemporary snapshot of a developing suburb, with its own mix of middle class homes, pools, city center, and large hospital.
Because Teenagers was largely shot on location, one gets a great feel of the period, from the cars, homes, interior décor, and idyllic headshots of kids and happy seniors like Gramps watering the front hedge. Some folks have their own backyard pools, and the TV set is the main source of community info – telling the peoples of America about the arrest of killer Thor, or the gargon, billed simply as “the monster.”
Graeff’s schooling at UCLA also ensured a familiarity in how movies should be constructed. His first film, the short Toast to Our Brother (1951), is a slick, lighthearted portrayal of a freshman (played by Graeff) poised to enter the university’s fraternity. From the available excerpts, the short is competently shot, edited, and performed, which is why Teenagers doesn’t feel like the work of a producer/wannabe director.
Shots are well-composed, the montages work, the stock music cues (culled from the Capitol Hi-Q library) were effectively chopped up and remixed into a functional wall-to-wall score, and the death effects – of victims being reduced to crumbling skeletons – is a novel idea.
So why is Teenagers so bad that it merited a MST spoofing?
Perhaps Graeff’s full, hands-on approach is to blame, as well as getting virtually no on-set training beyond Roger Corman’s Not of This Earth (1957). It isn’t impossible to presume that had there been a thriving indie film movement in 1957 – the year principal photography on Teenagers wrapped – Graeff could’ve evolved into a fun B-moviemaker with a gradual ascension to minor A films.
His scriptwriting needed a bit of mentoring, and the lack of a discerning mind ensured that earnest feel would saturate every aspect of the film; Teenagers is a derivation of a sci-fi flick, but its dramatic silliness stems from there being no third party telling Graeff ‘this is just dumb,’ and forcing him to transcend rather than embrace genre clichés as dramatic necessities.
The dialogue is ridiculous and worthy of repeated quoting because the words uttered by the largely small-time and one-time actors feels like contemporary parody – but it’s vintage 1959. It’s as though Larry Blamire was accidentally transported back in time to write the film after making his own grade Z sci-fi satire The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001).
Betty, for example, seems to find the idea of someone not liking her dog Sparky more disturbing than Derek appearing at her doorstep in a V-striped jumpsuit. None of the characters are willing to fight alien Thor even when he’s been weakened by a bullet because Graeff’s script has to push the characters into a desperate decision to face the dreaded monster, which ends up being the superimposed black silhouette of a lobster.
Talk of a giant creature called a gargon is accepted as fact by everyone, but any talk of Derek being an alien is seen as just plain nutty. The belief in the monster is so straight that Betty is able to convince the night watchman at the local power plant to yank a few more levers and send all the power to Derek’s death ray gun and kill the gargon; the technician just believes there really is a giant lobster out there. The ray guns emit a metallic glow, but Graeff felt the need to trace ‘linear bullet wakes’ when the local cops fire their guns at evil Thor.
Early in the film, when Derek wanders the street looking to match the address on Sparky’s name tag, Graeff saturates the soundtrack with bizarre, saccharine stock music, overplaying the idyllic tenor of the community to create contrast when he cross-cuts to Thor’s menacing quest for the escaped Derek, itself underscored with dissonant cues.
And then there’s Graeff’s peculiar decision to pre-record the dialogue tracks like music numbers in a musical: the actors mouthed the words to the pre-recorded tracks – often imperfectly - thereby robbing their performances of any natural emotional. The lines were also recorded in a sterile, sound-proofed environment, leaving the film mix holes to be filled with score and perfunctory sound effects; it’s a surreal mix that simply heightens already ridiculous scenes.
Teernagers’ finale ends up being about noble sacrifice, and it poetically ties in to Derek’s desire to remain on Earth and never return to his evil home planet, where he would become the ruler, since he’s eventually told he’s the current ruler’s son.
Derek lies to his compatriots and his dad (who came along to Earth for the ride, wearing a glued-on fuzz beard) in order to access the ship’s communications’ bay, and directs all the crafts and their evil gargon cargo into the slope of Bronson Canyon, where they explode, killing Derek in the process.
Graeff didn’t have enough funds to animate further alien ships, so we see plenty of frightened earthlings looking at the sky, but never see the alien horde; however, we do see the colossal crash, though it bears a striking resemblance to an erupting volcano from One Million Years B.C. (1940) instead of ship shrapnel flying high in a plume of fiery destruction.
Graeff pays tribute to honorable alien Derek (who would’ve shagged Betty, for sure, had he been selfish) by designing a classic fifties sunset shot with Derek’s smiling, hovering head looking beyond the sun. It’s utter bathos, but it’s also in line with the Biblical undercurrent that shaped the tone and epilogues of George Pal’s classic sci-fi flicks, particularly When Worlds Collide (1951). Alien Derek, spawned from the same human genome eons ago, yet cast into a far weirder solar system, lives on where he belongs: Earth.
According to the director’s tribute site (www.tomgraeff.org), the film remained unsold due to several issues (no one wanted it, and an annoying legal battle added further delays) until it premiered in 1959, and was sold for a song for a song to Warner Bros.
After working his way up through shorts and two feature films (including his debut, 1955’s The Noble Experiment), Graeff kind of snapped, turned religious, and wanted to change his name to Jesus Christ II, as per a bizarre print announcement in December of 1959. That event seemed to kill his film career, and his only other produced work was the Wizard of Oz riff The Wizard of Mars (1965), which he edited before his death in 1970.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan