When one of thinks of Roger Corman’s best films, it is often his 1960’s work that comes to mind. He had established enough of a reputation by that time that he could marshal better writers, actors and resources to make better films – and he had honed his skills enough that he was ready for the task. As films like House Of Usher, X – The Man With The X-Ray Eyes and The Wild Angels proved, he established a combination of talent and collaborators during that decade that made him a highly successful filmmaker.
In comparison, his 1950’s-era output doesn’t get as much love from b-movie fans but there are some gems in there worth hunting down. The best of these might be Not Of This Earth, a clever and atmospheric blend of sci-fi and horror that remains a cult favorite with his fanbase. The plot focuses on “Paul Johnson” (Paul Birch), an alien from the war-torn planet of Davanna who has come to Earth incognito to study its people (and their blood) for his planet’s nefarious purposes. He gets a nurse named Nadine (Beverly Garland) to administer blood transfusions as he goes about his secret fact-finding mission.
Nadine is a smart and independent-minded type who quickly realizes there is something wrong about her eccentric, creepy employer. She does some snooping with the help of Paul’s equally curious valet, Jeremy (Jonathan Haze). As she edges closer to the truth, the trouble on Paul’s home planet grows bigger and thus makes his mission that much more urgent. This sets the stage for a human vs. alien battle that will determine the fate of the entire planet.
Simply put, the 1957 version of Not Of This Earth is exactly what you hope for from a sci-fi quickie of this vintage. The script, penned by regular Corman cohort Charles Griffith with Mark Hanna, sets up its premise in a smart, economical style that favors characterization and imaginative storytelling over spectacle. It also weaves in a likeably quirky sense of humor that no doubt had an influence on future Corman disciples-turned-directors like Joe Dante and Jim Wynorski.
Better yet, Corman’s direction is more than just technically proficient – it’s frequently quite stylish. He effectively utilizes John J. Mescall’s sharp black and white cinematography to inject a noir-ish feeling of mystery into the film’s sci-fi/horror material. He also keeps the story moving at a nice clip, offsetting creepy moments with scenes of odd, often dark humor to keep the audience on their toes. Best of all, he gets effective performances from a game case: Birch makes a quietly creepy villain, Garland offers a spirited and likeable performance as the resourceful heroine and Jonathan Haze steals a few scenes as the thuggish yet funny valet. Corman’s skill with the actors really helps to sell the film’s storyline – and this oft-overlooked area of his talents deserves praise.
The end result is one of Corman’s all-time classics and perfect fodder for a b-movie viewing session. In fact, it could be argued that Not Of This Earth was his first real classic as a director – and it definitely set the tone for the blend of imagination, craftsmanship and humor that would take Corman to the next level.