Thrill-crazed space kids blasting the flesh off humans!
A scouting group of extraterrestrials arrive on Earth to see if the atmospheric conditions can support the Gargon, their primary food source. If it tests positively, Earth will soon become a breeding and feeding ground for these beastly creatures, and humans will be wiped out. Sensitive alien Derek understands that the planet is populated with a civilized society and teams up with young human Betty and her kindhearted grandfather to stave off the impending invasion…and maybe, just maybe, find love.
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, though, doesn’t hold nearly as much appeal—at least not beyond a single viewing. It’s a good bad movie, but not any better than most of the good bad movies that came from the era.
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, and sometimes they work (the Focusing Disintegrator Ray is charming), sometimes they don’t (the backlit lobster portraying the Gargon is less so). But it does have something that many films lack: heart. These people wanted to be making movies, and it shines through even when the rest of the film is looking pretty dark. In a world of mass produced cookie cutter material, that certainly has to count for something.
TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE may not exactly be a classic, but a little research lead me into a beguiling backstory that may make you appreciate the film even more. The real life events that unfolded behind and around the scenes were much more interesting than anything that was captured on camera.
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 here 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. The Pearsons eventually sued to get their money back, resulting in lengthy courtroom proceedings and damaged friendships.
Graeff cast his boyfriend David Love (real name Chuck Roberts) as our alien 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 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. You might think that the film’s title and ad campaign are slightly misleading. After all, Derek and Thor are the youngest of the aliens and are only ostensibly teenagers. Their ages are never actually given, and they appear quite a bit older. Tom Graeff actually intended to call the movie INVASION OF THE GARGON, but the studio retitled it 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.
TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE premiered in Los Angeles on June 2, 1959 on a double-bill with GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER. 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, coupled with the dissolution of his relationship with Chuck Roberts, 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 printed it, turning it into a minor national news story.
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 into the custody of his parents, 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 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.
At just after 6 AM on December 19, 1970, Graeff’s neighbor Karen Balding awoke to the sound of an alarm clock, but the clock did not belong to her. Following its incessant tones outside, she located the clock on the outside windowsill of Graeff’s home, alongside an envelope that had her name written on it. Inside the envelope was something of a suicide note, but it consisted primarily of instructions on what to do with Graeff’s rented 1970 Impala. She immediately phoned the police, and the authorities found Graeff’s body in his garage, stretched out across the front seat of the Impala. Another vehicle, a 1960 Corvair, was parked alongside it, the engine still running, a rubber hose leading from its tailpipe into the rear window of the rented car. Tom Graeff was pronounced dead, a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, and 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.
Those who knew Graeff said that he talked often about killing himself, questioning the different methods available. They saw it as a series of sick jokes, or desperate pleas for attention. They heard about it so often that they grew tired of the talk. Eventually, Graeff had grown tired of the talk, too.
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 rush to fill the void 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 interview with Ursula Pearson by Richard Valley and Jessie Lilley, 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, along with this article from former Scarlet Street contributor Ron Garmon 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 someone with such a small filmography would 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.