Tom Graeff’s Teenagers from Outer Space

*contains spoilers

Sorry, but Teenagers from Outer Space (1959) is a good movie. It is not only a good movie – it is a feel good movie! And, for its meagre budget, it is a masterpiece.

Teenagers poster

I have been enjoying Teenagers from Outer Space for well over a decade now when I first discovered it on a cheap compilation of sci-fi movies on DVD. The film was never one to appear on late night television Down Under and so I didn’t know the film at all until this encounter.

I have seen it well over fifteen maybe twenty times and it is still as fresh as the first time I saw it. “How sad,” I hear you say.

But, no, how lucky I am to have discovered this movie!

It, along with several other low-budget movies, prompted me to follow my bucket list and visit Bronson Canyon/Cavern in Griffith Park where some of the film was shot. With more than a little help from an article by Ron Garmon, I look into this movie and its creator.

Stars Dawn Anderson and David Love by any other name

Teenagers from Outer Space was shot without the approval of the actor’s union, independently, in 1959. Yes, it is in black and white. The fact the union wasn’t involved probably didn’t help the director’s career…

While the movie seems to be set on the edge of a city or in a small town, Teenagers is a Hollywood product shot on a reported budget of $14,000.

Apart from Bronson Cavern, other locations used in the film include Sunset Boulevard and a house scammed by the director as the house of the heroine in which the crew used the owner’s power for free.

A young and idealistic Tom Graeff

There is a legend that concerns the film’s director Tom Graeff (1929-70 suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning). Raised in Los Angeles, Graeff studied at UCLA in one of the first film classes and didn’t fare too well academically. It was only because of his short films that he passed. His first featured Joe E. Brown (1891-1973 heart disease) before this actor’s hailed comeback appearance in Some Like it Hot in 1959, the same year Teenagers was released. Greaff’s second film short was narrated by Vincent Price. He did a feature entitled The Noble Experiment in 1954 that failed to get a proper release. There is a surviving print and the movie concerns a formula that apparently sweetens humanity’s nature. Graeff was always one to try and look on the bright side! At lease he tried to. Hired for a bit part in Roger Corman’s Not of this Earth, (1957) Graeff saw though American International Pictures’ shoe-string productions, a way to produce his own low-budget feature and so he penned Teenagers from Outer Space.

Roger Corman’s Not of This Earth seemed to inspire Greaff to do low-budget sci-fi

Filmed in late 1956 and early 1957, the preferred title of the film by Graeff was The Boy from Out of this World. In fact the star of the film, according to interviews, Chuck Roberts aka David Love, was Graeff’s lover.

The film has aliens landing on Earth, with much argument over the murder of a dog near the landing saucer. One of the aliens, played by Love, named Derek is a bit of a rebel as he reads banned books. The reason the aliens are there are to release something called Gargons that are creatures that grow to enormous sizes and are harvested as food for the alien planets. As it turns out, Derek is the son of the Supreme Leader – little does he know – and must either be protected or destroyed. Depending on your point of view!

Derek is menaced by Thor

As Thor, an alien who wants to kill Derek, British actor Bryan Pearson (1931-) was an investor in Teenagers and ended up suing Graeff for monies owed once the film was released. About $5000 in total. He is also the one who said Graeff and Love were romantically involved.

So Derek, who does not agree with the philosophy of the aliens and their selfish plans to destroy the population of the Earth, escapes – with Thor in pursuit.

One of the head aliens, by the way, is played by King Moody (1929-2001 no info) who was Shtarker, Siegfried’s offsider in the Get Smart (1965-70) television series.

King Moody on the right in Get Smart

The costumes of the aliens are definitely low-budget and appear to be some sort of army jumpsuit, with masking tape on them. If you’re worried by that, I don’t know. It seems to look okay.

“Of what concern are foreign beings,” Thor asks Derek, about the dead dog, saying it was no more than an insect, before Derek flees.

It seems that on Derek’s planet there was once love but that was centuries ago – and Derek will see love triumph even if it means his own torture. That actor Roberts changed his name to Love for the movie is no accident. For Graeff, who only wanted a world full of universal love, apparently sexual as well, it is his own philosophy and a part of himself in the role of Derek. The Boy from Out of this World was Graeff, idolising his own self as “Love” in the role… and the actor David Love himself as well. I don’t know but Graeff really did want to save the world… and Derek ends up as a Christ-like figure, something that led to his own Christ fixation. That Derek and Graeff will both be forgotten is all the more ironic. And all this is in the first ten minutes of the movie!!

Derek meets Betty and Grandpa/Grampa

The Supreme Leader wants Derek back dead or alive and any “friends” that he communicates with must be destroyed. Derek eventually reaches a road and follows it to town. There he shows a service station worker the dead dog’s registration tag which leads him to the owner’s home… Betty and her grandfather.

Dawn is pretty as Betty

Betty is played by former child actress Dawn Bender, who appeared regularly on radio, and occasionally on stage. Here she is credited as Dawn Anderson to avoid union rules. For me, the pretty Betty, who reminds me of my mother as a young woman, is the crowning achievement of Dawn’s career.  I must admit to seeing precious little else of her work.

Her grandfather is played by Harvey B. Dunn (1894-1968), who appeared in a few Ed Wood movies, most notably, Bride of the Monster (1955). Another low budget gem!

Would you believe Harvey B. Dunn has a bit part in the James Dean film Giant (1956)?

Anyhow, Derek somehow ends up as a boarder at Betty’s house but in the meantime, follows Betty around town with Thor in pursuit with a ray gun, which can turn human beings, as well as dogs, into instant skeletons. That one of the original titles for the movie was The Ray Gun Terror is telling as it is an effective effect used throughout the whole movie.

A poor, rich friend of Betty’s named Alice gets zapped by the ray gun in her pool, turning her into a skeleton in a puff of smoke and a mass of bubbles.

“You are not familiar with the focussing disintegrator ray?,” Derek asks Betty, when he takes her to the spot where her dog Sparky’s skeleton remains.

As they get to know one another, Betty says: “Somehow I feel I‘ve always known you – that we’ve never been apart.” They are star-crossed lovers in the making.

“Somehow I feel I’ve always known you…”

For its budget, Graeff is another director who has worked wonders. Like the much maligned Ed Wood, Graeff has produced a technically competent Hollywood product, but Graeff’s work can be taken more seriously – and heartfelt – I think.

Graeff can be spotted as Joe the reporter. Credited as Joe Locklyear. Lock/year. Graeff’s masterpiece locked into the year 1959. Lockyear was also Graeff’s middle name. It’s a mystery middle initial. Maybe it just stood for love. Just as David Love could be a gay take on Michelangelo’s statue.

Graeff plays Joe the reporter

Many people are zapped by the ray gun, including a university professor.

“Some kind of foolish joke,” says the professor’s secretary after screaming at the sight of the skeleton.

The music used in Teenagers from Outer Space is not original but it is effective and it is no wonder it was also used successfully in The Killer Shrews (1959) and later in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Graeff is uncredited for music co-ordination. He must have picked the moments. Graeff, in fact, gets the credit for almost everything in this movie. He directs, writes, produces, is the cinematographer, the editor and acts. It’s probably not surprising that the film is so distinctive – whatever that distinction may be. It is definitely a work of art.

The focussing disintegrator ray is effective

That Graeff sold the film to Warner Bros. for a pittance without seeing any return whatsoever is a cruel twist. His ensuing nervous breakdown is not surprising.

Thor meanwhile is carrying a bullet wound from confronting police, and Derek and Betty meet him at a doctor’s surgery where Derek learns he is the Supreme Leader’s son. Thor probably gives the weakest performance in the movie – he’s still effective – and he passes out to allow Derek and Betty to escape.

The trailer to the belated sequel to 1959’s The Killer Shrews also starring James Best

The ray gun used by Thor in the movie was criticised for being a cheap dime store toy at the time, but unknown today, it passes muster and looks like the real thing.

The ray gun in action

What Derek and Betty learn also from Thor is that the aliens most definitely want to destroy the Earth. There’s a lot more drama that I’m not reporting here, including a car chase and an ensuing wreck, a killing in Bronson Cavern by “some kind of man-eating monster” but as Joe the reporter says: “I’m afraid the nightmare has just begun.”

The Gargon is that man-eating monster and once the size of a lobster, it is now a gigantic lobster, shown as a shadow among the cheap special effects. That’s the budget folks! It threatens the town/city and it is up to Derek and Betty to save the day. Lying in the grass together, Betty asks: “ You’re not from this world are you?”

Too gentle to kiss? There is genuine love.

The characters want to kiss but they are too gentle at first. Derek says: “I shall make the Earth my home and I shall never, never leave it.” And they kiss. But the Gargon interrupts… the Earth faces more terror, as the pair must fix a broken ray gun to destroy it! There is a beautiful close-up of Betty at this point… that melts into a drunken keeper at a watchtower reporting “some kind of monster” which is lurking in the hills due north east of town.

Realising electricity will power the ray gun and destroy the Gargon, Derek and Betty head for the hills and using powerlines with the help of no red tape from the power company – the Gargon is destroyed.

A gigantic Gargon

“Betty this is not time to be joking,” says Grandpa to Betty after seeing Derek destroy the Gargon with his electrified ray gun. He obviously doesn’t believe Betty’s tale that Derek is really an alien. Silly old man!

There’s more drama before the film climaxes with the Supreme Leader perishing in a multi-spaceship crash with a great many other aliens after Derek leads them to land at a lower altitude than they first thought. Derek perishes along with them too… but he may have sowed the seeds of revolution on his planet while at the same time saving the Earth. In a way he also kept his promise to Betty that he would never leave as after the catastrophic explosion, his ghost can be heard saying: “I shall make the Earth my home and I shall never, never leave it.”

Yes, it’s all so very corny in the end with the stock footage explosion, and it’s all so very low budget as Betty and Gramps and Joe walk away… but it has a great vibe!

Teenagers from Outer Space (1959) trailer

Following disastrous reviews for the film and its financial failure, it was late 1959 when Graeff took out a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times claiming to be Jesus Christ and that he would be speaking at different churches. According to those who knew Graeff, the failure of Teenagers destroyed him. He wanted to change the world with that movie but all he got was laughter and derision. And probably because of flouting union rules he got no further legitimate work.

Those who did see him preach on church steps found him lucid but it had been a state brought on by voices and hearing messages from God. Convinced he was the Messiah, his disciples handed out leaflets about the threat of nuclear war… a judge said no when he tried to change his name to Jesus Christ II.

Another poster for Teenagers from Outer Space

In the ten years leading to his eventual suicide, Graeff threatened to kill himself a number of times and bored friends thought he was all talk.

In 1962-63 he attended a Quaker school halfway across the country and caused problems there which ended up with him barricading himself in a dormitory, something which landed him in jail for a couple of months. Upon release, he went back there again, which led to him being put in a mental institution.

The Wizard of Mars (1965) trailer

He was released in 1964, following reported shock treatments. He went back to his family in California where he got a job as editor on Daivd L. Hewitt’s not half bad, in fact, rather impressive, low-budgeter The Wizard of Mars (1965).

An older Tom Graeff

Little is known of Graeff until 1968, when he took out an ad in Variety to sell a screenplay entitled Orf for the then outrageous sum of $500,000. The local Los Angeles gossip columnist ridiculed him and trawled up Graeff’s past as Jesus Christ II. No-one would touch him and indeed he didn’t work in the industry again.

Towards the end there were reports the openly gay Graeff fell in love with straight men who wouldn’t love him back… he also created a recording of a lecture on vinyl explaining how man was basically bisexual… it didn’t sell well…

Come 1970 and the forty-one-year old Graeff had really reached the end of his tether. It was on 19 December, just a week before Christmas, and with no drugs or alcohol in his system, he was found slumped across the front seat of a rented 1970 Chevrolet Impala sedan in a dingy garage among some low rent houses in La Mesa near San Diego. There was a second car inside, a 1960 Corvair, which had a hose from its exhaust leading to the Impala, while the Impala exhaust also lead into the other side of the car. The garage was sealed from the inside and discovered by a neighbour who found an alarm clock perched outside the residence continually sounding at around 6.15am. Graeff, according to reports from those who knew him, had grown despondent regarding “the state of man and his environment”.

My friend Jan still remembers the exact number on the jukebox at her old bar! The Bee-Gees To Love Somebody from 1967 resonates with those who truly love. And those who lost…

Tom Lockyear Graeff had checked out and, like Barbara Payton a few years earlier, nobody in Hollywood cared. One of his biographers said about Graeff’s cautionary tale of broken Hollywood Dreams: “Don’t put everything you are into your visions because that will end up destroying you.”

Tom Graeff offered himself on the altar of Hollywood in more ways than one.

Tom Graeff was an artist

He was an honest to God artist whose $14,000 feel-good vision entitled Teenagers from Outer Space is a masterpiece that wanted to change the world – maybe even the universe! It was about love with a small and capital “L”.

As actor Joe E. Brown, who appeared in one of Graeff’s shorts, said at the end of Some Like it Hot, the very year that Teenagers was released: “Nobody’s perfect!”

Live and let live.

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