The plot of Roger Corman’s Not of This Earth (1957) is simple and efficient B-movie fare: a space vampire named Mr. Johnson (Paul Birch) is killing off Earthlings and draining them of blood with a device he carries in his silver suitcase. But the screenplay, by Charles B. Griffith (The Little Shop of Horrors) and Mark Hanna (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), layers on the quirks, and coupled with an engaging lead performance by Beverly Garland (It Conquered the World), it makes for a memorable 50’s sci-fi cult picture. Released as the supporting feature of Corman’s utterly goofy Attack of the Crab Monsters, it outclassed the self-imposed competition and has earned (to date) two revisits, one in 1988 and another in 1997. The 1988 film, directed by Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall), is such a close remake that it becomes a parody, and is best appreciated by those familiar with the original. So…double feature:
Garland is the chief reason to watch the original, attractive and radiating wit, making the best of every line. She plays Nurse Nadine, hired by Mr. Johnson to assist him with his blood transfusions, since he needs a constant supply. Meanwhile, in secret, Mr. Johnson operates a boxy remote control device to open an inter-dimensional portal in his closet, so he can confer with home planet Davanna. His master gives him strict instructions: continue acquiring large quantities of blood to ship back home; receive blood transfusions to confirm that human blood is compatible with Davannan; and once this is known, lay the path for Earth’s subjugation. But his chauffeur, the gun-toting ex-crook Jeremy (Jonathan Haze), begins to suspect that there’s something not quite right with his boss. For one thing, he never removes his sunglasses. He speaks in a monotone. Visitors to the house are never seen leaving. Jeremy also discovers the suitcase with the blood-draining equipment, and a flask with something strange living inside. So when he’s not feverishly hitting on Nadine, he talks of the strange goings-on; and soon enough they begin to trade information, and investigate just what their employer is really up to.
Not of This Earth was shot in just twelve days, in typical Corman budget-crunching fashion. One take, make sure it’s in focus, set up the next shot. Attack of the Crab Monsters was more visually ambitious: it had giant beasts lurking in caves, with the heroes lobbing dynamite at them; NOTE‘s monster turns out to be a cheap-looking umbrella alien that’s guided by a wire, so it should be no wonder that Crab Monsters received the top of the bill. But Griffith and Hanna perform alchemy out of Corman’s limited means (Griffith tends to get the most credit, given the reliably clever scripts he produced for the Corman factory). The film is barely more than an hour, but it’s one you’re more inclined to remember; it’s got almost everything you want in this kind of picture.
When Wynorski decided to remake it for Corman’s New World Pictures in 1988, he made a bet with the King of the B’s that he could film it within the same limited period as the original – and he won, completing shooting in eleven-and-a-half days, besting Corman’s twelve. He accomplished this by using limited (sometimes transparently fake) sets, and padding his running time by cannibalizing footage from some other New World Pictures, like Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Hollywood Boulevard (1976), and Galaxy of Terror (1981). (This practice was pretty common at New World: the spaceship from 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, for example, flies from one Corman movie to the next.) Wynorski’s film is largely remembered today because it was the first non-pornographic film to star Traci Lords, and the last in which she appeared unclothed. To date, she’s one of the few adult film stars to transition successfully to a mainstream acting career, having appeared in John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990), the first Blade movie (1998), and countless other TV shows and genre movies. Here, her line readings are still a bit rough, with only a few moments in which she manages to shine; but blame it on the shoot, since it’s unlikely that Wynorski gave the acting novice much of a chance to redo any takes.
The 1988 version is chiefly enjoyable because Wynorski apparently made it with the original’s script in hand. At times, it is a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake, so that it faithfully honors the spirit of 50’s B-movies while escalating every moment into camp. It doesn’t matter to Wynorski that the dialogue is hopelessly dated. As with Robert K. Weiss’ film-within-a-film segment of Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), which copies Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956), there’s a lot of affectionate nostalgia when sending up the absurdities of the original. But he also updates certain elements to match his own (often lewd) sensibilities. In a head-to-head matchup, which film comes out on top?
Doomed Teenager Make-Out Session
Both films begin with two random teenagers on a date, stalked by the deadly alien. In the original, the girl exits the car, walks a distance, and is confronted by Paul Birch and his suitcase. He removes his glasses and she screams. But Wynorski recognizes what teenage make-out sessions in movies are for: exploitation. So we get the requisite nudity, followed by the alien murdering not one, but both of them. We’re even treated to his glowing eyes, which Corman withholds for a while in his version. Winner, though not for subtlety: 1988.
Corman presents a collection of almost abstract but decidedly sinister and skull-like floating images accompanied by an equally eerie score. Wynorski just shows gory scenes from other New World movies. Winner by a large margin: 1957.
Paul Birch looks like he’s suffered severe whiplash, and his monotone often borders on the unintentionally funny. Nevertheless, as good as Arthur Roberts is in the role, he’s clearly doing an impression of Birch; and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Winner due to iconic reasons: 1957.
Mr. Johnson communicates with his leader via a transmitter/teleporter in the lounge closet. In the original, it’s a floating head. Wynorski, perhaps a ZZ Top fan, uses a bearded man with sunglasses and Jesus hair. Winner: 1957, mainly because I don’t know what’s going on with 1988 here.
Nadine Does Sexy Things Behind a Screen
Jeremy delivers breakfast to Nadine in her bedroom, and she addresses him while (falsely) believing she’s unobserved behind a screen. In a very daring moment for a 50’s film, Beverly Garland sensually massages a bare leg and then slips on some pantyhose. But in 1988, this wasn’t quite enough. Traci Lords, mouthing the same repartee, dries her naked body off with a towel. Winner: I’m sorry, Beverly. There’s nothing to be done. 1988.
Jonathan Haze plays Jeremy as a likeable young dope, but in each scene with Garland he’s so out-acted that he comes across as barely worth her time. Lenny Juliano, on the other hand, honors Haze’s characterization but plays up the lovable scamp. He seems to have his finger on the tone Wynorski is going for with his remake: cheesy but endearing. He also makes a good foil for Lords, especially when they engage in a poolside flirtation/duel. When Haze’s Jeremy dies, it’s no big loss, but Juliano is such a presence that his death seems not just premature, but downright unfair. Winner: 1988.
Death of a Vacuum Cleaner Salesman
Corman regular Dick Miller saves the Earth from an alien saboteur in War of the Satellites (1958), but as a vacuum salesman, he’s no match for the vampire from Davanna. Miller improvised most of his dialogue, using a pitch he once actually performed door-to-door. The brief cameo is so indelible that Wynorski used a Miller lookalike (although he could have just used Miller again, unless Joe Dante was taking up all of the actor’s time). But he can’t quite recreate Miller’s death scene, in which the actor has the guts to deliver an over-the-top double-take directly to the camera. Winner: 1957…and bravo, sir.
Mr. Johnson’s Buffet
Desperate for large quantities of blood to deliver back to Davanna, Mr. Johnson is escorted by Jeremy around town, until he encounters three drunken hobos at a park, who will fit his purposes just fine. Wynorski, dissatisfied that hobos don’t have large breasts, makes it three squeaky-voiced hookers instead. Winner: 1957, because the hookers are pretty irritating.
The Live Specimen
Required to deliver a live specimen to the Davannans, Mr. Johnson turns up a Chinese fellow out of the blue. Wynorski would rather it be a strippergram. Winner: 1957, for its sheer inexplicability.
Police Officer Harry
Nadine’s boyfriend is a cop, and both films make the mistake of thinking such a bland character should survive to the end of the film instead of the infinitely more entertaining Jeremy. Winner: 1957, but only because 1988’s Roger Lodge was later the host of Blind Date. I hold it against him.
Traci Lords looks great in every outfit she wears in this film (well, except for that bizarre, Muppet-like frizzy thing), and also in every outfit she doesn’t wear. But Beverly Garland is sassy, intelligent, and a worthy opponent to a telepathic space vampire. She’s not hard on the eyes, either. Winner: 1957.
So it’s the original by 8-3. Wynorski might have won his bet with Corman, but ultimately, it’s Corman’s picture you’ll want to revisit. It’s why they invented the 1950’s.
Both films are currently available on DVD from Shout! Factory as part of their great Roger Corman Cult Classics line: