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THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974)
“When she was under hypnosis, we got the definite impression that what she’s carrying is something.... It’s a composite, of her and....and....”
Director: Lee Philips
Starring: Barbara Eden, George Grizzard, Nehemiah Persoff, David Doyle, Joyce Van Patten
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, based on his short story
Synopsis: Teacher David Collins (George Grizzard) arrives home from work to find his artist-wife Ann (Barbara Eden) in a pensive mood. At length she tells that he should speak to his doctor, who “didn’t do a very good job”. Catching her meaning, David is stunned: it is three years since he underwent his vasectomy. Ann begins to speak hesitantly of keeping the baby, arguing that this accidental pregnancy is like being given a second chance. David, however, is adamant that it is impossible: it was because of the danger to Ann’s life should she attempt to carry a child to term that he had the vasectomy in the first place. The next day, David comes home early from work. Reluctantly, he tells Ann that he has seen his doctor and been re-tested: it is impossible that he could be the father of her baby. Seeing David’s barely controlled anger, Ann herself grows angry, insisting that a mistake has been made somewhere. The two of them visit Ann’s doctor, Edward Klein (Nehemiah Persoff), who tells them that there was certainly no mistake in the pregnancy test. He then expresses his concern over Ann’s safety, considering her earlier experience. As they drive away, Ann tells David that she has never been unfaithful. That evening, after a silent, awkward dinner, tensions finally erupt. When David demands to know how he can think otherwise than that another man is the father of Ann’s baby, she throws back at him that after eleven years of marriage, her word ought to be enough. After some reflection, David agrees. Both of them decide to visit different doctors and have their tests done again. Later that night, as he grades his students’ papers, David is suddenly struck by a strange chill. To his puzzlement, he discovers that the thermostat of the central heating has been turned right down. He checks on Ann, who he finds sleeping in only a thin nightgown, with her covers thrown back and the bedroom windows wide open. Ann wakes up as David is tucking her back in, and after a moment tells him abruptly that she has decided to have an abortion. However, when David agrees that it would be for the best, “for your health”, Ann is scornful and bitter. Climbing out of bed, she throws open the windows again and stands directly in the cold night air.... David is driving Ann to the hospital when she suddenly begins moaning in pain and complaining of fever. At the hospital, having examined Ann, Dr Klein admits to David that he is not sure what is wrong with her, but that in any event, the procedure must be postponed until she is better. In her room, Ann smiles to herself.... Back home, Ann rests while David prepares her breakfast. As she eats, he reacts with concern over the enormous amount of salt she is putting on her food. When David has left for work, Ann settles in with a book – one of David’s old physics textbooks – turning the pages faster and faster as she reads. When her friend, Phyllis (Joyce Van Patten), drops in, Ann tells her story. She is upset by Phyllis’ reaction, accusing her friend of doubting her, like David and Dr Klein. That evening, David arrives home to find Ann standing out on a balcony dressed only in her nightgown. As he wraps a coat around her, Ann tells him that she wants to let their friend, Bob (David Doyle), hypnotise her, so that when she says that David is the father of her baby, he will know she is telling the truth. David protests that it is unnecessary, but Ann insists. The session goes well until Bob asks Ann to name the father of her baby. She sits silent and motionless, unable to speak a word....
Comments: Although the past five decades have seen numerous disparate versions of the phenomenon, for many people the expression “made-for-television movie” is inescapably associated with the 1970s, and specifically with those films produced under the banner of the ABC Movie Of The Week. In 1969, the struggling ABC network, desperate for a hit, took a significant chance by establishing a production unit under the direction of Barry Diller, whose brainchild the project was, to turn out movies intended for weekly broadcast in a fixed timeslot. Operating under what some of us might be tempted to call “the Roger Corman philosophy”, the unit attracted ambitious young producers more interested in the opportunity than in the money. (Ironically, considering the direction of his later career, one of the most important of them was Aaron Spelling.) The program debuted on 23rd September 1969 with Seven In Darkness, the story of blind plane crash survivors and their struggle to stay alive in the wilderness. Before long, ABC had a smash hit on its hands; so much so that by 1971, it had expanded the concept to two movies per week, and forced its competing networks to begin producing TV movies of their own. Although undoubtedly for the most part it was simply an aspect of the network’s grab for ratings, the MOTW became renowned for its willingness to tackle controversial subject matter, and for the way in which it did so – That Certain Summer, for example, broadcast in 1972, is considered a landmark production for its sympathetic and thoughtful treatment of homosexuality – and possibly to no-one’s surprise more than their own, the ABC executives found themselves winning both the ratings and a swag of awards for their efforts.
At this distance, perhaps the most remarkable thing about TV movies of the seventies is how very memorable so many of them are. In fact, if you bring this topic up with anyone of the right age, you are likely to trigger a flood of fond reminiscences. While in its chase for ratings the MOTW tried to cater to all tastes, fans of horror and science fiction were particularly well-treated. While a handful of these films are significant by any criteria – Duel, of course; The Night Stalker; The Legend Of Lizzie Borden – it is the second echelon that seems to have scarred a great many people for life in the most agreeable way: Trilogy Of Terror, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Gargoyles, Killdozer, The Screaming Woman, Bad Ronald, The Cat Creature....to rattle off only a few that happened to lodge in my memory. The secret to the staying power of these films lies primarily in their tendency to build themselves around an arresting concept – and then to commit their limited budgets to the hiring of good writers and solid, professional actors and directors, people capable of turning that concept into believable reality. The Stranger Within is a case in point. With a cast of only five and an equal number of settings (two outdoors, three indoors), the production values could hardly be more threadbare; yet the central dilemma – or, more correctly, the real world consequences of that dilemma – have a painful emotional resonance that holds the attention.
The tensions and fears of the Cold War era provided a fertile soil for all sorts of paranoiac obsessions, including those of invasions by mysterious beings with reproduction on their minds. Curiously enough, though, the earliest manifestations of this trope saw it operating as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy: in 1953’s Cat Women Of The Moon we have male astronauts being sized up as breeding partners, while the following year’s Devil Girl From Girl finds Nyah the alien dominatrix shopping for sperm donors in, of all places, the Scottish moorlands. Neither of these films seems able to take itself very seriously, but the tone changes altogether in 1957, with the release of both The Mysterians – proving that this particular neurosis isn’t just a Western phenomenon – and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (a wonderful and sadly underrated little film, by the way). The most famous of all alien impregnation stories was also a 1957 production: John Wyndam’s The Midwich Cuckoos, filmed in 1960 as Village Of The Damned. All three, featuring alien attempts to interbreed with human women, handle their premise soberly, even grimly.
So, too, does a short story about the alien impregnation of a woman that pre-dates John Wyndam’s famous novel by four years: Richard Matheson’s Mother By Protest, also known as Trespass. By 1974, Matheson was perhaps as well known for his screenwriting as for his fiction. He had, of course, passed through any number of cinematic landmarks by then: adapting his own novel for The Incredible Shrinking Man; a fruitful stint as an AIP/Roger Corman scribe; penning a Star Trek episode; winning an Edgar for The Night Stalker; and writing the screenplay, again from one of his own stories, for the most famous of all Made-For-Television movies of the 1970s, Duel.
The Stranger Within is not, perhaps, amongst the best of the MFTV movies of this era, but it is a very typical one. The expansion from short story-dom to feature-length – well, to about 74 minutes – works against its success. The film sets up its premise well, and it has a startling conclusion; but in between, there are a few too many lulls, too many repetitious moments used to string out the running-time. (Come to think of it, the film itself is rather like a pregnancy, divided into trimesters, and with relative calm in the second.) However, in spite of these failings, The Stranger Within manages to accumulate enough thoughtful and/or odd details to lodge itself in the viewer’s memory. As a matter of fact, Ann Collins’ eating habits alone are enough to win it a tiny slice of immortality....
In many ways, Richard Matheson was the perfect writer for MFTV movies, so many of which depended simply upon story and character. The Stranger Within certainly does. In adapting his twenty-year-old short story, Matheson necessarily contemporised it, as we shall see; but the film works for the same reason the story did, because of the entirely human drama at its heart. This is another thing that Matheson had in common with the MFTV movie overall: his predilection for writing adult stories about adults.
The opening scene of The Stranger Within connects us effortlessly with David and Ann Collins and their situation, partly through the writing, but also because of the easy professionalism of Barbara Eden and George Grizzard. We know these people immediately: long and happily married; still in love, although perhaps the passion has dimmed a little; completely comfortable with one another – or at least, they were.
(Pardon an early digression here. Unlike most seventies films, I can’t really pay out on the production design of The Stranger Within, which is relatively tasteful. So in lieu of that, I’ll stop instead to have a snicker about the cars. David and Ann own one each, and either one would comfortably accommodate a family of six. There are a couple of shots of them here parked nose to nose and, I swear, they’re as long that way as the Collinses’ house is wide – and it isn’t a small house.)
Casual conversation fills us in on some details of the Collinses. David is a schoolteacher; and we get one of the film’s few really dated moments here, as in recounting his students’ discussion of Charles Dickens and their comparison of social abuses then and now, David exults in them, “Sticking it to the Establishment!” (Then again, I’m not sure that’s any more dated than the thought of high school students reacting with enthusiasm to Dickens. Sigh.) Ann, meanwhile, is an artist, and quite a successful one. She has a gallery showing looming, or she will if she can settle into her work. David gives her some gentle encouragement – “We can’t afford to live like this on my salary!” he grins – but it is soon evident to him that Ann has other things on her mind. To his inquiry whether something’s the matter, she agrees that, yep, it really is. After a bit more umming and ahhing, she finally tells David he’d better see his doctor, Dr Tyler, because he didn’t do a very good job....
We never do find out the details of Ann’s first pregnancy, three years earlier, except that it went disastrously wrong; that she lost the baby and nearly died herself; and that in light of medical opinion regarding the danger to Ann’s health should she fall pregnant again, David had a vasectomy. His reaction to Ann’s news is, therefore, very mixed. It is evident that their inability to have children has, certainly not blighted the marriage, but thrown a shadow across it. Ann wants children; she wants this child. So does David, but he wants Ann more. His first thought here is her safety; his immediate reaction, to declare that she can’t possibly go through with the pregnancy. Ann is downcast by this response, briefly trying to persuade her husband that her pregnancy is like being given a miraculous second chance. David is apologetic, but adamant, and Ann finally concedes.
She makes a second attempt to sway him over dinner, though. It’s not a very successful dinner, perhaps not surprisingly. David finally pushes his stew away, explaining that it’s just a leetle salty, and opts for salad instead. Ann tells him that she is about two months pregnant; that of course it didn’t occur to her at first what was going on; but once she had the tests.... She is interrupted by David at this point in her rambling, and finds herself drowning her salad in salt. She shakes her head at her own absentmindedness – but eats the salad anyway.... Later, David wakes feeling chilly, and finds the bedroom windows wide open. He gets up to close them, and then tucks Ann, who has thrown back the covers, back in. He stops for a moment here, hovering over her tenderly, his torn feelings very evident.
Now--- You will notice that, through all of this, not the slightest thought that somebody else could be the father of Ann’s baby ever crosses David’s mind. That does not happen until he takes Ann’s advice and does see Dr Tyler. His mood, when he arrives home early the following day, is one of controlled anger. He tells Ann that he has been re-tested, and could not be the baby’s father. Her own anger is spontaneous and genuine. Grabbing her coat, she sets out to see her OB-GYN, declaring that there’s been a mistake somewhere; that either David is the father, or that she isn’t pregnant.
Ann gets no joy from Dr Klein, though. Klein is, in a sense, a friend as well as a doctor – it was he who saw Ann through her disastrous first pregnancy – and when he understands the problem, his embarrassment is obvious. He then tries to steer the conversation away from the details of conception and towards making a decision about Ann’s future course of action, but is cut short when Ann storms out.
David and Ann live some distance from the city, in an isolated part of the surrounding countryside, full of hills and canyons. The long drive home is tense but civil. It is not until the evening that things explode. “You’re pregnant and I’m not the father!” David finally erupts. “What do you want me to do?” Ann’s answer is brief and to the point: to trust her. “Eleven years of marriage ought to outweigh the words of two doctors or anyone else!” she throws at him.
That stops him. “Okay,” he says after a moment. “I buy that.” They agree that they will each go to a new doctor and be re-tested. Ann is left with her bewildered thoughts, as David settles in to a long night of grading. Some hours later, he is struck with a sudden chill. He finds, to his bemusement, that the thermostat on the central heating has been turned right down, and that Ann is asleep with the blankets thrown off and the windows of their bedroom wide open. He rectifies all three of these situations. As he turns to leave, though, his eye is caught by the book that Ann has been reading: one of his old physics texts. As he examines it with a puzzled smile, he sees that Ann is awake and watching him. He asks her about the thermostat, but her only answer is a request for a glass of water. As she gulps it down, David comments about the amount of salt she’s been putting on her food. Ann does not respond to that, either. Instead, she announces abruptly that she’s decided to have an abortion.
There is a pause before David replies quietly, “I think that’s best – for your health.” A flicker of contempt crosses Ann’s face. “Sure,” she says bitterly, lying down again with her back pointedly turned. David sits down beside her and tries to put his arm around her, but she pulls away, climbing out of bed and throwing the windows open again. She stands there silently in the chill night air, staring up at the full moon....
The Stranger Within was, of course, produced in the immediate wake of Roe v. Wade. MFTV movies of this era were, as I have said, often surprisingly willing to deal with controversial issues, although they usually declared their intentions at the get-go; the controversial subject matter was what the film was about. Here, the matter-of-fact working of abortion into the storyline as a subplot is, in its way, even more startling.
With all its frankness of attitude, the script of The Stranger Within declines to take a stance on the issue, either pro or con. Ann’s abortion – her sneer at David notwithstanding – remains couched within medical terms: it is for her health, possibly for her life, that the decision to proceed is made. Furthermore, as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that the main reason they can discuss the abortion so freely is because it’s never actually going to happen. Ann does book herself in, but as David is driving her to the hospital, she suddenly starts gasping and moaning in pain. Dr Klein is summoned to her, but can make nothing of her condition. All he knows for certain is that the abortion will have to be postponed.
This low-voiced conversation between Klein and David takes place outside the closed door of Ann’s hospital room. Nevertheless, inside, Ann smiles to herself as if overhearing....
This scenario is more or less repeated later on, with Ann heading for her postponed appointment but collapsing on the way. Since her reactions are presented as her own body, the baby itself, rebelling against the prospect, it could be argued that The Stranger Within is anti-abortion – except, of course, for how the pregnancy turns out....
The best thing about The Stranger Within is how fair it plays. It doesn’t take sides between Ann and David: it simply presents us with an untenable situation – he knows he can’t be the father; she knows nobody else could be – and asks us to feel for both of them. Of course, as viewers, we accept Ann’s version of events, because otherwise we’ve got no story. (Besides, if you were a woman cheating on your post-vasectomy husband, would you really announce your pregnancy to him like that?) However, the screenplay supports and justifies David’s natural disbelief by giving the same response to Ann’s best friend, Phyllis, who drops in to see her after she is released from hospital. We get one of the film’s inadvertently funny moments here, as Ann launches into an emotional speech about trying to get David, Dr Klein, Phyllis, anyone, to believe that it’s David’s child. “It’s so doggone frustrating!’ she concludes.
Welcome to American prime-time, circa 1974, where apparently it’s okay to talk about abortion, but you can’t say “damned”.
Anyway, Phyllis suddenly has a brainwave. When David gets home that night, he finds Ann standing out on the balcony dressed only in a thin nightgown, staring at the setting sun. He calls to her in alarm and she snaps out of it. As he tries to warm her up, an excited Ann confronts him with Phyllis’s idea, a scheme that will prove that she’s telling the truth: she will ask Phyllis’s husband, their friend, Bob, to hypnotise her. Then when she says that David is the father, he will be able to believe it. In the face of Ann’s desperate pleading and declarations of love, David agrees.
(Speaking of inadvertently funny, Bob turns out to be played by a pre-Charlie’s Angels David Doyle.)
We find out later that Bob works at the local university, although we never learn his actual profession; we assume he teaches psychology. Apparently he has hypnotised “lots of people”, although he’s “only an amateur”. Be that as it may, Bob succeeds in putting Ann into a trance using a crystal pendant, and then asks the $64,000 question: “Do you know who the father of the child is?”
“Is David the father?”
“Ann, is David the father?”
David himself has already started to squirm, and here he intervenes, asking Bob to let it go. Bob persists, though, and David loses his temper. The sudden lift in his voice startles Ann from her trance. She looks around at three acutely embarrassed people. “What?” she says blankly. “Will somebody please tell me what happened?”
Evidently, somebody does. As Ann sobs uncontrollably in her bedroom and Phyllis tries to comfort her, downstairs Bob pours David a stiff drink. Bob suggests that the hypnosis wasn’t deep enough, but David has another theory: that Ann feels so guilty about her infidelity, she’s suppressed the memory of it. Ann is still crying when David comes to bed, and says despairingly that she’s well enough now: she’ll keep that postponed appointment.
But---she doesn’t. This time she’s collapses when they’re barely on the road. Back home, having tucked her in, David phones Klein to tell him about it. To his credit, David doesn’t accuse Ann of faking, but he does think the pain is psychosomatic. He insists on the abortion, however, refusing to let her risk another disastrous pregnancy.
Upstairs, a tearful Ann whispers, “All right....”
The two of them go to see Klein. While Ann dresses after her examination, Klein hints to David about the need for a psychiatrist. Ann’s entry puts a stop to that conversation, and Klein then tells her that she’s got her dates wrong: she’s three months pregnant, not two. Ann refutes this, but Klein waves the issue away to concentrate on convincing Ann that she must have the abortion. She flatly refuses.
And so ends Act 1. It is here that we move into the phase of the film that is, to an extent, just marking time. Instead of really advancing the story, we concentrate on Ann’s increasingly bizarre behaviour. She becomes openly hostile towards David, snapping and snarling at him constantly. The house, formally kept meticulously, degenerates into a pig-sty. Ann’s dietary quirks become increasingly extreme. She reads her way through all of David’s textbooks – physics, chemistry, sociology, anthropology, history, politics – and demands more, and more, and more....
I’ve said that The Stranger Within doesn’t take sides, and it really doesn’t; but there’s no question that at this point in the story, it pulls back from Ann, blocking us from her inner consciousness. It also becomes a pretty clear allegory for the pains, rather than the pleasures, of impending fatherhood. It never goes quite as far as Witchboard, a film that, as I recall, openly declares pregnancy and demonic possession to be indistinguishable; but it certainly sympathises deeply with the bewildered and marginalised father-to-be. As many others have done, I suspect, David’s way of confronting the situation is not to confront it at all: he just hunkers down and tries to ride out the storm.
So – Ann’s behaviour. Her mood swings. Her untidiness. Her insistence on cold. Her hypersensitivity to sound. Her extended absences. Her reading, which goes from normal to speed-reading to running her fingers over the pages and then, it seems, to just clasping books in her hands. Not just books, either: in a funny moment, we see her in a library, lovingly stroking a 33 rpm record (kids, ask your parents!) as the people watching her exchange whee-yooo looks. Next we see her at the microfilm reader, flashing through decades of history in mere minutes....
Then there’s her diet. The salt business is ongoing, and escalating: David can’t eat anything she cooks. But salt is a minor issue compared to what David finds one day when he walks into the kitchen – namely, Ann standing over a platter of the most disgusting things the film’s property buyer could find: offal of various descriptions, pig’s feet, and a whole octopus; a big one.
Like so many other productions of this era, The Stranger Within was certainly influenced by The Exorcist; although it is, by miles, by leagues, the mildest of the post-Exorcist “possession” films. This, on the other hand, is a real Rosemary’s Baby moment. As David gapes in understandable horror, Ann – of course – picks up the salt-shaker and sets to work with it on her proposed dinner. Alas, the film then chickens out: she never gets to take a bite. As she carries her platter across the room, David jerks her arm, and whole lot goes crashing to the floor.
The other thing that’s been going on – the detail that above all others, I suspect, endears this film to certain viewers – is the massive escalation in Ann’s coffee consumption. This has been running in parallel with the salt business, but hasn’t been emphasised in the same way; or maybe we just haven’t noticed because for many of us, this counts as normal behaviour. She goes from taking her coffee white to taking it black; from having the occasional cup to drinking it constantly. One night, David makes a pot to have some while he works, and by the time he comes back to get a cup, Ann has scoffed the lot. (“You drank the ENTIRE POT!?” he shouts with perfectly understandable indignation.) Then she begins to display an alarming ability to drink her coffee scalding hot. This particular behaviour climaxes one night when, having finished the existing pot, she resorts to grabbing a handful of grounds, tossing them in a little water, and swilling them down as is. She then collapses. David, Bob and Phyllis, who have watched all this in stunned disbelief, rush to help her – only to realise that she has keeled over because she’s drunk.
Well, what can I say? Sister!
The coffee business first draws attention to itself when Ann and Paula go out for lunch – during which Ann also displays a personality we haven’t seen before. Previously, she’s been zig-zagging between normality and what we might call Personality B: the one that hurls angry verbal abuse at David on the slightest provocation, or even none at all. We get a good look at both one night when the two fight over David’s classical music, and Ann yells at him for not turning it down when she asked (or demanded) – except that he did. David has one of his own rare losses of temper here, and it seems to bring Ann to herself. She throws herself at his knees, almost crying, apologising over and over again, and begging him to help her: “I don’t know what’s happening to me!” David hugs and kisses her, thrilled and relieved to have “his” Ann back. He then makes an astonishing suggestion: “Why don’t we go to bed – and cuddle?”
That whoooshhhh-ing sound you hear is the collective sighs of every woman who ever watched this film.
But never mind, gentlemen! – you get your moment of vindication next; because by the time David actually gets to bed, Personality B is firmly back in the ascendant: “Why don’t you leave me alone!?”
Tragically, history now shows that this was the last spontaneous offer to cuddle ever recorded.
We can judge the extent of David’s confusion and misery here by the fact that he actually confides the details of the situation to Bob. “I always hated guys who poured out their guts over the lunch table,” he mutters in embarrassment. This conversation reveals an incredible fact: that, according to Dr Klein, Ann’s blood cells are changing....from Rh- to Rh+.... David also tells Bob that Ann, despite having caught a bad cold, has started taking longer and longer walks through the surrounding countryside. “I don’t know where she goes,” he concludes helplessly.
And indeed, when he gets home Ann isn’t there. By 9.15 that night, she still hasn’t returned. She does while David is on the phone with Phyllis. He stares at her in horror: the exhausted condition, the scratches and bruises all over her, the tortured breathing that tells of the onset of pneumonia.... David puts her to bed and summons Klein, who arranges for a hospital bed as David packs. When they return to Ann’s side, however, they can only gape at her and each other in disbelief. Ann is sleeping peacefully. Her breathing is normal, and her injuries have healed themselves....
The lunch with Phyllis that I mentioned follows next, during which we meet Personality C: a bright, bubbly, babbling Ann who speaks gleefully of her “special baby” as she uses her fingers to cram salty food into her mouth and chugs down coffee. (“More coffee please! Oh, leave the pot....”) By now it is more than evident that the baby is controlling Ann both physically and psychologically. This makes the attitude displayed her by Ann here all the more interesting. Obviously, the baby perceives in Phyllis none of the threat posed by David; not physical threat, of course; rather, the fact that Ann’s feelings for David make it harder for it to control her. Here, Phyllis tries to restrain the salt usage, but to absolutely no avail. Ann waves an airy hand. “Baby’ll take care of it. He will.” And yes, she does know it’s a boy.
Oh, here’s a fun fact! – apparently being pregnant with alien spawn makes you do a runner on the bill.
Alien spawn. Well, yes: anyone in much doubt about what’s going on here? I wonder when audiences in 1974 were expected to twig? We’ve had three decades of alien impregnations since then, of course, most of them played for graphic horror rather than emotional drama. Say what you will about Ann’s cosmic rapist: at least he believes in natural childbirth.
Another walk, another collapse, this one accompanied – hmm, did I refute the notion of demonic possession? – by Ann seemingly speaking in tongues. This time Klein has to report an abnormal amount of amniotic fluid, high blood pressure, severe cramping, headaches and blurred vision – and also that despite all evidence to the contrary, the baby has reached at least seven months’ development.
Nevertheless, Klein insists on an immediate termination – and the next thing we know, the baby has indeed “taken care of it” and Ann is back to normal. Except that she is now definitely Rh+, while her steady body temperature is ten degrees below normal.
(A word of praise here for Barbara Eden, who does what actresses, and their directors, so often forget, and alters her posture and her walk as her “pregnancy” advances. And a shout-out to the designer of her prosthetic, who went to the trouble of giving her an outie.)
Ann stages another temporary disappearance. This time David calls Bob and Phyllis over, so that they are there to witness her return and the climactic coffee freak-out – and a freak-out of another kind, as a literally snarling Ann turns on David with an upraised carving-knife in her hand. She stops herself though, and collapses, sobbing. She grows hysterical as the others carry her to bed, where Bob, pointing out both her intoxication and emotional openness, insists that now is the time for another hypnosis session, now, while her barriers are down. He finally carries his point, and this time Ann answers his questions – but not in any language we can understand. Bob takes this with surprising calm, insisting that she answer him in English. She finally does....
“....now am I alien. Forgotten; lost; forsaken; plunged through space. Darkness.... Release me from my torment! I cry.... I cry, sickened of this hot, heavy land.... Send me not, my fathers, send me not to make the way.... To walk the shores of orange seas, cool.... To tread the crimson darkening plains, cool.... Raft the silent waters, cool.... Drink the wind, grey, silent wind, cool, so cool.... Return me, my fathers. Take me back! Take me back, take me back....”
A tale of exile, then – but as punishment, or of necessity? Is this another tale of a dying race, and a search for a means of re-population, no matter what the cost? And, in this context, how wonderfully ambiguous that reference to my fathers....
The ensuing argument downstairs finds David in denial, Phyllis rejecting the idea as too horrible, and Bob the scientist suggesting – naturally – that maybe it’s actually a good thing, this alien contact. David’s rebuttal to that is brief and to the point: “You should have been living with us the last three months! Why us?” he breaks out. “Why Ann? Why should Ann be the first?”
“We don’t that know she is,” counters Bob.
Later, after Bob and Phyllis have gone, David is drawn to Ann’s room by a terrible scream. He finds her crouched in a corner, an abandoned straight-razor at her feet and in a catatonic state. Klein is summoned, and David finally brings himself to describe the hypnosis session – also explaining the razor by suggesting that Ann tried, but failed, to destroy the force controlling her.
To David’s surprise (and mine, I confess), Klein almost leaps upon the idea of alien impregnation, arguing that would indeed explain everything – including that fact that after only five months, the baby is full-term and engaged; and something that showed up on x-ray: it has two hearts.
Oh, my God, she’s been raped by a Time Lord.
(Do they still have that detail these days? I really wouldn’t know....)
David and Klein plan to hospitalise Ann, but as usual she’s too quick for them – catatonic one moment, the next out the window and away. And this time, she doesn’t return....
We follow Ann up into the surrounding mountains, to a cabin. She’s gone there to wait. And wait she does, a book on childbirth, stolen from Dr Klein’s office, clutched in her hands....
....and when we next re-join her, she has a seemingly normal baby in her arms. We then see her outside, still clad in a nightgown and with the baby in her arms. She is not alone. They seem to come from everywhere, new mothers in night-gear and carrying their babies, all moving in the same direction with a steady sense of purpose....
Back at the house, David is waiting too; simply waiting. There have been various visual motifs throughout this film. One is the clocks. The house is full of clocks. They are used to emphasise the unnaturally short time of the pregnancy, and to highlight Ann’s sudden sensitivity to sound. The swinging pendulum on one also forms a segue device to various inserted, solarised shots of the sun. We see this again here.
The other repeated image is the painting that Ann has been working on throughout, a landscape, which has slowly taken shape over the course of events. For no specific reason, David now flicks back the protective cloth to look at it.
He recognises it, of course. The shores of orange seas, the crimson darkening plain....and the Earth hanging in the night sky above it.
Seized with a terrible premonition, David rushes to the window....
You can measure the success of The Stranger Within by the fact that it is only afterwards that you begin to take issue with this section of the film. (“Fridge logic”, as Hitchcock used to say.) So many missing mothers-to-be, and no particular police presence? And could there really have been so many freaky pregnancies in so limited a geographical range without news of it spreading? Granted, we don’t actually know how far some of these women have travelled to reach this spot; but even in those pre-networked days, didn’t doctors consult? Edward Klein can’t have been the only one to take his patient’s case to a higher authority.
However, such is the visual impact of these dialogue-less final scenes of The Stranger Within that normal logic goes by the board. Emotional logic, however--- Ah, that’s another thing. (By the way, don’t ever try to tell me that the makers of The Stepford Wives didn’t see this film.) These few minutes encapsulate the MFTV movie of the 1970s: a deceptive simplicity, the ability to say a great deal with very little, and the power to linger in the mind long after many big-budgeted, star-heavy studio vehicles have come and gone.
Sadly, Barbara Eden’s
own history includes miscarriages and a stillbirth. Her only surviving
child ultimately died of a drug overdose. This film must have been
incredibly hard for her to do. I can only imagine she found it in some
Less distressing footnote: There are some interesting names on the production side of this: editorial supervision by Gene Fowler Jr – as in, I Was a Teenage Werewolf – first assistant director, Kurt Neumann Jr (son of The Fly’s Kurt Neumann), and costumes by Patricia Norris, who would go on to be nominated for a number of Academy Awards for films like Days Of Heaven, The Elephant Man and Victor/Victoria.Best footnote of all: The Stranger Within is now available as part of the Warner Archive Collection.