Grace Thomas (Allison Hayes) has recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and is afraid all of the time, so she has been taken to an isolated sanatarium by her doctor, Loren Wright (Roy Gordon). The establishment is run by a scientist, Dr Charles Conway (John Carradine), who makes her feel at home and sends her to bed for the night. But when she leaves the room, Conway makes sure that she has no relatives and arranges to have her coat and handbag left by the bay to look as if she has committed suicide by jumping in. Conway's place is no normal sanatarium, in fact he's running a detailed set of experiments on glands in the human body and if he is successful, he will have discovered the secret of eternal life...
This shocker, in more ways than one, was scripted by Geoffrey Dennis and Jane Mann, from her story, and was more of a horror tale than the customary science fiction of the period. In the fifties science fiction, scientists were quite often the heroes, the ones with the nous and know-how to beat the threat to humanity, but here The Unearthly is like a look back to the mad scientist chillers of the nineteen-thirties and -forties, with Carradine in full flow as the crazed doctor. It also seems to be working on a budget comparable to those past horrors, with minimal special effects and unimpressive makeup coupled with unenthusiastic acting courtesy of the rest of the cast.
Conway's retreat is actually pretty busy, and gets busier when someone shows up in the grounds, skulking through the bushes. It's escaped murderer Mark Houston (Myron Healey), and he is caught by Conway's henchman Lobo (the legendary Tor Johnson) and dragged through the front door to meet the doctor, who has learned of the killer's flight from the radio bulletins. Seeing an opportunity, Conway makes him a deal: he will offer him a place to hide, and in return receive a few favours. Houston is reluctant, but takes the offer of a bed for the night. The next morning, he meets two of the other patients, argumentative, recovering drug addict Danny (Arthur Batanides) and trashy paperback-reading blonde Natalie (Sally Todd).
They will all be subjected to Conway's experiments if he has his way, but he hasn't had much luck since discovering a new, wonder-gland. One of his past endeavours at adapting the glands to run forever is in his extensive basement, a pale, shadowy-eyed catatonic. Another turns out to be Lobo, who, according to the doctor when he tells all to Houston to get him on his side, entered the sanatarium "puny" but now is the "moron" behemoth you see before you; it's difficult to believe Tor was ever puny, but to create such an icon the venture must be judged some kind of success - he even speaks in this one. Anyway, Houston doesn't want any part of it, but is forced to hang around because of the threat of being exposed to the police.
Interestingly for a film of this type, the mental patients are treated sympathetically, while Conway takes care of the dangerous madness aspect through his misguided and exploitative work. We understand why Danny is the way he is when we see him desperate for his next fix, and are justifiably worried when Conway says that Natalie has made enough progress to leave, meaning she will soon be under the scalpel. And so it is that Conway tests out his theories on her, and it goes horribly, predictably wrong; the old phrase "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" should be amended to "...give up" in his case. The Unearthly isn't particularly good or well made, but it carries a sense of faint amusement as it mechanically goes through the motions, and there's an entertainingly sick revelation at the end. Music by Henry Vars, which presumably didn't include Conway's politely suffered efforts on the organ.