Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone. Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed. In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.
In The Stranger Within, a woman discovers that an unknown being is about to upend her life irrevocably, possessing and manipulating first her body, and then her thoughts and her emotions. In other words, this is how Matheson writes a story about pregnancy.
Veteran stage actor George Grizzard plays the beleaguered husband, while veteran genie Barbara Eden plays his subjugated wife. Not subjugated by him, mind you, but by the parasitic creature that’s taken up residence in her womb.
The film introduces its mysterious elements in rapid increments. The same breath that tells us that Eden is pregnant also reveals that her pregnancy is impossible. Due to complications from a previous pregnancy, Grizzard had himself neutered to prevent further risks against her health. In light of this fact, and in true Mathesonian fashion, they try to work together to assess the situation and puzzle out an explanation:
A) The vasectomy was unsuccessful.
B) The pregnancy is false.
C) Someone else has been rubbing Barbara Eden’s lamp.
D) Space aliens.
Once they’ve scientifically ruled out options A and B, a wall begins to build between them. Grizzard doesn’t believe she was unfaithful, but in light of the evidence, he doesn’t know what else to think. He never confronts her outright or accuses her of anything; it’s more like he’s sharing his frustration with her.
DAVID: Ann, stop. Now let’s… let’s put aside any doubts we have and just consider…
ANN: I have no doubts!
DAVID: Well I do! Now come on, Ann, we’re not children! You’re pregnant and I’m not the father. Now what do you want me to do? Put yourself in my place. How would you feel?
ANN: If you told me there was no one else, I’d believe you. Eleven years of marriage should outweigh the words of two doctors or anyone else!
DAVID: Okay. I buy that. I trust you, I always have. If you say there’s no other man… right. I’ll go to another doctor, a specialist. You go to another doctor. We’ll… We’ll clear this thing up.
Through the bald-faced directness of dialogue such as this, as well as through a precise economy of action, Matheson characters typically wear their motivations on their sleeves. In The Stranger Within, this enhances the strangeness of Eden’s opaque and utterly inexplicable behavior. And believe you me, she takes a short trip from loving life-companion to Apeshit Mayoress of Bananasville.
But the cleverest thing about this movie is that the symptoms of her possession are all just amped-up symptoms of a normal pregnancy. Sudden onsets of nausea (the baby attacks her body from the inside anytime they try to drive to the hospital). Sensitivity to temperature (she keeps the thermostat at 50°F). Headaches (she’s hypersensitive to sound). Violent hormonal mood swings (she yells at her husband, covers him with kisses, and then demands to be left alone). Abrupt change of interests (she abandons her artwork and her self-imposed duties as a housewife to devour scientific texts). And most memorably, cravings for strange foods. She drinks black coffee by the potful, and when the pot is empty, she throws the grounds in cold water and slugs that back, too. As for food, it doesn’t matter what she’s eating as long as it’s under an avalanche of table salt. At one point she fixes herself a plate of refrigerated fish and squid parts, and then salts it, and salts it, and salts it, and it’s absolutely unnerving.
At one point, Grizzard brings her breakfast in bed, and cautions her about the sodium. “I won’t overuse it,” she promises. As he’s shaving, we see her in the corner of his mirror, using the saltshaker like a maraca. He notices, and you can see his concern. Did she lie to him, or can she not control herself? In either case, how can he trust her now?
All of this plays into the male fear of pregnancy, the little voice that says “You sure seemed ready for conception, and you might think you’re ready to be a dad, but buddy, are you ready for the nine months in between?” This same voice then says, perhaps more insistently, “If this child changes her, and it will, might you gain a son to lose a wife?” It also plays to the non-gender-specific fear of never truly knowing the people you love, the fear of the changeability inherent to human behavior. And it plays to our cultural reservation against even discussing how fucking weird pregnancy actually is. When I see a dismembered corpse in a movie, I think, “Too bad for that guy,” but when the doctor in The Stranger Within says “She’s suffering from extreme hydromnios—that’s an abnormal amount of amniotic fluid,” I think, “JESUS, THAT CAN HAPPEN?”
I mean, I thought that kind of shit just took care of itself.
Eventually, they all figure out that Eden was impregnated by space aliens, because I don’t do spoiler warnings for forty-year-old movies. By this point, you might be comparing this movie to the more culturally-significant Rosemary’s Baby. But the primary difference is this: in Rosemary’s Baby, the titular baby is some kind of demon, and therefore inherently evil. In The Stranger Within, we don’t know where the alien child’s morality lies on the good-to-evil spectrum. As a close friend says to Grizzard,
“Why horrible? Why do we always assume that anything that comes from outer space is horrible? Maybe it isn’t! I mean, hell, maybe it’s great! What do we know? Maybe it’s just what we need.”
Take out the sci-fi angle and that’s any man trying to cheer up his pal about an unplanned pregnancy. Leave it in, and it’s a spacey retelling of the Immaculate Conception.
The son of Satan may be scarier, but the fact that The Stranger Within‘s baby is innately unknowable makes for a better allegory. In the end, Eden meets with a troop of likewise vacant-eyed women, infants all in tow. They’re smothered with a bright light, and then they’re gone, forever. We cut to Grizzard, alone in his home, as he realizes that the woman he married can’t come back. She doesn’t belong to him anymore. She belongs to the child. No matter what he may turn out to be.
(Not to be confused with “The Enemy Within,” the Matheson-penned episode of Star Trek where the transporter splits Kirk up into two different but equally useless Kirks.)