Sunday, January 1, 2012

Aliens, Mutants and Terence Fisher

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964)
ISLAND OF TERROR (1966)

Invading alien robots - impervious to bullets, but not to Land Rovers - shamble around in THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING. Resembling a visage put together from whatever the film maker's could find lying around Shepperton studios, the creation reminds of Cybermen to come. 

ONLY a few weeks after completing his directing assignment on Hammer's THE GORGON, Terence Fisher was at the helm of THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, a hardly feature-length offering from Lippert Films. An alien gas attack has wiped out the entire population of England - possibly the world - and caused some to be reanimated as white-eyed zombie slaves. Amongst this carnage, American test pilot Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker) is soon joined by Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price), Peggy (Virginia Field), Vi (Vanda Godsell) and husband Eddie (Thorley Walters). All share the same unifying factor, that during the previous evening they were all in purified air conditions, thus avoiding the threat. When two space-suited humanoids are seen walking in the street, Vi runs out to greet them in the mistaken belief they are military assistance; in fact, they are alien robots who kill her by lethal touch. After another pair of survivors arrive - Mel (David Spenser) and his pregnant wife Lorna (Anna Palk) - the group venture to a local Royal Engineers TA drill hall in the hunt for weapons.

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING is somnolent sci-fi on a shoestring budget - the opening montage even utilises stock footage from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED - which attempts to host an apocalyptic invasion with two robots and a conservative scattering of dead bodies filmed in the Surrey village of Shere. No-one dies screaming; even the zombies - when shot - regress to the dramatics of a school playground, and the invasion is finally foiled by the destruction of a rickety old radio mast. Fisher was no fan of science fiction, but he does inject some atmosphere into the village-under-siege dynamic, especially the reanimated Vi staircase walk, and the eerie framing of an alien watching Lorna through a netted window. The performances are purely functionary, with the exception of Price and Walters; Walters is entertaining as ever in his trademark role of frightened alcoholic, but Price is the standout as Taggart. There is a wonderful scene where he attempts to rescue wads of useless money from a fire - hinting at a seedy past which is never fleshed out - and the slippery character fittingly leads the robots to his colleagues when in zombie-state.

Menacing bone-sucking tendrils erupt in this German poster for ISLAND OF TERROR.

Two years later Fisher directed the guilty pleasure ISLAND OF TERROR for Planet Films. On Petrie's Island off the coast of Ireland, researchers are working on a cure for cancer, but accidentally create a race of bone-sucking creatures dubbed silicates. After the discovery of a body which has been reduced to jelly, local Dr Landers (Eddie Byrne) seeks help from scientists Dr Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) and Dr David West (Edward Judd), who travel to the island with West’s socialite girlfriend Toni (Carole Gray). The two scientists discover that bullets, fire and dynamite won’t stop the silicates from advancing on the island’s humans and cattle.

Co-produced by science-horror specialist Richard Gordon, ISLAND OF TERROR can be seen as a inferior re-imagining of his earlier FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. Everything is in place for an effective monster movie: a laboratory destroyed by a new life form, creatures who emit an eerie slurping sound, unexplainable corpses ("like mush with the two eyes a-sittin' in it"), no telephones or form of escape, and Peter Cushing. Although the veteran actor's screen time is shared by Judd's younger, more bullish scientist, it is testament to all of the players who attempt to create tension away from the appearance of the silicates, who are arguably the weak link. They may have a fast-moving tentacle, but their plastic-looking bases move so slowly that you wonder how they have effectively snared so many victims (they can even climb trees). Despite all the impending doom, as Kim Newman states in his Video Watchdog review, "as often in British SF, we learn that crises should be left to the experts, even if boffins have started the trouble."