January 2, 2012

There's No Beast like a Snow Beast

Terror in the Midnight Sun (aka Invasion of the Animal People,  1959)

The Arctic region, along with its polar opposite, the Antarctic, present some of the most forbidding, surreal and hazardous landscapes humans have ever tread (and tried to survive) upon. The name derives from the Greek word ἄρκτος (arktos), meaning bear. From wherever you are, keep following the constellation Ursa Minor, the "Little Bear" (home of the north star Polaris), and you'll eventually wind up in the Arctic. The conditions are so extreme, and travel so difficult, that it's only been in the last hundred years or so that human beings have set foot on the geographic North Pole (a little over one hundred years if you accept Robert Peary's claim to be the first to get there).

During the Cold War seemingly no place on earth was exempt from U.S. - Soviet competition, and the Arctic was no exception. In addition to the space race of the late 1950s, there was a race to prove who could better secure and control the world's oceans, which culminated in the first submerged transit under the North Pole by America's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus (SS-168) in 1958. It's not hard to see why the forbidding Arctic piqued the interest of sci-fi moviemakers. Howard Hawks' classic The Thing from Another World (1951) was the first to exploit the lonely Arctic setting for its sci-fi terrors. Then atomic testing in the Arctic released The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Other frigid sci-fi adventures included The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Land Unknown (1957; set in Antarctica), and The Atomic Submarine (1960; a unique underwater look at the Arctic region).

Add to the list 1959's Terror in the Midnight Sun, which, as stated in the end credits, was filmed in Lapland, above the Arctic circle in the north of Sweden. Terror is the very best American-Swedish sci-fi co-production made in the 1950s for under $50,000. Okay, that was snarky. This is not a great film, even for '50s sci-fi. But it does have its moments, especially when the alien monster makes its infrequent appearances. And if you like winter sports and activities, Terror is almost a filmed catalog of all the ways to have fun in desolate, frigid places.

The core story of Terror in the Midnight Sun, about 30 - 40 minutes' worth of the movie's short running time, is fairly straightforward. Something that is first thought to be a meteor has crashed into the remote northern wilds of Lapland. An expedition is hurriedly formed, consisting of an American scientist, Dr. Frederick Wilson (Robert Burton), a Swedish geologist and playboy, Eric Engstrom (Sten Gester), and various local scientific and military types. The mystery is heightened when local witnesses claim that the object traveled horizontally over the country for hundreds of miles before crashing into the base of a mountain. The team observes from the air that the object left long skidmarks in the tundra, very uncharacteristic for a meteor. Other mysterious occurrences may be connected to the meteor: huge animal tracks are seen in the vicinity of avalanches that seem to have no cause, and a herd of reindeer is decimated, possibly by the owner of the improbably large tracks.

Terror's alien spacecraft (right) was apparently inspired by
the eerie geodesic craft in It Came from Outer Space (1953).
Eric's scientific curiosity is piqued by the mystery meteor, and it doesn't hurt that Dr. Wilson's beautiful and shapely daughter Diane (Barbara Wilson) is also staying at the resort that serves as the expedition's base camp (a bystander describes her as "an Olympic star"). Far too much time is spent showing Eric ogling the beautiful Diane as she 1.) figure skates, 2.) does some downhill skiing, and 3.) stows away on the plane that sets out for the meteor crash site. Once out at the site, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary meteor: "We're standing before some sort of craft from outer space!" Dr. Wilson exclaims, observing the unmistakable hexagonal portholes set in a metal, spherical exterior (the spherical craft and its crash landing seem to have been inspired by the Ray Bradbury classic It Came from Outer Space, 1953). At this point the action picks up, as we see from a bird's-eye POV shot some sort of giant creature advancing toward the expedition's plane and its pilot, who shoots at it with no effect.

The rest of the expedition members return to a wrecked plane and a dead pilot. Diane, the Olympic athlete, and Erik volunteer to ski to the nearest Laplander village for help. Mid-way, they take shelter in a rescue cabin, where the giant creature makes its first appearance. The scene is very well done, with the flickering fireplace in the darkened cabin contributing to the spooky atomosphere (see the clip below). The lumbering creature causes an avalanche that destroys the cabin and knocks Eric out cold. Diane tries to flee on foot, but gets scooped up and carried away by the beast, classic monster style.

The Death figure (left) from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)
seems to have been the model for Terror's hooded aliens.
Before all is said and done, Diane encounters the hooded humanoid occupants of the spacecraft (looking like the "Death" character from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, 1957), the giant alien "pet" destroys a Laplander village, and then in turn is pursued by an enraged Laplander mob, torches in hand like an arctic version of 1931's Frankenstein. For a relatively short B movie, Terror takes way too long to deliver the goods, preferring to waste precious minutes and test the viewer's patience on "travelogue"-type scenes of the protagonists skiing, skating, dancing in a nightclub, etc. To add insult to injury, the canned travelogue music during these interminable sequences is perfectly awful. On the flip side, the tusked, furry giant creature is well-realized, especially considering the film's low budget. The filmmakers used some economical forced perspective shots and a few miniatures to lens some very effective scenes. Another nice touch is that for all its mystery, the creature at times seems somewhat sympathetic-- it treats Diane with tender care, and only becomes violent when shot at. The humanoid aliens never speak, but seem concerned about the creature, gesturing at Diane and then at the creature's tracks, as if asking her to help them find their "pet." At the end, Diane guesses that all they wanted was to retrieve the animal and go home. To its credit, Terror doesn't take the typical B route of clearly explaining the aliens' motivations.

Screenwriter Arthur C. Pierce, a Navy combat photographer in World War II, contributed to a number of B (and even cheaper) sci-fi movies of the '50s, '60s and '70s, including The Cosmic Man (1959), Edgar G. Ulmer's Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), The Human Duplicators (1965), and The Astral Factor (1976; with Robert Foxworth and Stefanie Powers). (He was the uncredited director of both Duplicators and The Astral Factor.) Robert Burton (Dr. Wilson) did tons of TV in all genres from the '50s right up to his death in 1962. His last film credit was the execrable The Slime People (1963), where he played another standard issue professor.

Z-grade sci-fi impresario Jerry Warren secured the rights to Terror in the Midnight Sun and added some scenes with always-ready-to-work John Carradine, and released his version as Invasion of the Animal People. Although I haven't seen this version, I've read that it takes the modest but watchable original version and makes it all but incomprehensible. Avoid Invasion and stick with the original. Terror is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema, as a download from Something Weird Video, and as a stream or download from Amazon.com.

In the dark of a remote wilderness cabin, Diane (Barbara Wilson) and Erik (Sten Gester) encounter a giant occupant from a downed alien spaceship:


  1. Great review, Brian, of another sci-fi film I'm ashamed to admit I haven't yet seen. I believe it's streaming from a couple of sources, so I hope to remedy this soon. Your description of the wintry travelogue activities reminded me of the unnecessary extended commercial for Danish tourism that takes up a substantial amount of screen time in Reptilicus. Hmm... Must've been a trend back in the day.

    1. Thanks Barry! I imagine that there was some government tourism money available in exchange for the travelogue scenes. The beast is really quite well done and captivated me when I first saw it.