October 22, 2021

Hammer's Journey to the Unknown

Hammer TV series Journey to the Unknown title screen
This post is part of The Third Annual Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, co-hosted by Barry at his Cinematic Catharsis blog and Gill at RealWeegieMidget Reviews. Don't forget to check their sites for many more reviews of thrilling works by Hammer Films and Amicus Productions.

Hammer Films will always be fondly remembered for its revival of the classic monsters starting in the late 1950s, and for launching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into superstardom.

Less well known are the company’s forays into television, with the anthology series Journey to the Unknown leading the way in 1968, followed by Hammer House of Horror (1980) and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984).

House of Horror is probably most familiar to the casual fan, being available on both DVD and Blu-ray as well as several streaming channels. House of Mystery and Suspense is out of print, and doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere in the U.S. And then there’s Journey to the Unknown, which, as a complete series, never saw a good home video release.

That’s a shame, because in its 17 episode run, Journey to the Unknown presented a great mix of psychological suspense and supernatural horror in contemporary settings. Several of the episodes were based on stories by acclaimed writers, including Robert Bloch, Cornel Woolrich, Donald E. Westlake and Charles Beaumont (of Twilight Zone fame), and the talented casts were headed by name actors such as Joseph Cotten, Julie Harris, Vera Miles, Patty Duke and Roddy McDowall, among others.

The series was co-produced by Hammer and 20th Century Fox Television for broadcast in the U.S. on ABC-TV; it later aired in the UK on the ITV network. American actors were featured prominently in order to make it more attractive for the U.S. market (more on the production backstory later). 

Journey to the Unknown debuted on ABC on September 26, 1968, with the last episode airing in January of 1969. Wanting to get the most out of their investment, the network repackaged eight of the episodes into four TV movies (Journey into Darkness, Journey to the Unknown, Journey to Murder and Journey to Midnight), adding hosts Patrick McGoohan, Joan Crawford and Sebastian Cabot to introduce the segments. These aired between 1969 and 1971. 

Being a lifelong horror fan, I was fortunate to catch Journey to the Unknown when it originally aired. I was immediately intrigued by (or should I say spooked by) the show’s eerie title sequence, with its whistled theme music (composed by Harry Robinson) and nighttime shots of a rider-less roller coaster in an abandoned amusement park.

I recently revisited the series. Most of the episodes live up to the uncanny atmosphere of the title sequence, with only a couple of clunkers that are dead on delivery (inevitable even in the best anthology shows). The episode that made the biggest impression on me the first time around, and that still holds up very well, is "Poor Butterfly," with American Chad Everett headlining the cast.

“Poor Butterfly,” original airdate Jan. 9, 1969

Have you ever had a dream where you were a fish out of water, finding yourself in some unknown place with people you don’t know, maybe inappropriately dressed (or not dressed at all!), and clueless as to how you got there and where to go?

Such is Chad Everett’s situation in “Poor Butterfly” (except for the not dressed part). Steven Miller (Everett), a wealthy American working in London, gets an invitation to a formal costume party from a person he can’t remember ever meeting. After conferring with colleagues, his curiosity gets the better of him, and he sets out in his vintage 1929 Bugatti motorcar (!!) to the countryside location.

Miller gets lost on the winding country roads, and when he flags down a local man to inquire about the way to Measham house, he only gets an uncomprehending stare for his troubles. He finally locates a sign pointing the way, and when he rolls up in front of the country estate, he finds a number of other antique cars parked outside.

He walks into a bustling, elegant costume party, with most of the partygoers dressed in costumes from various periods of British history. American to the core, Miller changes into his Jesse James costume, further marking him as the proverbial fish out of water. The place seems to be suspended in time, with the antique cars filling the driveway, and partiers dancing the Charleston as if it was still the 1920s.

Chad Everett as Steven Miller, "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Dressed up as Jesse James, Steven is ready to steal some hearts.

Still mystified that he doesn’t know anyone, Miller tries to talk to the host, Sir Robert “Bobby” Sawyer (Edward Fox), who acts as if he knows the American. But talk is difficult in the tumult of the party, and Sawyer’s answers are evasive.

Another partier who seems to know Miller is an ethereal beauty, dressed in a butterfly costume, who catches Steven’s eye from across the room. As the group begins a round dance, she whispers to Miller that she hoped he would come. After the dance, when Miller asks her how she could anticipate the arrival of someone she doesn’t even know, she coyly explains that she was simply hoping he would come around to her during the dance.

The “poor butterfly,” Rose Parkington (Susan Brodick), cousin to Bobby and seemingly at home among the effete revelers, is nonetheless wistful in the midst of all the gaiety, and as vulnerable as the creature that her costume mimics.

She has a fiance, John, an eminent London surgeon who is too busy to make it to the party. Regardless, she attaches herself to the handsome American stranger as if he was her last chance at happiness.

The atmosphere turns darker and more threatening as Rose’s friends notice how much time she is spending with Steven. Costumed guests that seemed jovial and charming at the beginning turn menacing as Rose starts pleading with Steven to take her to London.

As a storm approaches, with thunder rumbling in the distance, Rose becomes increasingly anxious. Steven suspects he’s being used merely as a chauffeur to take Rose to her precious fiance, but in the face of her desperation he agrees to give her a ride. But first he has to get more gas from a reserve pump located a few miles from the estate.

Susan Brodick and Chad Everett in "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Rose is deathly afraid of storms.

As Miller is trying to unlock the gas pump, the storm hits full force, and he’s forced to wait it out in the car. Unaccountably, he has trouble again finding the house, but when he meets up again with the local villager who was so unhelpful, what he learns from the old man and his wife has him questioning his senses.

Masquerades in the movies have a high weirdness quotient. People in costumes and masks are figuratively not themselves, and each one is a potential mystery, possibly even a threat. Much of the cast in “Poor Butterfly” is credited not by their characters’ names, but by their costumes: Queen Victoria, Admiral Nelson, Friar Tuck, Aviator, Red Queen, and March Hare.

Add to this the disquieting idea that they seem to know all about you, but you know nothing about them, and you have the makings of a simmering nightmare. Steven and Rose stand out like sore thumbs, he in his old west costume, and she in her delicate butterfly costume.

As Steven complains about his being out of place, Rose shoots back, “Is it so important to know why you’re here? Can’t you just enjoy yourself?”

Except that Rose is clearly not enjoying herself, and has an agenda that is causing concern among the other guests, who slowly but surely tighten a disapproving web around her.

In a bit of foreshadowing, Steven comments on Rose’s costume: “Why the butterfly?... they’re such sad creatures, butterflies, especially the rare ones. You see them for a minute, then [snapping his fingers] they’re gone.”

Susan Brodick in "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Rose is an especially rare species of butterfly.

Little does he know that he won’t be able to help this poor butterfly. Based on a story by actor and writer William Abney, Jeremy Paul’s script masterfully intersperses the building suspense with poignant moments, culminating in a resolution that, even as it unravels the mystery, leaves a lingering feeling of dread.

Chad Everett is well cast, with his all-American accent and demeanor serving to set him distinctly apart from the cold, upper-crust gentility of the other party-goers. The same year that “Poor Butterfly” was broadcast, he began the role for which he’s best remembered, that of Dr. Joe Gannon in CBS’ long running series Medical Center (1969-76).

Susan Brodick (Rose) has only a relative smattering of acting credits, but after “Poor Butterfly” she managed to secure parts in two other Hammer horrors, Countess Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (both 1971).

Fans of action-adventure may appreciate the presence of Edward Fox as “Bobby” Sawyer and Bernard Lee as the crusty old villager. Fox was the stealthy assassin in The Day of the Jackal (1973) and specialized in playing military officers in dozens of films. James Bond fans know Lee as the original “M,” who gave orders to three different Bonds (Connery, Lazenby and Moore), finally wrapping up the role with Moonraker in 1981.

Bonus episode: "Matakitas is Coming," original airdate Nov. 28, 1968

Most people don’t normally associate libraries with murders and hauntings, but every relatively large library building has its share of lonely, shadowy corners that, under the right circumstances, can send a chill down the spine.

Besides Vera Miles, the star of "Matakitas is Coming" is a cavernous old library full of shadowy spaces, dusty statuary, and the malevolent spirit of at least one long-dead serial killer.

Miles plays June Wiley, a hard-working crime writer for a popular London magazine. Her colleagues, and even her fiance, wonder what a nice person like June is doing writing about grisly murders.

When a co-worker manages to reserve some precious time for June on the microfilm machine at the local library, she has to delay her date, telling her fiance that she’ll meet him later at the movie theater. (Yes Virginia, you used to have to crank through miles of microfilm to research old newspaper stories.) He jokes sourly that the only way to spend any time with her is to commit murder.

June is researching unusual murders of the past for an article, and one of the more horrifying examples she comes across is that of a librarian some forty odd years ago in the very building she’s using. It was the last in a series of ritual murders committed by the library’s own caretaker, an extremely sketchy chap by the name of Matakitas.

June discovers that Matakitas boasted at his trial that he murdered the women to provide brides for his master, the Devil, and that as a reward for his service, he’d receive a special diabolical dispensation. She’s so engrossed in her work that she forgets the time, and finds to her chagrin that the place is empty and she’s been locked inside.

Gay Hamilton and Vera Miles in "Matakitas is Coming," Journey to the Unknown, 1968
June discusses her library fines with the librarian.

She’s relieved to find that a young library clerk (Gay Hamilton) is also inside, but the woman is nervous, doesn’t have a key to get out, and is of little help. When June finds a phone and calls for help, she’s taken aback when the operator insists the number she is trying to call doesn’t exist. When she manages to get a hold of the police station, the duty officer berates her for making a crank call when she explains that her 1968 model car is parked outside the building she’s trapped in.

It begins to dawn on her that something’s not right, and, with a growing sense of dread, she asks the exasperated operator to tell her what the date is. Somehow, June is not only trapped in a spooky old library, she’s also trapped in the past. It’s September 19, 1927, the day when Matakitas murdered the librarian, and the exact time when he committed the heinous act is fast approaching.

"Matakitas is Coming" is the highest rated episode of the series on IMDb, and it’s easy to see why. It takes one of the stronger lead actors of the series, Vera Miles, places her into what ordinarily would be a nice, safe setting, a library, and proceeds to tighten a noose of diabolical evil around her.

However, If there is anyone who can meet the challenge of being trapped in a dark, foreboding building with supernatural evil afoot, it’s June Wiley. She is smart, resourceful, and loves a good mystery (although perhaps not under these particular circumstances).

In countless horror movies, the telephone is that everyday convenience that never works when it’s needed -- the line is always dead (or there’s no cell service). It’s a nice touch that while the library’s telephone seems to be in perfect working order, it might as well be dead, as the outside world of 1927 can’t understand what June Wiley from 1968 is trying to tell them.

Vera Miles on the phone in "Matakitas is Coming," Journey to the Unknown, 1968
June has a direct line to 1927.

Fully cognizant that she’s not in Kansas anymore, June becomes a psychic sleuth, sensing that the spirit of the murdered librarian is trying to communicate with her, first through a record playing by itself in a deserted room, then through books that are pushed one by one off the shelves by an unseen hand.

There’s a lot going on in just an hour-long episode -- ritual murders, devil worship, time travel, spooky sounds, unseen spirits, and clocks ticking toward apparent doom -- but the various elements combine like pieces in a big, eerie puzzle as the story, and June, wend their inexorable way to a fateful conclusion.

Vera Miles, with over 160 acting credits, was always a welcome and classy addition to any movie or TV show she starred in. Her greatest contribution to the horror genre was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where she played Lila Crane, sister to the unfortunate Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), and a dogged sleuth who solves the mystery of the Bates Motel. She reprised the role in Psycho II (1983).

Leon Lissek as the creepy Devil’s servant Matakitas makes the most of a brief flashback scene in which he lectures the court that is about to condemn him to death: “I did nothing but obey the commands of my mighty protector! My master has spoken and I… I am his instrument on earth!” In his perverse earnestness, he looks and sounds like a young Peter Lorre.

Matakitas: the Devil's wedding coordinator.

And then there’s the third star, the library. Interior shots of "Matakitas" were filmed at the City of Westminster’s Mayfair Library, a charming old world building located in the heart of London. The Library retired from show business with just the one credit, but remains a popular wedding venue (and not only for disciples of the Devil).

Behind-the-scenes: Hammer’s Journey to Unraveling Work Relationships

Hammer got the ball rolling on its first TV series in the spring of 1967 when Hammer co-founder James Carreras teamed up with counterparts at 20th Century Fox television to develop an hour-long horror series provisionally titled Fright Hour.

The ABC TV network agreed to broadcast the series in the U.S., and Fox appointed Joan Harrison, screenwriter, former assistant to Alfred Hitchcock, and the renowned producer of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to oversee the project as executive producer.

But the series ended up being costly to Hammer in more ways than one. According to Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, the series’ arduous post-production process “lead long-term supervising editor James Needs to quit, [and] it was also a contributory factor in Anthony Hinds’ later decision to resign his directorship.” [Hearn and Barnes, The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 125]

Although Hinds thought well of Harrison, he chafed at being “demoted” to a line producer:

“I was miserable in the role of producer with an all-powerful executive producer from ABC over me. I had been my own boss too long. Jim Carreras ‘sold’ me as a package to make the series. ABC in America decided that as I’d had no experience in television, they ought to send over a representative, who was Joan Harrison -- with whom I got on very well. But I found myself doing a production manager’s job because she had to take over, and I hated that. I hated being demoted. But I had to do it. I had to stay with it, all the way through, hating every minute of it.” [Chris Fellner, The Encyclopedia of Hammer Films, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, p. 224]

Where to find it: Watchable episodes are available on YouTube, and on DVD from specialists in rare TV. 

October 8, 2021

Films From Beyond’s 1st Annual F.R.I.G.H.T. Awards

The 2021 Films From Beyond F.R.I.G.H.T. Awards
It’s that time of year again, when monsters of all shapes, sizes and descriptions claw, bite, slash, stomp, strangle and create general mayhem in Halloween marathons on innumerable channels.

Here at Films From Beyond, we believe in a variety of approaches to horror, as long as they’re done the B movie way: creatively and imaginatively, with a modicum of resources that precludes self-indulgently throwing everything but the kitchen sink into a mega-budget box office rip-off.

Speaking of different approaches, it’s one thing to generate scares from very ambulatory vampires, werewolves or axe-wielding maniacs, and quite another to chill audiences with small, inanimate objects that spend most of the time collecting dust on some dark, forgotten shelf.

And we’re not talking dolls, puppets or ventriloquists' dummies. Those benighted things are right up there with clowns in the supposedly-cheery-but-downright-creepy-and-often-terrifying category. Just ask any fan of Dead of Night (1945), The Twilight Zone, Charles Band’s Full Moon productions, and/or the Annabelle series. They’ve become a horror genre unto themselves, and deserve their own post (or two).

Nope, we’re talking about assorted curios, bric-a-brac and gewgaws, no bigger than a bread box, that bide their time in cobwebbed attics, dank basements and dark closets, waiting for the unwary to help them unleash their evil into the world.

All the items profiled here are smaller than a bread box.
The Devil's bread box, straight from Hell's Kitchen (apologies to Gordon Ramsay).

To honor those intrepid filmmakers of yesteryear who took a chance and made effective horror movies about small inanimate objects, we’re instituting our first annual F.R.I.G.H.T. awards: the most Frightening Relics, Items, Gadgets, Heirlooms and Talismans in vintage B horror movies.

Winner: Mummified Animal Part Category. The Monkey’s Paw (1933)

W.W. Jacob’s short story, first published in 1902, is not only the definitive cautionary tale to be careful what you wish for, but it's also a masterful exercise in getting the reader’s own imagination working overtime to send shivers down the spine.

The story has been adapted many times on the stage, radio, film and TV. I hadn’t seen any of the film adaptations until I attended the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA in 2019 (see my review of the convention here). One of the highlights of their film program was the 1933 RKO version, starring Ivan Simpson, Louise Carter, and C. Aubrey Smith. The film was considered lost until 2016, when a French-dubbed version surfaced. Thanks to film historian Tom Weaver, who secured a copy, Monster Bash was the first time the film had been shown anywhere since the discovery.

The film gets steadily darker and gloomier as the wishes play out, and, in an imaginative bit of business, with each unfortunate wish, one of the paw’s fingers curls up.

Lobby card, The Monkey's Paw, 1933
"I hope that's our GrubbyHub delivery!"

Poster, 13 Ghosts, 1960
Winner: Ghastly Ghost Goggles Category: 13 Ghosts (1960)

Producer-director William Castle was well into the gimmicky-showman phase of his career when 13 Ghosts debuted. Previously, he'd had buzzers installed in select theater seats for when The Tingler appeared onscreen, and a skeleton on a cable flew over theatergoers’ heads at special screenings of House on Haunted Hill.

In 13 Ghosts, Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods), a paleontologist who is having trouble making ends meet for his family, learns that he has inherited a creaky old house from his enigmatic uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba. The catch: the place comes with a collection of ghosts, which Zorba rounded up from all around the world.

They can only be seen with a special pair of goggles that the old man invented… and thus the gimmick, which Castle dubbed “Illusion-O.” In the film’s initial theatrical run, when Cyrus put on the strange goggles to view the ghosts haunting his house, a sub-title cued audiences to use the special ghost viewers that they were issued. According to Castle biographer John. W. Law,

“Eastmancolor was used to develop the process for including the ghosts in the film. While the feature was shot in black and white, the ghosts appeared in red and were shot on a blue background, so when the viewers put on the blue and red tinted glasses the ghosts appeared.” [John W. Law, Scare Tactic: The Life and Films of William Castle. Writers Club Press, 2000, p. 82]

Beyond Illusion-O, the film’s charm came from interspersing the creepier ghostly manifestations with a bit of comic relief.

Poster - The Mask, 1961
Winner: Ancient Hallucinogenic Ceremonial Mask Category: The Mask (1961)

A long time ago in a small, midwestern town far, far away, a local fast food joint advertised free 3D glasses with every purchase, to use for an upcoming TV broadcast of an obscure 3D horror movie. Yes, one of the scrawny nerds who dutifully made a purchase in anticipation of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was me.

While the 3D effect with cheap cardboard glasses and an old console TV was disappointing, I nevertheless became a big fan of The Mask (not to be confused with Jim Carrey’s 1994 fantasy-comedy). According to IMDb, The Mask was groundbreaking: the first Canadian horror film, the first Canadian 3D film, and the first to be widely distributed in the U.S.  It tells the tale of a respected psychiatrist, Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens), who is treating a disturbed young archaeologist. The man insists that an ancient ceremonial mask he has been examining has taken over his mind and is urging him to kill. The patient commits suicide, but not before mailing the mask to Barnes, who in turn finds himself falling under the spell of the accursed thing.

Like 13 Ghosts, the film’s mundane black and white world is periodically interrupted by spooky 3D sequences. When a sepulchral voice commands Barnes to “Put the mask on NOW!”, that’s the viewer’s cue to don the 3D glasses.

The 3D sequences are as weird and nightmarish as can be, as if H.P. Lovecraft, Salvador Dali and Tim Burton got together to design a bad LSD trip. According to lore, producer-director Julian Roffman initially hired renowned visual effects artist Slavko Vorkapich to design the scenes, but his concepts proved too expensive, so Hoffman did most of the work himself.

See my full review here.

Poster - Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, 1965
Winner: Stacked Deck of Infernal Tarot Cards Category: Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

The titular Doctor Shreck (the name means “terror” in German), played by Peter Cushing, joins five bored strangers in a train compartment. To pass the time, the Doctor offers to tell the mens’ fortunes using his deck of Tarot cards, which he calls his “house of horrors.”

The Death card pops up each time Shreck does a reading (which in actual Tarot practice is not necessarily a bad thing). The unfortunate travelers’ fates include meet-ups with werewolves, vampires, sentient killer vines, voodoo practitioners and disembodied hands.

This was the first anthology horror film produced under Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s Amicus Productions banner. The contributions of Hammer veterans Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and director Freddie Francis, along with a solid performance by an up-and-coming American actor, Donald Sutherland, went a long way to making the film a success. Many highly entertaining anthologies followed, including The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum, Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, among others.

At the time of its release, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was generally well-received on both sides of the Atlantic. The Times (London) called it an “[Un]critical pleasure. The writer, Mr. Milton Subotsky, has hit on a convenient formula. None of it is very original but at least each of the episodes is short enough not to pall. Mr. Freddie Francis directs with efficiency, which once or twice rises to real inspiration.” In the U.S., Variety found it “A usefully chilly package which will offer audiences mild shudders and quite a lot of amusement.” [ Bruce C. Hallenbeck, British Cult Cinema: The Amicus Anthology. Hemlock Books, 2014, p. 63]

That might seem like faint praise, but considering the establishment media’s disdain for all things horror at the time, they were practically rave reviews.

Poster - The Skull, 1965
Winner: Cursed Skull of a Notorious Evil-doer Category: The Skull (1965)

Messrs. Cushing, Lee and Francis also teamed up for Amicus’ The Skull, with Milton Subotsky contributing a script based on a story by Robert Bloch.

Dr. Christopher Maitland (Cushing), an avid collector of occult objects, is offered the skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade by a sketchy dealer (Patrick Wymark). He at first resists temptation, and is told by the skull’s previous owner, rival collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) that the thing is possessed by evil, and in turn can possess its owner.

Obsessed with the skull, Maitland goes to the dealer’s flat to buy it, but finds the man dead. As he tries to steal away with the skull he encounters a caretaker, a struggle ensues, and the man is accidentally killed. Maitland starts having nightmares, including one in which he is condemned in a surreal courtroom and forced to play Russian Roulette. In the meantime, the malignant skull grins evilly on a shelf in its new home.

Essayist Steven Thornton credits director Freddie Francis and Peter Cushing for making The Skull such an effective exercise in atmospheric evil:

“The contribution of Freddie Francis should not go without recognition. In its final reels, the shots from the skull’s point of view, filmed through an enlarged cranial mock-up, are what most viewers remember. Subtler, but just as impressive, are the mood-building tableaux of Cushing eyeing the skull distrustfully and of the gale of wind that opens doors and turns picture frames askew. … [W]hat other director could have extracted as much menace from an ordinary bookshelf loaded with ominous bric-a-brac?…

Peter Cushing … was right at home with such emotionally involving material. The change of expression when Maitland begins to feel the skull’s influence or when he observes the cross hanging from his wife’s neck are techniques right out of the actor’s playbook. … In addition, Cushing had to play his character sympathetically while still maintaining the touch of conceit that put Maitland on the pathway to Hell. This was unquestionably a demanding role, one that few genre actors of the period could have pulled off as convincingly.” [Steven Thorton, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head: The Skull” In Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Peter Cushing, Anthony Ambrogio, ed., Luminary Press, 2004, p.121]

September 23, 2021

Rousting the Marsh Fellows: Night Creatures

Poster - Night Creatures, aka Captain Clegg, 1962
Now Playing:
Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg, 1962)

Pros: Solid cast; Typically fine Hammer production values; Michael Ripper almost steals the show as a gleeful undertaker.
Cons: The marsh phantoms don’t get enough screen time; Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain are consigned to bland secondary roles.

This post is part of the Rule, Britannia Blogathon, hosted by classic film buff, TV historian and author Terence Towles Canote at his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts. The rules are simple: simply write about any British/UK film made before 2011. That I can do!

Hail Britannia! During the 1950s and early ‘60s, when American B filmmakers couldn’t get enough of irradiated sci-fi menaces of every size, shape and description, and were reimagining traditional Gothic monsters by giving them sci-fi origins (Blood of Dracula, The Werewolf, The Vampire), the British film industry, and Hammer Films in particular, was gearing up to add fresh Gothic takes on all kinds of genres.

Hammer jumped into the ‘50s sci-fi craze like everyone else, but whereas American sci-fi thrills generally played out in broad daylight, much of Hammer’s output -- Four Sided Triangle (1953), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X the Unknown (1956) and The Abominable Snowman (1957) -- was shrouded in night and shadows, with surroundings that the classic monsters would have been very much at home in.

Then, starting in the late ‘50s, Hammer took those same monsters, lit them up in brilliant Technicolor (and Eastmancolor) and gave them new life. By 1962, Dracula, Baron Frankenstein, the Mummy and even a silver-haired werewolf had trod the boards at Hammer’s Bray studios.

"A Hammer Film Production" title screen
Back in the day, this set my geeky little heart to beating fast.

While Hammer is justifiably remembered for its colorful takes on the classic monsters, the studio delved into all sorts of genres in its bid to lure audiences away from the telly. Throughout the ‘50s, the studio churned out dozens of crime dramas, period pieces, war pictures and even a handful of comedies.

In the early ‘60s, the sensational success of Hitchcock’s Psycho set the studio scrambling to capitalize on the psychological horror craze with films like Scream of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), and Maniac (1963).

And bless their hearts, even as the decade was advancing inexorably toward its date with the youth movement and flower power, Hammer was still greenlighting swashbucklers and pirate movies long after most other film companies had abandoned the genre.

Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg, 1962) had more of a circuitous route to getting on the silver screen than most Hammer pictures, and partly as a result, the marketing emphasized its rather mild horror aspects. In the UK, it was released under the title Captain Clegg and was paired with Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera; in the U.S. it became Night Creatures, and was the bottom half of a double bill featuring Hitchcock’s The Birds. (More on that later…)

The horror elements are frontloaded into this modestly budgeted swashbuckler. In the prologue (captioned 1776), a brutish sailor (Milton Reid) has been brought before the captain (whose face we never see), charged with having assaulted the captain’s wife. For this crime, he’s sentenced to have his ears slashed and his tongue cut out, and then banished to a remote island with no food or water.

Fast forward to 1792, where, back on the mainland, a lone figure is furtively making his way across desolate marshlands in the dead of night. He’s stopped in his tracks by the sight of demonic glowing skeletons on horseback, and in terror he flees and then trips and collapses in a heap in front of a scarecrow. The scarecrow suddenly opens its eyes and glares down at him. Now thoroughly freaked out, the man backs into a brackish swamp, which swallows him up.

"We only wanted to ask him if this was the way to Bray Studios!"

We soon learn that the unfortunate victim was an informer for the Crown who had been reporting on possible smuggling activities in the coastal marshes near the village of Dymchurch. The smuggling rumors bring a squad of the King’s men to Dymchurch led by the brash and cocky Captain Collier (Patrick Allen).

At this point, Night Creatures settles down (comparatively speaking) to a cat and mouse game between the villagers (who are definitely up to no good, at least from the authorities’ perspective) and the King’s agents.

Collier tries to intimidate the town by striding imperiously into the church where the dynamic vicar Dr. Blyss (Peter Cushing) is conducting services. Blyss invites him to stay for the rest of the sermon, if he will only remove his hat. Collier snaps back that while he serves the King, the hat stays on.

Outside, in a meet and greet with the Captain in the churchyard, Blyss plays to Collier’s ego by telling him what an honor it is to meet a hero of the empire. Standing over the grave of the notorious Captain Clegg (the merciless captain in the prologue), Collier puffs himself up:

Collier: I flatter myself that I gave him a run for his money.
Blyss: But you never caught him Captain.
Collier: Yes that’s true, but how did you know?
Blyss: He was hanged at Rye, I attended his last rites as prison chaplain.
Collier: Last rites? I suppose he repented all his sins at the last moment?
Blyss: He died a Christian. I proceeded to give him a Christian burial here at Dymchurch.
Collier: Well if I’d have caught him he’d have had a different end. I’d have had him hanged, drawn and quartered, publicly too.
Blyss: I’m sure you would, but then you didn’t catch him, did you?
Peter Cushing as Dr. Blyss and Patrick Allen as Captain Collier, Night Creatures, 1962
The first round goes to Dr. Blyss.

After the exchange, Blyss, who is in charge of more than just the church, meets with his right hand men, Mipps the undertaker (Michael Ripper) and Rash the innkeeper (Martin Benson), and coldly orders that the villagers deny Collier’s men any quarters.

Much of the movie consists of Dr. Blyss and his band leading Collier and his men around by their noses while unctuously pretending to serve them. They employ secret passages, Mipps’ coffins to ferry around the contraband, men disguised as scarecrows to spy on outsiders, and of course, the eerie marsh phantoms to scare off would-be informers and distract the King’s men.

But Collier is not without brains and resources, including the brute man seen in the prologue, whom he uses like a drug-sniffing dog (!!) (The man had been rescued from the island by a passing English ship. While he is crude, mute and repulsive to look at, he’s not entirely unsympathetic, and he figures prominently in the rousing denouement.)

Night Creatures is slowed down somewhat by a bland romantic subplot involving foppish Harry (Oliver Reed), son of the wealthy squire, and Imogene, the tavern maid (Yvonne Romain). The two had been used to much better effect the year before in Curse of the Werewolf. At least Harry has the honor of being wounded in the line of duty.

Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain in Night Creatures, 1962
"I now pronounce you a mundane romantic subplot."

A somewhat harsher fate awaits Rash, who is aptly named. In the time-honored tradition of B-movie creeps, Rash, who is also Imogene’s guardian, stumbles on a secret involving the blushing, beautiful maid and decides that he wants her for himself. Although he is Blyss’ lieutenant, the good doctor becomes suspicious of the fretful innkeeper, and the question of whether Rash will stay true to his comrades or give them up provides additional suspense.

Michael Ripper, who was a standard fixture at Hammer, almost steals the show as the slyly servile undertaker Mipps. With unnaturally rosy cheeks not unlike a fresh cadaver made up for an open casket funeral, Mipps wears an all-knowing grin while he misdirects Collier and spars with the dour innkeeper. There’s a great scene where Rash rushes into the undertaker’s workshop to warn him that Collier and his men are approaching, and is startled when Mipps suddenly sits up in the coffin where he’d been sleeping.

Michael Benson, Michael Ripper and Peter Cushing in Night Creatures, 1962
"Let's get to it men! We've got to deliver those kegs to the fraternity house before nightfall!"

Of course the main event is the battle of wits between the duty-bound Captain and the wily vicar. It’s a credit to the film that both characters have their talents and faults (huge egos among them), and neither is a cardboard bogeyman. For much of the movie, Blyss is the chess master moving his pawns around, always several moves ahead of Collier, who seems to be more of a checkers kind of guy. But the Captain’s perseverance forces a final, fateful confrontation (and an opportunity for Cushing/Blyss -- and his stunt double -- to demonstrate buccaneering skills by swinging from the rafters and engaging in a lengthy, thrilling fight scene).

While some might wish the film had done more with the creepy marsh phantoms and less with the verbal repartee, it’s still a good adventure yarn with a cast of talented regulars and the studio’s signature production values. Hammer had a knack for making its modestly budgeted Gothic horrors and historical dramas look like a million bucks.

Where to find it: Streaming | Blu-ray (8 film collection)  

Secrets of the Marsh Phantoms #1: Night Creatures’ path to getting made had more twists and turns than a smuggler’s secret passageway. Major Pictures, which had secured the rights to a 1937 film adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s novel Doctor Syn -- A Tale of Romney Marsh (1915), came to Hammer with a proposal to do a re-make. Hammer promptly got into a legal dispute with Disney, which had gotten the rights to Dr. Syn directly from Thorndike’s publisher to do their version, which aired in the U.S. as a 3 part mini-series, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, on The Magical World of Disney in Feb. 1964.

As Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes relate in The Hammer Story, “[Hammer] arrived at a compromise with Disney in mid-September: Hammer could make their version of Thorndike’s story, but they were forbidden to use ‘Dr. Syn’ as either the name of a character in the screenplay or as the title of the film itself. [Producer] Anthony Hinds cancelled an imminent holiday and hastily rewrote [the] first draft, removing all references to Dr. Syn and naming Thorndike’s undercover pirate Dr. Arne. (Peter Cushing was so enthused by the project that he also wrote a screenplay, Doctor Syn, based on the books.)” Further delayed by union troubles, the production finally got underway in September of 1961, with Dr. Arne renamed Dr. Blyss in the final draft. [Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes. The Hammer Story: The Authorized History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 70]

Secrets of the Marsh Phantoms #2: Hearn and Barnes again: “The film was lent a supernatural atmosphere by the inclusion of the ‘marsh phantoms,’ which were heavily promoted in the film’s publicity. ‘We painted black body suits for both the horsemen and the horses with codit reflective paint,’ recalls special effects assistant Ian Scoones. ‘Two film spotlights were placed either side of the camera lens, giving a bright, luminous effect…’

Scoones loaned Hammer ‘François,’ a human skull he discovered in ‘Dead Man’s Island,’ unconsecrated Kent marshland where the Admiralty buried French prisoners of war: ‘It is François, illuminated with codit paint, zooming up to the lens that drives the fleeing Sydney Bromley [the unfortunate informer] into the swamp…” [Ibid., p. 71]

Secrets of the Marsh Phantoms #3: Night Creatures, the title that Universal-International used for the U.S. release, was previously attached to a Hammer project to adapt Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend to the screen. The British Board of Film Censors nixed the project, and since Hammer had promised Universal a ‘Night Creatures’ movie, Captain Clegg got stuck with the title. 

Milton Reid sniffs around for contraband brandy in Night Creatures, 1962
"Are you sure this is going to be enough for the party?"

September 6, 2021

Don't Tempt Fate: I Bury the Living

Poster - I Bury the Living, 1958
Now Playing:
I Bury the Living (1958)

Pros: Brilliantly builds mood and tension; Top notch performances; Great visual design and music score.
Cons: The pat, conventional ending spoils the mood for some people.

This post is part of the “No True Scotsman” blogathon hosted by the inimitable Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. The purpose of the blogathon is for participants to present, for good or ill, a movie or TV episode featuring a Scottish character played by a non-Scot. I jumped at the opportunity, since one of my very favorite B horror films of the ‘50s, I Bury the Living, features an Austrian by birth, Theodore Bikel, playing a sly old Scottish cemetery caretaker for all he’s worth. But more on that later…

My wife thinks I need a hearing aid. I can hear just fine -- it’s not so much a hearing problem as it is a case of selective attention. I hear what I need to and filter out the rest. Okay, so I don’t always zero in on the important stuff the first time, but is it really that hard to repeat things once in a while?

She also hates it when I turn on the soundbar with the TV and crank it up. But I keep insisting that the sound engineers on these movies and TV shows have labored mightily at their craft, and it would be doing them a great disservice not to catch every nuance of their work.

Soundbar or no, hearing loss or no hearing loss, lately I’ve had to admit that I may not be the greatest at picking up on those subtle auditory nuances. Even acknowledging that “U.S.” entertainment production is (and pretty much always has been) an international enterprise, with financing, management and talent coming from all parts of the globe, I still have those “well, duh!” moments, especially when an actor I assumed to be American on a domestic show is revealed to be a Brit or Aussie or some other nationality.

I love mysteries and crime dramas. For example, I’ve seen almost every episode of the original Law & Order, some of them multiple times. For the last three seasons of the show, Linus Roache played Assistant DA Michael Cutter with what to my untrained ear was a flawless New York accent. (I suppose the name Linus was a big clue that he wasn’t raised in the U.S. -- what American kid could possibly have survived into adulthood with a name like that?) I was channel surfing one day, and came upon an interview with Linus, who responded to questions with his born and bred Manchester English accent. Surprise!

Vintage photograph of an enhanced ear trumpet
The Acme Accent Amplifier allows you to detect fake accents in movies, TV shows and real life.

More recently, I somehow missed the memo about Tom Payne, the star of another late, lamented show, Prodigal Son. It was deja vu all over again as I stumbled upon one of his interviews and realized that I’d been fooled by yet another Brit with a great American accent. Huh. I’ve got to get out more.

On the flip side, professional actors whose job it is to get these things right butcher accents all the time. If you Google “worst movie accents,” you’ll find a lot of American actors there, but a fair number from other countries as well. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the more regrettable examples that pop up in multiple lists:

  • Dick Van Dyke’s legendarily bad Cockney accent in Mary Poppins
  • Keanu Reeves’ surfer-dude English accent playing Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Kevin Kostner’s English accent that comes and goes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  • Tom Cruise’s far from adequate Irish brogue in Far and Away
  • Sean Connery, a Scot playing a Spaniard, and Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman playing a Scotsman, in Highlander (commence head-scratching)
  • And of course, in keeping with the No True Scotsman theme, Aussie Mel Gibson’s take on Scottish legend William Wallace in Braveheart. Gibson’s Scottish accent is so bad that true Scots voted it the second worst in cinematic history, edged out only by Lambert’s attempt at being a Scots Highlander.
Mel Gibson in Braveheart, 1995
Is Mel Gibson the worst fake Scotsman of all-time, or just the second worst?
Here he is pictured hurling abuse at his critics. 

Which brings us to our faux Scotsman of the hour, Theodore Bikel, born in Vienna Austria in 1924, playing cemetery caretaker Andy McKee with a thick Scottish accent in I Bury the Living (1958).

McKee, who has been the caretaker of the Immortal Hills town cemetery for 40 years, has a new boss. Bob Kraft (Richard Boone), the manager of the local department store, has been strong-armed by his uncle and the other town elders into taking over chairmanship of the community cemetery.

Kraft, who insists that he’s too busy for the added responsibility, reluctantly stops by the cottage on the cemetery grounds to get an orientation from McKee. McKee shows him a very large and detailed map of the grounds, explaining that plots marked with black push-pins are already occupied, and those with white ones are reserved for the not-yet deceased.

When Kraft learns of Andy’s longevity on the job, he informs him that he will be retired with a full pension, and offhandedly asks him to look around for his replacement. After some mild protest, Andy seems to take the news in stride, but in an ominous passive-aggressive gesture, he takes a pistol from the desk, telling Bob that it’s available in case of an emergency.

The tension is defused when a young newly married couple, Stu and Elizabeth Drexel, drive up to the cottage. Stu happily informs Bob that one of the stipulations of his trust fund was that when he got married, he would buy his-and-her cemetery plots (!?). After the deal is done, Bob casually grabs some pins to mark the newly sold plots -- black ones.

The next day, Bob is shocked to learn that the couple have been killed in an accident. He meets up with Andy and Jessup (Herbert Anderson), the local newspaper reporter who is on obituary assignment. When Bob asks Andy to change the Drexel plot pins to black, the caretaker observes that they were already black. Kraft admits to the error, and also to an eerie feeling about the incident. McKee drily observes that it’s as if he’d marked the couple for death.

Still bothered by the eerie coincidence, Kraft distractedly puts a black pin in a random plot on the map and draws the white pin out. The plot owner, an elderly toymaker, soon collapses and dies in his workshop.

Now thoroughly freaked out, Kraft tells his uncle George (Howard Smith) that he’s quitting the chairmanship immediately -- he’s put 3 black pins where they shouldn’t be, and 3 people have died. George laughs off Kraft’s concerns, and to show him there’s nothing more to it than coincidence, he drives his nephew out to the cottage to have one more go at the map. George takes out the white pin of one of the other cemetery committee members, Henry Trowbridge (Russ Bender), and persuades Bob to put a black one in its place.

Later that night, in a cold sweat Bob calls Trowbridge’s house. His wife answers and goes to get her husband. After several suspenseful seconds, she’s back on the phone, panicked, saying that her husband isn’t breathing.

Trowbridge’s untimely death sends Kraft reeling, convinced that somehow, with his black pins, he has the power of life and death over the town. He goes to the police, but with no evidence of foul play, there’s nothing they can do.

With one of their own dead and their chairman spiraling towards a nervous breakdown, Uncle George and the surviving members of the cemetery committee, themselves rattled by events, nonetheless double down and insist that Bob put black pins on their plots to prove once and for all that it was all just a series of terrible coincidences. Needless to say, this is a very bad move.

Even as Kraft is descending into madness and the town elders are questioning their own sanity, Andy, the grizzled caretaker, is seemingly a rock of stability and sanity, always at the ready to with a piece of advice or to help with things like locating a space heater for the bitterly cold cemetery cottage.

At the beginning, in the light of day, the old Scotsman seems genial and genuinely helpful. But as the pins work their black magic and things turn dark and anxious, Andy, with his mop of nearly white hair and cemetery pallor, becomes a ghost-like presence, as if he were haunting Kraft to remind him of his sins.

As the bodies start to pile up, Andy is happily chiseling names into the tombstones, softly singing old English folk tunes to himself. Soon, Kraft starts hearing the clinking of the chisel everywhere he goes.

At the point where Kraft is obsessed and possessed, unable to tear himself away from the map as he broods over its (his?) powers, Andy shows up in the middle of the night at the cottage door, just a portion of his face bathed in eerie light as Kraft blocks his entry. His thick Scottish brogue cracking with anxiety, he pleads with his boss to let it go:

It’s quite an effective little monologue, reminiscent of previous famous horror film warnings to not dabble with things better left alone, but with its own unique, spooky spin. If there was ever an actor who could make your skin crawl with a fake Scottish accent, it was character actor-extraordinaire Theodore Bikel.

Born in Vienna to Jewish parents who had the presence of mind to emigrate when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Bikel started acting in his teens, and attended London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in his early ‘20s.

His first big break in the theater came in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Vivien Leigh, when one of the actors he was understudying came down with the flu. The multitalented Bikel, who was also a great singer, would go on to establish the character of Captain Von Trapp in the original production of The Sound of Music, take over for Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and record dozens of folk and contemporary albums.

Theodore Bikel and Charles McGraw in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Theodore Bikel (left) earned an Academy Award nomination for his
portrayal of a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958).

As a folk singer, Bikel was able to sing in 21 languages, and in the movies and TV, he became a specialist in portraying characters from all kinds of places and backgrounds.

“[O]n television Mr. Bikel played an Armenian merchant on 'Ironside,' a Polish professor on 'Charlie’s Angels,' an American professor on 'The Paper Chase,' a Bulgarian villain on 'Falcon Crest,' the Russian adoptive father of a Klingon on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' and an Italian opera star on 'Murder, She Wrote.'

He also played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a prison guard on Devil’s Island, a mad bomber, a South African Boer, a sinister Chinese gangster, Henry A. Kissinger and a misanthrope who gets his comeuppance on 'The Twilight Zone.'

In movies he played several German officers, beginning with 'The African Queen' (1951); a compassionate Southern sheriff in 'The Defiant Ones' (1958), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; the king of Serbia in 'Moulin Rouge' (1953); a Russian-speaking submarine commander in 'The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming' (1966); and an effusive, overbearing Hungarian linguist in 'My Fair Lady' (1964).

… Some time later he told The New York Times: ‘Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them. Clark Gable looked, walked and talked exactly the same in every picture. I like to change shape, accent and gait. That way I never get stale.’” [“Theodore Bikel, Master of Versatility in Songs, Roles and Activism, Dies at 91,” New York Times, July 21, 2015]

Such a talented chameleon was a natural to take on the role of the crusty old Scotsman -- not only did Bikel deliver a creditable Scottish brogue, but he was also only 34 at the time, playing a character easily 30 years his senior.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the other stars of I Bury the Living. Tough guy Richard Boone is in almost every scene, and his descent from an upright, no-nonsense businessman to a terrified, gibbering madman running and stumbling through a graveyard in the middle of the night is something to behold. The film, which starts out with brightly lit office scenes and affectionate exchanges between Kraft and his fiancee (Peggy Mauer), steadily gets darker as an uncanny dread takes over, and the locale shifts exclusively to the cemetery and the cottage, which becomes a waiting room in Hell.

Bob Kraft (Richard Boone) answers the phone in I Bury the Living, 1958
Bob Kraft learns the hard way never to answer the telephone in a horror movie.

At this point in his career, Boone, who had specialized in movie tough guy and villain roles, was transitioning over to leading man roles in TV. He had just finished a stint as Dr. Konrad Styner in the TV series Medic, and he was just getting started as the suave Old West PI/gunfighter Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel.

Boone is perfectly cast -- it’s doubly interesting to see such a rock-solid, tough character unravel through the course of the film, and it’s a bravura performance.

Also noteworthy is the team of producer/director Albert Band (father of Charles Band, of Full Moon Pictures fame) and production/visual designer Edward Vorkapich (son of pioneering filmmaker and montage master Slavko Vorkapich). It’s not easy to make an inanimate object into a terrifying monster, but they pull it off with a sort of surreal panache.

As the film progresses, the cemetery plot map starts to take on a life of its own. We increasingly see it, and the dread black pins, in extreme close-up as Kraft becomes more and more obsessed. By the climax, it’s burning with its own demonic light, and in some striking long and medium shots, the details are obscured with only the roads running through the cemetery standing out, looking like abstract eyes glaring at Kraft. If there was a B-movie hall of fame for frightful inanimate objects, the map would be a founding inductee.

Kraft (Richard Boone) sets fire to a stool as the cemetery map looks on in I Bury the Living, 1958
"I can't shake the feeling that somebody's watching me!"

I Bury the Living was one of Band’s first credits, and he would go on to produce and direct dozens of highly entertaining B’s and direct-to-video releases under the Empire Pictures and Full Moon banners. Vorkapich joined Band for one more film, the excellent but very obscure horror drama Face of Fire (1958; based on a Stephen Crane short story), before going on to other things.

Kudos too to composer Gerald Fried, whose score sets an ominous mood from the get-go and pulls out all the stops, including refrains from the folksong that McKee merrily sings, to ratchet up the tension. Fried, who got his start composing for such ‘50s B horror and sci-fi movies as The Vampire, The Return of Dracula, and The Flame Barrier (not to mention collaborations with Stanley Kubrick on Killer’s Kiss and Paths of Glory), has over 140 credits, and is still composing!

Some people think that I Bury the Living’s uninspired ending breaks the mood and suspension of disbelief that was so carefully built up. The first time I saw the film, I was inclined to agree. However, with my latest viewing, I now think that the ending is actually quite brilliant. It’s so drearily pat and conventional that you could see it, and not the preceding supernatural events, as all in Kraft’s mind, a desperate attempt to explain the unexplainable and hold on to his sanity.

Whichever way you look at it, I Bury the Living is a wild, surreal ride, unlike any other B horror movie of the 1950s.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD/Blu-ray  

Theodore Bikel gets a chance to do a little folk singing in I Bury the Living:

August 20, 2021

Alien Robot Invasions, Part Two: The Earth Dies Screaming

Poster - The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
Now Playing:
The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Pros: Presents a pretty effective human drama that plays out against the backdrop of an alien invasion; Adds an extra layer of horror on top of killer robots.
Cons: The robots are cheap-looking, even for 1964.

In part one, I examined how Hollywood in the early ‘50s addressed fears of nuclear war both directly, with films about attacks on America and end-of-the-world scenarios, and indirectly with films like Target Earth, depicting protagonists stranded in an eerily deserted city that has been evacuated due to some unknown emergency. Target Earth’s protagonists eventually run into an advance guard of invaders, but instead of Russians, the invaders are alien-produced robots that shoot death-rays from their faceplates.

Perhaps because the UK had somewhat less skin in the Cold War game than the U.S., filmmakers there were a bit slower to exploit invasion themes. But they got off to an unusual and titillating start with Devil Girl from Mars (1954), about a black leather-clad, dominatrix Martian who lands her spaceship in the English countryside, looking for fertile men to take back to her planet.

Still, Devil Girl from Mars, 1954
"Excuse me ma'am, is this where I sign up to help repopulate Mars?"

Shortly thereafter, Hammer Films really got the alien invasion thing going with its series of Prof. Quatermass adaptations (from the teleplays by the brilliant Nigel Kneale), starting with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), wherein the sole survivor of the UK’s first manned space mission unwittingly brings back a dangerous alien organism. The sequel, Quatermass II (1957), considerably upped the threat to humanity by having the good professor stumble upon alien infiltration into the highest levels of government.

By the time our featured US-UK co-production, The Earth Dies Screaming, debuted in 1964, two certifiable UK classics, Village of the Damned (1960) and The Day of the Triffids (1963), had set a high bar for creative and unusual alien invasion stories.

Both are based on novels by John Wyndham. Village opens with all of the fertile women in an English village being mysteriously impregnated on the same day, resulting in a brood of uncanny, dangerously telekinetic children. Day of the Triffids is about an epic meteor storm that blinds most of the world’s population while simultaneously seeding the earth with ambulatory killer plants.

Like its better known predecessors, The Earth Dies Screaming opens with a dramatic event: all across England, people are keeling over from some unknown, invisible force, and the wreckage of crashed planes, trains and automobiles litters the countryside.

Enter Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), who pulls his Landrover into a small English village. Grim and determined, he surveys the carnage -- bodies laying all over the place -- with a sort of clinical detachment.

He pops into an inn to test the radio and TV, and promptly runs into two more survivors, Taggart and Peggy (Dennis Price and Virginia Field), who eye Nolan suspiciously. Taggart happens to have a gun, which he trains on Nolan until he’s satisfied that he’s no threat. Jeff turns out to be an American aviation engineer who had been consulting on a UK-based project when the sh*t hit the fan. Taggart is far less open, simply claiming that he and Peggy are a couple (which turns out later to be a lie).

Dennis Price and Virginia Field in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"I don't want any arguments. I get to decide what we watch on the telly tonight... got it?"

As the three survivors speculate on what’s happened and what they should do next, stark differences in outlook emerge. Jeff insists that they all need to stay together to survive. Taggart has a far bleaker take on what looks to be an enemy attack: “Whoever it is has won the war -- once they move in, it’s every man for himself!”

Soon, the three are joined by four more ragtag survivors. Ed and Vy (Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell), are a dissolute, alcoholic middle-aged couple who initially seem more put out that their partying has been interrupted than about the massacre of their fellow countrymen. Mel and Lorna (David Spenser and Anna Palk) are teenagers who eloped, and now, with Lorna ready to give birth at any moment, are desperately trying to get back to whatever is left of civilization.

After hearing their stories, Jeff, the logical engineer, figures out that when the event happened they had all been in indoor locations where the air was thoroughly filtered, suggesting a gas attack. But nothing can prepare the group for the terrifying, unearthly menace that they will soon encounter.

By 1964, the storyline of a motley band of survivors quarrelling over a mysterious end-of-the-world calamity was a firmly entrenched sci-fi cliché. But that didn’t prevent UK low-budget filmmakers from exploiting the well-worn material over and over. The Earth Dies Screaming’s director, Terence Fisher (who had already distinguished himself by directing such Hammer classics as Horror of Dracula and Curse of the Werewolf), would in short order go on to helm two more in the same sci-fi vein: Island of Terror (1966) and Island of the Burning Damned (aka Night of the Big Heat, 1967; see my review here.)

Willard Parker and Dennis Price in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"Hey Taggart, go over there and see what made that noise."
"You've got the gun, you do it!"

The material was attractive to filmmakers with modest resources, as they could tell an intimate, character-driven (and cheap) story within the context of an epic, alien invasion concept. As Terence Fisher’s biographer, Peter Hutchings, relates,

“All three films tell stories of invasion -- in The Earth Dies Screaming and Night of the Big Heat the invaders are extraterrestrial while in Island of Terror they are the unexpected by-product of a scientific experiment gone terribly wrong -- and all three share certain properties with other British invasion fantasies of the 1960s. During the 1950s, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV series (all three of which were subsequently filmed by Hammer) and John Wyndam’s SF invasion novels (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos) had presented scenarios in which an extraterrestrial incursion escalated to a point at which it threatened the whole nation and in some cases the whole world. The invasion fantasy as imagined by British filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s changes this in certain respects; in most of the films the threat of global escalation has receded and instead, one finds invasion represented on a smaller, more intimate scale, often in terms of the domestic and familial, and played out in isolated settings.” [Peter Hutchings, Terence Fisher, Manchester Univ. Press, 2002, p. 127]

After establishing its apocalyptic scenario with opening scenes of trains and planes crashing, The Earth Dies Screaming settles down to form with its more intimate story of disparate survivors finding each other in the small, remote village. The one loner in the group, Jeff, immediately asserts himself as the leader. Which makes sense, as his training as an engineer and test pilot gives him authority and confidence (and it probably helps that initially he’s the only one with a rifle). The only other contender for alpha male is mystery man Taggert, who has his own revolver (Mel is far too immature and Ed is constantly looking to get drunk). Taggert will present problems later on, but initially he decides to go along to get along.

The place that the group uses as its ad hoc headquarters is yet another feature of UK horror and sci-f: the ever-present inn/tavern. In countless horror films, the tavern is where superstitious locals warn monster-hunters not to investigate the deserted castle. It’s their safe zone, and there seems to be an unwritten movie rule that even the most ravenous monster will not transgress on a place where the benighted villagers gather to have a pint and forget their troubles.

So, it’s fitting that The Earth Dies Screaming’s survivor community congregates at this most iconic of UK institutions. Peter Hutchings again:

“[F]isher’s films opt for a more obviously studio-based approach interspersed with some location shooting… A key setting in all three turns out to be the local pub. On very low-budget productions such as these, having a single set where all the characters can interact -- rather than having these characters dispersed across several sets -- obviously has budgetary advantages. But the solidity and attendant cosiness of these pub sets, and the sense we get of them being separate from the world outside, also helps to accentuate the way in which -- particularly in The Earth Dies Screaming and Night of the Big Heat -- they operate as refuges for the characters from an external alien threat. [Ibid., p. 128]
Willard Parker and Thorley Walters in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"Tell me again, how do you play this game you call beer pong?"

But of course, if it was a fail safe refuge, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. Soon enough, strange silver-suited humanoids start tromping down the body-littered streets. Vy, who is still in deep denial, spots a pair and immediately assumes that they’re military personnel in hazmat suits come to save the day. Ignoring the warnings of her new friends, she runs after them, only to be confronted by creatures with cylindrical, metallic approximations of faces under their clear helmets.

She gets zapped for her troubles and joins the rest of the dead bodies on the street. After the creatures move on, the other survivors manage to drag her lifeless body back to the inn -- something they will regret later on.

The presence of killer alien robots wandering around spurs Jeff and the group to find a more secure refuge, and they end up breaking into an army reserve training hall at the edge of town, where they find more weapons. But even that may not be enough, as they soon discover that the invasion force of robots is being supplemented by human victims who are rising up from the dead as blank-eyed zombies.

So, with a two-fer of killer robots and shambling zombies, what’s not to like? Depending upon your tolerance for ambiguity, maybe a lot. The robots are definitely low rent, with their crude metallic heads, jerky, clomping movements and outfits that look like retro spacesuits. But Vy’s shock when, instead of military rescuers, she encounters something that’s definitely not human, or organic for that matter, is well done.

Vy (Vanda Godsell) gets zapped by a robot in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
Vy learns the hard way not to shuffle around on shag carpet and then touch a metallic robot.

Like Target Earth, the robots appear to be an invasion’s advance guard, combing the countryside and mopping up before the main force arrives. Unlike Target Earth, where attracting the robots’ attention meant getting a faceful of deathray, the behavior of this variety of metal marauder is far less consistent and more enigmatic.

Vy yells and runs after the invaders, but they don’t turn around until she’s close enough to touch them. In another goose-pimply nighttime scene, one of the robots stands outside a window, watching Lorna, who is completely unaware as she helps herself to a glass of milk. Then it simply walks away, passing Jeff, who is standing guard in the shadows just a few feet away.

If you like a heaping side order of certainty with your sci-fi, then the scene probably seems wildly inconsistent and needlessly perplexing. Hey invaders, if you’re going to take the time and trouble to gas most of humanity to death, why in the world wouldn’t you program your robots to eliminate whatever survivors were left? On the flip side, the robots’ unpredictable behavior adds to the tension and mystery. Just what is the robots’ mission anyway, if it's not to immediately zap anything running around on two legs? The film never does explain it, and I appreciate that. Anything alien, even a robot, should be mysterious.

Human victims rise from the dead as zombies in The Earth Dies
"Hey guys, our Uber is here!"

Speaking of mysterious and unpredictable, Taggart provides the perfect foil for the upstanding Jeff. He reveals himself early on as perhaps not the best team player with his remark about every man for himself, but for much of the movie he seems solid, reliable and almost as unflappable as Jeff.

Midway through, Taggart provides yet another clue to his character in a scene where Mel shows everyone a satchel of cash he collected from various deserted banks as he and Lorna were traveling. “A week ago I couldn’t get it [the money]... what’s the use of it now?” Mel says as he starts throwing rolls of bills into the fireplace. Taggart scrambles to save the bills from the fire, then promptly stops himself, looking abashed as everyone stares in silent embarrassment.

Yep, in addition to deadly gasses, killer robots and human zombies (oh my!), we know that Taggart is going to become yet another headache for the little band of survivors -- we just don’t know when or how. At the same time, we know that Jeff -- quiet, competent and assured -- is going to be the antidote to the worst instincts that catastrophes can bring out in people.

While setting up that ultimate showdown, the film, even with its short runtime, allows the other characters their moments to display their peculiar strengths, weaknesses and quirks. It’s a valiant attempt on a very low budget to combine horror-tinged sci-fi thrills with a more intimate, human drama.

Where to find it: Blu-ray | Streaming

Astonishing Fact #1: The lone American lead, Willard Parker (Jeff) was born Worcester Van Eps (!!) in New York City in 1912. He was a professional tennis player before hanging up his racquet to embark on an acting career. He had been married to London-born Virginia Field (Peggy) for 12+ years when they made The Earth Dies Screaming together. The film was his second to last.

Astonishing Fact #2: In an interview with B movie historian Tom Weaver, screenwriter Harry Spalding shared his thoughts on the film’s title: “That, I thought, was the worst title in the world. Somebody said that as a joke, and somehow it just stuck! That’s the way things sometimes worked in those days. It had a good director, Terence Fisher, but apparently they had a lot of trouble on the set. What the problem was, I couldn’t say, because I wasn’t there. And I’ve always wished that picture would kind of go away, because I hate that title so much! [laughs.]” [Tom Weaver, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants, McFarland, 1994, p. 334

Virginia Field is menaced by a robot in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"Die screaming earth woman! ... Oops, who put that banana peel there?"