May 21, 2021

The Christopher Lee Sweat-a-thon: Night of the Big Heat

Poster, Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Now Playing:
Night of the Big Heat (aka Island of the Burning Damned, 1967)

Pros: Competently directed and acted; Decent attempt at adult science fiction.
Cons: Budget limitations result in a disappointing alien menace.

This post is part of the 2021 Christopher Lee Blogathon, hosted by the inimitable Barry at Cinematic Catharsis and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Check out their sites for an impressive lineup covering almost every aspect of Sir Christopher’s amazing career.

There is a startling, if somewhat depressing, dialog exchange from another British science fiction film, also released in 1967, that sums up Night of the Big Heat quite nicely (not to mention our present predicament):

Professor Bernard Quatermass: The will to survive... it's an odd phenomenon. Roney, if we found out earth was doomed - say, by climatic changes - what would we do about it?
Dr. Mathew Roney: Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.
Quatermass: Yes, but if it weren't men?
[Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967]

Since the beginning of science fiction, aliens with “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” have “regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely” have drawn plans to invade it. [From the opening of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.]

The 2021 Christopher Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews

Today, considering how far humanity has come in turning the planet into a hot, chaotic mess, I doubt that we'd be high on any alien civilization’s invasion list. But back in 1967, it was still possible to imagine aliens desiring a piece of our big blue marble.

In Night of the Big Heat, the climate (or weather or whatever) is changing rapidly on the remote British island of Fara, aliens are suspected of being behind it (at least by one person), and, as the cynical Dr. Roney predicted in that other movie, all the locals can do is squabble.

It seems that in the middle of winter, while the rest of Britain is shivering in the cold, Fara is experiencing a bizarre heat wave. It’s already in the 90s, and the thermometer keeps inching upward. The locals are wandering around the island with large pit stains, and even larger stains where their souls should be.

The proprietors of the island’s inn and tavern, novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson), outwardly seem to be happily married, but the heat wave is revealing cracks in their relationship.

Jeff has advertised for a personal secretary to help with his writing, and who should show up but Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow), a sultry young woman with whom he had a brief affair on the mainland?

Jane Merrow, Sarah Lawson and Patrick Allen in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"You've been fiddling with that thing for hours! When are we
going to go swimming?"

The heat is being turned up for Jeff in more ways than one, as Angela is doing everything short of licking his ear in front of his wife in a bid to win him back. Fortunately for Jeff, Frankie is either as dumb as a box of rocks or willfully blind. At one point, Angela sadistically spills the beans about the affair to her, then takes it all back, airily telling her she was just joking. Frankie’s reaction is to exhale a huge sigh of relief.

The befuddled Jeff is alternately attracted to and repelled by his former flame, but unfortunately Angela also attracts the attention of the island’s car mechanic, who, maddened by the heat and lust, viciously assaults her.

Lurking in the background of all the high drama is the enigmatic Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee), who is skulking around the island in a white shirt and tie, setting up equipment including cameras with tripwires, then quickly scurrying back to the inn to shut himself up in his room.

When he interacts at all with the locals, it’s to gruffly tell them to mind their own business. Naturally this sets tongues to wagging, fueling speculation that the mysterious stranger himself may somehow be behind the unusual weather.

Christopher Lee as Godfrey Hanson, Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) has spared no expense in his mission
to prove the existence of the elusive alien invaders.

In contrast, the avuncular Dr. Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing), a fixture at the inn’s tavern, is a calming voice of reason in the midst of all of the overheated emotion and paranoia. But eventually, even his reason will be tested as people start hearing an eerie whining/trilling noise that pops up randomly all over the island, and several of them wind up dead, fried to a crisp.

Night of the Big Heat was made and distributed in the UK by Planet Film Productions, a small independent that had released a sort of companion film the year before -- Island of Terror (1966) also featured harried islanders (Peter Cushing among them) threatened by mysterious, deadly creatures.

The British Film Institute lists just five movies under the Planet Film banner spanning 1951 - 1967. Night of the Big Heat was their last hurrah. Their 1960s projects, including the vampire horror film Devils of Darkness (1965; see my review here) seem to have been inspired by big brother Hammer’s successes, including the use of Hammer veterans in front of and behind the camera.

Unfortunately, the Cushing/Lee pairing in Night is not particularly notable. They share little screen time together, and their characters at this point (1967) were sort of shorthand representations of the screen personas they had developed in the previous decades: Cushing plays the warm, kindly village doctor who is there to listen and help; Lee is the gruff, imperious stranger who stomps around trying to document the bizarre manifestations, freaking out the locals in the process. But they’re not really antagonists, and each gets a shot at being heroic at the climax.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Hanson and Stone debate the relative merits of antiperspirants vs.
body wash when the heat is on.

The film really belongs to the heated love triangle of the conflicted writer, his wife and former girlfriend. The script cleverly ratchets up the physical heat even as Jeff gets weak-kneed and starts to succumb to Angela’s desperate ploys, and block-headed Frankie begins to realize the sexpot is not there to help Jeff keep his papers in order.

The metaphorical pièce de résistance occurs at the tavern, when the beer bottles behind the bar start exploding in quick succession due to the heat. In both love and alcohol, something’s gotta give when things heat up to the boiling point.

Something else that got me smiling while watching Night was the strict adherence to dress code as the heat became more and more insufferable. They say that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. The film further bolsters that reputation and ups the ante, as the characters barely shed a stitch of clothing even as the sweat pours down their faces. Lee’s character goes through the whole film with a buttoned down long sleeve dress shirt and tie. Similarly, Cushing’s doctor sports his suit coat and tie to the bitter end.

Under the same circumstances, Americans would take a millisecond to fling off their clothes and go full-on Beach Blanket Bingo.

Frankie (Sarah Lawson) finally gets wise to her husband's infidelity - Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"Hey Jeff, we need more beer... oh, pardon me, I'll come back when you're not so busy..."

Another oddity is the whole “island of the burning damned” idea that presupposes that everyone is trapped on Fara and unable to get to the mainland for help. The same alien forces that are causing the island to heat up have also incapacitated the phones and two-way radio, but there is no explanation or context given as to why there are no boats around and no way to evacuate.

The events of the film transpire in a single day, which suggests that perhaps there’s a ferry that stops only on certain days, and everyone is SOL at the moment. But there’s a government meteorological station on the island that figures prominently in the climax, and I kept thinking, “surely they have a boat for emergencies!”

This being a low-budget British sci-fi thriller of the ‘60s, the aliens only show themselves at the very end of the movie. Without going into too much detail, they’re not of the rubber-suited humanoid variety, and they’re not particularly intimidating, but they do look suitably equipped to suck up fuel and electricity and other sources of energy (per Hanson’s theories) and spit it back at the unfortunate islanders, turning them into crispy critters.

Based on a novel by John Lymington, this is not a kids’ matinee sci-fi show, but rather a thinking person’s study in human strength/frailty and what it takes to persevere in the face of the unknown and extreme conditions. The suspense comes in trying to figure out who will step up to the challenge, who will fold, and who will get fried. 

The first casualty of the aliens in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"Uh-oh, I have a feeling I'm one of those expendable characters..."

Making Night of the Big Heat was something of an endurance test for the cast. They filmed on the UK mainland, but in the middle of winter, not summer. Sir Christopher did not have particularly fond memories of the movie:

[Night of the Big Heat] dealt with the invasion of Earth by alien protoplasm. Looking like fried eggs, they ruined the climax. They were as bad a letdown as the Hound of Hell and the Gorgon’s snakes. They rode in from space on a heat ray. We wanted the illusion of 115 Fahrenheit so Peter, Patrick Allen and I worked in shirtsleeves, and the girls had bikinis. That was fine, except that it was the middle of night in winter. To foster the impression of heat we were drenched in glycerine. [Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee. Orion, 2003, pp. 226-7]

Joining Christopher and Peter in shivering in the dark was veteran actor Patrick Allen (as Jeff Callum). If you’ve seen more than a few British TV shows or movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s a good chance you’ll recognize this square-jawed actor. Among a list of credits spanning six decades, he made appearances in The Avengers TV show, Hammer’s short-lived Journey to the Unknown series, and Brian Clemens’ Thriller series. He also appeared in quite a few action and war pictures like Force 10 from Navarone and The Wild Geese.

His wife in the movie, Sarah Lawson, was also Patrick’s wife in real life. I’m happy to say the vicissitudes of making Night of the Big Heat had no effect on their marriage, and they stayed together until Patrick’s death in 2006. Sarah is best known to horror fans as Marie Eaton in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out. And like her husband, she also appeared in an episode of Journey to the Unknown.

Patrick Allen and Sarah Lawson at the climax of Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Patrick and Sarah go into glycerine-induced shock at the end of Night of the Big Heat.

The third wheel of the love triangle, Angela, was played by Jane Merrow. Shortly after Night, Jane scored appearances in The Avengers and The Prisoner series, and has kept busy ever since, with a credit as recent as 2020.

Rounding out the film’s Hammer connections, directing duties were handled by the great Terence Fisher, who, as we all know, is responsible for some of the studio’s greatest Gothic horrors: Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, and The Devil Rides Out, to name but a few.

Night of the Big Heat is obviously not preeminent on anyone’s resume, but I would take Sir Christopher’s put down of it with a grain of salt. In the late '60s Lee was frustrated by typecasting and the quality of the scripts he was being offered, so this stage of his career was not a favorite. A few years later, he would be basking in showy roles in blockbuster hits like The Three Musketeers and The Man with the Golden Gun.

Night of the Big Heat is competently directed and acted. It’s main limitation is the budget, which necessitated keeping the less-than-spectacular alien menace hidden until the very end. Nevertheless, it’s a decent attempt at reasonably intelligent adult science fiction.

Do you dare reveal the alien from Night of the Big Heat?
If you dare, click on the question marks above to reveal the 
alien menace from Night of the Big Heat!

Where to find it:
DVD | YouTube