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?"

August 2, 2021

Astonishing Alien Robot Invasions, Part One: Target Earth

Predictably, the Pentagon’s UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) task force report that was released at the end of June was a big, fat nothingburger (see my “Unidentified Flying Horrors" post). It amounted to “yes, our people have seen strange things, and no, it’s not our technology,” capped with a shrug of the shoulders as to what they might be. 

After decades of denials and chalking it all up to weather balloons, swamp gas, temperature inversions, ad nauseum, an official “hell, we’re as baffled as you are” is at least… different.

But this squirrelly throwing up of hands is not likely to satisfy large swaths of the population. Polls indicate that huge majorities of Americans think the government is not owning up to all it knows. In 2019, a Gallup poll revealed that 68% of respondents believed the government knew more than it was telling, and in March of this year, a CBS News poll recorded 73% holding the same opinion.

A common response to all the hoopla and uncertainty about recent revelations is “well, if this stuff really is extraterrestrial, then why haven’t the aliens contacted us?” To which legions of true believers respond, “they have!” -- the contacts just haven’t been of the “take me to your leader variety,” like Klaatu landing his ship in the middle of Washington, D.C. in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
"Seriously? You're giving me a parking ticket?!"

While I’m officially neutral as to the origins of UFOs, it’s easy to see how visitors from an advanced civilization might be reluctant to engage us as more or less equals, given the mess we’ve made of the world. If the numerous abduction stories are to be believed, we’re wildlife to be bagged and tagged by alien biologists in the field. That makes a certain amount of sense. A fisherman doesn’t ask a fish to take him to its leader.

Whatever you think of the authenticity of alien contact and abduction stories, they can be fascinating, humbling and terrifying all at once. When you’re used to thinking of yourself as the smartest, most adaptable thing going -- the apex of evolution -- it’s disconcerting as hell to think that there’s a way more advanced species that can fly circles around your most advanced tech, paralyze you anywhere and anytime they want, abduct you and basically do anything they want.

The spindly grey alien has become practically an icon representing the extraterrestrial visitor, but over the years, other alien species have emerged from the contact lore, as if we’re finally interesting enough (or behaving badly enough) for a federation of planets to send numerous representatives to secretly check us out.

Depending on the source, there are as many as several dozen documented alien species that have shown up on earth and mucked around with people in some way or another. In addition to the ubiquitous greys, commonly reported aliens include the tall, blond Nordics, reptilians (shades of “V”!), dwarfs/littles, and even the infamous Men in Black, who some believe to be aliens in not-so-effective disguise.

Shadowbox Collectibles' Alien series of figures
The Shadowbox Collectibles Alien series, L to R: Neonate Alien, Grey Alien,
Roswell Alien, Nordic Alien, Reptilian Alien and the Man in Black.

Accounts of alien robots have been few and far between, but not unheard of. Back in 1973 in the small Alabama town of Falkville, a woman reported seeing a UFO land in a nearby field. The investigating police officer encountered a figure that was covered in a silvery metallic substance, had an antenna on its head, and moved around in a jerky, mechanical-like way. In 1989, in a park in Voronezh, Russia, a huge red sphere disgorged 9 foot tall entities with domed heads and silver outfits accompanied by a smaller “box-like” robot in front of astonished witnesses. [Brent Swancer, “Some Really Completely Bonkers Alien Encounter Cases,” Mysterious Universe, March 2, 2020.

Back in the ‘50s, when some cheery folks were envisioning a future of flying cars, vacation trips to the moon, and a robot in every home, robots were a regular feature in sci-fi. Some, like Tobor the Great (1954) and Robby from Forbidden Planet (1956) were our creations, designed to assist us as we blasted off to explore the endless depths of space.

Others were menacing sidekicks of alien kidnappers like the UK’s Devil Girl from Mars (1954). The U.S. independent film Target Earth, also released in 1954, took the idea of alien-produced robots even further and, in spite of its low budget, ambitiously tried to tell the story of an army of robots rampaging through a city as part of an alien invasion.

Still, Devil Girl from Mars, 1954
"On Mars we've perfected refrigerator technology. This Frigid-Air 3000 model follows you
wherever you go, so you're never out of arm's reach of a cold beer!"

(Ten years later the UK would contribute its own version of an alien robot invasion with The Earth Dies Screaming, which I will cover in part two.)

Poster - Target Earth, 1954
Now Playing:
Target Earth (1954)

Pros: Believable characters and smart dialog make for an engaging first half.
Cons: Cheap effects and stock footage undermine the sci-fi thrills.

Target Earth was released at a time of high anxiety that the Cold War superpower confrontation could erupt at any time into an all-out nuclear war. The antagonists not only had the A-bomb, but both were testing a new doomsday weapon, the H-bomb, that made the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like firecrackers.

Leading up to the mid-fifties, filmmakers exploited existential fears with such thrillers as Invasion U.S.A. (1952), featuring a group of ordinary citizens witnessing a Soviet invasion and atomic bombing of the U.S., and Five (1951), which explored how a diverse, racially mixed and politically divided group of survivors might deal with the aftermath of a nuclear war.

Target Earth similarly exploits Cold War anxieties, but replaces the godless commies and their H-bombs with an uncanny alien menace. A group of disparate strangers wake up to find that their world has been turned upside down overnight. Their city is completely deserted, except for some stray dead bodies. Somehow they’ve missed out on a sudden, mass evacuation.

We’re first introduced to Nora (Kathleen Crowley), who has woken up after a botched suicide attempt with sleeping pills to discover that her apartment complex and the surrounding neighborhood are eerily empty and deathly quiet.

After Nora discovers a woman’s dead body on the sidewalk, she literally runs into Frank (Richard Denning), a traveling businessman who, after assuring her he’s not responsible for the woman’s death, explains that he got mugged outside a bar and was left unconscious in an alley.

The two eventually discover another couple, Vicki and Jim (Virginia Grey and Richard Reeves), living it up in an otherwise deserted restaurant, swilling champagne and seemingly enjoying a situation where they can help themselves to anything they want. They had been dead drunk when everyone was evacuated.

Still, the lost stragglers drown their sorrows in Target Earth, 1954
The "Didn't get the memo" club parties like it's 1999.

Early on, Nora and Frank bounce ideas off each other about what could possibly have happened. Nora floats the possibility of a nuclear attack, but Frank points out that a.), they’re still alive, and b.) the enemy wouldn’t have given advance notice to enable everybody to get the hell out of Dodge.

Nora wonders if there’s anyone else left in the city, to which the worldly philosopher Frank replies, “There’s probably a few. Ever try to empty a sack of sugar? Some of the grains always stick to the sack like the two of us.”

The two lost souls are happy to be stuck on each other, and when Vicki and Jim enter the picture, it practically becomes a party. A united front becomes paramount when the quartet discovers that instead of Soviet invaders, the city is full of 7 foot tall alien robots that are stalking and killing anyone who’s left with death rays projected from their faceplates.

To add insult to injury, the robots aren’t the only thing they have to worry about. Yet another lost soul, Davis, a sociopathic killer on the run (Robert Roark), sneaks up on the group in the middle of the night and holds them at gunpoint. His plan is to use them as decoys for the killer robots so that he can escape.

Unbeknownst to any of them, the military, which has tried to repel the invaders with infantry and jet fighters to no avail, is planning to use atomic weapons on the city if scientists can’t come up with another way to disable the robots.

Kathleen Crowley and Richard Denning in Target Earth, 1954
Nora and Frank contemplate the horror of studios releasing movies
to theaters and streaming services on the same day.

Target Earth anticipated the end-of-the-world psychological dramas like The World, The Flesh and the Devil and On the Beach that debuted to much fanfare at the end of the ‘50s. While Target Earth lacks the antiwar message and social commentary of those later films, its characters’ depth and their backstories, including depression, attempted suicide and alcoholism are surprisingly sophisticated for a nothing-budget B movie.

The sleeping pills are Nora’s last, desperate attempt to deal with the pain and guilt of her husband’s death in a car accident; Vicki and Jim struggle with their deteriorating relationship and drown their feelings in alcohol when they’re not sniping at each other.

Frank is no paragon either, having been rolled for the wad of cash he carelessly flashed around at the bar. However, with his unassailable logic and more than passing familiarity with military tactics, he is the glue that holds the group together.

The script eventually gives each a chance to shine with new-found inner strength as they confront the twin threats of Venusian invaders and a desperate sociopath.

About midway through, Target Earth reverts back to ‘50s B-movie form with stock footage of military planning sessions, troop movements, and planes strafing and bombing the metal marauders.

In one unintentionally amusing scene, scientists are examining a captured robot in a lab. One scientist (played by Whit Bissell), talks about the “cathode ray tube” embedded in its helmet as if it were the most dangerous, alien and invulnerable piece of technology ever.

Unfortunately, the film’s bare-bones budget seriously compromises its ambitious second act. The robot that finally shows up to menace the protagonists looks like a refugee from a ‘30s Flash Gordon serial, and, like many of its B-movie robot brethren, is so slow and clunky you’d give even odds that a senior with a walker could outrun the thing. But at least it can shoot death rays out of its faceplate (it is a cathode ray tube after all!).

Killer robot from Target Earth, 1954
The killer robot from Venus targets its victims with the very latest 4K Ultra HD death ray.

Your results may differ, but the first half of Target Earth, where Nora and Frank are disoriented and wracking their brains to figure out what’s going on, is so effectively played that it’s a letdown when the military's fight against the invaders takes center stage. For all their troubles, the protagonists deserve better than a stock footage army and Whit Bissell in a lab coat to come and save their bacon in the final reel.

Still, Target Earth is worth a view for its pioneering alien-invasion-as-a-substitute-for-nuclear-anxieties subtext, and its surprisingly deep and well-written characters.

Where to find it: Streaming

Astonishing Fact #1: While the characters in Target Earth talk about a veritable army of robots overrunning the city, the production could only afford one robot suit. Stuntman Steve Calbert told an interviewer years later that “I was the whole army, the general, the captain and the private! I’d walk down the street, they’d cut to a close-up of Richard Denning or somebody else, and cut back to me walking the other way, supposedly another robot.” [John “J.J.” Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts: Special Effects, Makeup and Stunts from the Films of the Fantastic Fifties, McFarland, 1996, p. 14]

Astonishing Fact #2: Richard Denning recalled that to get location shots of the deserted city, the cast and crew had to rise and shine very early in the morning: “To get the scenes of the empty streets, we had to get out there at four in the morning -- in those days, there wasn’t that much traffic downtown. And we’d start shooting as soon as it got daylight, before the cars started coming through.” As for the robot, he said that “[F]or those days it was good. I remember I did marvel at it -- it looked phony when you were right up close, but then when you’d see it on the screen, it looked pretty good.” [Tom Weaver, They Fought in the Creature Features: Interviews with 23 Classic Horror, Science Fiction and Serial Stars, McFarland, 1995, pp. 152-53]

Astonishing Fact #3: Robert Roark was cast as the crazed gunman when his father, an LA doctor, told the producers he would invest in the film only on the condition that his son be given a part. Roark also had a small part in Killers from Space, released the same year; he would go on to appear in a couple of dozen or so movies and TV shows through the end of the decade. [IMDb trivia

Robert Roark as the crazed gunman in Target Earth, 1954
"Okay, NOW will you hire me for the part? Huh? Huh?!"