Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Island of Terror

Island of Terror (1966)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Edward Mann, Al Ramsen
Starring Peter Cushing, Edward Judd, Carole Gray, Niall MacGinnis

On a remote island somewhere off the East Coast of Ireland, there’s something sinister transpiring. A farmer has gone missing, and when his body turns up in a nearby cave, somebody notices, huh, this dumb mutha fucka done lost all his bones. I can’t remember if that’s a direct quote or not but they say something like that. Bones gone, with apparently fatal consequences. You know that that means. There’s only one man for a mystery this mysterious which is specifically about bones being gone, and that is Dr. David West (Edward Judd, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, VAULT OF HORROR), just a fuckin’ awesome bone doctor guy who can’t quite commit to his rich beautiful sassy girlfriend (Carole Gray, THE YOUNG ONES) but they have a lot of fun quipping back and forth and of course she insists on coming along to investigate this gruesome medical mystery on an isolated island, and oh yeah, about that helicopter which is the only way of getting there, it’s needed somewhere else for awhile, so, uh, hang tight. You hear that? I just pitched the single greatest movie of all time.

But wait, let me sweeten the deal for you. What if I told you that in addition to Dr. David West, you could have another affable square 50’s-style science guy to help solve that mystery? Oh, what’s that, you don’t think this could possibly get any better? Well shut the fuck up you fucking pissant peasant, because he’s played by Peter Cushing. That’s right, the beloved star of Dr. Who from 1965-1966, also STAR WARS I guess. Don’t you feel like a real piece of shit right now for doubting the world could be so generous?

Anyway, with director Terence Fisher (pretty much 75% of legit good Hammer movies, including DRACULA and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) on board and Cushing and a mystery about monsters de-boning people, you’d think this would be a can’t-miss proposition. Or, you would, if you hadn’t seen NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT which had pretty much the same plot and cast and Christopher Lee but is still a total fucking piece of shit. So let’s not get too excited here. In fact given the close proximity between the two films and the suspiciously similar settings and the fact that they’re both about swarms of funny-looking blob monsters eating rural villagers, I have a strong inclination to guess they were filmed either together or back-to-back using many of the same sets/props/cast, though I admit I have only my gut and the fact that I am a human being with two functional eyeballs to support that thesis. But fear not! If you absolutely must see one of the two not-very-good sub-Tigon mad science creature movies set on remote Irish islands which Peter Cushing appeared in between 1966 and 1967, this is definitely arguably the better of the two, in some ways, I guess.

Antagonist in NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT (1967, above) vs antagonist in ISLAND OF TERROR (1966, below)

Cushing has some funny lines (including one where he subtly propositions a threesome!*) and gets his hand cut off. And the dastardly tentacle monsters which are behind all the de-boning are but pretty fun when they eventually turn up, especially when they rally en mass for the excellent (maybe even vaguely exciting?) finale. And if you like cheerful, unselfconsciously modernist science types smoking pipes and musing about how men will never truly understand the female mind while they leisurely drive around the quaint Irish countryside looking for bone-suckers, boy howdee, Christmas just came early for you. It’s definitely that kind of movie.

Unfortunately it really drags in the middle as people drive to different places to try and find their friends, only to discover they’ve gone somewhere else. Cell phones would have easily cut 40 minutes out of this movie, and you’d have missed none of it. You kinda expect that sort of filler in something like this, and it’s not exactly painful watching or anything --Cushing is on-screen most of the movie, so it’s never completely dire-- but you’re going to notice it. In fact, the most memorable scene in the movie has nothing to do with monsters, and everything to do with straining to fill 89 minutes of screentime with images, without spending any money whatsoever. It takes awkward time-wasting filler to such a hilariously protracted degree that you could absolutely stick it right in the middle of an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! or something and no one would ever suspect it was made apparently sincerely in 1966.

Here’s how it goes: Cushing and Dr. David West (bone disappearance expert extraordinaire!) need to get a radioactive element out of some kind of stupid science closet in a lab. Fortunately, there are radiation suits nearby. So Cushing puts on boots. West puts on boots. Cushing puts on big puffy radiation pants. West puts on big puffy radiation pants. Cushing puts on radiation vest and helmet. West puts on radiation vest and helmet. Cushing puts on radiation jacket. West puts on radiation jacket. Cushing puts on left radiation glove. West puts on left radiation glove. Cushing puts on right radiation glove. West puts on left radiation glove. Then, they open the closet and take out what they need. And then everything comes back off. This has to take 5 minutes of screentime at least, made all the funnier by the unassuming lack of music, all the better to hear two middle-aged British men softly grunting as they change clothes in a cheesy-looking science room. It’s so outrageous that it’s immediately the best thing in the whole movie, and let’s not forget, this is a movie which has Cushing, Niall MacGinnis, and tentacle-waving bone-snatchers.

What it doesn’t appear to have is any awareness that it’s fucking 1966. There are about 800,000 similarly corny nuclear monster movies out there --and I’ve seen them all-- but fucking 1966 was pretty late for what is, in every imaginable way, a 1950’s sci-fi horror about the perils of the nuclear age and the heroic square-jawed military and science folks who protect us (from, uh, the horrors that they caused with their military and science). I mean, PSYCHO was a half-decade old by this point. BLOOD AND BLACK LACK had come out two years before. And not only had Cushing himself had already been in nearly 10 years of much more boundary-pushing, red-blood spackled gothic horror, but Hammer’s whole English horror renaissance was arguably heralded by 1955’s THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, a much more gruesome and morally ambivalent take on exactly this kind of science-gone-wrong mutation. But you would never know that from watching ISLAND OF TERROR, which appears completely unaware that society has changed in any way since the days of THE FLY or IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE. If there were any people in the world other than rich blondes, pipe-smoking scientists and ignorant villagers in 1966, ISLAND OF TERROR certainly never heard of them. John Lennon and Yoko Ono met in 1966. I doubt they went to see this movie.

Anyway, it’s funny to see such a late entry into this genre, because it really accentuates the comically modernist deference for science people were supposed to have, according to this genre of movies. Head townie Niall MacGinnis (so fantastic in NIGHT OF THE DEMON, but pretty wasted here) and his fellow townsfolk are really surprisingly --perhaps even absurdly-- accommodating of the increasingly bizarre pronouncements by these two strangers who have flown in and begun to rampage through their quiet community, not getting at all upset or accusatory after our heroes reluctantly fill them in that several of their most prominent citizens have been horrifically killed, and dutifully complying with every request our boys make without complaint, even when that means killing every single cow on this tiny agricultural island. MacGinnis even pulls one lad aside and angrily chides him for questioning if these nincompoops know what they’re doing (they don’t, but yes, he gets killed like a little bitch for daring to question them. It’s like if FRIDAY THE 13th movies decided to punish insufficient reverence for science instead of teenage sex!). In fact, just like THE FLY (a movie almost ten years old by this point), the script makes a point to carefully explain that while yes, in this case science got everyone killed and created a race of invulnerable bone vampires, science is still our friend.

Of course, that message is somewhat diluted by the delightful twist ending, where we see some signs that perhaps the same horror is about to repeat itself -- in Japan! Since Japan would still be churning out this kind of affable rubber monster crap (albeit with much better monsters) at least into the early 70’s, this almost feels like a kind of torch-passing moment. Japan, you really dropped the ball on making a sequel, here. Unfortunately there wouldn’t really be much follow-up from the English-speaking world; like the unfortunate isolated rural town which Cushing and West cheerfully leave completely depleted of livestock and citizenry, the age of the scientist-hero and the nuclear monster in the West was pretty well kaput. As last hurrahs go, this ain’t exactly a blaze of glory, but in this genre you could do a whole hell of a lot worse.

*The sole, solitary beat in the whole enterprise which might remind you that this is 1966, not 1953.

Play it Again, Samhain

How could they stop the devouring death...that lived by sucking on living human bones! And They lived by eating human bones!.
None, although it has some striking similarities to 1967’s NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT
Cushing, and I’m going to count MacGinnis too.
Uh, I suppose there’s some weird floppy corpses, does that count?
Bone vampire!

Rightly obscure.
You should be thankful that science can solve the problems caused by science, even if it means losing your home and livelihood and everyone you love!
I guess it’s pretty terrifying, and it’s definitely on an island, they mention that specifically.

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