Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Island Holiday

Peter Cushing had a hard time when doing the islands. In Shock Waves, he had to deal with zombie Nazis while hiding on a remote island, but that was perhaps not as dire a vacation as dealing with the bone-sucking Silicates on the Island of Terror (1966, directed by Terence Fisher). The Silicates are a new life form spawned by a cancer research station whose experiments have gone awry, and they leave a trail of victims with bodies without bones. They look a little bit like the silicon-based Horta from Star Trek's "Devil in the Dark" with a tentacle attached at the front, a familial resemblance, perhaps.

Island of Terror was the work of a director wandering in the wilderness. Following the disastrous failure of Hammer's version of The Phantom of the Opera, Terence Fisher had fallen out of favor with the Boys at Bray. As a result, he wasn't getting the prestige budgets (well, prestige budgets for Hammer, anyway) as he labored on such second string films as The Earth Dies Screaming and The Gorgon and, well, Island of Terror, for which the director bolted from Hammer. Of course, it feels like Hammer, given that Fisher is as responsible as anyone for the "feel" of Hammer, and given that it stars Peter Cushing. Interestingly enough, it also feels like an upscale episode of Doctor Who, or even an episode of The Avengers, which distinguishes it from the formula films Fisher was making for Hammer. It's one of the directors most entertaining films, actually. The change of genre from gothic horror to sci fi creature feature seems to have energized him.

The story here follows the inhabitants of a small Irish island as they contend with the aforementioned Silicates, lumps of grey matter with a tentacle on the front. The Silicates are on the rampage, devouring the bones of people and cattle and they're dividing at a furious rate. Fire doesn't burn them. Bullets don't harm them. Their hard carapaces turn the blades of axes. It's up to scientists David West (Edward Judd) and Brian Stanley (Cushing) to find a way to halt the monsters before they wipe everyone off the island and spread to the rest of the world. When a dead Silicate is found, they deduce that it was killed by ingesting a cow that was contaminated with radioactive isotopes. There is a store of isotopes at the cancer laboratory at the epicenter of the outbreak, and West and Stanley endeavor to retrieve them as the townspeople become ever more desperate as the monsters lay siege to them. There's only so much material to use. Is it enough? Our heroes hope that it is...

It's always fun watching Peter Cushing play a good guy. I mean, don't get me wrong. Cushing as a villain is one of the pleasures of the cinema, but the actor could turn on an ingratiating formidable aura of caring and moral rightness when given the chance. He does that here. The nice thing about this movie is that it doesn't vilify scientists. Indeed, its heroes are shown to be smart, capable, sane, and working for the common good. What's more interesting is the way that that's accepted by the people of the island. There's no resistance to the expertise of scientists in this movie, which is highly unusual in sci fi films, though maybe it's only American sci fi where that's common, America being a nest of anti-intellectual know-nothings. In any event, it's a surprising development in this film. Also surprising is the agency of the "hero's girlfriend" character, Toni, played by Carole Gray. In the early going, there's a good deal of sexual by-play between her and Dr. West. This is a decidedly sexual couple, which is refreshing enough, but she also gets into the meat of the movie, too, because it's her helicopter that transports our heroes to and fro, and she insists on going with them. She's not reduced to a screaming heap by the monsters, either. She keeps her cool and winds up organizing the townspeople when our heroes go off on their various dangerous errands. The agency of his girlfriend rubs off on West, who is a rare hero-scientist who doesn't seem like a stuffed shirt.

The monsters....well, they're kind of lame in a low-budget 1960s British sort of way, but what they do to their victims is certainly kind of creepy. The horror money shots in this film are the shots of boneless victims. They aren't gory, per se, but they are disturbing. Gorehounds shouldn't fret, though, because there's a dismemberment late in the movie in which a hand is chopped off to free its owner from the clutches of the Silicates.

I'm not sure how I missed this movie all these years, but this was a pleasant surprise. To be discovering a good Terence Fisher/Peter Cushing movie that I've never seen before at this late date? This is why I love October.

Current tally: 27 films

First time viewings: 25

Around the Web:

Speaking of Peter Cushing...the Vicar of VHS enters the Madhouse over at Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movies.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter sees Dead Men Walk.

Mr. Gable slouches toward the finish line with Zombie Island Massacre, Motor Home Massacre, and The Offspring.

Tim over at The Other Side has been busy with Shower of Blood, Girl Slaves of Morgan Le Fey, and Legion.

J. Luis over at W-Cinema takes on Santo en El tesoro de Drácula, Joey, Choking Hazard, and Senki.

Bob at The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has another diary entry that your humble bloginatrix missed in during this week's festivities. Bob is tearing it up this year.


bookman187 said...

I thought they looked like mutated turtles. I really enjoyed this film the first time I saw it and still like it a lot. You never expected the hero to get his hand looped off.

Roderick Heath said...

Oh, boy, do I love Island of Terror. Fisher's companion piece Night of the Big Heat is great too, although both movies are hurt when they finally reveal their...less than convincing monsters. But the atmosphere and sense of isolated tension in both movies is palpable.

Chris Hewson said...

What's even more surprising with Peter Cushing playing a good guy are those little known (I think) Dr. Who movies, where Peter Cushing plays The Doctor. That's seriously the kind of movie casting that just sounds like fantasy.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Chris,

Island of Terror had a strong Dr. Who vibe. And, yeah, Cushing is part of that.

Hi, Rod,

I actually kind of dig the monsters, but, yeah, I know what you mean.