Sunday, August 10, 2008

Island of Terror

Busy weekend here; mostly domestic chores, vehicle maintenance, a spot of creative work. I tell you, though, tonight I found myself seized by an insatiable craving to watch a drive-in movie. Alas, as the drive-in was kind of out of reach, I settled for putting on my old VHS copy of Island of Terror, one of my favorite 1960s-vintage SF/horror flicks. Now, in my younger days, I never actually saw it at the drive-in; in fact, I don't think I managed to see it at all until I was well on my way to becoming an old fart. It showed up in TV Guide fairly frequently when I was a kid, but for whatever reasons, I never managed to catch it. I recollect turning a magnificent shade of green when good ol' Robert Cox (he was pretty much Linus to my Charlie Brown) saw it on Shock Theater and described it to me in very gory detail: "The professor, like, gets his arm chopped off and everything and, like, blood spews everywhere, you know?"

It really is the perfect drive-in movie, starring Peter Cushing, Edward Judd, Carole Gray, and Niall MacGinnis (of Curse of the Demon fame). A team of scientists, hoping to find a cure for cancer, go to a remote island off the coast of Ireland to conduct experiments using radiation. Needless to say, it goes wrong. The scientists are all mysteriously killed, and people (and animals) suddenly begin turning up with all their bones missing. The local doctor, baffled, calls in renowned physician Peter Cushing, who, also baffled, calls in renowned researcher Edward Judd, who finds himself—perhaps not unpredictably—baffled by the deadly goings-on. Turns out that the experiments have created these huge, mutated, cell-like critters that snag you with a proboscis, liquify your bones, and then suck them out through said proboscis. Mayhem ensues, lots of people die, and the professor, like, gets his arm chopped off and everything and, like, blood spews everywhere, you know?

Great, great little flick. The island setting, both picturesque and gloomy, creates the perfect spooky atmosphere. The sound effect that precedes the creatures' appearance is an eerie, warbling, electronic whistle (created by Barry Gray, composer of the score to Stingray, UFO, Space: 1999, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun,et. al.), and it's used to unnerving effect, much like the scary sound effects in Fiend Without a Face, another of my favorite oldies. The critters themselves—described in the old TV guide listings as "turtle-like"—tread the line between silly and horrifying, though they're more like knobby starfish with long, tentacular appendages than turtles. They reproduce by fission, and there's a wonderful scene where the process is shown in grotesque detail. The occasional bits of gore may be primitive by today's standards, but they punch just the right buttons to accentuate the horror in the film.

A few slow moments impede forward progress now and again, such as the apparently suspense-building scene, filmed in real time, of Cushing and Judd putting on radiation suits, from top to bottom, including gloves and air hoses. (This is the time to make popcorn.)

Despite these little hitches, Island of Terror stands out as a superb example of 1960s British SF/horror. I recorded it many years ago from American Movie Classics, when they still aired movies with no commercials. It's hard to find gems like this on TV anymore, though; so many of the oldies but goodies are no longer broadcast, those slots having been given away to the latest crop of rancid CGI monstrosities of Sci Fi channel caliber. Fortunately, it's easier than it ever has been to find a lot of these marvelous flicks on DVD, oftentimes cheap, sometimes with extra features aplenty. Unfortunately, I don't believe Island of Terror is one of them. It's available on Region 2-encoded PAL DVDs, the standard in the UK, but unplayable on most US systems.



Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Fiend Without A Face...clap,clap,clap.
Do you remember a strange little piece called Navy V. The Night Monsters?

Stephen Mark Rainey said...

I remember the title from FAMOUS MONSTER OF FLIMFLAM, but I don't -think- I ever saw it. I've got some old horror compilations on DVD; it might be on one of them.