Thursday, February 26, 2015

Night of the Damned Big Burning Heat

If you read my review of Goké, Body Snatcher From Hell the other day, you might have inferred that I have been afflicted recently with Drive-In Horror Movie Syndrome, and there's a better-than-average chance you would be correct. Today was a good day to succumb to this malady because last night's significant snowfall resulted in the office having to close. So, between rounds of working on a new short story, I settled in to watch Island of the Burning Damned (Planet Productions, a.k.a. Island of the Burning Doomed, a.k.a. Night of the Big Heat, the latter being the title of the original 1959 novel by John Lymington), which I had actually never seen before. It was released in the U.K. in 1967, paired with Planet Productions' Island of Terror, but it didn't reach our shores until 1971, when Maron Films released it on a double bill with Godzilla's Revenge — surely one of the most mismatched roadshows ever. Like Island of Terror (which I reviewed here, back in 2008), this movie does its best to masquerade as a Hammer horror film, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing starring and Terence Fisher directing, though Cushing's role is surprisingly small. While ostensibly a science-fiction movie, Island of the Burning Damned more resembles the era's ubiquitous gothic horror films, with believable science in short supply and melodrama in excess.

There will be spoilers....

We open on a promising note, the setting being established as a small island, called Fara, off the coast of Scotland, so that the main characters are effectively isolated once things turn ugly. They turn ugly pretty quickly, for though it's wintertime, an intense, unnatural heatwave has overtaken the island. Foreshadowed by sound effects that create a fair atmosphere of dread, not unlike 1958's Fiend Without a Face, several islanders are killed, burned to death by some unknown entity. Dr. Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee), a brusque stranger from the mainland who is staying at an inn owned by novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson), takes an unusual interest in the bizarre killings but refuses to explain himself to any of the locals. Meanwhile, an exceptionally attractive young hussy named Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) arrives on the island claiming to be Callum's new secretary, but as it turns out, she is a skeleton from the not-so-distant past that Callum would rather have kept in the closet. Angela makes a number of unsubtle amorous overtures toward Callum, which he is unable to resist. Further demonstrating her lack of class, she audaciously tells Frankie the truth about her husband, only to take it all back, passing off her "confession" as an angry response to the unnatural heat and her own profound loneliness. Frankie graciously forgives the young woman, only to soon witness her in Callum's arms during (another) moment of weakness.

The heat plays hell with all forms of communication, from telephones to televisions, leaving the island community with no means of contacting the mainland. As the temperature rises and the body count increases, Hanson finally reveals that he is a scientist attempting to discover the truth behind the killings and their connection to the heatwave. He theorizes that an alien species from somewhere in space — where the environment is hotter than any place on Earth — is using the island as a proving ground to determine whether Earth is a suitable planet to inhabit. The local physician, Dr. Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing) is among the few to believe Hanson, but when he attempts to reach a radar station on the far side of the island, hoping to make radio contact with the mainland, he is killed by the as-yet-unseen invaders. Hanson, determined to succeed where Stone had failed, also sets out for the station, only to witness the aliens kill a woman carrying a flashlight. He concludes that the aliens are consuming all man-made energy sources and are attracted to light, and thus manages to reach the station by driving without headlights. Alas, he is too late, for the invaders have already destroyed the radio equipment and incinerated one of the operators. Hanson formulates a plan to destroy the creatures by setting fire to nearby haystacks and then lobbing dynamite at them when they come to check out the commotion. However, the station operator responsible for handling the dynamite is killed, leaving Hanson defenseless, and soon he, too, falls victim to the aliens' onslaught.

Now the monsters, which finally reveal themselves as huge, glowing, jellyfish-like blobs, bear down on the Callums and Angela. But thunderclouds have gathered in the sky, and a terrific rainstorm batters the island. Rain, it appears, is lethal to the monsters, and they quickly disintegrate beneath the torrents.

The end.

When the Godzilla's Revenge/Island of the Burning Damned double feature played at the local drive-in theater in early 1972, it was colder than my folks were willing to suffer to take me to a movie, so the pair came and went without young Mark having the opportunity to see it. Of course, at the time, I had eyes only for Godzilla's Revenge and wouldn't have given a rotten fart about the second feature. (It's probably just as well it was years later before I got to see Godzilla's Revenge, for it might well have then poisoned my otherwise happy relationship with Godzilla, and the idea of this is even now heinous to me — here's why.) A scant few years later, though, once I had my driver's license, going to the drive-in to watch horror movies became a favorite pastime, and I'm sure that if I'd ever had another opportunity to check out Island of the Burning Damned on the drive-in circuit, I'd have done so in a heartbeat. Despite its manifold shortcomings, it's full to the brim with distinctively British atmosphere, occasionally reminiscent of Hammer horror at its best; a sense of unease heightened by the fact you mostly hear rather than see the menace; and characters that don't necessarily fit the stereotypes associated with most low-budget horror offerings of the day: the forthright, virile male protagonist; the virtuous if often helpless female; the kindly, sagacious professor who manages to save the day with his superior knowledge and intellect. Island of the Burning Damned is populated mostly by antiheroes who may be less than likeable but at least possess a few redeeming qualities. Jane Merrow, as Angela, is particularly noteworthy, not only for exuding raw sexiness, but for actually surviving to the end of the picture; she is the type more likely to meet her demise simply because she is a complication. There is the insinuation that Angela — easily distracted by the male of the species as she is — may turn her affection, at least temporarily, to one of the other few survivors, but the dicey situation between Mr. and Mrs. Callum is anything but resolved. I rather admire this little deviation from the tried-and-true formula for horror movie characters from the period.

Christopher Lee does turn in a laudable, even memorable performance as Dr. Hanson. He conveys brusqueness, eccentricity, and reluctant courage with virtuoso flair. Peter Cushing likewise portrays the conservative, straightforward Dr. Stone with sincerity, as one would expect from him. I don't think Cushing ever sleepwalked through any role, no matter how simple or shallow. As the protagonist with a serious Achilles heel, Patrick Allen is an adequate performer, with a commanding physical screen presence. And as Callum's devoted but damn-near-jilted wife, Sarah Lawson has a few shining moments, particularly when she reacts, quite believably, to Angela's merciless taunting by calling her a "little bitch," all but spitting in the younger woman's face.

The monsters themselves don't appear until the very end of the film, which is just as well. Design- and execution-wise, they are no better or worse than any number of comparably budgeted movies of the day, but revealing them sooner would have undermined any suspense that might have escaped unscathed from this not entirely suspenseful cheapie. It's easy to make fun of their simple, not-so-technically-brilliant construction, but I confess that if I were to see these big, glowing, heat-emitting jellyfish-like blobs oozing toward me, I'm pretty sure I would run like hell.

No, Island of the Burning Damned is no classic cinematic work. It didn't get much respect when it was released, and it hasn't gained an appreciable cult following over the years. It's distinctly inferior to Island of Terror, which Planet produced the previous year. Still, it's a highly entertaining relic from a period when the drive-in theater was not only a commercially viable but desirable target market — a time we'll sadly never see the likes of again.
The dangerously hot Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) and girl-troubled novelist-cum-inn-proprietor,
Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen)
Dr. Hanson (Christopher Lee) trying to warn Dr. Stone by radio of the danger he faces in the night
Dr. Stone (Peter Cushing) suddenly becomes aware of the danger he faces in the night
The danger in the night

1 comment:

James Robert Smith said...

All I have to say is:

"Jane Merrow! DAY-am!"