Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Island Of Terror (1966)

Back before the internet, back before the proliferation of cult toys, back before the rise of comic book culture to regal status, kids had essentially two things when it came to playtime: really shitty toys and their imaginations.  Not all of the toys were shitty, to be fair.  Some were even well-designed and encouraged some form of thought (whether that be through their scarcity or intent, I can’t say, though I doubt the latter), and when we would play War, the toy guns weren’t colored like a pack of bubble gum; they actually looked like guns (shocking today in a world brimming over with street gangs and overzealous police).  I fondly remember a line of toys called Pocket Super Heroes and had quite a few of them.  Seeing photos of them now, I have to say that said fondness is clearly fogged by nostalgia, however when I was a child there was no other way to get an action figure of a character like Aquaman or the Green Goblin, so that does need to be taken into account.

Still, like Moses (Sidney Dawson) in Raising Arizona said, “…when there was no crawdad to be found, we ate sand.”  And so it was, especially for those of us who loved monsters.  Oh, there were the odd model kits, and you could probably find a nice hard rubber gorilla that you could pretend was King Kong, but characters like Godzilla and his cohorts were simply not to be found (unless of course you had a store nearby that imported toys and a wad of cash in your pockets; I had neither).  There are reasons why phrases like “necessity is the mother of invention” are coined, and this is just such a one.  Since I wouldn’t even lay eyes on a Hedorah action figure until well into my adulthood, I had no option but to make one.  Armed with crayons and paper, I drew all of my favorite monsters which were non-extant in action figure form (that’s a lot of monsters), cut them out, and used those for my monster mash flights of fancy.  I even drew cityscapes for them to demolish.  

The pros and cons should be readily apparent.  Being made of paper, they were pretty fragile, but the beauty of this particular coin’s flip side is that they were also cheaply re-attainable.  Another downside was that if you admired the way a certain likeness came out and that “figure” got wrecked, the odds on you being able to reproduce said likeness the way that caught your eye the first time were slim (conversely, there was also the chance that the new one would catch your fancy more).  It was like those drawn out army fights with which so many of us used to litter our notebooks, but with moveable “parts” (and before things like Presto Magix [another toy I relished] though not before Colorforms, which is probably where the inspiration for the former came from anyway). I’m going to such lengths with this because some of the creatures I created via loose leaf were Silicates from Terence Fisher’s Island Of Terror.  I don’t remember if mine were Godzilla-sized, but I would guess so.  Everything else was back then.

Off the coast of Ireland lies Petrie’s Island, a small, agrarian community whereupon resides the hermitic Dr. Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson).  Phillips’ cancer research goes slightly awry (with a flash of white and red and a wicked sting on the soundtrack), and soon thereafter local villager Ian Bellows (Liam Gaffney) is found with no bones in his body and no apparent wounds.  Island doctor Reginald Landers (Eddie Byrne) calls upon pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) who calls upon bone disease specialist Dr. David West (Edward Judd) whom they interrupt while working on a bone of a different sort with paramour Toni Merrill (Carole Grey).  The lot takes off for the island and discover just how awry Phillips’ research has gone.

This is one of those films that skirts the line between traditional and unusual Horror.  After all, it was around this time we got a Were-Moth in The Blood Beast Terror (also with Cushing), a Were-Snake in The Reptile, and a Were-Gorgon in…um…The Gorgon.  But what Island Of Terror does, and to my mind does so well, is does a marvelous job of balancing its two aspects.  The Petrie’s Island community is small, its characters very traditional, even superstitious in some ways.  They have no phones, a problematic power generator, and a supply boat that comes by once a week; the perfect setup for a Horror film.    The manse where Phillips’ lab is housed could easily have been a hand-me-down from Dr. Frankenstein (“it looks like Wuthering Heights”), with its gothic masonry and twisting stairways.  Yet the rooms where Phillips’ experiments are performed are modern, antiseptic, metallic.  And even here, there are concessions with tanks full of bubbling, brightly colored water (or whatever).  As a compromise to modern times, we get some nice effects work with the boneless bodies, and there’s even a nice, quick gore shot when a character loses an appendage (replete with a nifty spurt of blood).  The film takes its time in its pacing, allowing the mystery to play out of its own volition.  This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and even though the audience knows that the explanation is going to be outlandish to at least some degree, they are engaged by the asking of questions, the compiling of the monster’s profile.

The Silicates themselves are clearly an example of Body Horror (and a fairly early instance to my mind, although I also think cases could be made that a whole slew of Horror films could be considered Body Horror).  They are artificial life intended to eradicate cancer, but this is one of those times where the cure is arguably worse than the disease (think: Dr. Raglan’s Psychoplasmics from The Brood).  They are cells enlarged and outside the body.  They divide like cells (with the help of a great deal of chicken noodle soup), and they attack organisms like any aberrant bodies but from the outside in (rather than preying on individuals from the inside out, yet they are still exemplars of the body in revolt, even while not being naturally occurring).  Silicates have no intellect, no reasoning.  They are pure of purpose.  They live only to eat and propagate.  Nevertheless, they are an unfortunate byproduct of mankind’s search for answers, but when confronted with the concept that there are some areas in which men shouldn’t meddle, David pulls a Quatermass and offers the rebuttal, “Science has its risks.  But the risks aren’t enough to hinder progress.”  There is the acknowledgement that these things happen, but there also doesn’t seem to be any indication that precautions need to be taken to prevent their recurrence.  It’s almost as if the creation of monsters is something we just have to live with, even though we’re the ones who create them.  

MVT:  I love the Silicates.  They’re gross and silly and visually interesting.  And did I mention that chicken noodle soup pours out of them when they divide?  It’s disgusting and delicious, all at once.

Make Or Break:  The Make is the cell division scene.  See above.

Score:  7/10               

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