Success invariably leads to imitation. With all the attention (and box office grosses) Hammer Film Productions was attracting in the 1960’s, it was inevitable that Hammer wannabes would start sprouting up like mushrooms from the loamy, light-starved soil of the English movie industry. Amicus and Tigon are probably the best known of the Hammer clones, but there were other studios out there playing Monogram to Hammer’s Universal. One of the most utterly forgotten was Planet Film Productions, the studio responsible for bringing us Island of Terror/Night of the Silicates/etc. The amazing thing about Planet was that they were able to pull off the very same trick as their richer, higher-prestige competitors, and dip into the Hammer talent pool. Amicus you expect to be able to pay Peter Cushing’s or Terrence Fisher’s price; a little fly-by-night operation like this is another matter altogether. And almost equally remarkable is the particular aspect of Hammer that Planet chose to copy— rather than producing knockoffs of the somewhat sensationalized gothics that Hammer is best remembered for today, Planet’s stock in trade (at least as far as genre movies were concerned) seems to have been clones of the clever little sci-fi flicks Hammer used to make in the mid-to-late 1950’s.
Which brings me to Island of Terror. The movie was very much a throwback to a bygone era even when it was made. This is the kind of thing Jack Arnold and Bert I. Gordon were doing on their side of the Atlantic ten years before. Director Fisher realized this, however, and was smart enough to craft his movie in such a way as to take advantage of the audience’s familiarity with the formula, rather than pretend that ten years’ worth of monster rampage movies had never happened and expect you to be surprised by more than a couple of details in the story. You can see this at work in the very first scene, which foreshadows all the doom and devastation of the next hour and a half with just a few deft gestures. First we meet a scientist named Philips as he takes delivery of a shipment of laboratory equipment. Near him on the dock, three men— Dr. Reginald Landers (Eddie Byrne, from Devils of Darkness and Hammer’s version of The Mummy), Constable John Harris (Sam Kydd, from The Projected Man and Up the Chastity Belt), and a farmer named Ian Bellows (Liam Gaffney)— are bitching about the hardships of life on tiny Petrie’s Island. There are no phones there, and only one boat a week from the mainland. Otherwise, the people of Petrie’s Island have almost no contact whatsoever with civilization. You see what I mean about the filmmakers using audience expectations to their advantage here, right? Here we are less than five minutes into the movie, and already we can see exactly how messed up these people are, and we have a pretty good idea why, too. And moments later, when we learn that Philips is rushing ahead on some super-advanced cancer-related research without checking with his colleagues in Rome, New York, and Tokyo, our suspicions only deepen. Then, when Philips’s experiment is interrupted by the main title display and the sound of breaking glass, we know without even needing to be shown that something has gone disastrously wrong.
Ian Bellows finds out just how disastrously that same night as he makes the rounds of his northernmost field. He hears the strangest sound emanating from a narrow cave in the cliff-face overlooking his field, and goes to check it out. Big mistake there, Ian. Something we don’t see grabs him, pulls him into the cave, and starts slurping while Ian screams. When Ian doesn’t come home, his wife informs Harris of his disappearance, and the constable goes out to look for him in the more remote corners of the island. Harris finds the cave where Ian ran afoul of the slurping thing, and what he discovers there isn’t pretty. The body in the cave is Ian’s, alright, but something has rendered it all soft and squishy in ways that no vertebrate body should ever be. Faced with a corpse that has been maltreated in ways he’s never even heard of before, Harris does the sensible thing, and fetches Dr. Landers.
Once he’s had a chance to look at what’s left of Bellows, Landers confirms what you had probably already figured out for yourself: Bellows hasn’t a single gram of bone left in his body. Well that would certainly explain the slurping, wouldn’t it? The doctor has never seen the like of it, so he takes the tiny motorboat that is the islanders’ only means of communication with the mainland between the big boat’s weekly visits, and sets off for England to see the nation’s most distinguished pathologist, Dr. Brian Stanley (the ubiquitous Peter Cushing). Stanley is as perplexed by Bellows’s symptoms as Landers, so he recommends a visit to yet another doctor, a renowned expert on bone diseases by the name of David West (Edward Judd, of The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Vault of Horror). West is busy trying to get laid when Stanley and Landers arrive at his flat, but their description of the case is so fascinating that he’s willing to postpone the consummation of his date with Toni Merrill (The Curse of the Fly’s Carole Gray)— clearly, West is a man of great professional dedication. Toni’s a tricky girl though, and she comes up with a way to keep herself in David’s company. You see, with time as vital a concern as it is, Landers strongly favors flying back home, rather than taking the motorboat he road in on, and Toni’s rich father happens to own a helicopter. And if the doctors will agree to take her along with them, she thinks she can persuade Daddy to part with his chopper and pilot for a few days. As it happens, she’s only half right, in that her father’s business commitments prevent him from releasing the helicopter for more than the amount of time it will take to fly Toni and company out to Petrie’s, but at least the arrangement gets the doctors to the island.
All the clues seem to point to Philips and his lab, so the doctors understandably want a word with the reclusive researcher. Either he isn’t in or he isn’t receiving visitors when they come calling, but in light of the urgency of the situation, Stanley feels justified in looking for a way to sneak into the huge old mansion where Philips has set up his operation. That way, if the scientist is at home, Stanley will be able to force him to see them. But while Stanley is poking around in the mansion, he trips over (that’s right) another boneless body! There turn out to be more in the lab proper, and the fluid-filled tank that Philips had been messing with when we last saw him lies shattered into hundreds of pieces scattered on the floor. Using Philips’s more sophisticated gear, the doctors are able to determine that all the bodies are covered with thousands of microscopic puncture wounds, but it isn’t clear whether they were made by something entering or exiting. (Or maybe a little bit of both?) Then West and Stanley gather up all of Philips’s notes, and head back to their rooms at the inn.
Thus they aren’t around when Harris comes looking for them in response to a call from a farmer who found one of his horses de-boned in its pasture. The Philips place isn’t quite empty, however. Down in the basement, as Harris will soon learn to his great misfortune, is something green and tentacled, with an empty stomach and a taste for human bones. West, Stanley, Landers, and Toni will get their introduction to the bone-slurpers not much later, when Harris’s absence leads them back to the lab. The monsters (and there are a lot of them) turn out to be gray-green humps of hard, knobby matter roughly the size and shape of the shell of a Galapagos tortoise, with a single, suckered tentacle snaking out from their front ends. And as Landers demonstrates (just before he gets eaten by one of the creatures), their skins are axe-proof. The only reason the things don’t suck down anyone else’s skeletons just then is that they’re too busy undergoing mitosis while Stanley, West, and Toni make their break for safety.
Obviously, we have now reached the point in the movie where the Proper Authorities must be called in. But unfortunately for Petrie’s Island, its Proper Authorities aren’t very proper— just an older farmer named Roger Campbell (Niall MacGinnis, from Curse of the Demon and Viking Queen) and his sidekick, Peter Argyle (James Caffrey). Just about all Campbell and his men are good for is helping the scientists figure out what else doesn’t hurt the monsters: guns, Molotov cocktails, and dynamite, for example. There’s a pretty good reason for this, as it turns out. Philips’s monsters aren’t carbon-based life at all, but rather silicon-based. That’s why their exoskeletons are so hard; chemically speaking, the creatures’ skins aren’t that different from sandstone. But there is one thing that can kill the “Silicates” (as Stanley and West dub the nasty things). In Island of Terror’s most striking nod to the monster movies of the 50’s, the Silicates prove to be vulnerable to radiation. All you have to do is feed them some animal whose bones have been contaminated by radioactivity. So with a lab well stocked with Strontium-90 (check out the radiation suits Stanley and West have to wear in order to handle the stuff!), and an island inhabited by hundreds and hundreds of cattle, it looks like there might just be hope after all, and at the scientists’ direction, Campbell and his men round up all the islanders into town hall, and all the cattle into the nearby pen. That way, the Silicates will have no choice but to eat the contaminated cattle, and Campbell will have an easier time keeping an eye on his people. On the other hand, Strontium-90 isn’t exactly a fast-acting poison, and the town hall proves to be somewhat lacking in its efficacy as a fortress, so there’s every reason to fear that the human population of Petrie’s Island will have shrunk significantly by the time the radioisotope does its job.
If there is one thing my life as a consumer of culture has taught me, it is that fate does not distribute fame and obscurity in a remotely equitable manner. Whether it’s movies, books, music, or anything else we’re talking about, we’ve all seen it happen again and again: some unworthy piece of shit will capture the public’s attention like some kind of cultural panji pit, while works of vastly superior merit fade from the scene unnoticed. You disagree? Then tell me this— did you see Ravenous back in 1999? No, I didn’t think so. You saw The Mummy, though, didn’t you? Very well, then. I rest my case. Island of Terror provides another example of the phenomenon. If you weren’t alive in 1966, chances are you’ve never heard of this movie— hell, I only learned of its existence recently, and I’m the kind of guy who makes a point of seeking this stuff out. And yet Island of Terror is one of the very best monster movies to come out of Great Britain in the 1960’s.
Not only do its script and direction give the audience credit for a great deal of B-movie erudition, it isn’t overly protective of its main characters (some surprisingly nasty things happen to some surprisingly important people in this movie), and its monsters, though none too convincingly realized, are an extremely imaginative departure from the mutant lizards and gigantic bugs we’re accustomed to in the genre. And it would seem that this film made at least a little bit of money for Planet during its initial release, as the studio’s later Island of the Burning Doomed/Night of the Big Heat duplicated great glutinous masses of Island of Terror— everything from the monsters’ basic body-plan to such plot details as having the creatures’ first victim fall to some unseen thing in a cramped, narrow cave. Even some of the sets in Island of the Burning Doomed recall those in Island of Terror. But as usual, the template is far superior to the copy— and to quite a number of other contemporary sci-fi/horror/monster flicks, I might add. Maybe with all the reissuing going on these days, Island of Terror will finally get some of the attention it deserves. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
REVIEW: SAM ASHLIN
IMAGES: MARCUS BROOKS