Sunday, 29 April 2018


WHEN ONE THINKS OF PETER CUSHING'S  Science Fiction output, what usually springs to mind? Star Wars and the two Dr Who movies are the most obvious candidates. Aside from that the choices are somewhat limited. Horror Express (1973) and Biggles (1986) contain ostensibly science fiction elements (the monster being an alien in Express and the time travel plot in Biggles) but their feet are firmly rooted in other genres. Scream and Scream Again (1969) is another obvious candidate but sadly it has to be the film in which Cushing is the MOST wasted, barely appearing at all. 

THAT LEAVE JUST The Abominable Snowman (1957) and the films involved in this two-part feature; Island of Terror and Night of the Big Heat. This last pair are not only a sample of Cushing’s relatively small science-fiction output, their also two of famed Hammer Director, Terrence Fisher's four contributions to the genre (along with Four Sided Triangle (1953) and The Earth Dies Screaming (1964).

BOTH FILMS WERE MADE by the short-lived ‘Planet Films’ and share many of the same cast and crew. Both also belong to that curious, somewhat forgotten form of British sci-fi, pioneered by the likes of John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale. Namely, they feature small isolated intrinsically ‘British’ communities menaced by mysterious creatures. Night in particular sees much of its action take place in the local pub, a well-worn trend in British Science-Fiction films. However they’ll be more on that film next week, this time I’m tackling it’s predecessor- Island of Terror.

THE PLOT INVOLVES a cancer research establishment off the coast of Ireland where the locals are turning up dead. With the local Doctor having very little idea as to what is causing the mysterious deaths, enter Dr Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing), Dr David West (Edward Judd) and the wealthy jet-setter Toni Maerill (Carole Gray). The Scientists soon discover that creatures they dub ‘Silicates’ are loose on the island, created accidentally by the experiments. Bone sucking creatures, they multiply at an alarming rate and soon endanger the entirety of the Islands population…

OF COURSE THERE IS ONE MAJOR difference between the two films. Namely Cushing’s role. In Island of Terror, he’s an integral part of the film and one of the three main characters. Not only that but his character is given some genuinely interesting moments, for example a hero loosing his hand (or receiving any other sort of lasting damage) isn’t something we really see in a Cushing film. However, it defiantly works here and manages to ramp the tension up significantly, after all if one of our three leads can have his hand chopped off, why can’t one (or all of them) die? It’s an interesting tactic and Fisher doesn’t shy away from showing the whole thing. The effect might be a little cheesy, but the intent is there and it still works as a shocking moment. 

IN HEAT, CUSHING is given a substantially smaller role and essentially plays a victim- an interesting position to see him in at this point in his career. His character is friendly and affable, but that’s all. Cushing lays on the charm HARD and it certainly works when he reaches his demise, a scene which is easily the highlight of the film and one that is thick with tension throughout. However it’s clear which role is superior and it’s a shame the Planet Films team didn’t consider a direct follow up, re-using the character of Dr Stanley.

THE SILICATES THEMSELVES ARE . . . oddly effective. For the first portion of the film Fisher decides, wisely, to keep them off the screen. This builds the feeling of a menace that can be anywhere and strike at any time. Wonderfully, this isn’t just atmosphere for atmosphere’s sake and is actually used to provide genuine shocks (for example the aforementioned sequence involving Cushing's hand) when one appears out of nowhere. 

WHEN THEY ARE EVENTUALLY REVEALED When they are eventually revealed, the design is one that despite it’s cheapness, works wonderfully to compliment the films visual style and has a unique charm about it. One has to give the team credit as well for avoiding the tired clichรฉ of a man in a suit and attempting something that’s a little more unusual, resulting in a striking (if admittedly not always convincing) design. 

THE CREATURE'S SLOWNESS doesn’t make them any less threatening and indeed helps in the slow menace that makes the film so effective. One rather spectacular sequence with the creatures features one on a glass skylight, as it smashes through and drops onto a hapless victim below.

ONE TRULY WONDERFUL SEQUENCE, occurs in the films climax (spoilers ahead be warned) in which, trapped with the creatures advancing, Edward Judd prepares to shoot Toni in order to save her from death by silicate. It’s a surprisingly dark moment for a film of this nature, all the more so given the nature of her character and how she came to be on the island. For a character that’s so innocent and outgoing, this fate seems incredibly troubling.


INDEED ONE OF the enduring appeals of Island of Terror, is that what starts as an enjoyable 60’s sci-fi adventure- becomes progressively darker. The opening sequences in which we meet our characters, then see them journey to the island are far lighter in the tone, than the latter half of the film. Fisher allows his audience to let their guard down and then strikes when their at their most vulnerable.

ISLAND OF TERROR, really is something of a gem in Cushing’s output and for my money stands as his best Sci-Fi feature alongside The Abominable Snowman. This film may not have the intelligence of that earlier classic, but it has genuinely shocking moments and an atmosphere that oozes dread and menace. The question is, does Night of the Big Heat match it’s predecessor?

I’ll be finding out next week, so PLEASE JOIN US!
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