Saturday, 21 April 2018

The Earth Dies Screaming

Cast: Willard Parker, Dennis Price, Virginia Field, Thorley Walters, and Vanda Godsell

director: Terence Fisher

62 minutes (PG) 1964
20th Century Fox 
DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Richard Bowden

After a series of unexplained disasters and deaths - planes and trains abruptly crashing, people collapsing for no reason, and so on - the English countryside is reduced to a few survivors. After the worst has passed, test pilot Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker) arrives at a seemingly deserted village...

The Earth Dies Screaming starts as something of a misnomer, in that budget limitations mean we only see the disaster’s main effects manifest in a very localised area of northern England. And as for the screaming, there’s no human sound heard at all until eight minutes into the story - that’s well over 10 percent of the running time. Like many of the small cycle of English invasion films made at this time - Unearthly Stranger (1963), The Night Caller (1964), Invasion (1966) - Fisher’s movie is small scale and un-ambitious for various reasons, almost domestic in its setting, frequently implying a catastrophe at a personal level just as much as a national one.

Such films are in contrast to those produced in America, which critics have typically interpreted in relation to the contemporary red scare and fear of communist take-over. In England, invasion threats by this time were often less grandiose and paranoid, relying more on alien intrusions into more realistic, even humdrum worlds, places where the ordinary is ever present. Like the cult movie Devil Girl From Mars (1954), substantial scenes of Fisher’s movie take place in the comforting atmosphere of a pub or nearby. 

In a disaster it seems, British folk naturally congregate round the local hostelry for comfort as well as safety - one thinks of the last refuge taken in Shaun Of The Dead. In Unearthly Stranger, the extra-terrestrial threat is discovered even more locally, being found within the relationship between husband and wife; events in Invasion principally take place at a local country hospital, and so on.

Director Terence Fisher is most known for the series of gothic horrors he helmed over at Hammer. Colourful, often erotically charged and gruesome, the Frankenstein and Dracula outings are what have occupied critical attention, then and now. Fisher’s SF work has been more readily dismissed; a genre apparently in which he had little interest. It began with Four Sided Triangle, and Spaceways (both 1953).

A decade later in his career, he made The Earth Dies Screaming, being the first of a trilogy for the appositely named Planet Productions company. The other two films were Night Of The Big Heat (1966), and Island Of Terror (1967). All three feature an alien invasion and a small group of people trying to fend off the intruders. Negative responses to this work perhaps stem from the fact that, often, it’s the people who are more interesting than the monsters and junk science on display and that the films lack the vibrancy of his horror work.

At the heart of The Earth Dies Screaming are three relationships: that between Quinn Taggart (a splendidly caddish Dennis Price), and Peggy (Virginia Field); the often drunk Otis (Thorley Walters), and his party friend Violet (Vanda Godsell), as well as the young couple Mel (David Spenser), with the pregnant Lorna (Anna Palk). Starting out independent of this group is Jeff Nolan, played by the film’s sole American actor.

Producer Robert Lippert had a successful formula of adding transatlantic appeal to his films by stocking them with token imported talent, and here Willard Parker fits the bill. Parker, who appeared, with little impact it must be said, in over 50 films during his career, plays Nolan, the man who takes charge of events, organises the survivors, and figures it out - right down to where the alien’s transmitter can be found.

In this regard he can be seen, in his mild way, as the ‘Quatermass’ figure of Fisher’s story: a technically competent individual who takes charge to protect British society from intrusion. While no pure scientist, Nolan still has enough know-how to quickly grasp what has happened, how the invasion can be thwarted and go on to take decisive action. In doing so, by the end of the film, he wins the right to a relationship of his own.

Critics such as Peter Hutchings, in his piece ‘We’re All Martians Now’ from British Science Fiction Cinema (Routledge, 1999), have identified such influential figures as typically being a “boffin-like protector of a society which seems incapable of protecting itself.” At the same time of course, through the novelty of his presence, Nolan is a reminder of British insularity. At the time many of these films appeared British society was still relatively isolated, but felt under pressure from new pressures and changes both international and local.

In The Earth Dies Screaming, only the cynical Taggart has a competing world-view that’s as strong as Nolan’s. For Taggart the new global conflict is over. Worse, “whoever did it has won... it’s every man for himself,” fatalistic sentiments in stark contrast to the famous spirit of the blitz, which would have been familiar to many of those watching. The punishment for his criminality and selfishness will be the loss of his tenuous relationship with Peggy and, ultimately his humanity, when he becomes part of the alien zombie army.

Most obviously, the big social change in Fisher’s film is obvious - a successful first strike against British society, together with silver-clad aliens walking the streets with their zombie work-force in support. Blank-eyed and as slow-moving as their masters, these zombies are among the most effective elements in the film. They must have been rather a novelty to contemporary audiences. I can’t, off-hand, think of an earlier representation of the creatures in British cinema before this (Hammer’s Plague Of The Zombies appeared two years later, but even that was set in the past). They provide one of the highlights of the film - a scene when Peggy is pursued, then trapped breathlessly in a bedroom closet, when Fisher makes use of a very dramatic close-up to add terror.

In contrast to the unsuccessful efforts of the un-dead to find a female, Nolan succeeds in gradually establishing a relationship and, one presumes, goes on to a successful romance. His success against the invader acts as a catalyst and, by the end of the film, he is entitled to re-integrate back in society. There’s a parallel to be found between the zombie’s painfully slow pursuit/ search and unnerving, soulless staring at the closet in which Peggy hides to a scene where Nolan had looked on, affectionately, as she pottered over small things in the pub’s kitchen. The difference between humanity and the alien, the film suggests, is that the former can bring value and sentiment to what it sees and so, once again, the British invasion variant gravitates naturally to the domestic.

The Earth Dies Screaming is further helped by a very effective score by Elizabeth Lutyens, as well as some high contrast, atmospheric cinematography by Arthur Lavis, especially effective when shooting on village location. These are elements that help to make it my favourite out of Fisher’s small group of SF movies, a feeling which even the overacting of Walters (who also popped up by way of support in some of the Hammer horrors) can’t dissipate. It is also blessed with a dramatic pre-title sequence - a world wrecked by sudden accident, recalling the night before Day Of The Triffids, as well as an eerie sense of a familiar landscape made empty, a horror-fantasy tradition which persists right down to such British films as 28 Days Later. Fisher’s film may be short, cheap, and with a disappointingly flat denouement, but its modest pleasures easily invade the mind.

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