Terence Fisher and 1960s Sci-Fi – By Philip Smolen

By the middle of the 1960s, both sci-fi movies and the artists who defined them a decade earlier were in decline. The success of Hammer Horror and films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” had managed to switch audience allegiances away from the genre, so film producers no longer cared to invest money in a type of movie that ensured limited box office returns.

Jack Arnold, who directed some of the great Universal sci-fi films of the 1950s, had moved to TV, while Gordon Douglas (“Them” 1954) began directing routine detective films for Frank Sinatra. The great George Pal found it more difficult to find financing for his projects and even Eugene Lourié, who directed some of the best giant monster movies a decade earlier, was frustrated by his lack of directing opportunities and moved back to art direction and special effects.

Though down, sci-fi movies weren’t out. Great Britain released a large number of sci-fi films during the decade. But it’s interesting to note that three of these UK releases had an unusual name attached as director; someone who is not associated with sci-fi, but rather the success of Hammer Horror. It seems ironic that Terence Fisher, the man who rose to fame with his brilliant re-interpretations of the classic Universal horror films, would also direct three low-budget sci-fi movies during the 1960s.

Early Life:

Fisher was born in London in 1904 and was raised by his grandparents. At 16 he was shipped off to the merchant marines, and after a while, was promoted to a junior officer. After six years, Fisher left the maritime service and worked at a department store as the assistant display manager. There he fell in love with movies, and by 1933 had entered the industry. He started as a “clapper boy” and worked his way up to editor. After World War II, Fisher entered a training program for directors and was on his way. He began working for Hammer films in the early 1950s and even directed two of their very early sci-fi films, “Spaceways” (1953) and “Four Sided Triangle” (1953). But his career as a horror maestro was established in 1957 with the release of the Hammer blockbuster “The Curse of Frankenstein.”

Fisher’s career thrived for the next few years, but after the failure of Hammer’s 1962 remake of “The Phantom of the Opera”, his star was tarnished at the studio and he didn’t make another film there for two years. When his Hammer follow-up, “The Gorgon” (1964) also died at the box office, Fisher took on other assignments for low budget producers to continue his career. These were films that had resources even more impoverished than his economical Hammer films. So let’s take a look at Fisher’s three sci-fi films from the 1960s. Though he always claimed he had no affinity for the genre, Fisher bought his distinctive style to some very familiar sci-fi themes.

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1. THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (Lippert Pictures, UK – 20th Century Fox, US 1964)

Test pilot Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker) returns from a routine flight to find that the population in Great Britain has been destroyed by some unseen force. He drives throughout the countryside searching for some signs of life. Stopping at a small country inn, he retrieves a multiband radio to see if he can find any human signals. He is joined at the inn by other survivors including sinister Quinn Taggert (Dennis Price), his companion Peggy (Virginia Field), alcoholic Edgar (Hammer veteran Thorley Walters), his girlfriend Violet (Vanda Godsell) and young tough Mel (David Spenser) and his very pregnant wife Lorna (Anna Palk). The group is astonished to see small groups of robots walking around killing any remaining humans they encounter. They are also surprised to see that the robots are able to revive dead humans and turn them into eyeless zombie slaves. Jeff convinces the group to go to the nearest military base, look for supplies, and hunker down until they can plan an escape. But Taggert has his own greedy plans and they don’t include anyone but Peggy. Meanwhile, Jeff has noticed that the sound emanating from the robots and their zombie slaves are the same as those he has picked up on the radio. He has an idea that may stop the machines and allow the group to get away. But they find themselves trapped when Lorna needs to deliver her baby, and several robots attack.

“The Earth Dies Screaming” has a real eerie beginning with stock footage of a train wreck, a car accident, and a plane crash as humans are overcome by an alien gas attack (robot flatulence?). It’s also chilling watching Willard Parker drive around seeing nothing but dead corpses strewn about. The music score by Elisabeth Lutyens is also quite good and complements these unsettling scenes well. As in most of his films, Terence Fisher stresses the human response to a crisis as the rag tag group learns to work together. Fisher creates some very good suspense as the humans try to survive. Unfortunately, the film is almost sunk by the total ineptness of the special effects. The killer robots are amazingly bad and look nothing like machines, but rather like humanoid salt shakers. They are never terrifying and instead produce howls of laughter that threaten to undermine the film whenever they are onscreen. It’s also tough to believe that the world is under attack when you never see more than two robots at a time. What saves “The Earth Dies Screaming” is the humanistic vision Fisher brings to the project and the mature British cast who convey strength even though their roles are clichéd. Clocking in at a mere 62 minutes, “The Earth Dies Screaming” reminds you of the old 1954 Allied Artist’s movie “Target Earth” which also featured a robot attack from space. It improves on every aspect of that film with the exception of the alien threat. The shabbiness of that threat nearly ruins an otherwise solid “alien attack” movie.

Quotable Movie Line: “This must be some sort of shock attack. They paralyze all the bodily functions and then reactivate them; sightless and mindless slaves!”

2. ISLAND OF TERROR (Planet Films, UK – Universal Pictures, US 1966)

On a remote island off the coast of Ireland, cancer researcher Dr. Lawrence Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson) begins a new experiment to produce cancer-eating organisms. He succeeds, but the new life form (called “silicates”) turn out to devour more than cancer – they also devour human bones. As soon as a boneless dead body of a local resident turns up, Dr. Reginald Landers (Eddie Byrnes) takes the island’s only boat to the mainland for help. He arrives back via helicopter with bone specialists Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing), Dr. David West (Edward Judd) and Dr. West’s girlfriend of the moment Toni Merrill (Carole Gray). The copter is then forced to attend to another emergency, effectively stranding everyone on the island. The group then proceeds to Dr. Phillips house where they find the dead scientist and his crew. After reviewing the researcher’s notes at their hotel, they return to his house and discover two of the deadly silicates. Dr. Landers is killed and the others barely escape with their lives, when by chance, the creatures divide. It’s then a race against time as a means of destroying the monsters must be found before the island is overrun by the marrow munching menaces.

“Island of Terror” represents a real milestone because it’s probably one of the last true representatives of the1950s style of sci-fi filmmaking. And the great irony is that it was directed by Fisher, the man who began the genre’s demise by directing Hammer Horror. An even greater irony– Hammer head honcho James Carreras loaned both Fisher and star Peter Cushing to Planet Films for this production! Fisher really strives to create terror here. He treats the silicates like a classic movie monster. The climax of the film is unbearably tense as the remaining survivors barricade themselves in a small room against the final silicate onslaught. Here amidst all the action, Fisher focuses on the silent moral (and very human) dilemma between Cushing and Judd as they decide whether or not to give Gray a lethal dose of drug to spare her from the silicates. Fisher also has the benefit of working with the great Peter Cushing who positively crackles as Dr. Stanley. Edward Judd is fine as well, but Fisher’s efforts with the supporting cast (Eddie Byrne, Niall MacGuinnis and James Caffrey) really help elevate this production. While the special effects don’t bowl you over, they are decent for a 1960s film, and the silicates represent an unusual type of “science gone mad” monster. Overall, “Island of Terror” makes a great swansong for the 1950s style of sci-fi film.

Quotable Movie Line: “I’m not very keen on going down to that cellar again.”

3. ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMMED AKA NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT (Planet Films, UK 1967 – United Productions of America, US 1971)

A small island off the English coast has been subject to unusual high winter temperatures. The island’s pub is run by Jeff (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Jeff is also a writer and has come to the center of town to pick up his new secretary. Jeff is shocked when the new assistant turns out to be Angela (sexy Jane Merrow) a woman with whom he had a torrid love affair some time ago. Jeff is determined to send her back to the mainland, but Angela coyly works her way back into his life. As the temperatures on the island continue to skyrocket, several locals are incinerated by a blinding flash of light. Dr. Stone (Peter Cushing), the local physician, cannot explain the deaths. But a scientist named Hanson (Christopher Lee), who is staying at Jeff’s pub, informs the locals that he believes the heat wave is due to an invasion by protoplasmic aliens who are changing earth’s climate for themselves. Cut off from the mainland, the residents struggle to survive the blazing heat caused by the alien menace, which is intent on destroying everyone on the tiny island.

“Island of the Burning Dammed” is closest in spirit to some of Terence Fisher’s early romantic potboilers that he made as a young director. Much of its running time is taken up with the relationship between Jeff, Frankie, and Angela, who is full of self-loathing and determined to destroy Jeff’s marriage for her own enjoyment. It’s only when genre vets Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are onscreen does the sci-fi element of the film kick in. As with his previous sci-fi entries, Fisher uses the standard isolated location motif as a starting point and creates a genuine mood of apprehension. The terror the residents of the island feel is palpable as locals keep turning up burnt to a crisp without any explanation. He wisely keeps the alien creatures off-screen to concentrate on the human reactions to the threat. Fisher assembles a great cast for this low-budget production, including Hammer veterans Cushing, Lee, Allen, and Lawson. But it is Jane Merrow who steals the show as the coquettish Angela. Unfortunately, it’s anticlimactic when the alien blobs finally appear. To me, it seems like the effects department just used the silicates from “Island of Terror” without the tentacles, covered them with some muslin type of material, and then lit them from underneath. They really do look like “fried eggs,” which was star Christopher Lee’s main complaint. But while it compromises the film somewhat, these aliens are not nearly as disastrous as the robots in “The Earth Dies Screaming.” Not released in the US until 1971, “Island of the Burning Dammed” remains a gratifying low budget alien invasion flick.

Quotable Movie Line: “I wanted her. I wanted her body. Now you know. She was a slut and I wanted her.”

After “Island of the Burning Dammed” Terence Fisher successfully returned to Hammer to make three more horror movies including two of his best, 1968’s “The Devil Rides Out” and 1969’s “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.” But while many critics (and Fisher himself) dismiss his forays into sci-fi, I disagree with this assessment. He overcame severe budget compromises and still delivered three films that produced goose bumps and shocks for a lot of sci-fi fans. I first saw these as a youth, and all these years later, they still manage to bring a warm smile to my face.

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Selected References

Del Vecchio, Deborah and Johnson, Tom. Peter Cushing – The Gentle Man of Horror and His 91 Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1992.
Jensen, Paul M. The Men Who Made the Monsters. New York, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Miller, Mark A. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1995.
Smith, Gary A. Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956-1976. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 2000.
Weaver, Tom. A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde: Interviews with 62 Filmmakers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 2010.