Sunday, 19 July 2020

The Earth Dies Screaming

Signal And I

The Earth Dies Screaming
UK 1964 Directed by Terence Fisher
Signal One/20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B

The Earth Dies Screaming is a film I accidentally discovered not so long ago... maybe only 15 years ago at most... so I am, admittedly, a latecomer to the party but I remember how overjoyed I was when I first saw it. It’s absolutely brilliant but it’s also a very short film, clocking in at literally just a few minutes over an hour. Which is fine if it’s part of a double bill DVD like my first copy of this, on the old US Midnite Movies label but, honestly, I would be loathe to pay full whack for a Blu Ray of the thing and so, when a sparkly new restoration was released a couple of years ago... I didn’t. Then comes HMV to the rescue with one of their Covid 19 induced, almost daily ‘special offer’ sales and this one was in their two for £12 sale so, lucky I waited on it as I got to pay a price more suited to the running time. Also, watching this under corona virus lock down is just right for this film.

And it’s a real humdinger of a movie, right from the opening hook of a pre-credits sequence. The film is shot in a nice, crisp black and white 1.66:1 aspect ratio and it’s directed by Hammer alumni Terence Fisher. It starts off with, for my money, a most spectacular series of shots depicting an out of control steam train derailing. Now, the guy on the commentary track (which I also listened to but... well, I’ll get to that later) says that this opening shot is a miniature and I’ve no reason to doubt him but, honestly, it’s easily the best miniature I’ve seen, if it is. The grass blown in the wind and the steam rising from the funnel as the train goes down and everything is in exactly the right proportion to the model... all I can say is I could have sworn they did it for real. It’s that good.

This is followed by a shot of a car crashing into a brick wall, various people just dropping dead in the street and a plane falling out of the sky. I remember the first time I saw this I thought... wow, it’s just like the opening of Village Of The Damned. That film had, of course, been released into cinemas four years earlier and, as I’m sure you’ll remember if you’ve seen it, it starts off with a whole village full of people just passing out and staying unconscious for a day or so. Well, thanks to the guy on the commentary track here, I now know that the train shot is pilfered footage as, indeed, is the majority of the pre-credits sequence and it turns out that most of the footage used here consists of alternate takes at different angles from the exact same sequences in Village Of The Damned. So there you go... I learned something.

After the title and credits roll, we get my one big problem with the film... sure, we’ve just seen the majority of the planet fall dead but... not a one of them were screaming. They just passed out and died. So why the film is called The Earth Dies Screaming is anyone’s guess. No screaming here.

We then go to the little village square in which the majority of the film takes place (in an interior which is said to be a copy, which matches perfectly, the inside of the actual village inn used for the exteriors) and the American star, Willard Parker turns up. Yes, this is one of those curious 50s/60s British sci-fi/horror movies which used to import a somewhat lesser known or somewhat washed up US actor in the hopes that it will attract audiences overseas. So the first two Quatermass adaptations had Brian Donlevy, X-The Unknown had Dean Jagger, The Trollenberg Terror (aka The Crawling Eye) had Forrest Tucker and... The Earth Dies Screaming had Willard Parker.

Here he’s joined by an absolutely wonderful cast of six other actors, comprising Parker’s real life wife Virginia Field (who is, more or less, the implied romantic interest for Parker here), Dennis Price (playing the kind of ‘human villain’ role he was known for), Thorley Walters, Vanda Godsell, David Spenser and Anna Palk. These are all people who accidentally come together and surmise they have survived what they believe to be ‘an attack’ by not being in a place where they were able to breathe the same atmosphere as everyone else at the time... Parker as test pilot up in an altitude not affected, Field in an oxygen tent etc. They also have the standard dramatic plot roles to fulfil... for example Godsell playing the first post-earth dying victim, Walters the alcoholic, Spenser the sassy youth and Palk his heavily pregnant girlfriend etc. You just know that the birth is going to come on at just the wrong time, right?

Now the film is excellent and, after the introduction of roving space robots (who apparently elicit a lot of laughs from youngsters but, frankly, I’ve always been terrified of them) and also the resurrected zombie bodies of people (shades of The Trollenberg Terror), their white eyes staring as they attempt to visit death upon you... it's all just hugely suspenseful. At just over an hour it never outstays its welcome but, honestly, I could easily watch two or three hours of this stuff. I remember the first time I saw the scene where most everyone is asleep in the inn and the pregnant Palk is fixing herself some milk halfway through the night, blissfully unaware of the robot monster observing her from the other side of the kitchen windows. I was on the edge of my seat, as I was for most of the movie. This is a really nice yarn and, in some ways, foreshadows a little the kind of slow moving zombie films which were popularised by George A. Romero just a few years later.

Part of that is due to Fisher’s direction and shot design, part of that is due to the cast who make a nice ensemble and do a good, efficient job of allowing their character stereotypes to come to life with broad strokes... and it’s also helped by Elisabeth Lutyen’s (daughter of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens) rather wonderful score of ‘weird suspense’ which I would love to hear on CD some day. Alas, the majority of this avant-garde composer’s film work is unreleased and mostly it’s her more famous concert hall work which has been let out into the wild. It’s a nice score though, delicately spotted and certainly adds to the natural tension of the movie.

One of the things I love is the fact that, apart from being able to identify that the robots and zombie humans are being controlled by radio signals boosted by key radio towers on Earth (to allow for a bit of a deus ex machina end game which knocks the robots in the surrounding area out), we are given no explanation of the why or who this mysterious alien presence is. It’s very much like one of those many zombie films where the reason for the outbreak is unknown and never explained enough to get in the way of the drama of the situation. I can’t help but feel that this film has been a little influential on certain directors over the years.

This Blu Ray is nicely put together and has a lovely transfer. Extras include a short, not that great, documentary account about the experiences of three ‘behind the scenes’ staff working with the producer and a commentary track which, although it gave me a little information, I felt was a little vulgar and maybe just a little inaccurate in places too. It also felt a bit patronising at times but, maybe I’m a little sensitive... he did pick up, as I do believe myself, that these robot monsters may well have been the inspiration for the Cybermen in Doctor Who, who made their debut on the show just two years after the release of this film. It’s probably one of my least favourite commentary tracks for films of this sort but I’m glad it’s there because, how else would I have known about the alternative footage from Village Of The Damned making its way into the picture? So, yeah, for the princely sum of £6 I’m really not complaining because this is a film which has a lot of rewatch legs (this must be maybe the fourth time I’ve watched it) and I know this Blu Ray should get a lot of play in the upcoming years too.

And that’s me done with the somewhat contradictory titled The Earth Dies Screaming. If you’ve never seen this and you like nicely done, mid-60s sci-fi and horror then you really do owe it yourself to set that to rights immediately. It’s a fantastic movie.

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