Thursday, 28 April 2016
The Earth Dies Screaming (Terence Fisher, 1964)
(originally written in July 2009, this was the first of a number of reviews that were published in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems, a collection edited by Julian Upton and published by Headpress in 2012; it also featured, in an edited version, as a podcast for MovieMail in 2011)
Er … hello? Is there anybody out there? Hello … help! (A strangulated gurgling follows and then the sound of a head thumping on a desk.) Such was the continuity announcer’s introduction to Channel 4’s graveyard screening of The Earth Dies Screaming back in the day, which led us straight into a train ploughing through a level crossing, a car crash-banging into a brick wall and a plane dropping from the sky, followed by the inevitable plume of black smoke rising from behind trees. After the camera takes in bodies sprawled on pavements and on grass, it tilts upwards, above a parkland cedar, until we are left looking at the sky as the title comes looming in aslant. Yes, the Earth in general, and Surrey in particular, is dying, and – despite the overly dramatic promise of the title – it is doing it silently, with (as we learn later) the smell of mushrooms.
In fact these first few minutes are the most eeire and engaging of the film as – accompanied only by Elisabeth Lutyens’ soundtrack of dissonant strings and foreboding woodwind, occasionally underpinned by martial drums – Willard Parker’s test pilot, Jeff Nolan, drives his Land Rover into a village (Shere, near Guildford), lifts a radio from the shop (needs must), and with rifle in hand, installs himself in a hotel, where he tries the TV and the radio, only to receive nothing but a curious oscillating hum. Eight minutes into the film, the spell is finally broken by the first words, from Dennis Price’s decidedly untrustworthy Quinn Taggart, who has walked in unnoticed: Turn it off. If Jeff Nolan is a man to have around in a crisis – a solid, dependable American, unfazed by aliens and zombies (in fact, just the sort of man that you can imagine selling real-estate, which is exactly what Parker retired to do after making the film) – then Quinn Taggart is his opposite. He is accompanied by Peggy, a woman he has told to pose as his wife (and played by Willard Parker’s wife, Virginia Field). They are later joined by Otis and (wink, wink) Vi, both a little worse for wear after the company’s 25th anniversary bash, and, rolling into the village in a stolen Vauxhall, young punk Mel, with stripy tie and crotch-hugging white trousers, and his girlfriend, heavy with child. That’s all we need, a cheeky kid and a pregnant girl, says Quinn; They’re probably the most important people on earth right now, replies Nolan. They are survivors all – cocooned from the mysterious event by a test plane, an oxygen tent, a lab, and an air-raid shelter.
The theme is familiar: with the rest of the country apparently lifeless, an unlikely group assembles and does its best to survive, battling whatever it is that is threatening to take over – which in this case, are rudimentary remote-control zombie robots, nut-and-bolted together from the contents of various back rooms at Shepperton. Whatever is controlling these proto-cybermen has its designs on the humans too, wanting to turn them into ‘sightless, mindless slaves’, as Nolan has it. The group alternate between hotel and village drill hall as they stand guard and attempt to repel the slow-moving robots who, along with the now blob-eyed villagers, re-awakened into zombie life, threaten their existence.
Now here’s a curious scene. Lorna, the pregnant girl, rises in the middle of the night to get herself a glass of milk. Nolan watches her protectively from the shadows. A clarinet and strings play a pleasant interlude – until a cyber-zombie approaches from down an alleyway and turns to watch the oblivious girl through the window. Nolan watches it watching Lorna, the music builds to a crescendo – and then the girl turns the light off and walks out of the room, and the zombie-robot turns and teeters past Nolan, who wonders if he should clunk it over the head with his rifle, but doesn’t, and lets it walk off. No fuss, no mess. I rather admire a film that only just breaks the hour mark but which is so relaxed about how it spends its time. Maybe they could only afford to destroy the one costume, which happens when Nolan smashes into a robot in his Land Rover, leaving a smoking heap of circuitry and tin foil in the road.
Enthusiasts of ‘curious goings-on down English country lanes’ films will realise that The Earth Dies Screaming shares a few points of comparison with Wolf Rilla’s 1960 film Village of the Damned (adapted from John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos), in which another undefined event of extra-terrestrial origin occurs in a home counties setting and leaves a lasting effect. It also shares with this earlier film a minimum budget/maximum effectiveness aesthetic. In this regard, Village’s supreme moment comes with Peter Vaughan’s village bobby walking his bicycle into the infected area and simply falling over, out cold, to show its potency; The Earth Dies Screaming uses this technique up early on as a bowler-hatted city chap simply drops his briefcase and umbrella (though not his newspaper) and falls backwards onto a luggage cart on a suburban railway platform.
Lutyens’ music certainly lends distinction to the material, and Fisher’s direction is admirably spare and unfussy. And if that means that you know the closer a character gets to the camera, the more likely it is they will soon be receiving a nasty surprise, and that when a character says, it’s as quiet as a tomb here, they are sorely tempting fate, well that can be filed under ‘rewarded expectation’.
At the end, the survivors take off in a plane, hoping that their flight will atttract other survivors throughout the land. As I began this review with the words of continuity man Trevor Nichols, it seems only fair to give him the last words too: Nice to see the traffic moving steadily down that arterial road in the final shot, he said before closedown. Cheeky pup.