Monday, 18 January 2010

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Country: UK

For whatever the reason (probably the critical and commercial failure of The Phantom of the Opera (1962)) director Terence Fisher found himself out of favour with the leadership at Hammer. Between The Gorgon (1964) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) he made just a single film - this ultra low budget black and white independent production for Lippert Films. The brilliantly titled The Earth Dies Screaming was never going to live up to its billing, and it is further hampered by an extremely thin (but still padded) screenplay by Harry Spalding (the scribe behind Witchcraft (1964) and The Curse of the Fly (1965)). Spalding’s slipshod approach is regularly in evidence as is Fishers somewhat stately and tedious preponderance for long static set ups. Fisher was perhaps the wrong choice for this film, his enthusiasm for science-fiction was virtually non-existent, and this can be further seen in his two other listless entries in the genre Island of Terror (1967) and Night of the Big Heat (1967). These films are interesting from an historical point of view, but only rarely do they achieve any kind of inspiration or vigour.

The monochrome cinematography at least offers audiences a suitably atmospheric visual style, and one quite unusual for the genre at the time. But this uniqueness is soon quelled by the opening few minutes of the film which copies that other great black and white British sci-fi gem Village of the Damned (1962). As people suddenly collapse for an unknown reason (it’s actually an alien gas) Fisher’s skill as an editor is very noticeable. This montage is handled deftly and is easily the best sequence in the film, unfortunately it all goes downhill as soon as the principals are introduced. The desolate village setting (most of the film was shot in Surrey) maintains a sense of eerie menace throughout, but Spalding’s screenplay seems more concerned with long talky scenes inside a village pub. Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker - the token American lead) a US test pilot becomes our nominal hero, though he is totally lacking in charisma or charm. He holes up in the pub with Peggy (Virginia Field), Edgar Otis (Thorley Walters) and Taggart (Dennis Price - the only character with a bit of edge) and a couple of pointless and boring token young romantics….and all they do is talk! That is until some rather unsophisticated looking robots show up and start stalking the quiet village lanes. These alien servants are laughable, but more convincing are the re-animated corpses of those who have been killed by the gas. With their white staring eyes, these zombies create some decent moments of suspense and fear.

Once our lazy drink obsessed characters get out of the pub the film moves along a bit, but their actions still lack urgency. The film only runs for a mere 62 minutes, but it feels like twice that. The screenplay fails to explain where these robots have come from and what their motivations are. It fails to show the alien masters who control them, they remain an unanswered enigma. The plot is foiled simply by the destruction of a rickety old radio mast. We are presumably asked to believe that this village is a microcosm for the whole of England or perhaps the world, but this is an invasion plan that is far too leisurely to succeed. I didn’t think it was possible to pad out a film that only runs for 62 minutes but between them Spalding and Fisher succeed in doing so. There is the basis here for a strong and atmospheric science-fiction film but all concerned drop the ball and fail to deliver the goods. A film with the title The Earth Dies Screaming deserves a lot better.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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