The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)
I was familiar with the title of this movie long before I ever saw it. A regular fixture in the late night TV schedules of the early seventies, I was far too young to be allowed to stay up and watch it - but the title promised much and the synopses in the TV listings promised even more. According to them it told of the earth laid waste by alien robots, opposed only by a tiny band of survivors. Incredibly, it did all this - alien invasions, decimation of the human race, brave fight backs - in a running time of just over an hour. By the time I was old enough to watch it, The Earth Dies Screaming had vanished from the schedules, along with many of its low-budget brethren, their main crime being that they were in glorious black-and-white.
The film has a very variable reputation amongst horror and science fiction fans, with many focusing on its obviously very low budget and wonky alien robots. So, when I finally caught up with it, I was pleasantly surprised to find it a reasonably well-crafted and suspenseful film which makes the most of its limited resources. Another Robert Lippert-Jack Parsons coproduction, The Earth Dies Screaming benefits considerably from the presence of the great Terence Fisher in the director's chair. One of a trio of low budget science fiction films Fisher directed during his mid-sixties fall from favour at Hammer, The Earth Dies Screaming is often held up as 'proof' that the director, who had made his name directing Hammer's first cycle of Gothic horrors, was ill at ease with the science fiction genre. Which, I feel, is a somewhat unjust judgement upon the film. Whilst it is true that the subject matter of the film never allow Fisher's usual preoccupations with the sexuality of evil and ineffectiveness of reason without faith in the face of evil to take flight, he still manages to achieve a number of effective set-pieces, focusing on the horror, rather than the science fiction, elements of the scenario. Certainly, it is a far, far better film than his other two efforts in the genre (1966's Island of Terror and 1967's Night of the Big Heat, both made for Planet Films).
Arguably, Fisher's lack of interest in the science fiction aspects of the film are actually one its biggest strengths. His perfunctory use of them allows the film to move at a reasonable pace, unencumbered by long expository scenes full of the pseudo-science usually to be found in sixties science fiction movie. Indeed, we never even see the 'invasion' and subsequent wiping out of most of humanity is confined to a pre-titles montage of stock footage of trains, cars and planes crashing and a few shots of people dropping dead at a station. Fisher starts the film proper by throwing us straight into the action, with our hero driving through a lifeless British countryside, through villages populated only with dead bodies, as he tries to figure out what has happened (he was test flying an experimental high altitude aircraft at the time of the attack and landed to find these scenes of desolation). Undoubtedly, budgetary considerations were a motivating force behind this economical opening, but Fisher makes the most of it, building up our identification with the hero as he, like us, tries to figure out what is going on.
Inevitably, our protagonist runs into other survivors, including Dennis Price and Thorley Walters, and they hole up in a village pub. At which point the film seems as if it is about to settle into that staple of British low budget science fiction movies: the 'cosy disaster story' where everybody huddles in a pub and endlessly discusses the terrible things going on outside, whilst not actually doing anything. Fisher, however, uses this segment of the film to stage a number of highly effective suspense sequences, ranging from an unsuspecting young pregnant woman being watched through the window by an eerily motionless robot as she works in the kitchen, to the sudden and unexpected return to life of a character previously killed by one of the robots. (Not only do the alien machines have the touch of death, but they can also remotely revive their victims as eyeless zombies). In addition to the alien menace, the group also finds itself threatened by internal strife, with Dennis Price's characteristically suave and snide criminal cad intent upon double crossing his companions.
The film builds to a tense climax, with Fisher switching between two different groups of characters, both facing grave danger from the aliens, but unable to aid each other. Having figured out that the robots are controlled via radio transmissions from space, two of the survivors locate one of their transmitters and attempt to destroy it. Simultaneously, the rest of the group, supposedly safe in an abandoned military installation, find themselves menaced by the robots and a zombified Price. Fisher racks up the tension, switching between the two groups, one trying to evade the robots guarding the transmitter, the other apparently helpless to ward off the relentlessly advancing alien menace.
Fisher's disinterest in the science fiction elements results not only in a briskly moving film, but also gives the whole thing a pleasingly enigmatic quality. The aliens controlling the robots remain unseen and their motivation in poisoning the earth's population largely unexplained. Just as in real life, there is no neat wrap up which conveniently ties up loose ends and explains everything satisfactorily. The elements the survivors do work out - the radio control of the robots and the fact that the aliens had used an airborne poison to kill everyone (the survivors had all been in sealed environments with their own air supply at the time of the attack) - seem to be arrived at by the characters naturally and logically, without resort to laboured and awkward exposition. Fisher's direction is ably assisted by Elizabeth Lutyens' eerie and jagged musical score and Arthur Lavis' crisp monochrome photography. All-in-all, The Earth Dies Screaming is no classic of the genre but, thanks to Fisher's efforts, it does stand out as a superior B-picture and, at just over an hour long, it doesn't outstay its welcome.
Labels: Forgotten Films