One of a pair of horror films produced at Merton Studios by Goldstar Productions in 1966, It!, like its companion piece, The Frozen Dead, has ambitions which far outstrip its resources. That said, the execution of this tale of the Golem is far better realised than the army of frozen Nazis in The Frozen Dead. The biggest difference lies in the choice of name actor for the lead role. Whilst Dana Andrews gave a generally undistinguished and unmemorable performance as Nazi mad scientist Dr Norberg in The Frozen Dead, Roddy McDowell is manically memorable in the lead role of It!, easily outshining the bland supporting cast. McDowell, an actor nowadays probably best remembered for playing a chimp in most of the original Planet of the Apes movies, appeared in many movies which were, to be frank, beneath his talents. Quite why he agreed to appear in a low-budget monster movies is a mystery. Perhaps the pay was good, or maybe it wss because the film offered him the rare opportunity of a starring role. Originally a child star, as an adult McDowell tended to find himself confined to character and supporting roles - probably because he wasn't any casting director's idea of what a romantic leading man should look like.
Even in It! he doesn't quite get to play a conventional lead: his character Pym, assistant curator of a London museum, is, from the outset, clearly a psychopath who talks to his mother's mummified body (which he keeps in his flat), steals from his employers and is prepared to use murder to remove any obstacles to his twin ambitions of becoming curator and bedding his predecessor's daughter, (played by Jill Haworth). Despite all of this, thanks to McDowell's performance, Pym is still the most interesting and likeable character in the film - by the end I was still rooting for him, in spite of the lengthy list of atrocities he had been responsible for. But to focus on the film itself, the instrument of Pym's revenge against his perceived enemies is a weird-looking statue which he discovers to be the legendary Golem: an artificial man made of clay which can be animated and controlled via a scroll hidden in its foot.
Compared to The Frozen Dead, the production values on It! seem much higher. Sure, it's still quite obviously a low budget movie, but, unlike The Frozen Dead, the sets don't look tatty and there's a good use of various London locations, including the Imperial War Museum, whose exterior stands in for that of Pym's museum. The Golem itself is interestingly designed - strikingly different from the traditional cinematic image of the Golem established by Paul Muni in the silent era, looking far less human. Up to a point, it is also a reasonably creepy and convincing movie monster, particularly in its early appearance, when it is confined to the museum and its movements limited. However, once Pym starts taking it outside, driving it around in a van, it its menace is dissipated. In the harsh light of day, it is too obviously just a man (Alan Sellars, to be precise) in a suit. It is also in these later sequences, as Pym moves beyond simply using the Golem to dispatch rivals within the confines of the museum, that the film rapidly starts to show the limits of its resources. The Golem's destruction of Hammersmith Bridge (an attempt by Pym to impress Haworth), for instance, is somewhat ludicrously depicted via a few shots of the monster straining against some girders - the subsequent destruction is, for budgetary reasons, merely described to the audience.
From that point on, the film rapidly runs out of steam, with a completely insane Pym using the Golem to kidnap Haworth and holing up in a castle with the living statue and the girl. At this point the low budget finally scuppers the picture, with the Golem single-handedly holding off the entire British army (which seems to consist of half a dozen men) before the authorites decide to deploy a tactical nuclear device (on the mainland of the UK) against it. The film culminates with Pym nuked, the Golem striding, unscathed, into the sea and Haworth rescued by bland 'hero' Paul Maxwell (serial voice-provider for numerous Gerry Anderson puppets). Many questions - most notably that of the reason for Pym's mother's demise - are left unanswered. But, as I noted at the start, what puts It! head and shoulders above other low-budget independent British horror films of its era, like The Vulture, The Frozen Dead or The Projected Man, for instance, is Roddy McDowell's performance. Despite the script making it clear that he is unhinged from the start, thereby depriving him the chance of building any real ambiguity into the character, McDowell still manages to bring a surprising degree of complexity to Pym's character, so that his mid-film attempts to destroy the Golem and stop himself from committing any further crimes hold real conviction and don't seem like an out-of-character plot contrivance.
All-in-all, It! is a surprisingly entertaining and effective horror thriller. I must admit that, having already seen The Frozen Dead, I didn't have high expectations of its companion piece. But I was pleasantly surprised. It's no masterpiece, but McDowell's performance alone makes it a worthwhile ninety minutes or so.
Labels: Forgotten Films