Friday, August 07, 2015

The Terrornauts (1967)

One of a pair of low budget movies based on pulp science fiction novels made by Amicus in the late sixties, (the other being They Came From Beyond Space, based on Joseph Millard's novel Why Do The Gods Hate Kansas?), The Terrornauts is based on Murray Leinster's The Wailing Asteroid, as adapted by British New Wave science fiction author John Brunner.  For a film running barely more than an hour, it packs in a lot of incident and ideas.  Unfortunately, the miniscule budget means that they poorly realised and never fully explored.  The whole thing feels as if it would have been better served as a four part Dr Who serial with Patrick Troughton, (it would probably have had a bigger budget).  The plot involves a financially-strapped scientific research project - utilising the down time of radio telescope - which is searching for radio signals of alien origin.  On the verge of losing their funding due to a lack of results, they suddenly detect a signal from somewhere in the asteroid belt.  Their entire lab is subsequently abducted by a flying saucer which whisks them off to the source of the signals: the 'Wailing Asteroid', which turns out to be a fully automated base constructed by a now extinct race of technologically advanced aliens.

All of which sounds quite exciting - and it would be if the special effects, even by the standards of the time, weren't so rickety.  The miniatures work, for example, falls well below the standard of the contemporary Gerry Anderson TV series like Thunderbirds, whilst the robot custodian of the asteroid base is far less convincing than a Dalek.  These budgetary limitations severely hamper subsequent plot developments, which see the occupants of the lab subjected to a series of tests in order to measure their intelligence - these seem overly simple, if not perfunctory due to the lack of resources available to the film makers.  Advanced alien technology such as a device to enable knowledge to be directly transmitted into the brain is realised in the form of a rubber bathing cap with wires attached, whilst a Star Trek-style matter transporter comes over as a poor conjuring trick, complete with flashes and smoke.  Eventually realising that they have been brought to the base in order to use its weapons systems to defend the Solar system from a race of alien marauders who lay waste to star systems (including those of the asteroid's builders), two of the party are given a glimpse of what lies in store for the earth if they don't succeed via the aforementioned matter transporter.  They find themselves transported to a bleak and devastated planet whose inhabitants (green skinned aliens wearing what look like bath mats on their heads) have been reduced to savagery as a result of alien attacks.

They get back to the space station just in time to see the arrival of the alien fleet.  The battle between the station and the fleet of alien ships is where the film finally overreaches itself completely, with blazing plastic rocket ships flying about the screen.  All of which makes the film sound like a complete loss.  However, The Terrornauts has considerable charm.  One can only assume that the film was originally made with a younger audience in mind - it really wouldn't have looked out of place in ITV's children's TV schedules of the era - with its clunky-but-quite-cute robot, 'Boys Own Adventure' action and comic relief characters including a tea lady and a prim accountant.  Indeed, it is the eccentric casting which gives it much of its charm: where else could you hope to find Charles Hawtry (as the accountant) and Patricia Hayes (as the tea lady), battling aliens in space?  Their comic turns sit rather awkwardly with leading man Simon Oates' (later to star in the BBC's Doomwatch TV series) straight (and rather stiff) performance.  Best of all, cast wise, it co stars Stanley Meadows, a face recognisable to all lovers of sixties British movies and TV series - for me he's always Inspector Keightly in The Ipcress File - in one of his biggest film roles.  If not exactly a classic, The Terrornauts is at least entertaining, packing a lot into its running time - and, at just over an hour (the version I saw, at least - it apparently had an original running time of seventy five minutes), it never outstays its welcome.



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