The Bad Movie Report

Own It!

You have to respect - well, perhaps not respect, but certainly admire - a movie like Island of Terror, that takes pains to set up a Simple Movie Fact in its opening minutes; that point being: these people are screwed.

This point is gotten across by a few expository sentences, as a supply boat unloads its cargo at the dock of a small island off the cost of Ireland. The island's Head Man complains about the boat only coming once a week, "And you'd think they'd at least install our phones!" "They promised to do that this year." "Aye, and they said the same thing last year!" So. Small, idyllic island. Very isolated. Constable Harris (Sam Kydd) has nothing to do, it's so peaceful, and Dr. Landers (Eddie Byrne) the local sawbones, is in the same predicament: "You islanders are too hardy!"

Then there's that other fella, Dr. Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson). The one who set up a fancy laboratory at the Old Mansion. He and one of his assistants is also taking possession of a shipment from the boat. The Islanders talk about the scientist's stand-offishness, but Landers reveals that Phillips is one of the world's top research men, the type that will go to any lengths to avoid interruption of their work. Leading the assembled men to voice the Irish version of "A-yuh, a-yuh," and go their separate ways.

At the Mansion, though, things are coming to a head, thanks to the new shipment. Phillips decides to continue with his new line of experimentation, despite the fact that four other labs are performing the same research, more or less in sync with him. "They'll understand," Phillips declares, and a machine is set in motion, leading to a flash of red, a brief glimpse of dead bodies where the scientists were standing, and a hyperbolic title sequence.

Like I said, these people are screwed.

How screwed are they? Well, let's join Ian Bellows (Liam Gaffney), or, as I like to refer to him, The Unlucky Bastard, out for a walk in the fog. We'll be charitable and, given the rural setting, assume that Bellows is engaged in walking his land for some farming/drover type activity. None of which is going to do him any good, since he hears an odd, electronic sound issuing from a nearby cave, and goes to investigate - you just know that this is a mistake, but this setup - and Bellows' vanishing into the darkness only to have his screams and monstrous sucking sounds issue from that same darkness - is classic nightmare-producing stuff.

Left to right:  Screwed and Screwed.At the behest of Bellows' wife, Harris goes out searching for the man, and spots his body lying just inside the cave (the Constable goes directly to the area Bellows met his fate - I guess he really is qualified for his job!). Disturbed by what he has found, Harris rousts Landers and brings him to the cave, where the doctor confirms what the unbelieving Constable has found: there appear to be absolutely no bones in Bellows' body, nor any wounds. In fact, since there is no face - "Just a mush, with his eyes a-settin' in it," it requires surgical scars to identify the body.

Landers, realizing he's way out of his league, swears Harris to silence and prepares to take the island's Emergency Launch ("Our only contact with the mainland?") to consult with Brian Stanley, "one of the world's foremost pathologists" in London. Landers also tells Harris to prepare a signal fire, since they might be flying back. Let's see, an island of people to choose from, and there's no one they can trust to go with Landers, to bring back "Our only contact with the mainland" should they charter a plane for the return trip? Um-hm. Screwed.

Not about to be screwed (sorry, I couldn't resist).Brian Stanley turns out to be none other than Peter Cushing (Yay!), who avers that he has never heard of a disease that dissolves bone. When he and Landers strike out at the University's medical library, they visit David West (Edward Judd), an expert on bones and bone disorders. West is in his swinging bachelor osteopath pad with hot mid-60s vixen Toni Merrill (Carole Gray), who is currently capering about in West's shirt and nothing else (due to West's spilling wine on her dress, we are told), while they exchange sexually charged James Bond witticisms*.

Interrupted mid-kiss by the arrival of Stanley and Landers, West is at first skeptical, then intrigued by the problem. Toni offers the use of Daddy's helicopter (like all hot mid-60s vixens, she is a rich jet-setter), but only if she can come along. The clock, she's a-ticking, so the men agree to her demands - but then, when they discover that Daddy needs the helicopter, and they'll be marooned on the island for a couple of days, it's too late to make other arrangements.

I haven't used the word in a couple of paragraphs, so here it is again: screwed.

"And how about this?  Does it hurt when I do this?"Once they have returned to the island, West and Stanley perform a more thorough autopsy on the corpse; Stanley discovers a series of perforations throughout the dead man's skin - though whether something went in or went out through the holes is open to speculation. Citing the need for more sophisticated laboratory facilities, the three doctors motor out to Phillips' mansion. But not before we find out that the island's sole power generator is experiencing technical difficulties, and the electricity is in constant danger of winking out (the adjective you are looking for to describe their situation starts with an s and ends with a d)

After repeated knocks fail to rouse anyone within, Stanley decides to do a bit of breaking-and-entering (well, there's no breaking involved, just an unlocked ground-floor window. Cushing is too classy for anything common like breaking a window). Inside the mansion, he literally stumbles upon another boneless corpse. In the basement, the men discover an isotope storage facility ("He's got as much equipment as I have at the University!") and Phillips' lab - and more bodies devoid of bone.

West deduces that whatever it is started in that laboratory, and as Phillips and his crew had no contact with the villagers, "it" is probably not a contagious disease, as they had thought. The men carry off as much of Phillips' notes as they can carry, and settle down for some serious research of their own.

Hey!  It's the Green Slime!Meantime, a drover has come calling on Constable Harris with news of the discovery of a boneless horse on his land. Harris swears the man to secrecy, and acting on a note from Landers, bikes out to the Phillips Mansion to inform the doctors, only to find that he has missed them. And to find those boneless corpses. And to find that one lab the doctors didn't go into - the one marked "Test Animals". The one with the weird electronic sounds. The one with the gray, snakelike thing that wraps around Harris' neck. The one that eliminates the need for his pension fund.

When Landers returns to the Inn where Stanley and West are poring over Phillips' notes, they are joined by Toni, fresh from her night's sleep (ah, the indolent rich!) when they return to the mansion in search of Harris. They find Harris' corpse, and also what sucked out all his bones...

Ah, the monsters. We love our monsters, don't we? As far as filmic beasties go, these are pretty good in concept - a squat, turtle like body that seems to slide along the ground like a snail, with a lone tentacle extending from the body. They are obviously not men in suits.

Landers attacks one with an axe, to no noticeable effect - their hide seems incredibly tough. Of course, in order to use a close-quarters weapon like an axe, one has to get into - well, close quarters. Tentacle range. The tentacle wraps around Landers' ankle, and it's time for the local doctor to make a less-than-graceful, screaming exit from the picture.

This year's crop of geoducts are a little off...Things look bad for our mainland heroes, until the monsters stop in their tracks, splitting like ripe melons in the sun. Yep, they reproduce by fission (how long has it been since I used the word screwed?). The good thing is that they're immobile for a time after splitting; the bad news is that there is now no telling how many of the damned things are slithering around the island.

Indeed, it is the eruption of boneless carcasses that cause the island's Boss Campbell (Niall MacGinnis) and storekeeper Argyle (James Caffrey) to track down the city folk and try to get some answers. What they get isn't promising, though Stanley and West convince them to gather all the villagers at "The Meeting Place" and recruit a posse while the two scientists finish going through the notes. Toni, incidentally, is upstairs, under sedation.

At the gathering, West and Stanley outline the plot to the assembled islanders: Phillips had attempted to create living cells to better understand the process of cancer. Failing when he used carbon as a basis, he succeeded rather too well when he used silicon. The result was the bone-eating beasties, dubbed the "Silicates". West estimates that if the Silicates continue fissioning every six hours, there will be several hundred by midnight. He orders the villagers to gather supplies and prepare for a long siege in the building.

The two scientists join Campbell's posse at the leading edge of the silicate advance, and try all manner of destructive devices on the devilish things, all to no avail. Shotguns, Molotov cocktails, dynamite, nothing seems to phase them. One of the villagers takes two petrol bombs closer to the slow-moving stampede, trying to score a direct hit; since we've never seen him before, chances are we will be filled with an inexplicable longing for toast. Sure enough, this unfortunate soul makes the bizarre discovery that the Silicates can climb trees, as one drops on him from above. Slurp, slurp, eeyah.

However, one of the scouts bears heartening news - one of the Silicates has been found dead nearby, next to the half-boneless corpse of Phillips' dog. From the scientist's notes, they know that the dog had accidentally received an overdose of radiation. Sure enough, they have found what seems to be the silicate's sole weakness.

West hatches a desperate scheme: the remaining cattle is to be sequestered near the Meeting Place, as far from the silicate advance as possible. He and Stanley will journey back to Phillips' lab and gather as much Strontium-90 ... which settles in bone matter ... as possible, contaminate the cattle, and hopefully poison the entire population of monsters.

"Mr. Cushing?  It's time to shoot The Blood Beast Terror.  Mr. Cushing?"So West and Stanley return to Silicate Central and load up with the isotope. Stanley announces that he'll stow the material in the car while West.... I don't know, tidies up or something (Hey! Is that toast I smell?). Sure enough, though the rest of the Silicates have journeyed inland in search of food, one has stuck around the mansion, probably in hopes of running into Cushing (hmm... a silicate stalker?). Hearing his friend's screams, West runs outside, and having only an axe - which we already know to be quite useless against the beasties - instead severs Stanley's hand at the wrist in order to save him.

After bandaging Stanley and filling him with morphine, West proceeds to inject the cattle, almost running out of Strontium-90; he's concerned because he had to cut the dosage in half for the last few cows. Then the Silicates come, and there seems to be more cause for concern: with the moving of everything with edible bones to the center of the island, the Silicates are off their feed. Whereas West had hoped they would divide before slurping the cattle, they do it afterwards - which means the effect of the isotope will be similarly halved.

Which means it's time for the protracted siege that West had warned about. Trouble is, no one in the cast has a lick of sense and the Silicates start smashing in through unbarricaded windows - and a skylight! - forcing a messy retreat to the clinic in the back of the building while the wails of those trapped in the outer room with the monsters echo like the halls of Hell. Their tentacles waving, the Silicates slowly force their way into the clinic, and West contemplates overdosing the panicking Toni with morphine before the monsters can get her - but in the nick of time, the isotopes work, and Man wins again, though admittedly with something like a 75% attrition rate. Then there's all those boneless cows - man! what a barbecue! "It's a good thing this happened on an island, " muses West. "If it had happened anywhere else, I don't think we could have destroyed them."

Cut to one of those laboratories engaged in parallel research - an Asian scientist, curious about the electronic sounds coming from a room, enters - only to have his terrified screams cut off by the sucking sounds... The end?

Incidentally, I don't think that the fact that this laboratory was either somewhere in either Hong Kong or Japan - technically, both islands - should dilute our terror at the end of the movie. No, certainly not.

The aftermath of one of those wild Silicate partiesWhat I wanna know is: why don't they make monster movies anymore?

Oh, I know, you can say they do, look, there's Deep Rising and there's Pitch Black. Oh, nice tries, I would have to say back, but they lack something. (Okay, okay. I still haven't seen Pitch Black, so I can't really pass judgment on it. But Deep Rising? Did they just photocopy the script of Aliens or what? Though I must say, Treat Williams makes an intriguing Sigourney Weaver...)

Traditionalist that I am, I insist on my monster movies having a certain number of ingredients:

  • At least one two-fisted scientist
  • A horde of seemingly indestructible creatures capable of killing you in some dreadful fashion
  • An isolated community of cannon fodder
  • A thoroughly useless, screaming female

Admittedly, I can do without the last one. Were I not already happily married, I would propose to Eleanor Ripley in a second. But all my favorite monster movies have the required Useless Female, as they were almost all without exception made in the 50s and 60s - also the heyday of the Two-fisted Scientist. It was never fulfilling to play The Chick in these movies; they were there to be protected and to scream (cueing us in the audience that it was time to scream, too). Toni is a particularly annoying example of the archetype; after Landers' death at the -um- hands of the Silicates, she has to be bodily forced to run past the somnolent creatures to safety. But the protection has its points, too - her opposite number in the village, the Designated Coward™ who keeps whining that they're all going to die until Campbell threatens to throw him outside with the Silicates - is naturally the first one to back up in fear against those unfortunately unbarricaded windows, and receives the attention of not one but three hungry monsters. So gender can have its privileges, after all.

As Toni was left in charge of "organizing the supplies" and such while the menfolk are out trying to blow up monsters, it would be far too easy to blame her for the unfortified hall that turns into a kill floor at the end; but realistically, Night of the Living Dead was two years away, and even if the island possessed a cinema, no one could have known that this was the proper way to approach a monster siege situation. And truly - though one of the things I appreciate about this movie is the fact that no one acts like an idiot, this facet of the story vanishes about twenty minutes before the end, starting with Stanley's suddenly decision to go out to the car on his own with the Strontium-90. After that, Mortimer Snerd could have been in charge of hardening the fortification. In fact, the results might have been better. We already know that the Silicates can climb trees - nobody took into account the building has a skylight? This is Darwinism in action.

In truth, like many genre films, a lot of Island of Terror doesn't hold up well under close inspection. The fuzzy science behind Insert safe sex joke here.  get it?  Insert???  Aaaaah, never mind.the creation of the Silicates, why they all split at the same time, where Phillips got the money for his outlandishly expensive operation in a mansion on a secluded island; the yo-yo effect of the plot, as our heroes return to Silicate Central over and over again (cost effective plotting, that); Several sequences that seem padded beyond all belief, especially the boarding and take-off of the helicopter and the donning of the radiation suits (the fact that the "radiation suits" resemble nothing more than body-length condoms does not help matters)...but none of this seems to matter while the film unspools, thanks to stalwart Hammer director Terrence Fisher and a boatload of capable and serious English actors, not the least of which is Peter Cushing, who once even made the idea of a humanoid moth seem plausible. Here, Cushing is relegated to a supporting role, and is positively delightful. Supporting roles are often more fun than the leads, because they get all the humorous sidebar remarks, and Cushing underplays them like the pro he is, managing to stand out in a cast that is solid and likable.

The Silicates themselves are a fairly novel creation - as I mentioned, refreshingly non-humanoid and alien. The same basic conceit would be used the next year in the interesting but less entertaining Island of the Burning Doomed, which featured aliens that look like, as one observer put it, "fried eggs" - but the Silicates, unlike those visiting creatures, are more malevolent in their purpose. Wanting to eat you is bad enough; wanting to eat only a part of you seems infinitely worse - especially if that part is forcibly sucked out through a small hole while you're still alive and screaming, (cf. the fondly remembered Fiend Without A Face). Though the creatures never look totally real, at least the mechanics employed to make them move and act are fairly transparent... and that first fissioning scene is enough to put you off chicken noodle soup forever.

How many people think this is going to work?  Can I see a show of hands?As for the two-fisted scientist... well, Island comes toward the end of the era for that particular archetype. This is the sort of story where Science gets us into trouble, and then Science gets us back out. These days, Science would get us into trouble (likely because it was government or corporate - sponsored) and then Science would still get us back out again, but only because Science supplies us with bigger guns and bombs.

There's an odd subtext here, too. I had never noticed it until my recent re-visiting of the movie for this review, but it started slapping me in the face during the first meeting between Campbell and Argyle, the authority figures on the island, and the two scientists, Stanley and West. The conversation begins with the news of Dr. Landers' death, proceeds through the sketchy outline of the creatures and marching orders given the two islanders, then ends with an almost offhanded admission of the death of the local constable. Though this would give your average person more than the moment of pause evidenced here and the question, "Hey, how come everybody who knows you fellers seems to die?", the scientists brush the men off by telling them they must finish going over Phillips' notes, now shoo! Shoo!

It may be somewhat jejune of me to assign historic and sociological context to a piece of Saturday afternoon entertainment like Island of Terror, but once you have noticed it, like Shannon Doherty's lop-sided face, it simply will not go away: In the absence of another, supposedly inferior race, the British will find someone to dominate, preferably the Irish. Just as the entire Tarzan mythos suggest that if you set a member of the English gentry down in the middle of a jungle, no matter that he is an infant, he will rise to become King of that jungle - West assumes that the inhabitants of the island must bow to his city-bred and therefore superior intellect, even to the point of insisting that the assembled villagers follow the orders of Toni, who has, frankly, shown herself to be a liability in crisis situations - but still, she must be better than these backward Irishmen, eh wot? I don't think it deliberate, but I do find it - telling....

Ridiculous film theory aside, Island of Terror represents a lot of fond memories for me. It's the sort of nasty-edged sci-fi/horror at which the Brits seem to excel. There is one moment that always stands out for me, past the gory amputation scene: when the Silicates attack at the end, and West gives the call to retreat, to "save as many we can": when that first set of doors is slammed and bolted shut, the soundtrack rings with that horrid slurping sound and the shrieks of those trapped outside those doors with the monsters: "Let me in! Open the door!"... and one desperate foot kicks out a lower panel of the door. It's a small touch, but one that etches deeply into the subconscious; at that moment, all the rubber monsters and laughable science aside, the movie becomes more than simply nightmarish, it becomes all too shudderingly real. An all-too-common tableau in this movie.A lot of horror is based on invoking the feeling of Man, that would suck in the viewer - which has been the dominant thought in my mind every time I see that scene.

That's why this movie gets four out of five Tors, and I look at the IMDb's user comment of "Funny scifihorror!" just a bit askance. A lot of quiet power flows through the movie because its actors are playing everything perfectly seriously, trying to be as convincing as possible. It's approach demands that the movie, too, be taken seriously. The acting here's quality product, folks - even Carole Gray's hysterics are never as shrill as they might be - a truly bad or laughable movie simply would not feature this amount of concern among the actors. Each of these roles could done by their actors while sleepwalking, but that never seems the case.

Besides, the monsters are a goddam hoot.



Nasty-edged British horror.

- April 27, 2001