The Bad Movie Report

Terror Is A Man

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Everything has to start somewhere, and the Filipino horror film starts here, with Terror Is A Man, the first and arguably the best of not only its breed, but the Blood Island pictures as well. I say arguably only because I know someone will take up the cause of Mad Doctor of Blood Island or Brides of Blood. Sorry, though these pictures had other things going for them - color, gore, the yummy presence of Angelique Pettijohn - Terror Is A Man possesses a sort of stately, bookish dignity. Which also renders it somewhat problematic for me, as there's very little I can do with it, except report. This week's review may be a bit short.

Where were these guys when I needed them?First, it should be noted that The Ubiquitous Management has had the forethought to warn us about a singularly shocking scene contained somewhere in the movie, which just goes to show you how badly the state of Theater Management in America has deteriorated in the last few decades. It is quite possible that I would have enjoyed The Phantom Menace much more had The Management rung a bell every time Jar Jar was about to open its mouth*.

A lifeboat washes ashore on the Isla de Sangre ("Blood Island", for those of you who do not speak Movie Spanish); its sole occupant: William Fitzgerald (Richard Derr), the only survivor of a freighter lost during a storm. He is discovered by Dr. Charles Girard (Francis Lederer) and his assistant, Walter (Oscar Keesee, Jr.). That night, as Fitzgerald briefly regains consciousness, he hears Girard and Walter argue about the recapture of an escaped lab animal.

Speaking of the Devil, something is stalking the nearby village, and it kills two people before slinking back into the jungle. This sequence, shot largely from the animal's point of view, is quite effective - as the Steadicam had not been invented at this time, I have to credit either a canny use of dollys or a rock-steady camera operator. As the camera slides back into the foliage, the bodies are discovered and the village en masse flocks around them.

The next day, the village, similarly en masse, climbs into their boats and paddles away, leaving only the two native servants of "Curse that Blair Witch!  She's at it again!"the Girard household - Selene (Lilio Duran), the Island Hottie, and Tiago (Peyton Keesee), the Boy. Fitzgerald awakes to find only himself and the untalkative Selene in the house. Exploring, he finds the deserted village - the cook fires still smoldering eerily. He continues to wander, nearly falling into a pit trap Girard and Walter have completed.

It is at this time that Fitzgerald meets Frances (Greta Thyssen), Girard's wife, who shows more than passing interest in the castaway. Over dinner that night, character exposition takes place. Fitzgerald is told the next supply boat won't be by for another two months. Girard explains that he left a successful surgical practice in New York to conduct his research in seclusion, with only his wife, a former nurse, and Walter to assist him. Girard is also maddeningly but predictably vague about what that work might be.

Dinner over, Girard and Walter go out to check the traps, leaving Frances to tell Fitzgerald about her unhappiness and misgivings about hubby's work, all during one of Terror's numerous and uniformly bad (even for 1959) day-for-night shots; the relative brightness and darkness vary madly from shot to shot; this scene in particular must have been a pain to shoot, so obviously has the sun moved from camera setup to camera setup. Girard and Walter return with their trophy in a net, and Girard makes ready to go down to his surgery in the basement - he explains to Fitzgerald that he deliberately used too much sedative on the animal, and has to revive it carefully. Fitzgerald pleads exhaustion and goes to his bed.

But what kind of hero would he be is he truly went to bed? Fitzgerald sneaks down to the basement and sees Girard and his wife working on an Page 252 of the Big Book of Tampering In God's Domainidentifiably human shape. After several close calls - luckily for Fitzgerald, the basement is riddled with dark hiding places - the bandaged form is eventually wheeled into a room with a heavily barred door; from his hiding place, Fitzgerald witnesses Frances looking forlornly through the bars at the figure and whispering, "I'm sorry."

The next day Girard finds Fitzgerald looking through his notes, and the scientist decides to take Fitzgerald into his confidence. To make a long story short, Girard has spent the last two years surgically transforming a panther into a man - he has even used chemicals to enlarge its brain. Fitzgerald, though constantly informing everyone how stupid he is, obviously has much more on the ball than initial impressions would indicate, and tries to keep an open mind to this revelation (he's stuck on the island for two more months, after all), and agrees to sit in on Girard's next surgery.

It is here, in the surgery scene, that The Management sounds its bell (the younger readers may not realize it sounds just like a telephone bell of the time, which would ruin the telemarketer joke I was going to put here), and if you take The Management's warning seriously and look away, you'll miss perhaps five seconds of a real surgical incision, with little or no blood apparent. It's interesting to think that this was so very shocking in 1959, while today, you can tune in The Learning Channel and get an hour of much more graphic surgical action. Of course, if you did close you eyes, what your imagination came up with was much more graphic.

Fitzgerald eventually beds the under-appreciated Mrs. Girard, which is not as vital to the plot as you might suppose. Walter, who is becoming more and more drunken and obnoxious, puts the moves on Frances in the surgery, which gets the bandaged panther man quite agitated. This gives Frances the time she needs to escape Walter's clutches and storm out of the lab. The frustrated Walter then beats the creature with a handy table leg. This will be as vital to the plot as you might suppose.

The next day, Fitzgerald discusses the philosophical ramifications of Girard's work with the doctor - what disturbs him the most is that he has gazed into the creature's eyes and has become convinced it has a soul. "Then it is a soul that I gave him!" exclaims Girard triumphantly. He hopes the creature will be the first of a new race, a man who is able to begin a life and build a civilization without the thousands of years of preconceptions the human race carries with it - a truly rational being. Fitzgerald asks if GirardHmmmm... time to trim those. considers the creature an actual man; Girard answers that he does, and to prove it, begins to teach the creature to speak - which it does, much to Fitzgerald's horror: the word "man".

This precious moment is interrupted by Walter's entrance, causing the creature to freak out. Walter will later return with a gun to finally kill the beast, but the creature has other ideas and rips free of its restraints, and demonstrates that although Girard re-formed it's paws into hands, it still has claws....

Of course, at this point, the house's generator, which has been dicey at best, gives up the ghost. Once the creature rampages through the house and makes it outside, Girard and FitzgeraldBaxter! go out to re-capture or kill it. For whatever reason, Tiago also goes outside, and when Selene tries to find him, runs into... oh, yeah. You guessed it. The creature advances upon her, claw outstretched, slurring, "Maaaaaaaaaannnnnnn..... mmmmaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnn." Selene is too frightened to respond or make with the Meow Mix™ - instead, she tries to scream, which is her downfall.

The creature has come back for Frances, and carries her away in true Universal Monster style, into another of those tragically bad day-for-night shots. Finally, on a cliff, Girard catches up with the creature and its captive, and tries to calm the beastie down. To no avail, as the creature mauls Girard and then throws a dummy wearing Girard's clothes off the cliff. Fitzgerald responds to this lack of respect for mannequins by shooting the monster in the gut - and perhaps he doesn't have as many brains as I credited him, as he allows the wounded beast to stagger away.

On the beach, the wounded creature runs across Tiago, who, for some reason, helps it into a nearby boat. Frances looks toward the horizon, searching for the boat; "He wanted to help me," she says cryptically. Who? The panther man? Tiago? "The sun'll be up soon," says Fitzgerald, rather uselessly, as the sun has obviously been up all this time. The end.

Technically, Terror Is A Man is superb, with fine camerawork, good acting, a plaintive score, and dialog that actually kept me interested. What it doesn't have going for it, unfortunately, is an original storyline. It takes its central concept from the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, itself the basis for three movies (and at least one other Filipino film), then uses this concept to Hey lady!  Hey lady!  You got some spare crunchies?construct a by-the-numbers Frankenstein clone; we will sit out the picture, knowing that we are only doing so that we may see the creature get loose and go on a rampage. And finally see it's face, concealed from us until the last.

It's the Frankenstein Syndrome that causes the movie to ultimately fail, though - we build up a significant amount of sympathy for the creature, and cheer when it finally puts Walter out of our misery, but it is never satisfyingly explained why it kills people - especially the harmless Selene - except that, well, that's what monsters do (The "He's Frankenstein!" reasoning from Blackenstein).

The script has a fair amount going for it, despite its rather simplistic attitude toward its monster. Though nothing is ever done with the dalliance between Frances and Fitzgerald, or the apparent bedding and beating Walter inflicts upon Selene, it does heighten the tension in a way unexpected by the viewer, one not associated with the monster. The discussions between Girard and Fitzgerald about his project are clear and interesting - some of the best talky-debate scenes I've seen since It Conquered the World. Girard at one point explains, "I am a scientist, not a philosopher. I cannot worry about the moral implications of my work. A tender momentThere will be plenty who will want to do that later." And it has little gems for those that pay attention, as when the recovered Fitzgerald asks Tiago if a bouquet the boy is holding is for him. "No," replies Tiago, "if you do not want them, they are for my mother." Several scenes later, as Fitzgerald finds the graves of the creature's victims, the bouquet rests upon one of them.

The best thing, the one which elevates this movie above its fate as a simple carbon-copy, is the performance of Francis Lederer as Dr. Girard. Lederer is so calm, so well- spoken, so reasonable, that it is almost impossible to classify him as a mad scientist, save for the fact that he is trying to forcibly mold a jungle cat into a human being. Ready for the Renaissance Festival!His non-surgical interactions with the creature are soothing, calming, and ultimately caring. There is not a single "bwoo-ha-ha" or over the top moment in Lederer's performance, and if you care at all about movies like this, it is an intriguing and wonderful thing - the mad scientist as normal.

How much you would enjoy Terror Is A Man is dependent, really, on how much you do care - its slow pace and cookie-cutter story will not appeal to every horror fan. But for the completist, those like me who habitually seek out each and every horror movie they have ever heard about in their misspent life, the changes the movie makes on its tired old tropes can be nicely refreshing.


Nice mad scientist, photocopied plot.

- April 30, 2000