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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Terrornauts (1967)

A piece on the science fiction film The Terrornauts.

Milton Subotsky, the creative mind behind Amicus films, was a long-time science fiction fan – hence, his intermittent, peculiar attempts at getting away from the horror anthologies which were the company’s usual fare – Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (Francis, 1964), Asylum (Baker, 1970), Tales From the Crypt (Francis, 1972) — to get in on the sf boom.  He personally scripted an adaptation of Joseph Millard’s wonderfully-titled but obscure novel The Gods Hate Kansas, which became Freddie Francis’s plodding They Came From Beyond Space (1967).  That mini-epic needed an even cheaper supporting feature, so Subotksy turned veteran sf author Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid (1960) over to then-rising novelist John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Sheep Look Up (1972)) – roughly the science fiction equivalent of asking James Ellroy to adapt an Agatha Christie novel – and hired veteran B picture specialist Montgomery Tully (The House in Marsh Road, 1960; Battle Beneath the Earth, 1967) to direct.  Leinster (1896-1975) must have thought he was on a streak – since another of his books (The Monster From Earth’s End) had just been filmed as The Navy vs the Night Monsters (Hoey, 1966).  Perhaps his film agent had a sudden burst of enthusiasm – for neither The Terrornauts nor The Navy vs the Night Monsters were the scale of production which usually bothered with even cheap literary sources.  If so, Leinster took little advantage of it: neither the Avon US paperback reprint of The Wailing Asteroid in 1966 nor the UK paperback from Sphere in 1966 even mention that the book had been filmed.

Subotsky said, ‘what I liked about the Leinster book was that it dealt with an ordinary group of people who save the Earth’ (see Nutman, 2008:58).  Brunner, who landed the screenwriting job because he knew Subotsky socially, was less taken with the material, stating ‘I wasn’t particularly attracted to the book.  In fact, quite frankly, I scrapped most of it.  It was one of those “experimenter builds a spaceship in his backyard” stories that was quite common in the 1930s.  I think I made it a little more reasonable and logical within the limitations of what the budget would stretch to’ (see Brosnan, 1978:283).   The Terrornauts emerged as an extremely quaint, overly-mild B picture, even by children’s matinee standards.  It is worth noting that, though the TV serial A for Andromeda (1961) is a precedent, The Terrornauts is among the first sf films to deal with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence-type set-up (Project: Star Talk) seen in the likes of Species (Donaldson, 1995) and Contact (Zemeckis, 1997); this is an extremely minor element in the novel, which Brunner boosted in order to dispense with the backyard inventor theme he deemed outmoded.

The opening scenes have a cartoonish but nevertheless accurate grasp of how cutting-edge science gets done, or is thwarted.  Staid hero Dr Joe Burke (Oates, in almost exactly the same performance he later gave as the macho boffin in Doom Watch, 1970-72) and sidekicks Ben Keller (Meadows, a fixture on every 1960s British TV series who also appears in Performance, Roeg/Cammell, 1970) and Sandy Lund have to play politics to get time on a radio telescope – which means getting past impatient boss Dr Shore and accountant Yellowlees.  The bean-counter quibbles at spending £75 on a radio component, but is taken by the idea that if he’s in the room when mankind makes first contact with an alien species he’ll get his picture in the papers.  Burke is obsessed because as a child he dreamed of an alien landscape (a hillside with two moons stuck on the sky) while clutching an alien crystal found inside an artifact excavated by his archaeologist uncle (Frank Forsyth).  Also around the observatory is comedy relief tea-lady Mrs Jones (Patricia Hayes, of the well-remembered Play for Today ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’, 1971), who snorts ‘people on other planets, I don’t believe it – it would have been in the papers and my husband would have told me.’  In the novel, Burke and Keller – and another characterless character, Holmes – build a spaceship following designs implanted in Burke’s mind by the alien artifact when a signal comes from Asteroid M-387.  Sandy and her sister Pam tag along, periodically sulking because the men-folk are more concerned with space-faring than ‘getting romantic’ and complaining that they didn’t think to put any mirrors in their unnamed ship.  Brunner at least adds some elementary conflicts; his comic relief is a strain, though, and oddly replaces the aspect of the novel a new-wave sf writer might have found most congenial, the somewhat smug Mouse That Roared-ish satire to the actions of governments and establishment scientists while the plucky amateur is getting the job done – Leinster’s Burke avoids US guided missiles deployed to stop his launch, but the government then claims his mission as a triumph which trumps a doomed Soviet rocket shot that fails to get near the asteroid.

The hook of novel and film is the signal from the wailing asteroid (which Brunner calls Schuler’s Object).  Burke responds with a signal from Earth – whereupon, giving up on anything like credible science, Amicus have a spaceship from the asteroid lower over the observatory and pluck one of the buildings off the face of the planet, abducting the Star Talk astronomers, Yellowlees (who is worried about meeting people with tentacles) and Mrs Jones (who hopes they won’t look like spiders).  The building is set down on Schuler’s Object, in an image which prefigures Doctor Who‘s hospital on the moon episode (‘Smith and Jones’, 2007).  The asteroid is home to a set which looks like a colour version of the cardboard minimalist futures visited by the Doctor in the show’s early days.  Subotsky had written and produced the Peter Cushing Dalek movies, and passages in the novel parallel the exploration-of-a-seemingly-deserted-metal city sequences of Terry Nation’s first Dalek serial (1963), filmed as Dr Who and the Daleks (Flemyng, 1964).  The structure is even inhabited by a trundling, antenna-waving, non-anthropomorphic robot operated by Robert Jewell (a Dalek on many 1960s Who serials); this gadget is not found in the equivalent stretch of the novel, though Leinster might have been influenced by the abandoned alien city in Forbidden Planet (Wilcox, 1956).  ‘In between the kidnapping of people, they must need somewhere to put their feet up, you think?’ observes Mrs Jones of the spare décor, only for Keller to spook her further with the comment ‘if they’ve got feet’.

The model effects are amateurish, but charming – not dissimilar from early 1960s puppet shows like Space Patrol (1963-64) or Fireball XL5 (1962-63)) – but Elisabeth Lutyens’ score has a burbling, spacey feel which gives even the most unbelievable toys-on-strings scenes a trace of wonder.  There’s play with pink and black box artifacts from an advanced civilisation, including one with a kitchen funnel set into it, and alien foods which look like spiky fondant fancies.  The Earth people pass elementary intelligence tests (naughty Brunner sneaks one line past the innocent Subotsky: ‘it’s a kind of vibrator – can’t you feel it?’), run into a truly tacky alien animal (with a red maw, an eye in its side, a single crab claw, large suckers on its head and tentacles) which turns out to be an illusion created by the vibrator, find a blue skeleton wearing a white bathing cap with wires stuck to it (a moment vaguely prefiguring a scene in Alien (Scott, 1979)) and occasionally step on a platform (‘you’d call it a matter transposer’) which teleports them to the two-mooned world.  On this planet, Sandy is nearly stabbed by turquoise-faced tribesmen in red robes (‘virgin sacrifice to the gods of a ghastly galaxy,’ shrieks the American poster, rather overselling things) and Burke gets to be manly in effecting her prompt rescue.  In the novel, the planet is long-abandoned by dangerous life but hero and heroine prepare to become pioneers there at the end.  Echoing Burke’s visions, the film reprises the most notable shabby effects shot in the film, as black smoke from an explosion drifts up into the sky and behind the painted moons.

In the finale, Burke puts on the bathing cap and plugs it into the sink funnel – which enables him to read aloud a message from the former masters of the asteroid which warns about ‘creatures we now call The Enemy’ that are coming in a space fleet (and have reduced a technological species to those turquoise-faced savages).  The point of the signal is to summon folk to the asteroid so they can take the controls of the anti-spacefleet guns and blast ‘The Enemy’ before they can get to Earth.  The book suggests that mankind are descended from the aliens who once manned this asteroid post, but deserted after their civilisation fled – a footnote that the film omits, missing out on the prehistory/alien intervention theme of Quatermass and the Pit (Cartier, 1959) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968).  Despite complaints from Mrs Jones (‘I don’t want one of them readin’ devices on my head, it’s not long since I had a perm’), the three clever people put on bathing caps and plugs into funnels – in time to orchestrate a space battle against an arrow formation of Enemy model ships and get home (well, a mountainside in France) in time for tea (‘I’ve changed the transposer plate setting for Earth’).  Mrs Jones gets the last word ‘never did think much of foreign parts!’  The novel gives more weight to the threat of the Enemy, who will destroy the solar system without even trying if their gravity-powered ships pass this way, but writes them out in half a page as a number of iron spheres launched from the asteroid cause their utter destruction.

The Terrornauts is among the most obscure, hard-to-see British science fiction films.  It’s a pantomime mix of earnest camp, so-feeble-it’s-funny-again comic relief, genuine science fiction ideas, poverty row nonsense and surprising charm.  Whatever its problems are, it’s better than the novel – which is strangled because its authorial voice suggests a very bright twelve-year-old boy who resents having to have girls in the clubhouse and misses no opportunity to sneer at their sillinesses.  Objectively, The Terrornauts is bad – but it’s bad in an innocent 1967 manner that retains a peculiar appeal.

 

Notes

 

John Brosnan, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (London, Macdonald & Janes, 1978).

Philip Nutman, ‘Scream and Scream Again: The Uncensored History of Amicus Productions’ (Little Shoppe of Horrors No 20, 2008).

 

Here’s a trailer.

 

The film is available on DVD from Network.

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