The British approach to a science-fiction film can often be summed up in Substance Over Form. In other words: the audience can put up with paper-mache monsters and sets as long as the story's intelligent and the acting's halfway decent. Consider, for instance, how long fans of the "Doctor Who" television series had to put up with really cheesy sets and effects while, at the same time, relishing some truly shmoozy plots. Go over the history of classic British SF television and you'll see that the producers apparently paid more attention to excellent writing than in production values. Authors such as Nigel Kneale, Isaac Asimov, Alan Nourse, John Brunner, Kate Wilhelm and others were having their works regularly adapted for the small screen.
Not that it was all peaches and gravy, though. Again and again the British have proven themselves to be flawless in regards to excellent low-budget genre films (e.g. Joseph Losey's "The Damned", the Boulting's "Seven Days to Noon", Anton Leader's "Children of the Damned", etc.). Occasionally, though, even their system would allow a few items to appear through the cracks.
Which brings me now, pumpkins, to Terence Fisher's 1965 film "The Earth Dies Screaming".
I can see some of you raising an eyebrow at the name Terence Fisher in this context. And I fully understand. Believe me. After all, as we all know, Fisher was the director who practically built Hammer Studios with films such as "The Curse of Frankenstein", "The Horror of Dracula", "The Curse of the Werewolf" and so much more. It could be claimed that he made international stars out of actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
And I don't want to say that "The Earth Dies Screaming" is an entirely bad film. It managed to produce some of the eerie atmosphere that only the best black-and-white British cinema was capable of delivering. But looking at it one can easily be forgiven for suspecting that Fisher funded the entire production by raiding the petty cash drawer at Shepperton Studios.
("Just taking a bit here. The ice lolly wagon's going by . . . oh, and I need to make a movie.")
The story for the movie came courtesy of the late Harry Spaulding; a man responsible for screenplays such as "The Watcher in the Woods", "The Curse of the Fly", "Chosen Survivors" and "The Day Mars Invaded Earth". Not exactly George S. Kaufman or Herman Mankiewicz here, but I'll grant Spaulding tried his best. His story had the population of the Earth being wiped out by invading aliens (and it happened real quick, too! So much for the Earth dying screaming . . . much more like a sudden "choke . . . ugh!" and then Death. But naming the movie "The Earth Passes Out" would've been an admittedly hard sell). The audience is treated to several examples of the results: trains crashing because no one is alive at the throttle, cars uncontrollably smashing into walls, planes falling out of the sky . . . and most of this being footage lifted from Wolf Rilla's "Village of the Damned".
This is, I suppose, as good a place as any to hold forth on swiping footage from other films. My rule of thumb is that if I can obviously spot lifted footage then the director doesn't get a pass (Jack Smight's 1976 film "Midway" was wholly execrable, and one of the reasons was that a lot of the battle footage was obviously taken from "Tora! Tora! Tora!"). I understand better than anyone else how filmmakers can be hamstrung by budgets, and my usual response is if your production can't match the story then, for Jah's sake, find another story. Or try to be clever. Val Guest certainly didn't have the money to make "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" as apocalyptic as the subject obviously demanded. But the important thing is that he understood this and, instead, gave us a global disaster movie from the intimate point of view of a newspaper office.
(And, as William Wellman proved with "Battleground", it is possible to make a good low-budget war movie. But, as usual, I've gone off on a severe tangent.)
Back to "The Earth Dies Screaming". I said that the Earth's population had been wiped out by aliens. But, as so often happens in such films, there's always one or two people who didn't get the memo. Seven of them, in fact, wander into Shere (a town in Surrey which has also appeared in movies such as "The Ruling Class"). A nicely bucolic setting which includes, among other things, a whacking big swimming pool. The sort of place which makes one think: "Heck! If the aliens had killed everyone else then I'd certainly want to hide out there".
Four men and three women, with Willard Parker as the Stalwart Hero (or the closest thing to it that survived the initial massacre). The others were Virginia Field, Dennis Price, Vanda Godsell, Thorley Walters, David Spenser and Anna Palk. I can hear the wheels spinning around inside your heads, and let me admit mine were doing the same. No A-listers here, pumpkins, and deuced few B-listers. For sake of interest, though, I'll point out that David Spenser also appeared in one of the most forgotten SF films of the 1960's: "Battle Beneath the Earth". And Anna Palk was one of Julie Christie's female friends in Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451".
Anyway, these diverse types all meet and immediately exchange the standard "I'm in an End of the World situation" dialogue: "What happened?" "I don't know!" "Everyone's dead!" "Seems that way!" "I'm just glad I wasn't on a train, or in a car or a plane, or had a role in "Village of the Damned". I could've ended up in real trouble." "Yeah, but isn't this a nice place, though?"
Of course that's not the extent of the plot as alien killer robots soon appear and are hunting down the survivors. At this point one is reminded of Sherman Rose's "Target Earth" (see much earlier column). But whereas Rose's vision far exceeded his budget, Fisher at least managed to cobble something together that invokes a sense of genuine menace. The survivors soon find themselves having to hide from large robots that silently move about the deserted streets of Shere. They actually bear a similarity to the original Cybermen from "Doctor Who" and can kill with a touch. Anyone they kill revives and becomes a blank-eyed zombie, assisting the robots in their efforts, and the film's most chilling moments involve the sights of the robots and their minions quietly tracking down their prey. Of course Our Heroes (who end up being gradually whittled away) try every means at their disposal to dissuade the aliens from doing away from them, with the most effective method involving driving a car into a radio transmitting tower . . . which isn't exactly the worst method I've seen for defeating an invasion by movie aliens, but one is left wishing that Spaulding could've attempted to make much more sense out of the story. As it is it's up to Fisher to provide whatever interest the film holds in scenes such as one where one of the women is hiding behind a wall grille and is trying to remain quiet and inobtrusive as a blank-eyed zombie slowly strolls closer and closer.
So many things that could've been right with this movie. But if the audience scuffs at it a bit then a few nuggets of gold are revealed. Enough to prove that Fisher was still very much in the game. The Earth might not have died screaming here, but I'm willing to bet there were one or two viewers who might've shrieked just a bit.