Column: The Vault of Secrets: Island of Terror (1966)


Island of Terror (1966) Directed by: Terence Fisher. Starring: Peter Cushing, Edward Judd and Carol Gray. [not available on Region 1 DVD from Amazon, or anyplace else that I know of]


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]elcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s movie is one that I remember from my youth, for values of remember that include “know what the monsters looked like” and “recall that they sucked out their victims’ bones, somehow.” I remembered both of those things all these years, even after catching the movie only once on afternoon TV when I was very young, because they’re the best things the movie has going for it. Which might be more damning if those things weren’t so awesome.

The monsters are silicate lifeforms created accidentally by a bunch of scientists who’re trying to find a cure for cancer. They look sort of like little armored blobs, or giant starfish, and they have tentacles that extend out of them to feed. They feed by latching on with the tentacle and then sucking their victim’s bones out, which is not only just great conceptually, but it also means that the movie gets to indulge in plenty of really gruesome shots of weird deflated corpses, without ever really showing any gore at all. They also make a variety of really great noises, especially when they’re sucking out peoples’ bones (as you might imagine).

Adapted from an earlier screenplay graced with the less-evocative title, The Night the Silicates Came, tonight’s film is one of a handful of similar pictures released by British production company Planet Film Productions. Notably, they also tackled the “creatures on an island” theme (and used some of the same sets, cast and crew) again the next year for Night of the Big Heat, which was released in the U.S. under the much more evocative title Island of the Burning Damned.

While the creepy monsters are the high point, the whole film is really much better than it could have been, thanks in no small part to director Terence Fisher (known to us from any number of great Hammer films) and a cast that includes Peter Cushing and Carol Gray (Curse of the Fly, among others). With a more dramatic script, this could easily have been one of Hammer’s forays into science fiction and it bears at least some tonal resemblance to some of the films Nigel Kneale wrote for them.

It’s a strangely sedate movie, given its outré subject matter and lurid title, which is probably both a strength and a weakness. Fisher shoots it in naturalistic tones and the actors mostly give restrained performances. Cushing is excellent, as always, though his character often takes a backseat to Edward Judd’s more charismatic scientist character. He does get to lose a hand, though, in probably the film’s tensest moment. And Carol Gray turns in a very likeable performance, even if her character doesn’t get much to do besides scream and be told to wait in the car (and, in a scene that is inadvertently chilling in its gender dynamics, nearly get murdered by her lover so that the monsters don’t get her).

One odd characteristic of Island of Terror is how even-handed it is. While the threat is caused by a science experiment gone awry, the film never becomes an anti-science screed. In fact, it is more scientists who use more science to thwart the monsters. Nor are the locals portrayed as particularly backward or foolish and, with maybe one exception, they never do any of the expected stupid things to jeopardize everyone. Mostly, they listen to authority and do as they’re told. Hell, radiation even turns out to be the saving grace of the picture, which is certainly not something you see in sci-fi monster movies every day.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but join us next time when we set sail once again for a somewhat more exotic island that’s home to a big ape (though maybe not so big as other famous apes).