Directed by: Terence Fisher
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: Final Cut Entertainment
Length: 62 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 29 August 2011
Cat No: FCE029
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The Earth Dies Screaming
Cult sci-fi horror directed by Terence Fisher. People all over Britain are dying in mysterious circumstances. Pilot Jeff Nolan (Willard... Read More
Enthusiasts of British science-fiction films from the 1950s and 60s will be happy to see that Terence Fisher's The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is finally getting its first release on any form of home video in the UK. Its a great little film that fits squarely into the 'curious goings-on down English country lanes' genre.
It opens with a series of disastrous accidents, most notably a train ploughing through a level crossing (a scene which had been doing the rounds as stock footage ever since its first useage in the 1928 film The Wrecker), a car crash-banging into a brick wall and a plane dropping from the sky, followed by the inevitable plume of black smoke rising from behind trees. After the camera takes in bodies sprawled on pavements, out of windows and on grass, it tilts upwards above a parkland cedar, until we are left looking at the sky as the title comes looming in aslant. Yes, the Earth in general, and Surrey in particular (it was filmed mostly in the village of Shere, near Guildford) is dying, and despite the overly dramatic promise of the title, it is doing it silently, with - as we learn later - the smell of mushrooms.
The first few minutes of the film are both eerie and engaging as, accompanied only by Elisabeth Lutyens’ score of dissonant strings and foreboding woodwind, occasionally underpinned by martial drums, Willard Parker’s test pilot, Jeff Nolan, drives his Land Rover into a village, lifts a radio from the shop (needs must), and with rifle in hand, installs himself in the village hotel, where he tries the TV and the radio, only to receive nothing but a curious oscillating hum. Eight minutes into the hour-long film, the spell is finally broken by the first words, from Dennis Price’s decidedly untrustworthy Quinn Taggart, who has walked in unnoticed, and snaps ‘Turn it off.’ If Jeff Nolan is a man to have around in a crisis – a solid, dependable American, unfazed by aliens and zombies – then Quinn Taggart is his opposite. He is accompanied by Peggy, a woman he has told to pose as his wife. They are later joined by Thorley Walters' cowardly bottle-hugger Otis and (wink, wink) Vi, both a little worse for wear after the company’s 25th anniversary bash, and, rolling into the village in a stolen Vauxhall, young punk Mel, with stripy tie and crotch-hugging white trousers, and his girlfriend, heavy with child. They are survivors all – cocooned from the mysterious event by a test plane, an oxygen tent, a lab, and an air-raid shelter.
The theme is familiar: with the rest of the country apparently lifeless, an unlikely group assembles and does its best to survive, battling whatever it is that is trying to take over – which in this case are rudimentary remote-control zombie robots, nut-and-bolted together from the contents of various back rooms at Shepperton. The group moves between hotel and village drill hall as they stand guard and attempt to repel the slow-moving robots who, along with the now blob-eyed villagers, re-awakened into zombie life, threaten their existence.
Like Wolf Rilla’s 1960 film Village of the Damned, in which another undefined event of extra-terrestrial origin occurs in a home counties setting and leaves a lasting effect, The Earth Dies Screaming has an aesthetic that comes from the intersection between minimum budget and maximum effectiveness. In Village of the Damned for example, a memorable moment comes with Peter Vaughan’s village bobby acting as a guinea pig to test a contaminated area. He walks his bicycle into the restricted area and simply falls over, out cold, to show its potency. The Earth Dies Screaming uses up this same trick early on as a bowler-hatted city chap on a suburban railway platform simply drops his briefcase and umbrella (although not his newspaper) and falls backwards onto a luggage cart. The economy, in both senses of the word, is admirable.
Also, you can't help but admire a film that only just nudges the hour mark but which is so relaxed about how it spends its time. A case in point is when Lorna, the pregnant girl, rises in the middle of the night to get herself a glass of milk from the refrigerator in the hotel. Nolan watches her protectively from the shadows. A clarinet and strings play a pleasant interlude – until a cyber-zombie approaches from down an alleyway and turns to watch the oblivious girl through the window. Nolan watches it watching Lorna, the music builds to a crescendo – and then the girl turns the light off and walks out of the room, and the zombie-robot turns and teeters past Nolan, who wonders if he should clunk it over the head with his rifle, but doesn’t, and lets it walk off. No fuss, no mess. Maybe they could only afford to destroy the one costume, which happens when Nolan smashes into a robot in his Land Rover, leaving a smoking heap of circuitry and tin foil in the road.
Fisher’s direction is admirably spare and unfussy, while Lutyens' haunting music lends an air of distinction to the material. Don't let that put you off though - it's also, to be frank, a hoot.
Graeme's extended piece on the film appears in Offbeat: British Cinema's Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems (forthcoming from Headpress).