by Ricky Young.
In this fourth and final part of MostlyFilm’s lookback at the 1983 BBC2 sci-fi season – of which you can read parts one, two and three by simply ‘clicking’ – we are left with what I was previously happy to call the dregs.
A harsh word, I know, but I’ll qualify that by saying that of the fifteen films on the list, they were the ones I wanted to revisit least. My reasoning was (as ever) decidedly shonky, but they seemed to be the pulpiest, the most familiar, the ones nearest to cultural touchstones. I know; boring, right? I’m supposed to be rooting out hidden gems here, not sitting down to bloody Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the zillionth time!
Of course, when I really thought about when I’d last watched all three of these films, rather than read about them, or talked about them, or referenced them – there was only one answer: the 1983 BBC2 sci-fi season. So preconceptions be damned, I reasoned, when sitting down with only an Xbox, a pile of dvd’s, a large bag of Jolly Ranchers and a look of steely determination. We’ve come this far together – last one to the finish-line’s a dirty, stinking communist.
It’s hard to watch 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers without picturing denture-faced leading man Kevin McCarthy in his late-period Joe Danté-favourite hysterical-villain mode – possibly best-remembered as the baddie who gets shrunk down to leprechaun-size in Innerspace. Here he plays Dr. Miles Bennell, slightly shell-shocked divorcee and smalltown Californian general practitioner. He returns from time away to be faced with, firstly, the reappearance of his childhood sweetheart – a vivid Dana Wynter, with whom he rekindles a tentative romance – and secondly, a rash of local townspeople worried about their loved ones. It seems that they wake up one day, imperceptibly changed somehow.
When called by a friend and his wife to investigate a half-formed body found in their cellar, the mystery deepens. The corpse-thing seems to be replicating the friend’s features, and is slowly growing more accurate a likeness over time. Later, when rooting around in his new girlfriend’s cellar (don’t ask), he discovers a semi-created version of her, too! Both of these apparitions conveniently disappear when calling in the law to investigate, so when brooding at the friend’s house the next evening, the foursome are shocked to discover four giant pods in the gazebo, spewing out further slimy avatars of themselves.
One swift garden-forking later, it’s now clear that there’s a concerted effort on something’s part to CTRL-C/CTRL-V the town. Alerting the authorities leads to dead ends – most of the area’s population has been replaced already. McCarthy and Wynter hide in his office, but are tracked down by former friends, now pod-people, and are told they’re in the way of an alien invasion; the pods lie in wait, gestating a new you. When they’re ready, and you next fall asleep, they STEAL your BRAIN, to then live quiet, ordered and emotionless lives.
Not keen to be gestetnered out of existence, our heroes escape and are chased across the hills by the entire population of the town, while otherworldly sirens rend the air. They nearly make it but Wynter drops off to sleep while resting in a mine and is zapped. McCarthy runs on to the highway and escapes, not before seeing trucks filled with pods, heading to zap the rest of America. His mordant manner rooted the film in the real world initially, but his sweaty bubbling freak-outs are entirely believable. ‘No!’, he cries to the oblivious drivers, into the camera lens; directly, fourth-wall-breakingly at the audience – ‘You’re next! You’re next!’
Fin. Well, not really. The studio baulked at such a downer of an ending, and insisted on inserting scenes which create a framing device, making the whole story a tale he tells to a concerned doctor. The final scenes show him being taken seriously, and the authorities leaping into action to ward off the menace. (The final scene, amusingly, shows McCarthy leaning against a wall, looking for all the world like the understandable relief flooding his face is being administered passionately and actually a bit toothily, just below the shot – as if he demanded ‘fix my massive pods!’, and someone leapt in to help without thinking.)
Oh, there’s no beating about the bush, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a corker, even if I *think* I’d have preferred the apocalyptic ending. It’s hard to believe the title itself was a late-decided compromise, so perfectly does it let us in on the pulpy and nerve-jangling horror to follow, but the way the tension is slowly raised is anything but schlocky. It’s almost a normal, (if classily-shot-and-paced) thriller until the villains explain their scheme, and from that point the tension and paranoia is overwhelming – helped by effective tricks like sudden cuts to panic-filled faces, wide shots filled with dozens of pod-people going about their business, and long and desperate chases back and forth down strangely too-narrow corridors. Please note, your dvd may come with the colorised version – do NOT watch this; the suffocating atmos leaks away in a riot of jarring, just-not-right hues.
No discussion of IotBS is permitted without some endless fucking jaw-jaw about the political subtext; is it anti-McCarthyist? (Well, no, he’s starring in the film. Dur!) Anti-communist? Anti-conformity? It’s been accused of all of those things and more in its time – most of those involved in creating the film, it seems, always denied any deliberate allegorical intent (even the director, Don Siegel has said not to read too much into it; although looking at his filmography it’s unlikely to be anti-fascist – but equally unlikely to be anti-interesting or anti-worthwhile-watching). It’s the one-paranoia-thriller-fits-all classic, essentially, (no wonder it’s been remade three times) and rooted in primal, easily-exploited fears.
So, that hideous thing you saw that time in your great-aunt’s conservatory? Remember that? What, it’s not there now? That hideous thing? Are you sure you saw it? Oh, well, never mind about that, then. How about you have forty winks? Everything will feel better after that.
Let us now jump back slightly to 1953, and get one more shiny bauble from the George Pal/Byron Haskin mystery box that has served our sci-fi season in such primary colours. The War Of The Worlds opens with the fruity tones of Sir Cedric Hardwicke laying down some exposition as to why the Martians were so keen on invading earth – it boils down to ‘they really, really wanted to’, which is always the best reason.
Earth’s first contact with the horrors to come is when a massive metal pod crash-lands outside yet another Californian small town, causing a sensation amongst the locals. A charisma-free Gene Barry is Dr. Clayton Forrester: Atomic Scientist, who is fishing nearby, and after joining the theory-spouting rubes surrounding the molten object, he decides to hold off until it cools – and what better to do when killing time than go to a barn-dance! There he gets his hooks into local teacher Sylvia Van Buren, (played by not-that-one Ann Robinson and perhaps the biggest pain in the arse in our 15-film run) while out by the crash-site, a hatch unscrews from the top of the pod and a freaky tentacle-eye scans the area before turning the site-guards into dust with a hellish heat-ray. War-machines emerge from the pod, and things aren’t looking good.
With news that pods like this one are falling out of the sky, all over the world, Sylvia’s uncle – a local pastor, convinced that we’re all God’s children – walks up to the machines to try and connect with them. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, the Martians take one look at the man of the cloth, and blast him into particles! It’s on, in other words.
There’s little preamble in The War Of The Worlds – the aliens are here, they want to kill us all, and the film gets down to it with commendable speed. At least it does until the military get called in, then – as seemed to be the fashion in 1953 films about invaders from Mars, like this one, and, er, Invaders From Mars – the lure of a few cheap reels of stock footage proves hard to resist. Perhaps at the time, roads full of speeding jeeps, tanks and troop-carriers meant ‘urgency’, but now it just bogs us down.
On the orders of yet another pencil-moustached General – ‘an enduring motif of the genre’, he said in a Mark Cousins accent – the army throws everything it has at the Martian war-machines to no avail, and the hysteria slowly mounts until Washington cracks, the nukes are ordered, and we sit back and wait for the fireworks. Nothing roots the film in the 50s like the extended montage preparing for the (“ten times more powerful than any previous explosion!”) nuclear bomb-drop on the Martians. As more stock footage shows the Flying Wing get nearer and nearer, the hills fill with thousands of people waiting for the show, just a mile or two away, and everyone, not least our hero Dr. Forrester, is convinced that nuclear weapons will save them all.
Nope. The bomb goes off, and as we can see from the military bunker a binocular’s distance away from Ground Frickin’ Zero, the Martians have not been harmed. ‘Oh well’, everyone says, as they wipe the thick layers of radioactive fallout from their faces, ‘we’d better get the hell out of here’.
Most of the military gets wiped out by the war-machines and their death-rays, with a silent, glowing ‘disintegration’ effect that haunted me for years. Forrester and his prone-to-hysterical-freakout beau Sylvia manage to escape in a handy prop-plane, until the great lummox crashes it and they hide in a large abandoned farmhouse. All very cosy and domestic until another Martian pod crashes and knocks the house down. In perhaps the film’s best sequence (and, not coincidentally, one that was pinched wholesale for the Thetan-heavy 2005 remake) a metal tentacle creeps in through a broken window and scans for survivors, until Forrester brings his until-now hidden wrench-handling skills to bear on it. He takes his prize back to his university, where his colleagues fall upon it and come up with – nothing. It’s not looking good for humanity as the best estimates say it’ll be six days until total wipeout. Yes, I feel that way about Richard Hammond too.
As civilisation falls, Forrester, Sylvia and all their scientific equipment get separated by angry mobs, and here the film falters. The final twenty minutes consist of broken city streets being blasted by patrolling war-machines, and the charmless Forrester running from church to refugee-packed church, in search of his equally charmless squeeze. Then more blasting, then more searching – and repeat. We’ve seen very little about humanity in this film that deserves much in the way of saving, and when the famous plot-twist comes (Martians + germs = FAIL) and the chummy, thank-your-elders-and-betters voiceover intones that it was all thanks to God’s foresight, the only reaction is ‘Oh, really? Might have been nice of him to set up a defence slightly better than one that kicks in WHEN NEARLY EVERYONE’S DEAD!’.
Also, what if the nuclear bomb had actually done its job and destroyed the Martian ships? We were told in the half-time exposition voice-over that these things were all over the world; what was the plan if it had worked? Holocaust ‘em out of the way?
There’s no doubting The War Of The Worlds is a spectacle – the colours are wonderful, the designs (both sound and effects) are great (Haskin nicks the war-machines wholesale for our homo-erotic favourite Robinson Crusoe On Mars a decade later, and the shocking single-fleeting-glimpse-of-alien is now a genre cliché), but the performances are so stiff and the big questions it raises are so fudged and unsatisfying that I ended up feeling sorry for the poor hapless Martians. A single packet of Beechams All-in-One away from world domination. That’s got to hurt.
Talking of feeling sorry for the bad-guy, we shall finish our epic quest with The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which a 1954 film directed by Jack Arnold. As opposed to ‘The Creature With The Black Laguna’, which is what I call my downstairs neighbour.
An expedition to explore the geology of the Amazon leads Dr Carl Maia finding a giant fossilized hand sticking out of an outcrop. In a manner which would have the Time Team leaping out of their seats in beardy shock, he casually breaks it off and takes it back to show it to colleagues at an Institute for Marine Biology. He’s heard locals talk of a half-man/half-fish that stalks the nearby lagoons, and rather unluckily didn’t spot the Creature as it watched him from the reeds. His friends, scientist couple Dr. David Reed and his partner Kay Lawrence get hot under the collar about what the fossil could mean, and convince their boss & the owner of the Institute, Dr Marc Williams, to finance a trip up the river to search for any potential Missing Links.
Cut to presumably weeks later. The gang is full-steam ahead, on board a tramp-steamer named Rita, complete with its own bawdy latin-stereotype captain, Lucas. They get back to Dr Maia’s camp to find everyone has been killed! Unlike Jack Arnold’s earlier monster-mystery in our series, It Came From Outer Space!, we know exactly how they died, because we saw the Creature do it. Fully-grown men are no match for his suffocating webbed claws.
Searching the area’s not coming up with much, and isn’t helped in the slightest by the boss, Dr. Williams, being a total bell-end. Yes, he’s concerned that a failed expedition won’t bring him the publicity and money he’s after, but he’s a relentless dick about everything. He also has the hots for Kay, it’s hinted.
He’s not the only one. We’ve caught glimpses of the Creature, and he’s been smitten by what he can see of her: she is pretty foxy. As Dr. Williams agrees to have one last search in the Black Lagoon (“Hey, can we try the Azure Lagoon first? How about the Crystal Lagoon? Look, I’ll even try the Spurting Arterial Blood Lagoon first – guys? Guys?”) before taking his ball home with him, Kay strips off to her skivvies and goes for a – to be fair – ill-advised dip.
As she bobs and preens in full Esther Williams mode, the Creature is below her in the water, staring up and wriggling with unknown lusts – as, presumably, were the audiences at the time. Off balance, he gets caught in one of the ship’s nets, and fights his way out, leaving a telltale claw-nail. Do claws even have nails? Let it not detain us here.
With confirmation to the crew that there’s definitely something out there, the film turns into a cat-and-mouse game; the Creature kills a redshirt or two? The crew wing it with pneumatic harpoons. The Creature pulls down a mast? They zap it with poison. And so on. With it stunned and dizzy, the crew manage to cage the beast on board their ship, only for it to escape and rip one of the other scientist’s face off. Even this isn’t enough to dissuade Williams – whose dickishness seems to increase to match the level of danger on show at any time – from continuing the search, but after endless pleading, they decide to leave.
But the Creature has not taken his treatment well. He has blocked the lagoon’s entrance, and attempts to remove the debris meet with fevered underwater pokings from someone who’s used to being down there.
If you look at stills of the Creature…
…the poor thing looks a bit goofy and rubbery. Thanks to a brilliant combination of underwater photography, suit design and, let’s face it, top-notch swimming, once he’s below the surface the Creature is a hugely effective menace. Graceful and lightning-quick when exposed, brooding and soulful in the shadows, after a while you forget that he’s a murderous throwback and start rooting for him instead of the spiky, unlikeable bunch on the boat.
It all comes to a head when Dr Reed attaches the poison-sprayer to his harpoon and he and Dr Williams go to sort out the blockage once and for all. The latter gets his head chomped (in no way did I shout ‘hooray!’ at that point) and Kay is kidnapped and taken to the Creature’s subterranean lair. The others follow, and before the Creature can make his move, whatever that might be, he gets riddled with bullets by the rest of the gang. He staggers off into the water, and sinks back down into the darkness. The End, because if there’s one film after which I couldn’t say ‘Fin’, it’s this one.
The Creature From The Black Lagoon stands up fairly well today; it’s paced nicely, keeps the shocks and scares coming, and flip-flops your sympathy for most of the running time. It also inspired perhaps the best pinball machine of all time – can Les Quatre Cents Coups say that? No. Thus it loses.
And that was the 1983 BBC2 Sci-Fi Season. Fifteen films, fifteen different glimpses into the future, fifteen excuses for my dad to ‘rest his eyes’ in his armchair while I sat on the carpet in front of the fire, my nine-year-old brain soaking up thrilling Technicolor transmissions from what could be anywhere in time and space. But was probably Mars. Those guys really didn’t like us very much, eh?
Now, on BBC2, it’s over to Hickstead, for the highlights from today’s International Showjumping, followed by a summary of the news, taking us to Closedown at 11.30
Fans of unfocused, low-quality invective can follow Hankinshaw on ‘The Tweeter’