Saturday, 27 June 2020

Survivors… The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Probably not the best time to watch a film in which the majority of the Earth’s population gets killed off by an invisible enemy, but then again there’s more to this film than meets the eye. Writer Harry Spalding – here under the nom-de-plume of Henry Cross - had a fair track record in B-move exploitation having already written must-see films such as The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1962), House of the Damned (1963) and The Young Swingers (1963) and yet, after suggesting it as a joke, he was seemingly not keen on this title for his script.

There’s certainly not much screaming as the film opens with a tour through a body-strewn English countryside in which seemingly almost everyone has died on the spot. The film starts with a dead steam engine driver as his locomotive smashes into another at high speed, a stock shot which I think is from a silent film called The Wreckers (1929) which involved the staging of a head-on crash, filmed by Hungarian Géza von Bolváry and twenty two cameramen. Then a plane falls from the sky and we see two dead people outside and estate agents… surely a sign of The End of Days?

Willard Parker finds the lights on but nobody home
A Land Rover drives through deserted villages looking for any sign of life. It’s driven by American aeronautical engineer Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker a decent actor looking rather more than his 52 years) but still who soon over looks a car containing a dead woman and Thorley Walters who, at this early stage, surely can not be dead? Nothing doing, Jeff does the sensible thing and heads to the village pub – and I think we can all agree that there’s very little as compelling and comforting as a vintage sci-fi mystery based around a public house.

In the pub Jeff’s attempts to get a signal on the TV are rudely interrupted by a man holding a woman and, worse, a gun. It’s Quinn Taggart (the excellent Dennis Price) and Peggy Hatten (Virginia Field) an over-cautious couple who soon warm to the idea of another living person as, indeed, do Edgar Otis (the aforementioned Thorley) and his lady companion, Violet Courtland (Vanda Godsell) as Jeff finds them raiding a sweet shop. All five convene at the pub and try to work out why they are the only ones left.

Dennis Price and Virginia Field
Then things take a huge turn as the group spot two mysterious figures walking outside, Violet thinks it’s men in hazard suits and runs out to greet them as the rest hold back guns in hand – Jeff has a rifle – watching in horror as one of the figures turns round and zaps the middle aged woman dead. They are unearthly and look for all the world like early designs for Cybermen who didn’t make their debut in Doctor Who until the Tenth Planet in 1966. The figures walk off and the group have no desire to stop them.

A young couple drive up in a Vauxhall, a cocky young chap in too-tight slacks, Mel (David Spenser) and his heavily pregnant girlfriend Lorna (Anna Palk). Under Jeff’s instructions they head off to the nearest army base and secure some more rifles and begin to hunker down to try and work out a plan of action.

Terence Fisher directs a lot of tension into the film through what is essentially a character play with added alien menace. The interplay between the five is well handled as alphas Jeff and Peggy are drawn to each other as Quinn looks more and more venal – could anyone ever convey the mix of self-serving cowardice and  self-loathing as well as Dennis Price? Meanwhile the young couple bicker and Edgar turns increasingly to drink.

There’s a close encounter as Lorna grabs a midnight milk in the kitchen as one of the aliens appears at the window and Jeff narrowly avoids getting zapped and then additional creepiness is added as Violet is reanimated as a boggle-eyed zombie under the aliens’ control. Another tense scene see Peggy hiding in wide-eyed terror in a wardrobe as two zombies search for the living… More and more of the formerly deceased start appearing and it’s now that Quinn makes his move, trying to get away in his smart MG with Peggy at gunpoint. In spite of her tight dress and high heels Peggy is able to give him the slip and as he tries to make good his escape one of the aliens applies the microwave treatment.

The are worse places to hold up than a Edgar Wright knows full well.
Jeff rams one of the aliens in his Land Rover – good car casting in this picture – and they discover that they’re robots, an advance recce for extra-terrestrials clearly far too advanced to get their hands dirty at the early stages of an invasion. There must be some way to stop them… who is controlling the robots and how? Did I mention that Jeff is an engineer?

Dusty verdict: A good cast and decent direction make the most of this film and whilst it’s not quite a home counties Invasion of the Body Snatchers there’s enough suspense and human interest to keep your interest and it’s probably in the Top Ten Low Budget Alien Invasion Films Set in Pubs in Surrey!

There’s also an interesting score from avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens which adds much to the atmosphere. She composed scores for many Hammer horror movies as well as Amicus Productions and mostly took the work to pay the bills famously saying; 'Do you want it good, or do you want it Wednesday?'. She was the first woman to compose for British films and is a thoroughly interesting character in her own right and if I take one thing from this film it is to find out more about her. She apparently enjoyed being called the “Horror Queen” and it went with a style that included green nail varnish and the trappings of eccentric bohemia.

The main location is the lovely village of Shere in Surrey and Elisabeth’s father father, Edwin Lutyens, designed Manor House Lodge seen on a number of occasions, here as Dennis’ Price drives his MG. I can feel a location visit coming on, if only that pub is still open…

The train crash from The Wrecker and above the scene featured in this film

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