Friday, 29 April 2016

X The Unknown (Leslie Norman, 1956)

(as with The Earth Dies Screaming, below, this was originally written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems.

Capitalising (literally) on the success of the previous year’s X-rated The Quatermass Xperiment, X The Unknown looked not to outer space for the source of its invasive threat, but to deep within the earth, from where a primordial being has been awakened by an army troop’s radiation detection training. Called in to deal with the mystery is Professor Royston, a scientist at the nearby Lochmouth Atomic Institute; a man who spends more time in his shed on his makeshift meccano, pulleys and wireless experiments in neutralising atomic energy safely (or ‘disintegrating atomic structure obviating the resultant explosion’, as he puts it, to the consternation of a visiting investigator) than on his work, he thereby arouses the ire of the Institute’s pompous boss (a nicely fussy Edward Chapman).

After radiation is then sucked from a container of trinium in Royston’s locked and barred workshop, he realises that what he is dealing with is beyond the bounds of his experience, although not his reason. ‘Whoever it was came in here must have been most unusual,’ he says. And unusual it certainly is, the threat in this case coming from a seething black radioactive gloop that spreads its way across the countryside from its home in a Scottish bog (in reality the Gerrard’s Cross Sand & Gravel pits), from where it has been rudely awakened. Royston surmises that it is a being of pure energy which feeds on energy. Unpersuaded by this reading of the situation however, the army, with a ‘these scientists you know’ approach, decide to give it a good licking from their flamethrowers, topping the fissure off with a skim of concrete for good measure. The predictable of course occurs and the creature is soon on the loose again, heading for the Atomic Energy Institute for ‘the biggest meal of its life’. Suddenly, Royston’s backyard experiments need to be pressed into urgent use.

The characterisation of Professor Royston is interesting. Although the name ‘Quatermass’ could not be used – his creator Nigel Kneale, disappointed at Hammer turning his pioneering scientist into, as he put it, ‘a creature with a completely closed mind’ through their use of American actor Brian Donlevy in the title role of the film version of The Quatermass Xperiment, refused permission – Professor Royston is a Quatermass figure in all but name. And Dean Jagger, in his beanie hat and overcoat, fills his character’s boots convincingly. A previous Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actor in Twelve O’ Clock High), brought in to give the picture some box-office prominence in America, he is a man who actually looks as if he knows one end of a geiger counter from the other. He is sympathetic, quizzical, courteous, and with a slightly distracted gleam in his eye. He really lends the picture some class. It was a nice touch to give him a walking stick as a prop too; he uses it well, stroking the floor with it when he is being reprimanded by his boss, using it to open the door of the ruined tower, sweeping a dangerous canister out of Old Tom’s reach (but crucially, waking him with his hand), using it to wave goodbye. He’s endearingly fallible too, responding ‘I don’t know’ repeatedly to questions, while still retaining an air of scientific authority. And any man who can say the line ‘how do you kill mud?’, not just with a commendably straight face, but convincingly, is well worth his salary.

As for the monster – and, in passing, it’s worth noting that the United Artists renamed The Quatermass Xperiment as The Creeping Unknown in the US – there are only so many times you can get away with wide-eyed dread on people’s faces before you actually have to show the thing, which initially bubbles out of its crack in a vaguely reptilian spawn. (Early attempts at visualization had apparently involved tapioca.) It found favour with the producers not least because of its suitability for budgetary constraints; ‘we wouldn’t have to build any space ship sets, which were inclined to be large and expensive’, said production manager and screenplay writer Jimmy Sangster.

Sangster’s screenplay took contemporary concerns about nuclear leakage from power plants as one source for his screenplay but, in spite of lines such as Royston’s ‘as long as this thing feeds, it will live, and the more it lives, the more it will grow’, it’s straining things to call X The Unknown a salutary nuclear parable. When asked why he wrote it this or that way, Sangster’s reply was, invariably, ‘for wages’.

It’s hard to know what more you could feasibly require of the film. As well as an original monstrous threat, it has a maverick scientist, a sceptical boss and his clean-cut heroic son, even a pipe-smoking major. And Leo McKern in a very early role, which sees him adopt a pretty fair private eye act (Mr McGill) in his trilby and overcoat. He is a sturdy and respectful presence, not easily swayed from his task of investigating the curious goings-on for the UK Atomic Energy Commission (Internal Security Division). Then there are the specific local details that add so much to the experience of watching the films now – the warning poster for Fowl Pest in the Police station for example – and some rather lovely location photography, from Gerald Gibbs, which nicely captures the hazy light of frosty, early spring days. It has a score from James Bernard too, whose music seethes and boils, as if, deprived of his usual resource of a named horror to build a musical theme around, he concentrated on the movement of the black mousse. Then there the film’s ‘blink-and-you-miss-them, did-I-really-see-that moments?’ – a grotesquely ballooning finger, a melting face – which caused Hammer some of their many problems with the British Board of Film Censors.

I do have one quibble though. Not about the cavalier disregard for a radiaoactive substance which seems to be selective about its victims – that’s practically a film convention – but about a line from the vicar as he is trying to shepherd his parishioners into his church. ‘Come on, it’s nice and warm inside’, he says. There are many things I can believe, but not that.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Earth Dies Screaming (Terence Fisher, 1964)

(originally written in July 2009, this was the first of a number of reviews that were published in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems, a collection edited by Julian Upton and published by Headpress in 2012; it also featured, in an edited version, as a podcast for MovieMail in 2011)

Er … hello? Is there anybody out there? Hello … help! (A strangulated gurgling follows and then the sound of a head thumping on a desk.) Such was the continuity announcer’s introduction to Channel 4’s graveyard screening of The Earth Dies Screaming back in the day, which led us straight into a train ploughing through a level crossing, 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 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, 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.

In fact these first few minutes are the most eeire and engaging of the film as – accompanied only by Elisabeth Lutyens’ soundtrack 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 (Shere, near Guildford), lifts a radio from the shop (needs must), and with rifle in hand, installs himself in a hotel, where he tries the TV and the radio, only to receive nothing but a curious oscillating hum. Eight minutes into the film, the spell is finally broken by the first words, from Dennis Price’s decidedly untrustworthy Quinn Taggart, who has walked in unnoticed: Turn it off. If Jeff Nolan is a man to have around in a crisis – a solid, dependable American, unfazed by aliens and zombies (in fact, just the sort of man that you can imagine selling real-estate, which is exactly what Parker retired to do after making the film) – then Quinn Taggart is his opposite. He is accompanied by Peggy, a woman he has told to pose as his wife (and played by Willard Parker’s wife, Virginia Field). They are later joined by 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. That’s all we need, a cheeky kid and a pregnant girl, says Quinn; They’re probably the most important people on earth right now, replies Nolan. 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 threatening 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. Whatever is controlling these proto-cybermen has its designs on the humans too, wanting to turn them into ‘sightless, mindless slaves’, as Nolan has it. The group alternate 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.

Now here’s a curious scene. Lorna, the pregnant girl, rises in the middle of the night to get herself a glass of milk. 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. I rather admire a film that only just breaks the hour mark but which is so relaxed about how it spends its time. 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.

Enthusiasts of ‘curious goings-on down English country lanes’ films will realise that The Earth Dies Screaming shares a few points of comparison with Wolf Rilla’s 1960 film Village of the Damned (adapted from John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos), in which another undefined event of extra-terrestrial origin occurs in a home counties setting and leaves a lasting effect. It also shares with this earlier film a minimum budget/maximum effectiveness aesthetic. In this regard, Village’s supreme moment comes with Peter Vaughan’s village bobby walking his bicycle into the infected area and simply falling over, out cold, to show its potency; The Earth Dies Screaming uses this technique up early on as a bowler-hatted city chap simply drops his briefcase and umbrella (though not his newspaper) and falls backwards onto a luggage cart on a suburban railway platform.

Lutyens’ music certainly lends distinction to the material, and Fisher’s direction is admirably spare and unfussy. And if that means that you know the closer a character gets to the camera, the more likely it is they will soon be receiving a nasty surprise, and that when a character says, it’s as quiet as a tomb here, they are sorely tempting fate, well that can be filed under ‘rewarded expectation’.

At the end, the survivors take off in a plane, hoping that their flight will atttract other survivors throughout the land. As I began this review with the words of continuity man Trevor Nichols, it seems only fair to give him the last words too: Nice to see the traffic moving steadily down that arterial road in the final shot, he said before closedown. Cheeky pup.

Three Films by Marc Isaacs - Lift, Travellers, Calais: The Last Border (2001-03)

(written in 2009 as the booklet notes for Second Run‘s DVD of the same name, and appearing later in that year as a podcast for MovieMail)

Teeth of a digger bucket scrape the concrete, clearing the debris at the remains of the Sangatte refugee camp; wind blows through the lift shaft of a tower block as the cable mechanism whirrs into action; a crisscrossing of rails sways us into a station. All three of these films – Calais: The Last Border, Lift, Travellers – are based in transitional areas, pinch points, places through which people travel to go somewhere, or hope to. It is in these places that Isaacs sows questions that take people off-guard, reconnecting them with the deeper motivations and themes of their lives.


We are all wounded inside in some way. We all carry unhappiness within us for some reason or other. Which is why we need a little gentleness and healing from one another. Ben Okri, from Beyond Words.

The idea behind Travellers – getting people to talk about their relationships and ideas of love in railway carriages and stations throughout the land – resembles that of a classic British Transport Film promoting the unexpected benefits of train travel, a feeling enhanced by the shots of whooshing trains and platforms at sunset; but this is 2002, not 1952, and the storylines aren’t so easily tidied up. Relationships are broken, and as well as tales of new connections made and old loves maintained, we hear of hurt, pain, abuse and bullying in people’s lives. Throughout, people talk of love, its surge, and fear of its loss.

For all its unavoidably worn nature though, there is an underlying idealism here for the possibilities of making connections, of reaching across to give succour, and of the redemptive possibilities of love. One man’s incantation on the word runs throughout. As he shivers on a platform, his phrases punctuate the film: without love we can’t live together; without love we can’t say hello to each other; without love we can’t live peacefully: we need to sow love. It seems like he has been there for ever, a crazy prophet, freezing at a nondescript station somewhere in England, sheltering from the wind in a plastic shelter on a mean yellow flip seat, and with words for us all to hear: we’re travellers you know, and all what we need in this world is love.

As the trains traverse the country, past back yards and past the sea, through wooded cuttings and dark winter fields, the amount of travellers, the volume of their stories, and the possibilities for their connection, multiply into journeys of endless possibility.


Hello. So you’re in the lift – again. What motivates you to want to stand in lifts for 10 hours a day … tell me, why do you do this?

The sudden hush that the closing of lift doors brings, enclosing familiar strangers in uncomfortable proximity, brings out the tics and twitches before speech, the eyes on the edge of fear, need or loneliness, the people ready with a defensive wall of humour. This film is not clinically prying though, and comes instead from a place of genuine curiosity, and the project of seeding people’s lives with words that may take root in their walls of daily inconsequence. We don’t hear Isaacs’ answer to the resident’s question. Instead, we hear his own questions to those who share the confined space: Are you in love? What’s the best thing you remember about your childhood? What motivates you to get up in the morning?

Passing though are the the contented and the lonely, the hospitable, the jolly, the drunks and the chatterers, the concerned and the religious, the shy and the barely-glimpsed. Sometimes their answers are disarming in their simplicity: Can you tell me what you were thinking about today? Oh, I’m just happy for it was a beautiful day. I was thinking about how great it is to be alive. Are you serious? The woman looks straight at the camera, and there is no doubt. Very.

Snatches of stories are left hanging with the lift’s arrival at the ground floor or at a person’s home. As the residents grow accustomed to his presence, Isaacs continues these fractured existential conversations, or people pick up where they left off by amplifying their earlier statements. Others start saying why they are leaving the lift. After a drink one evening, one man lingers as the door closes, wanting to talk more, seeing the opportunity to continue the evening.

Calais: The Last Border

Calais pictures booze-tripping Brits, trolleys stacked with Black Tower and Blossom Hill, and would-be immigrants, hoping for asylum, safety and a better life in Britain. The attitudes of the English, voiced at the ketchup, chips and tea hut, match the wall of primary colours from the warehouse opposite, its bright yellow turning sulphurous with dusk. They’re just taking over the whole country, they’re living in bloody luxury hotels; they’re demanding this and demanding that, at the expense of our own people. Nobody likes to think there’s going to be another holocaust, or anything like that, but there has to be a cut-off point, says one woman, as her husband tries out a phrase or two in his best It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum accent and a flock of gulls attacks a discarded carton of chips.

Their world is in marked contrast to the shades of blue-grey that characterise that of the asylum seekers and those refused entry to Britain. For them, the wind that blows through the fences and wires at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel is a cheerless, goading companion.

Morning prayers take place on a fenced wasteland to the wail of police siren. ‘Please come in’ says Ijaz to Isaacs later, inviting him through a metal gate into a puddly concrete and breeze block goods yard of oil drums and rusting metal – improvised night shelters for the determined. Ijaz’s family were killed in a rocket attack on Kabul. How do you feel? asks Isaacs. Ijaz laughs, as he often does. It’s a difficult question sir … Sometime before I lost my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, and now this time, there’s nobody with me, so, I’m extremely sad. It’s a very difficult time for me.

He walks between breakwaters on the blue-brown North Sea shoreline, a man in a dufflecoat under a ragged, lowering sky. As the film goes on, his optimism is gradually broken down to the point of tears.

Earlier, spoken by a woman off the booze coach: Very lucky people, we say it every morning when we get up - aren’t we the luckiest people in the world?

Three Meals

A resident of the tower block walks into the lift with a blue plastic bag, determined to address this fellow with the camera who has taken up daily residence there. How are you, you alright, yeah? You want to eat something? Banana? Ok, take it, alright. Isaacs later pictures himself with his camera and the half-eaten banana. Offers of chips and betel nut follow.

A man is eating at the burger stand in Calais. I don’t like the asylum seekers because they sponge off the English government, he says, emphasising his point with a thin, floppy chip. I’m very sorry mate but if that’s the way it is, it’s the way it is. As he walks out of camera, he delivers his parting shot: I’ll tell you what, I’d shoot the fucking lot of them. An older man in the queue looks at the camera silently, the corner of his mouth moves very slightly, and it is impossible to tell with whom he is in unspoken sympathy.

Jamaican Paul, having arrived on a useless ticket two days after visa rules changed, sits at a scuffed grass snack area at a garage near the channel tunnel entrance, his bags on the bench behind him, as he talks of his wish to show off Jamaican food and the meals he wanted to cook as a big-time chef in England: chicken soup, beef soup, red pea soup, oxtail, curry goat, fricassee chicken, french fried chicken, rice and peas, wild rice, dumpling and yam and banana. The film cuts to frying onions at the chip stall, their sound that of pouring rain.

Three Things

After a while, a resident recognises the existence of the man in their lift by donating a chair with a red plastic seat. I see they’ve given you a chair, says a woman in a fleece hat, to which Isaacs responds, what did you dream about last night?

In Calais, Ijaz is given a blue bic razor at a handout by Secours Catholique. In the adjoining Portakabin he asks Isaacs, behind the camera, I would like to make you a shave – would you like? He then adds, we are preparing for London, before walking out fresh-faced into the morning.

Anne is in hospital. Eight months on from her stroke, her husband buys her flowers from a station kiosk, his hand resting on their cellophane as they sit on the seat next to him on his way to a visit. After a curt in here to Isaacs, he wakes her and gives her a kiss, the pressure between their hands an unspoken version of the marriage vow that we hear later at Beverley and Tony’s wedding: all that I have I share with you, all that I am I give to you. Earlier, Isaacs had asked him what it would be like without this love in his life. I think I’d be done, he says.

Three Photographs

The first is of a man, whom Isaacs has never met, in his bath. He’ll kill me for this, says Beverley, showing him the photograph as she stands in their shared home. It’s a testament to Isaacs’ ability to tease out stories, but also to the readiness of people to honestly share their lives, however difficult, given the chance of conversation. The love that I’ve got now, it’s a love love. There’s a difference. says Beverley.

A creased, edge-blackened photograph shows a smiling young girl with a buttoned-up coat and a bow in her hair. Tulia tells her story, and we learn she is herself an immigrant and that the photograph dates from around the time that she went searching for her mother, from whom she had been separated at their wartime internment camp in Spain; a photograph from before the time she decided that no child of hers would be born to live through such an experience.

What did your mother look like?, asks Isaacs. Ijaz smiles. She looked like me. You can see in my face that she looked like me. He is then asked if he has a photograph of her. I came to France in very difficult ways, very dangerous ways. I had one picture of my mother but at the moment I don’t have her picture I’m sorry to say. Visions arrive of a hastily-vacated room, or confined space, a jettisoned holdall with items so precious they cannot be lost, but which are lost along the way. The last time we see Ijaz he is waiting for a meal at a soup kitchen. He says to Isaacs, you must only pray for me, because I don’t have anyone, I am alone.


Underlying all of these films is the theme of accommodation, the give and take of adjusting to and living with another’s presence and needs, the acceptance of what can be given, what can be lost, and what can be shared, whether this is on the scale of a tower block or a country.

The films do not require neat endings; they leave us looking down roads and along railway lines, imagining the countless stories, of residents, of immigrants, of booze-trippers, of train passengers; travellers all.

At the outset I quoted Ben Okri from his essay Beyond Words. I’ll end with his words too, this time from his collection of aphorisms The Human Race is Not Yet Free, in which he asks what hope there is for individual realities in a world such as ours, dominated by forces of violence, othodoxy and manipulation of public opinion. He concludes ‘the only hope is in daring to redream one’s place in the world – a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self-becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things.’ These films are a small step in that direction.

In Travellers, a train, aglow with golden light, crosses a bridge.