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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Day of the Triffids

This is one of the big B sci-fi movies of the early 60s. Triffids has its share of low-budget issues, but this British production still has its moments and has its fans. Based (loosely) on John Wyndham's 1951 novel, the story is yet another variation on 50s post-apocolyptic visions. Triffids is actually two unconnected stories in one film about the end of civilization as we knew it. One story follows the travels of Bill Masen in search of other sighted survivors. The second story, filmed later and cut into the first, watches a husband and wife team of biologists, stranded in a remote lighthouse when civilization ends. They must battle the invaders alone.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A dazzling meteor show in the night sky has almost everyone watching. The shower also awakens some odd plants, Triffidus celestus, whose spores came to earth on a meteor. Awakened, they begin to grow, move and eat people.
Story One follows Bill Masen, a sailor whose eyes were bandaged from an operation. He awakens to an empty hospital and a virtually deserted London. Those remaining in the city are blind. The meteor shower ruined their optic nerves. Bill rescues a sighted 12 year old girl named Susan after a train wreck. Together, they make their way to France where sighted survivors are said to be gathering. In France, they find an enclave of a few sighted people, lead by a Christine Durant, caring for 40 blind people. Bill is torn between staying in the little community and moving on to Cadiz where a naval base is thought to house sighted survivors. A busload of sighted (but drunk) convicts takes over the manor. Bill, Christine and Susan narrowly escape the riotous party before the triffids attack the manor. The three travel south in an ice cream truck they found. In Spain, they come to an estate of a man whose wife is pregnant. They stay to help deliver the baby. While they stay, millions of triffids surround the compound's fence. Deducing that they are attracted to sound, Bill lures them away with the annoying ice cream trucks's music. This allows everyone else to escape to Cadiz and be rescued by submarine. Bill shows up at the last minute so the little ad hoc family is reunited.
Story Two follows Tom and Karen Goodwin, biologists living and working in a remote lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall. Their marriage is in trouble, and Tom has a drinking problem, in addition to being a self-pitying jerk. Triffids attack them too, eventually forcing them higher into the lighthouse. In a desperate last defense, Tom uses a seawater fire hose on the triffids. Seawater dissolves them. The world is saved by common seawater. Church bells ring. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
The post-apocollyptic city is well done and moody. Some of the effects are cheesy, but some are actually pretty solid. The trope of giant semi-sentiant, mobile carnivorous plants is too unique to be dull.

Cold War Angle
Wyndham's original novel was more clearly a communist invasion-angst analogy. The film comes across less so, but the insidious, unstoppable onslaught which crumbles "western'" civilization, still has its fit.

Fragile Empire -- Inherent in Wyndham's novel was the message about how fragile our mighty civilization is. Take away one common thing -- often taken for granted -- and just about everything crumbles. All of our (1960s) technologies and systems were rendered useless (as exemplified by the ship, the train, and the airliner) when no one could see how to operate them.

A Familiar Pair -- Story One is much like H.G. Wells' novel, The War of the Worlds. Instead of Martians causing civilization's collapse, it was carnivorous plants. A lone survivor tries to escape the invaders and link up with other survivors. Something ubiquitous on earth saves humanity. Story Two is a twist on the monster-onboard tale that will get retold a few more times. Instead of being trapped in a spaceship with a monster (as in It, Terror From Beyond Space), the claustrophobic cylinder of terror is a lighthouse.

Book Loose -- The screenplay is only loosely based on the novel. Some of the characters have the same names, though somewhat different roles. In the book, the plants are the escaped product of a reckless Soviet scientist. In the movie, they're from space. Other elements from the book can be identified, such as the bus load of rapacious convicts standing in for the brutal Torrence and his gang, etc. The book character of Josella is omitted. Christine Durrant becomes Masen's eventual love interest. While the book and the screenplay diverge, ( and this rankles some folks) the screenplay actually stands on its own fairly well.

Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant -- The monsters themselves are one of the weaker parts of the movie. The producers did what they could (men in rubber plant suits), but making a huge plant move and be menacing was just too tall an order for their limited budget. Even Steven King would have trouble making plants frightening (on screen).

Spores From Space -- It is an interesting parallel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers that the plant invaders and consumers of humankind, come from space. This trope was familiar to sci-fi audiences, so helps the movie achieve the alien invaders mood.

Stiff Upper Lips -- There is an interestingly British spin to this end-of-the-world scenario. Order and decorum must be maintained. Londoners, stricken blind, dress themselves and attempt to stroll the sidewalks as if nothing were wrong. (why?) A blind railroad agent just sits at his ticket window, ineffectual, but faithful to his job. Stiff upper lips are most obvious in the crew of the airliner. All blind and out of fuel, they all know they're about to die. Yet, they stare blankly ahead, resolute to the end. Even the acting of Howard Keel as Bill Masen, has a "proper" British feel to it. Keel is the unexcitable hero. Compare him to Kieron Moore's more tempestuous Tom Goodwin.

Bottom line? Triffids is an unforgettable movie. It has its flaws and can get a bit talky at times, yet it has a good deal of entertainment value.


Stephen Souter said...

"Triffids is an unforgettable movie."

"Unforgettably awful" was more my impression. I have seen the movie exactly once and that was sufficient! IMHO the 1981 miniseries was a better (and more faithful) adaptation of Wyndham's book.

Unknown said...

Howdy Film Critics,

I have seen this movie a few times but have never read the novel.

That said, it was an excellent movie.

I judge movies on their own merit, not on how true they are to the original story line.

The original “Thing From Another World” did not follow Campbell’s story line – but it is still a classic of the highest caliber.

The acting and story line, holes included, are just fine.

Taking place with two different groups of people adds to the film.

Howard Keel and Kieron Moore are great leading men.

Nicole Maury and Janette Scott are beautiful leading ladies.

The scene in the stairs where they are hosing down the Triffids with sea water is great.

As a kid, the movie was very scary.

I have seen the remakes, just different (and maybe more accurate) ways to tell a story.

To me, this is the best version.


See you at the movies,