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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Night of the Big Heat

A second film by Planet Productions, Night of the Big Heat (NBH) is the sister film to Planet's previous release, Island of Terror. NBH ran in the US as the lower half of a double bill with Godzilla's Revenge.. Directed by Terrence Fisher and staring names like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, it wasn't the usual fluffy B feature. Based on a 1959 sci-fi novel by John Lymington, the whole of NBH has (appropriately) a 50s feel to it. Aliens invade. A plucky band of people must survive the siege and try to stop them.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The island of Fara, off the coast of England, is experiencing record heat in the 90s while the mainland is in the grip of winter. A scientist named Hanson is setting up camera 'traps' in the forest. A local hobo fans his little campfire to flame, then shrieks in agony as he is (apparently) burned up by something off screen. Meanwhile, a pretty young woman shows up at the local inn to be the new secretary for writer (and inn owner) Jeff Callum. Much run time is expended on the love triangle back story. In short, Jeff had an affair with Angela awhile back. He just wanted her body, but she had bigger plans. Jeff teeters between reformed-fidelity and lust. Frankie catches on eventually. Jeff comes clean, fidelity renewed. Angela is marginalized. A repairman tries to rape Angela, but is stopped. Amid all that, others on the island, and some sheep are being burned to death. Hanson's theory is that aliens are making the island hot. They're a vanguard to see if earth can be made suitable for them, prior to a full scale invasion. People scoff. More people die. It gets hotter yet. Communications with the mainland are out. People try to reach the local meteorological station to try to radio for help, but they get burned en route. Hanson tries, and figures out that the aliens are attracted to light and/or energy sources. He and the others run the gauntlet by driving with their lights off. The aliens have fried the station's radio. The small group then hope to blow up the aliens with some dynamite. They set some haystacks on fire as bait. The dynamite is ineffective. More people die. The aliens (looking like glowing "rocks" with fringe) have Jeff and Frankie surrounded in a pit, and Ken and Angela in an old concrete bunker. Just as there is no hope left, it starts to rain. Rain kills the aliens. The survivors are safe (and wet). Jeff and Frankie hug. Ken and Angela hug. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story is somewhat conventional in structure, but the directing is good, keeping the pace and interest up. Lee and Cushing play their roles well, as do the others.

Cold War Angle
The 50s idiom was that invading aliens were a metaphor for invading communists. This could apply to NBH as well, perhaps with an added angle. The aliens (communists) might first try to change someplace in the west to be more like their home country. Then, with that bridgehead, they would proceed with invasion. The threat of home-grown communists was a persistent worry. (qv. McCarthy)

Sister Films -- NBH has a great deal in common with Island of Terror, both produced by Planet Productions in close succession. Both have Terrence Fisher as Director. Both have Peter Cushing. Both take place on small islands. Some locals die mysteriously. One (in each move) die in the exact same cave set. The island has a visiting scientist who figures out that the trouble is caused by aliens. Both movies have aliens who are slow-moving lump things. Communication with the mainland is cut off. People are being killed by the aliens, one by one. The islanders try using dynamite, but to no avail. In the end, it is something natural that kills the aliens. Well, Strontium 90 isn't all that natural, but was something earthly. In this sense, both films end like H.G.Wells did his War of the Worlds. The humans didn't stop the aliens, something of the earth did.

Bad Egg? -- Some viewers liken the aliens to fried eggs, due to their yellow-glowing hemispherical shape. That's a bit harsh. Yes, they are proof of how low the budget was. On the plus side, they're not so automatically frightening as a slobbering gill man, or some such. That it makes it more credible that the doomed islanders would stand and look at them longer than they should, before the heat and sonic waves incapacitate them. If the the aliens had been obviously scarier, people would have run at first sight of them. Think about it. Fisher deserves some credit for not having the aliens be humanoid (men in hooded unitards with pointy shoulder caps.) or mere "energy beings" of post-production double exposure lights.

Sluts Are People Too -- Low budget films are infamous for shallow characters. Dashing hero, brilliant scientist, damsel in distress, etc. etc. Pip and Jane Baker did a nice job of making the Angela character more complex. On the one hand, she's the shameless tart, trying to use her youthful curves as leverage for some personal gain. Yet, she is also the terrified victim when Tinker tries to rape her. Her 'honey' attracted more than just the fly she intended. She's both petulant and demanding, yet cowers in a corner when danger nears. She talks tough about killing herself (with Ken's stolen gun) rather than be burned alive, yet she really hasn't the nerve. Her comment to Ken (after he took back the gun) seems telling: "You don't think I'm old enough to take care of myself?" Perhaps her whole scheme to steal Jeff was to prove her womanhood (to herself).

Other Characters -- Angela wasn't the only character to avoid 2D-izing. Jeff is interesting as the hero, in that he can't quite shut off his lust for Angela, even though we wants to be faithful (now) to his wife, Frankie. Get him alone with Angela, and he seems to loose his composure, on several occasions. He's not the totally-in-charge leading man. Christopher Lee does a nice job with the eccentric scientist, Hanson. He has answers and spouts the usual science babble, but he is most often caustic and condescending. Yet, in the final assault on the creatures, he is also brave and leader-like.

What's In A Name?
-- The original title was Night of the Big Heat, as was the book it was based on. It was also marketed with the title, Island of the Burning Damned. The British seemed to like their "damned" movie titles. When adapted for American television, the title was toned down a bit to Island of the Burning Doomed.

Based on the Book -- While I've not read the book, reports are that the screenplay follows the 1959 novel fairly well. A notable exception being that the book had the aliens as spider-like. Fisher did not have the budget for that. He could only afford one glowing rock-thing.

Bottom line? NBH is produced with the same recipe as Island of Terror, but still has its moments. The two might make a fun double feature for a compare and contrast event. If you can get past the love triangle stuff, the monster siege story is entertaining, if not all that unusual.

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