1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Terrornauts

Continuing 1967's trend towards British imports, Embassy Pictures released Amicus Productions' The Terrornauts in America. Amicus also gave us the two Daleks movies the year before. This low-budget film "stars" actors little known in the US. It has mid-60s B production values (better than 50s B films), but carries many traditional 50s themes. The story starts with an early SETI project, but quickly becomes a space battle of good vs. evil.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A team of researchers, led by Dr. Joe Burke, are scanning space for radio signals of intelligent life. Joe is driven by a vivid dream as a child, of another world, with two moons. Dr. Shore, the head of the radio-telescope facility is cranky about his equipment being used for such foolishness and not real science. Shore has convinced the foundation that was funding Burke to cut him off in 90 days if there are no results. Lo and behold, that night, Joe's team picks up a repeated signal. They trace it to an asteroid. Joe decides to spend all his remaining grant funds on transmitting equipment to send a signal back. He does this, while a prissy accountant from the foundation examines all his records. Unbeknownst to the team, their signal was received by an alien base on the asteroid. It dispatches a ship to earth. When the ship arrives, it scoops up the project building and carries it off, back to the asteroid. In the building are the team, Joe, Sandy, and Ben, plus the accountant and the coffee lady. When they arrive at the base, they find it deserted, except for a robot which shows them around, and a green skeleton in a command chair. The robot gives them three "intelligence" tests. They figure out how to open a box, so they get food. They don't fight a "scary" monster (which is a cross between an octopus, a crab and Carmen Miranda), so they get a ray gun. Sandy falls onto a transporter pad and is poofed onto the planet with two moons. There, she is chased and captured by green-skinned alien men with spears. Joe poofs after her. The green-men put Sandy on a stone table and are about to sacrifice her when Joe blasts the table with the ray gun. The green-men flee, Joe takes Sandy back to the poof pad, thence back to the base. As a reward, the robot brings them more cubes, which they "read" via head caps with wires. They learn that makers of the base died out (rather like the Krell) and their planet (with the two moons) invaded by "the enemy". That enemy turned the inhabitants into the savages that captured Sandy. Worse yet, a hostile fleet of the "enemy's" red rockets is headed for earth. Joe, Ben and Sandy must use the base's defenses to stop them. Informed by the cubes, they launch missiles which shoot down all but one of the red rockets. The last flaming rocket crashes into the base (which had then lifted off to become a ship too). The five earthlings jump onto the poof pad, which Joe reprogrammed for earth. They arrive at the site of the archeological dig in France, where Joe's uncle found a memory cube (which he gave to young Joe, causing the dream). A cranky gendarme arrests them for not having passports. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The first half is a fairly conventional story of the misunderstood scientist having his funding cut. The second half is wild and crazy with things happening. The effects (and monster) are amusingly low-rent, but it's just too quirky not to love.

Cold War Angle
The plot structure is pretty clearly Cold War. A fleet of hostiles is coming. They will dehumanize everyone. Only a defensive outpost can stop them by firing anti-missile missiles. These save "our home" from the enemy invaders. Classic.

Terror-lite -- Despite the movie's title, there isn't much terror. The event depicted on the poster is but a brief snip of the story, and not an especially pivotal one. Once Sandy poofs onto the two-moon planet, she is quickly captured by the primitive green men. They don't seem all that terrible at first. They're not even all that menacing with their feeble spear throwing skills. Apparently, the green men are zealous misogynists, as their first order of business upon capturing Sandy is to sacrifice her on a stone table. Of course, any such wanton waste of a nice young woman is terrible, but not really terror. Nor do these green fellows travel in space. They cannot be the Terrornauts. This name might apply to whoever it was piloting the fleet of red ships. They were *-nauts, at least. Perhaps their plan to savagize Earth was the terror part. The script did little to develop this, alas.

They're After Our Women -- Reviving the sci-fi tradition of appealing to the male instinct, Terrornauts gives us a brief dose of They're After Our Women. Sandy is immediately captured by the savage green men. They plan to kill her right away. Kick in those male instincts to save "our" females! Joe comes blasting to her rescue. The movie poster exaggerates the formula. The "virgin" (really?) on the table is much more curvaceous (and in a shorter skirt) than the real Zena Marshall (who is nice enough in actuality). Note the bare feet in the poster. It's one of those visceral 'symbols' of the helpless/vulnerable woman-of-the-tribe which the warrior male must rescue. In the move, Sandy keeps her shoes on. The torn-open blouse (in the poster), exposing lacy undergarments, is another visceral symbol the aliens ravaging. In the movie, Sandy's striped blouse remains un-ripped-open.

Comic Relief -- Mr. Yellowlees, the auditor, and Mrs. Jones, the coffee cart lady, serve no useful function in the plot. None, except for comic relief. The two make an interesting pair. He is the prissy proper upper middle class englishman type. She is the brash and earthy Cockney servant type. The do little beyond gasp and say "ow moy gawd" at each astounding event, but certainly do provide color to what would otherwise be fairly flat characterizations of the three scientists.

Prop Watch -- Note, when the team are undergoing their second "test". The sonic projector device, which conjures up the "monster", is the same prop as was the laser in The Projected Man. It's stripped of some extraneous wires and tubes, but it's the same complex acrylic prop.

Star Gazing -- Watch for Andre Maranne at the end, as the grumpy gendarme. Viewers may recognize him for his more famous role(s) as Francois in the various Pink Panther movies. Or, as chef Andre, in the Fawlty Towers episode, "Gourmet Night."

Flames. In. Space! -- An amusing bit of low-budget-ness in the way of special effects, comes at the end of the climactic space battle. One of the missiles hits a red enemy rocket. It doesn't blow up, like the rest, but starts to burn. From the scale of the flames, the model rocket looks to be about 8" long. The rocket keeps burning like an over-cooked marshmallow. Flames in space? It's so low-budget as to bring a smile.

Bottom line? For fans of 50s B-grade sci-fi movies, Terrornauts is a fun British film. What the first half lacks in action is more than made up for in the second half. Viewers looking for deep cerebral thoughts, or fine sets, or spiffy special effects, will not be as amused.


Anonymous said...

I own a poor copy VHS that I later transferred to DVD...

I remember this little film as a child..often was played Saturday afternoons on our local channel's "Sci-Fi" theater...

Always thought the final battle was quite imaginative (though as an adult, it showed the shoestring budget)..amazing music...

really needs a remake..

Darci said...

IMDB reveals this film was adapted (by John Brunner!) from Murray Leinster's 1960 novel The Wailing Asteroid.

thingmaker said...

And, if you think about it, you can see that Brunner's screenplay is pretty close to the novel. And, it's fairly good.
The problem is that it seems like everybody else involved thought the whole thing was a joke so they provided garishly silly sets and props (the teaching-device caps are particularly awful) and some of the worst special effects ever seen. Leaving aside the pathetic miniatures in the space station and spaceship battle, I particularly note that in the sequences on the alien world with multiple moons, the glass painting of the moons is rather hilariously undone by rising smoke from the shooting location passing behind it...
A nifty little novel and I can't help loving the movie as well.