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Sunday, January 5, 2014


The first sci-fi movie in American theaters in 1976 was a re-release of a 1972 British film, Doomwatch (DW). It followed the tradition of Quatermass and Dr. Who, in being a feature film spin-off of a popular British TV series. Many of the television cast resume their small-screen roles, though in lesser importance. Ian Bannen stars as Dr. Shaw, who was not part of the television characters. Bannen does most of the on-screen work, while the television group provide backup. DW was re-released in America in January 1976. It was sometimes retitled “Island of the Ghouls” and sold as part of a triple feature with Grave of the Vampire and Garden of the Dead, even though DW was not much of a horror film.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Shaw is sent to the rugged island of Balfe off the Cornish coast to gather some specimens for the Doomwatch scientists to test. They want to track the success of a clean-up effort from an oil tanker spill the year before. Dr. Shaw meets with a cold and unfriendly reception on the island. Nonetheless, he gathers his samples. Instead of traveling back the next day, he sends the samples on, and stays on, intrigued by the islanders’ odd and secretive behavior. A crazed dog attacks him in the woods, leading Shaw to discover a shallow grave of a young girl. When he fetches the reluctant sheriff, the body is gone. Other mysterious doings keep Shaw asking questions, which makes the islanders even more hostile towards him. Shaw is attacked by a disfigured man hidden in an old barn. The lab tests showed elevated growth rates. The fish in the area grow to adult size in a short time. Undaunted by his beating, Shaw finds off shore, a Royal Navy restricted zone. Shaw arranges for a diver to check it out. He finds the dumped, but only mildly radioactive containers. He also finds some newer barrels. The admiral acknowledges the radioactive dump, but not the barrels. Those, it turns out, came from a chemical firm experimenting with growth hormone for livestock (via injection). When the experiment failed (the animals got deformed and violent), the firm hired another company to dispose of the waste, which they did by dumping it in the Navy’s restricted zone. The combination of radioactivity and sea water altered the hormone so that it could be absorbed digestively. The townsfolk have contracted a thyroid disease called Acromegaly, but are deeply ashamed, thinking the disfigurement was a sign of inbreeding or a divine judgement. Shaw tries to convince them to seek treatment on the mainland, but the disfigured folk rebel, saying the mass exodus would “kill” the island they’ve called home for centuries. They menace Shaw, but he stands firm. The islanders relent with weeping. The next day, boat loads of the disfigured are being shuttled to the mainland. Close-up on bubbling evil drums in the sea. Roll credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The director, Peter Sasdy, managed to build some suspense and mystery in the unfolding of the tale. For a 70s environmentalist-angst film, the script manages to avoid the typical Hollywood style (blunt, preachy and shallow), instead, building a tale with some pathos and depth. Rare for such films.

Cultural Connection
The Torrey Canyon — On March 18th, 1967, the supertanker Torrey Canyon became stuck on rocks off the Cornish coast and began leaking thousands of gallons of crude oil. This was England’s Exxon Valdez event, sludgy beaches, oil soaked dead birds, etc. It energized the growing environmentalist movement, and fed the enviro-angst that would would blossom into outright gloom in the 70s. The oil spill and cleanup mentioned at the outset of DW is not named, but to British audiences, would clearly be a reference to the Torrey Canyon spill just a few years earlier.

TV Spinoff — Like other films before it, DW was a theatrical released based on a popular television series. Doomwatch, the series, aired three seasons, starting in 1970. It featured a team of scientists solving envro-cases, rather presaging the now-ubiquitous team formula (ala CSI, etc.). Four of the series cast were in the feature film, though they played relatively minor roles. Actor John Paul, for instance, kept his role as Dr. Quist, but instead of being the “star”, was relegated to Shaw’s boss who got occasional calls from Shaw.

Enviro-Angst — Common for the 70s was the notion that mankind faced imminent “doom” from environmental issues: pollution, poor land management, overpopulation, man-made chemicals, etc. The name of the original TV series “Doomwatch” pretty well sums up the ethos of the time. Doom was expected. The eco-vigilant would stand watch. Today’s angst over GMO foods, “big pharma”, and evil corporations doing unscrupulous things to an unsuspecting public, is hardly new. DW (the movie) had it all — nuclear waste dumping, chemical company dabbling, growth hormones for the food supply, unscrupulous businessmen (the dumping company) and even a government prone to denial.

Victim Twist — What sets DW apart from the usual Hollywood versions of EnviroAngst, is its focus on the victims as part of the problem. The islanders’ denial of the (real) problem actually proves to be the toughest hurdle for Shaw and DW team. They could diagnose the problem, browbeat officials into compliance and connect the dots, but the islanders refused to admit that there even was a problem. This is an insight usually lacking in most EnviroAngst films. The public refusing to see the problem was part of the problem.

Boffin Saviors — DW has a curious mixed message about science. On the one hand, it was the unscrupulous chemical engineers who cooked up the failed growth hormone. It was the Navy’s nuclear scientists who created the “mildly” radioactive waste. Yet, it would be the boffins of the Doomwatch lab who would ferret out the truth and ultimately become the saviors of the islanders. The 70s suspicion of technology (and scientists) was not yet overpowering in 1970 England.

Bottom line? DW is more of a CSI-type mystery drama than it is a sci-fi in the usual sense. No aliens, or saucers, or monsters ever factor in. Instead, it’s a sciencey for having a lab and people in white coats doing stuff with microscopes and computers. Sci-fi’s good ol’ nemesis “radiation” makes a token appearance. The pacing can seem slow to American viewers (accustomed to lots of action), but the unfolding of the mystery is reasonably well done.

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