Amicus is largely remembered today (thanks to the fondly regarded series of anthology pictures indelibly associated with the name) for being one of the only British-based production houses to ever seriously challenge the indomitable Hammer Films Productions for a place in the market for horror movies which flourished during the 1960s and continued on into the first half of the ‘70s -- although, arguably, American International Pictures (AIP) always posed the only really serious threat to Hammer’s crown during the period. However, when not dealing in the business of portmanteau horror, Amicus -- led by antagonistic American partners Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky (who between them ran the British company from offices based in New York and London) -- also occasionally attempted several forays into the realm of matinee-orientated, adventure-based science fiction, which began when Rosenberg’s and Subotsky’s associate Joe Vegoda of Regal Pictures pulled off the coup of purchasing from the BBC, for the derisory sum of £500, the rights to adapt for the big screen Terry Nation’s first Dalek story, which was originally written for weekly sci-fi series “Doctor Who”, and whose popularity evidently caught the Beeb on the hop in the early part of the show’s history.
Subotsky’s screenplay subsequently turned what had originally been a seven-part adventure serial, cheaply but imaginatively produced at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studio D, into a colourful, 80 minute U certificate comedy-adventure romp in space starring Peter Cushing and Roy Castle, prosaically entitled “Doctor Who and the Daleks”. This was released in Britain to matinee audiences in the summer of 1965 during the school holidays, under the moniker Aaru Pictures (so that parents used to associating the name Amicus with horror wouldn’t be scared out of letting their children attend). It proved to be a hugely successful means of cashing in on the merchandise-motivated ‘Dalek mania’ then sweeping across playgrounds all over the UK, thanks to the attractive selling point that it afforded a first opportunity for youngsters to see the ever popular tank-like mechanised aliens in full colour, and on the big screen.
Its popularity spawned a sequel, which did less well as the mania for all things Dalek-shaped began to wane, but still persuaded Subotsky that there was an exploitable market for juvenile science fiction fantasy yet to be sufficiently tapped. Two more low-budget flicks were hastily put into production as a result. But rather than the expansive soundstages at Shepperton, which had been intelligently used to create impressive sets that brought the Dalek menace to the masses in relatively spectacular fashion, “They Came from Beyond Space” and “The Terrornauts” were audience insultingly old-fashioned and poorly budgeted affairs -- rush-made in partnership with Embassy Pictures in the cramped quarters of Twickenham Studios. Of the two, the former is just about passable these days as retro campy sci-fi entertainment, thanks to the appropriation of sets and props from the Doctor Who pictures. But “The Terrornauts” on the other hand was so shoddily staged and realised that it approaches Ed Wood levels of misconceived ineptitude, despite having at its disposal the services of two science fiction luminaries of the day, with well-regarded British author John Brunner adapting the screenplay from the novel “The Wailing Asteroid” by pulp writer Murray Leinster. Both films played as a double-feature in the US in 1967, but “The Terrornauts” didn’t even get a release in the UK until 1971 after its original 72 minute running length had been ignominiously hacked down to a frankly-still-too-long, second feature status 50 minute playing time. By that point, its starchy mix of under-budgeted ‘50s-style space opera and misfiring light comedy-farce must have seemed even more dated than it had done in 1967.
Now the film has resurfaced again as part of Network Distributing’s British Film range -- and it makes for a curious viewing experience indeed for the fan of British cult horror and fantasy of the period. Its core cast, incongruously made up of Simon Oates and Stanley Meadows (supporting actors in many ‘60s film series’ of the day, here struggling as the uncharismatic male leads), early Bond girl Zena Marshall (“Dr No”), and comedy actors Charles Hawtrey and Patricia Hayes, are teamed up in a desperately floundering and clumsily produced affair that somehow has a weird mesmerising charm about it all the same, born of the kind of bathos that only comes of seeing fairly good performers in a bad production desperately trying to do something – anything -- to save themselves, while having only utterly useless material at their disposal in order to do it with … It’s nostalgically cringe-worthy in a quite fascinating way; and if you want to take that as a (qualified) recommendation, then don’t say you haven’t been warned!
The lack of a decent budget proves itself to be a debilitating problem even when it comes to something as fundamental as the establishment of a consistent tone: while the latter half of the film looks like it’s aimed at a younger audience, with its space-faring capers inclusive of the requisite quirky robots, green-skinned alien savages and offbeat monsters, the whole of the first part feels like a lumpy, dialogue-heavy stage play fit only for sending youngsters quickly to sleep by never leaving the drab monitoring station facility of a SETI-style research group tasked with looking for signs of alien life in deep space -- except, that is, for some brief forays into the control room of the Radio Telescope that’s doing the monitoring, where two white-coated boffins (Richard Carpenter & Leonard Cracknell) seem more interested in nipping off to the canteen at inopportune moments than scouring the firmament for signs of hidden alien intelligence in the universe.
The first twenty-five minutes are stiffly directed by British second feature specialist Montgomery Tully and are full of technical speak and explanatory blather about the science of radio astronomy that feels pitched at a much older audience than that for which the film was surly intended. The beige-brown set is dull, with cheaply made control panels and computer banks that have crudely painted-on dials and displays. It’s quite amusing to see how gender lines are equally as crudely delineated as well, for the ‘glamorous assistant ‘Sandy’s corner of the room has been turned into a traditional girlie secretarial office space, and is full of filing cabinets and desks with typewriters, etc.; while the boys stick to the part of the facility that’s filled with gadgets and serious looking scientific paraphernalia with blinking lights and oscilloscope waves etc., indicating important work being done.
A suggestive backstory encapsulated by a weird painting that visionary space scientist Dr Joe Burke (“Doomwatch” star Simon Oates) keeps on his wall, is never fully exploited, and instead leads to a rather large plot-hole opening up when the focus of the narrative switches to other concerns; but it involves Burke revealing how his ambition of making contact with alien civilisations has been prompted by a strange, life-changing early childhood occurrence while on an archaeological dig in the South of France, when the discovery of a strange cuboid artefact made of unknown materials, and later given to him by his archaeologist uncle as a gift, results in a lucid dream about an alien volcanic landscape with two suns that has haunted Burke with its sense of realism ever since – although realism doesn’t haunt the viewer here, as the matte painted effect of the two suns is one of the worst ever put on film.
Burke, his sidekick Ben Keller (Meadows), and secretarial help Sandy Lund (Marshall) run project Star Talk from a small back room based at a scientific research facility overseen by its disapproving, dictatorial head pen-pusher Dr Shore (Max Adrian), who coverts his million pound Radio Telescope’s time and resents the half hour of use a week Burke and his small team have been allotted. He’s been trying to get the project shut down for ages because of its lack of success, and after a trip to The Holmes Institute (which awards Burke his grant each year) he tells Star Talk’s head how he has advised the Institute to give the project just three more months to come up with commercially exploitable results or be switched off for good. Tedious back-and-forth arguments between Burke and Shore and his two team members take up most of the first twenty-five minutes; and even when their equipment at last picks up a signal -- eerily familiar to Burke from his childhood dream -- coming from one of the asteroids in the solar system’s main asteroid belt, Shore is no less antagonistic and dismissive. So Burke determines to use the rest of the money from what might well be his last grant, to buy the parts needed to turn the Radio Telescope into a transmitter that will be powerful enough to send a signal back to the asteroid source, maybe as a result making contact with an off world intelligence for the first time in human history.
Burke’s actions result in a giant alien craft (represented by a dinky model on visible strings) travelling from the signalling asteroid and arriving on earth to hover ‘menacingly’ (or rather, shakily) directly above the office complex from which Burke’s team are transmitting their communications signal. The Telescope control room boffins don’t notice its arrival (suggesting this device of there’s isn’t worth the million pound price tag placed on it) until one of them detects its presence simply by looking through the window and pointing at it! The craft then airlifts the entire complex into space with a tractor beam and establishes a force field around it to maintain normal earth-like conditions for the human occupants, who by this time include Charles Hawtrey’s nervous accountant Joshua Yellowlees ((sent by the Institute to keep an eye on the project’s expenditure) and chirpy char-lady Mrs Jones (Patricia Hayes). The presence of these two comedy actors, who proceed to riff on their well-established comedy personas as campy, lily-livered, bureaucratic coward and working-class Mrs Overall/Hilda Ogden, tea-dispensing gossip-types respectively, highlights the dissonance in the screenplay between the initial semi-seriousness of its approach to a hot button ‘first contact’ sci-fi subject and the matinee comedy antics which, to be fair, soon become essential for offsetting the obvious inadequacy of the resources available to the production when it comes to realising the off world sets.
When they reach the futuristic base on the asteroid from which the kidnapping ship derives, the group find the minimalist metallic corridors deserted (the design seems to be based heavily on the look of the Dalek city in Nation’s story, but is far less convincingly realised than the BBC version even with its limited resources) except for a friendly mobile robotic teaching aid (a poor Dalek clone that looks like a futuristic hat stand with wobbling antennae attached, made out of cardboard and spray-painted silver), apparently left behind by the one-time inhabitants to guide the visitors through a crystal maze-style set of tasks designed to determine whether they are sufficiently intelligent enough to be able to carry out their part in defeating the hostile alien battle fleet which originally wiped out or regressed to primitive form the original inhabitants of this base, and which is now heading for earth to do the same thing all over again.
In the 50 minute version, which is the one that has been restored as the main feature on this disc, since that’s the one that got the limited British release, the whole of the ‘alien testing’ plot is removed and the film cuts straight to an escapade on the alien planet with two suns that Burke dreamt about as a child. It’s filled with brutish alien savages, descendants of the race who made the futuristic base and who provide the group with an example of what will happen to humanity if the deadly alien enemy battle fleet ever reaches the earth. Unfortunately, they also demonstrate the inadequacy of the film’s makeup department, as they are clearly nothing more than some burly stunt men in green body paint wearing green swimming caps! After being matter-transported to the surface of the planet by accident, Sandy becomes their sacrificial offering and Burke, wielding the laser gun provided as a prize in one of the earlier tasks, sets out to rescue her from being dispatched on a stone altar with a rather large knife -- probably the reason why the film has actually been upgraded, since its original theatrical release, from a U to a PG certificate!
Having sufficiently established themselves as worthy subjects Burke, Ben and Sandy are fitted with special alien tech reading devices … or rather, more shower caps -- this time with multi-coloured electrical wires attached to them with crocodile clips that connect up to a series of cubes (like the one that caused Burke’s childhood dream about the alien planet) so as to impart the necessary knowledge needed in order to pilot the asteroid’s fortress base into space on a mission to defend the earth from the same fate as that which befell the aliens now helping them by providing this technology from beyond the grave.
You can also see the original 72 minute cut that graced US theatres on this disc. It comes in the extras section and hasn’t been restored to the same standard as the 50 minute version, although aside from a flurry of green tram lines at each reel change, the quality isn’t bad enough to be a major issue. Oddly enough, this longer version is far more entertaining than the shorter one, which, by cutting all the dafter bits, ends up feeling considerably duller. Besides the lengthy middle section where Burke and the team are tested by their robotic alien kidnappers, affording us a look at one of the least convincing man-in-a-monster-suit scenes ever committed to celluloid, it also has more dialogue from the Hawtrey and Hayes double-act, both of whom are conspicuous in adding nothing to the plot at all and are clearly only there for light relief. Even with the fate of the earth in the balance they aren’t actually expected to take part in the climactic attempt to pilot the alien warship, and instead simply stand at the back and gawp comically as the humourless scientists do all the work. Mrs Jones even makes her priorities quite clear when she pointedly refuses to put on one of the alien knowledge-imparting reading devices on the grounds that: ‘It’s not long since I had a perm!’
Patricia Hayes is probably the saving grace of this film in many ways, although whether she’s supposed to be undercutting the seriousness of the action with an implied wink at its absurdities and inadequacies is genuinely hard to fathom. She barges grinning into scenes that are being played straight with her cry of ‘evening all – tea up!’ and proceeds to highlight rather than obscure the many stupidities on offer in the script: ‘wot you all getting up to tonight then?’ she enquires on finding Yellowlees and the Star Talk team contemplating imminent alien communication. ‘We’re trying to contact someone in space,’ deadpans Sandy. ‘No …! Well I never!’ offers the clearly unimpressed char-lady, turning to Yellowlees; ‘you never know what this lot’s gonna be getting’ up to next!’ Mrs Jones attempts at comic contributions become almost surreal later when the group encounter the burbling robot supervisor of the alien base after their kidnap, whereupon her immediate response is to confess to a clearly flabbergasted Yellowlees, ‘I wouldn’t fancy spending the night with one of them things. Look at all them spiky bits!’
Just imagine if Susan Foreman or Barbara Wright, upon encountering a Dalek for the very first time, reacted to it not with terror but with curious speculations as to its performance prospects in the sack … the whole history of British television could have taken an entirely different and rather unsavoury turn!
“The Terrornauts” comes to UK DVD in an edition that presents both cuts of the film alongside a theatrical trailer and a photo gallery of posters and lobby cards that try to artificially ramp up interest by casting a prurient spotlight on Zena Marshalls lame ‘altar sacrifice’ scene using the tag line: ‘a virgin sacrifice to the gods of a ghastly galaxy’ -- but the film’s box office failure at the time indicates such desperate measures weren’t fooling anybody. Today, the release of “The Terrornauts” is definitely a welcome one for Amicus fans, filling a glaring hole in our collections; but don’t expect anything other than a parade of flimsy set-pieces set amid cheap miniature model effects and creaking sets. Elizabeth Lutyenstsky contributes a classy, incongruously zestful score but everything else about this production exudes an air of slipshod desperation and only the lingering nostalgia for this type of British fantasy fare makes it worth anyone’s effort.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!