Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: T is for The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Somewhere high up in the Swiss Alps, three youths are attempting to scale the south face of the Trollenberg. But as one of them scouts ahead on the high peak he soon gets lost in a rapidly developing dense and frigid fog. He then reports to his comrades below there’s actually someone in the fog, coming toward him. Then suddenly, the man screams, and then he plummets past the others on the ledge below. Still all tethered together, the other two men are able to brace and not tumble over the side after him. And, thinking he’s still alive, as they struggle to pull him up to safety, they’ve almost got him reeled in when one of the men gasps, recoils, and drops the rope. Meantime, the second man can barely hold, begging for help, until the fraying line snaps and their friend falls out of sight. Berating the other climber for letting go when they almost had him, well, apparently, the second man missed the fact it wouldn’t have mattered because their comrade’s head had been torn clean off.

Cut to a passenger train rocketing into a darkened tunnel somewhere down the mountain. And after some nifty, Saul Bass inspired opening credits, we move inside the train to a certain compartment occupied by three people: Sarah and Anne Pilgrim (Jayne, Munro) -- Sarah is the one who’s awake; and sitting across from them is Alan Brooks (Tucker), with his nose currently stuck in a newspaper. When the younger Anne wakes up, she’s told they’ve reached the mountains. Moving to look out the window, the girl seems to see something, but then has some kind of seizure and faints right into the startled Brooks’ lap. When she comes to, Anne declares they must get off at the next stop and is quite adamant about it. When asked what the next stop is, an intrigued Brooks says it’s the town of Trollenberg, which also happens to be where he is getting off.

At the station, Brooks offers the ladies a ride to his hotel. There, they run into a Philip Truscott (Payne), who recognizes the Pilgrims as a famed English psychic act -- only it isn’t an act as Anne uses her extraordinary abilities to tune into a terrible series of accidents that have plagued the area for months; and it's gotten so bad many locals have abandoned the village altogether. When asked if this is true, the hotel owner, Klein (Schiller), is very evasive, blaming it all on silly superstitions.

Also at the hotel are two climbers, Brett and Dewhurst (Faulds, Saunders), which is a surprise since everyone else seems to have been scared off the mountain. Joining them for a drink, Brooks and Truscott press for details on these accidents. Hans the bartender (Douglas) is hesitant to chime in, so Brett answers for him, saying the last (and only) body found was missing his head, which can happen if a rope gets wrapped around the neck in a fall; but the rope of this certain climber was found in good working order and tied at the waist, meaning he lost his head before he fell, meaning it wasn't an accident at all; and so, all the locals believe there is something loose on the mountain with a penchant for savagely decapitating people.

With that, Brooks takes a ride on the cable car with the two mountaineers, which takes them about halfway up the mountain, where there’s also an observatory run by a Professor Crevette (Mitchell), where they study the effects of cosmic rays. Apparently former colleagues, Crevette alerted his old friend, Brooks, to this bizarre series of accidents, who just happens to be some kind of investigator of strange phenomenon for the U.N., and then lays out his evidence that something very strange is going on up the Trollenberg; a cloud where there should be no cloud that is both static and radioactive. And when it does move, death seems to follow. Asked if all this sounds familiar, Brooks won’t take the bait. Seems something similar to this happened in the Andes of South America three years ago -- the radioactive cloud, the mysterious accidents, and a few things even more sinister than that which we’ll get to in a bit.

Back then, Crevette managed to convince Brooks that the source of these attacks were extraterrestrial but by the time he filed the report and a follow-up team arrived all traces of the cloud and whatever was hiding in it had vanished completely. So it will take some rock-solid evidence of alien invaders for Brooks to stick his neck out like that again. And besides, Brooks says, in the Andes there was also a mental compulsion factor in play, like, oh, say, a psychic medium demanding to get off a train for no other reason except she feels she has to. (This same psychic also had a vision of the observatory and its purpose.) With this realization, Brooks still isn’t completely sold but is willing to stick around and hear more. Meantime, two more potential victims have made it to a staging hut further up the mountain, unaware that the deadly cloud is on the move again and is currently seeping and creeping and crawling right toward them...

One of the unfortunate casualties of Hammer Studios switch to its Technicolor Gothic horror romps, where the blood flew and the tensile cleavage heaved, when The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) hit and hit big, it kinda sounded the death-knell for a fantastic string of black and white British science-fiction films that came out of the late 1950s, meaning no more Abominable Snowmen of the Himalayas (1957), or your Quatermass X-periments (1955), nor X the Unknowns (1957), or any other The Trollenberg Terrors (1958).

And it’s a bit ironic this change to color and more salacious content was done to compete with the growing draw of television, where, funnily enough, most of these sci-fi tales originated. Nigel Kneale originally wrote all of the Quatermass series for the BBC, usually serialized over several chapters. The Quatermass Experiment first aired in 1953; Quatermass 2 in 1955; and Quatermass and the Pit in 1958, which were eventually adapted into feature films with The Creeping Unknown (1955), Enemy from Space (1957), and then the last adaptation, Five Million Years to Earth (1967), didn’t see the light of day for almost a decade, giving some credence to my earlier observation.

The Trollenberg Terror (1958) also started out as a telefilm, part of ITV’s Saturday Serial program, where it was broken up into six chapters with the first episode airing on December 15, 1956, and the last on January 19, 1957. Produced and directed by Quentin Lawrence and scripted by Peter Key, the serial took place in Austria, where a certain peak was overrun by aliens known as Ixodes. Beyond that, all accounts say the feature film adaptation didn’t stray to far from the original. I’ve never seen the TV version and, alas, I probably never will as it appears to be lost for good (-- like all those old erased Dr. Who episodes, ‘natch.) Now, I have seen all of the BBC’s original adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit, and though constrained by the budget and technical limitations of the medium in which it was shot the series really overachieved on its lofty ambitions -- especially when you realize the margin for error as it was shot and broadcast live! And if we can draw some parallels then, man, The Trollenberg Terror must’ve really been something to see.

For the big screen adaptation, the property was picked up by producers Monty Berman and Robert Baker, who were trying to compete with Hammer by adding more gore and a nastier tone to their films with the likes of Blood of the Vampire (1958) and Jack the Ripper (1961). (Here, I think people getting their heads ripped off or being axed to death definitely qualifies, don’t you?) 

Quentin Lawrence was retained as a director but Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster was brought in to adapt the script, which stayed mostly true to the original, tweaking one character a bit to make him an American to help secure distribution Stateside, with the amiable Forrest Tucker taking this lead role; a rational, even-keeled investigator and a far cry from the huckster he played so brilliantly in The Abominable Snowman -- which also pushed poor Laurence Payne’s Truscott from the nominal hero of the piece to second banana.

Also, Janet Munro is so adorable I can’t even even (-- as is Jennifer Jayne), and this was before Disney got his hooks into her, making it a nice bookend with The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). For its American release the film was cut down to 75-minutes from the original 84 because the distributor (DCA) wanted to get to the monsters as fast as possible; it also went through several title changes, ranging from The Creeping Eye to The Flying Eye before finally settling on The Crawling Eye (1958), sending it out on a double-bill with The Cosmic Monsters (1958). It would be the second to last feature DCA would distribute. The last? Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

Speaking of alien plots involving the resurrection of the dead in an effort to conquer the world, that evening Crevette joins Brooks and Truscott back at the hotel where the Pilgrim sisters are putting on a personal demonstration of their act in the parlor. But after Anne correctly identifies several hidden items, she is once more overcome with a vision concerning a snow-globe -- and the scene she describes is happening in the hut up the mountain as she speaks, where Brett is compelled to leave the safety of the hut despite Anne’s begging him to stay put. Once she collapses from this spell, Brooks places a call to the hut, which wakes up Dewhurst. Brett is gone just like Anne said, and the cloud has now enveloped the hut. Dewhurst then sees something coming toward him, slams the door, screams, and then the line goes dead.

The following morning, Brooks and Truscott join the rescue party; and while they find Dewhurst’s body in the frozen-over hut, his head is gone. Examination of the phone line finds it wasn’t cut but disintegrated, as if crystallized by some extreme cold source. And while the search continues for the still missing Brett, Brooks and Truscott head to Crevette’s bunker, where they run into Anne, who is seemingly in a trance that compels her to come up the mountain. Meantime, two other rescuers find Brett hunched over a rucksack covered in blood; inside which they find Dewhurst’s severed head, and then Brett uses an ice axe to brutally kill them both.

Back at the hotel, Anne is sleeping fitfully while the others gather in the bar, where Truscott reveals he is a reporter who sniffed out the incident in the Andes too late and then came here when he realized the same thing was happening again. Suddenly, Brett bursts in, claiming to have made it back down the mountain on foot. And while the others move to help him, a cautious Brooks holds them back, letting Brett pour his own drink and light his own cigarette but his body is barely functioning. And then Anne makes an appearance and Brett goes berserk, trying to get at her. When the other men manage to stop him, Brett receives a nasty gash on the forehead that refuses to bleed out.

Everyone seems shocked by this except for Brooks and Crevette, who have seen this happen before in South America. Apparently there was a sensitive there, too, an old woman, whom they were trying to exploit in an attempt to communicate with the creatures in the cloud. Meantime, a climber who had been missing for several days suddenly turned up and axed this poor woman to death before collapsing. The catch: by all evidence the man had already been dead for 24-hours.

Thus and so, since the aliens can’t compel Anne to come to them, they are now sending reanimated undead agents to take her out. And when that doesn’t work out after several failed attempts, the aliens decide to come down the mountain and take care of it themselves. And as our group of heroes and villagers flee the frozen cloud as it splits up and seeps into the valley, they seek refuge in Crevette’s fortified bunker. And after a harrowing ride up the cable car as the frigid cloud envelopes the motor and cables -- remember what it did to that phone line?, everyone is safe, at least temporarily, as the creatures in the cloud regroup and surround them -- and then finally reveal themselves.

Now, one of the biggest knocks against The Trollenberg Terror / The Crawling Eye is the perceived failure of the not-so-special effects. Fie and *pfui* on that, I say. Those giant tentacled brains with the big gooey eyeball in the center are simply delightful as are the miniature sets they get to crawl around on -- all of which I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief for. There’s some pretty good practical stuff, too. I love how the motor and cable wheel freeze over during the desperate escape.

And later, as the creatures lay siege to the bunker, one of them even manages to break through one of the thick concrete walls, tearing it asunder in full scale. The sound design on the creatures is also quite remarkable, either an insistent electronic bleeping (-- is this some kind of echo-location?), or a reverberating sigh, or a high pitched squelch when in pain.

The film credits Les Bowie for the F/X, who was a matte painter and model builder and is credited with the invention of the "glass shot” -- a method of painting added scenery on a pane of clear glass placed in front of the camera, who devised lairs and labs and monsters for Hammer (-- as well as their nifty demises, especially for Count Dracula), ultimately forming his own company, Bowie Films Ltd., which became Britain's leading FX unit, creating miniatures, mechanical devices, trick photography and matte paintings. Name any horror, sci-fi or fantasy movie coming out of Britain between 1950 and 1978 and Bowie probably had a hand in it in some capacity; and then two of the last things he worked on before his untimely death in 1979 was Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978).

And once you consider the budget and time constraints these guys were under, the FX are really quite remarkable as the xenophobic and malicious creatures swarm over the bunker, now trying to eliminate all witnesses to their existence. Deciding to fight cold with heat, several well-placed Molotov cocktails buy these besieged refugees just enough time for the British RAF to firebomb their location, flash-frying the aliens, leaving only charred corpses for the survivors to sift through.

From Stephen King (The Mist) to John Carpenter (The Fog), The Trollenberg Terror’s influence can still be felt today. I’m still not sure why the aliens kept trying to specifically kill Anne once the gelatinous eyeballs were out of the cloud, so to speak, and there is barely enough time in the film to even discuss the origin of these alien invaders -- this version even fails to identify them. But it’s this brisk pace that helps keep The Trollenberg Terror / The Crawling Eye chugging right along as one discovery and revelation after another keeps piling up and grisly puzzle pieces start snapping into place, resulting in a delightfully gruesome and ultimately satisfying creature feature. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 20 down with six to go!

The Trollenberg Terror / The Crawling Eye (1958) Tempean Films :: Distributors Corporation of America (DCA) / P: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman / D: Quentin Lawrence / W: Jimmy Sangster, Peter Key (teleplay) / C: Monty Berman / E: Henry Richardson / M: Stanley Black / S: Forrest Tucker, Laurence Payne, Jennifer Jayne, Janet Munro, Warren Mitchell, Andrew Faulds, Stuart Saunders, Frederick Schiller, Colin Douglas


Cliff said...

Totally agree. This is a gem. Can't imagine why it's under 5.0 on IMDb.

W.B. Kelso said...

My guess is due to the title and the title alone. Thanks for reading! Glad you liked it.

Barnbaby said...

Thanks for the excellent review ! Svengoolie is showing it this Saturday evening, and I will be there to enjoy it once more.

W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks for reading! It was fun to write.

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