At the tender age of ten I sat in front of the TV and watched an old science fiction horror film about people who had the bones sucked out of their living bodies by giant snail-like creatures. I loved it — until I tried to go to sleep. This was my first nightmare! I recently tracked down that film and found that it momentarily brought together an illustrious group of B-movie horror masters. Of course, other films also seeped into my young brain, but for now, it’s this 1966 classic
A creepy B-movie thriller, Island of Terror features slow-moving mutant organisms that overrun an isolated island and feed off the locals—both livestock and humans. In this rural town, a reclusive scientific team operates a cutting-edge lab where they are searching for a cure to cancer—but, shockingly, things go awry when they accidentally spawn an unstoppable silicon-based life form that sucks the calcium phosphate out of living creatures—that is, it eats their bones and leaves behind, as one islander puts it, “just a horrible mush with the eyes sittin’ in it.” Completely cut off from the mainland, a small group of outsiders must find a way to defeat these monsters before they multiply out of control and overwhelm the villagers’ last sanctuary.
These ‘silicate’ creatures are mutated cells, so they have a refreshingly bizarre look. No bug-eyed monsters or men in rubber suits here, just menacing, indestructible shells with a vicious vine-like appendage that they use as both an antenna and as a tentacle for capturing food. Lots of points for a well-conceived monster! They move along at a slow crawl, so they can’t chase you down, but since they multiply exponentially, they can pop up anywhere at any time—and, as a dark, ever-present menace, they are a little bit like George Romero’s lumbering zombies from Night of the Living Dead, which premiered in the US just a year later.
This all takes place in a tiny, isolated hamlet—with no phones and an overtaxed little power generator. It is filled with fairly believable local characters who make a living off the land by raising cattle. Even for the 60s, this place feels a bit lost in time—but instead of becoming a cliché about torch-bearing villagers versus misguided scientists, this film is about solving a problem, and everyone comes together to search for weaknesses in this common enemy. Keep in mind, this is not a quaint little film, no one is safe from death or dismemberment—and, worry not, actress Carole Gray has plenty of opportunities to earn her reputation as a scream queen.
The film is anchored by actor Peter Cushing, whose dry wit and humble charm define his performance as the scientist who puts himself on the frontlines of the battle to defeat these monstrosities. A beloved actor in Britain, Cushing had a wide-ranging career, from being a TV sensation in his role as Sherlock Holmes to his explosive end playing the commander of the Death Star in Star Wars: Episode IV—The New Hope.
But his big break came in 1957, when he starred in the film that redefined the horror genre: The Curse of Frankenstein. He was an instant international star, as were his co-star Christopher Lee and director Terence Fisher, who all went on to create a string of hits for the Hammer Films studio.
Island of Terror would probably not even exist if there had not been a ‘perfect storm’ of talent that came together at just that time. As the low-budget horror genre blossomed throughout the 60s, a small company, Planet Film Productions, bought the script but could not afford to produce it on their own. They approached producer Richard Gordon, a veteran horror producer of classics like Fiend Without a Face and Corridors of Blood.
Gordon loved the script, saying it was “as close to ready-to-go as any script I had ever seen.” He agreed to produce it and immediately convinced Hammer Films, who had superstars Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher under contract, to loan them to this film. He also cast actor Edward Judd, who had been considered for the role of James Bond and had recently starred in First Men in the Moon, as well as actress Carole Gray, known for jumping through a window in only her bra and panties in The Curse of Fly.
Guided by competent hands, the production took only five weeks and cost about $200,000. In the film fan magazine Starlog, Edward Judd recalled that they shot a big special effects sequence with about a dozen creatures roaming the woods by rigging the silicates to an elaborate system of wires hung from the trees. During the filming, someone’s dog wandered onto the scene and was smitten by these science fiction creatures—it even tried to mate with one of them!
For the US, Gordon sold the film as a double feature with The Projected Man to Universal Pictures. The overall program was too long, but they liked Island of Terror so much that they instead cut about 13 minutes from the other film. Universal also got wind of a shot where someone’s hand is chopped off. Gordon had thought it was laughably bad—and there was no budget to re-shoot it—so he cut it from the UK release, but Universal wanted it and the scene appears in the US versions.
Island of Terror was a big financial success and the Planet Film Productions immediately followed it up with a similar horror/science fiction film. Richard Gordon did not care for the script and did not participate. But they went ahead anyway and brought back director Terence Fisher and actor Peter Cushing—and added Christopher Lee—for 1967s Island of the Burning Damned. Sadly, it seems the ‘perfect storm’ had passed; no one was interested in Burning Damned and it was eventually paired up with a tired retread, Godzilla’s Revenge, as a dismal double-bill. Burning Damned was the nail in the coffin for Planet Film Productions and they soon went bankrupt.
While Island of Terror is great fun, it is a film of its era. In its day, it was pushing the limits of gore with its grotesque human corpses and the hand-chopping scene—but by today’s standards it is quite tame. Also, Carole Gray’s character is basically a trembling scream machine, but the film strikes a particularly sour chord when, unbeknownst to her, the men make preparations to euthanize her so she won’t be consumed by the silicates alive. Go watch strong women in Aliens or Terminator 2 to clear your palette.
A gem of a film that stands out from its contemporaries, Island of Terror has become a beloved, if somewhat obscure, cult classic—even the ‘silicate’ creatures have had model kits made in their honor. Upon its release, the Hollywood newspaper, Variety, complimented Planet Films Productions, stating that Island of Terror and The Projected Man put them in the same league as the Hammer and Amicus Film Studios, and to his death, Richard Gordon considered Island of Terror the favorite film that he ever produced.
Drive-in photo courtesy of www.petercushingblog.blogspot.com