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A reclusive scientist working on a cancer cure inadvertently unleashes deadly creatures onto the local population, turning it into an...Island Of Terror!
'Island Of Terror' is an interesting midpoint between 50s sci-fi and 60s Hammer horror - too light for what Hammer and Amicus usually produced, but their gravitational pull is evident. There's something very Quatermass about science unleashing havoc, yet science also providing the solution. There's a nice element of mystery to set the scene, with people being brutally murdered off-screen and their corpses being discovered sans bones, but at the same time, you are left in no doubt that there must be some connection with the scientist up in the manor house and his secretive experiments. Soon enough, the horror he unleashes becomes apparent, and it's up to the three 'responsible' scientists, played by Edward Judd, Peter Cushing, and Eddie Byrne, for whom the film goes to great pains to show how responsible they are as they wisely spend a lot of time studying notes before taking action and applying science methodically, while the uneducated locals must wait patiently because science takes time and there's a process to things. Yes, there are monsters coming over the hill, but there's a procedure to everything and it has to be followed. One can't really disagree with any of this, but the way in which the film portrays the scientific method if anything, shows how long ago it was held in such high regard - it's just hard to imagine a film doing this today. The nature and form of the monsters themselves instantly brings to mind the classic Star Trek episode 'Devil In The Dark', although their appearance and design is more classic Doctor Who. Which is quite fitting, given that Quatermass inspired early Doctor Who, lead Peter Cushing had been playing him on the big screen for the last two years, and both 'Dr Who & The Daleks' and 'Island Of Terror' were scored by Malcolm Lockyer.
Cushing, I have to say, is wonderful in this film. A far cry from the sombre puritans or mad scientists he would soon become well-known for, here, he is dashing, rounded, and somehow far more natural in his performance. This is more of the Peter Cushing the world used to see before horror films took over his life and it's great to see within the part of his filmography I'm more interested in. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are extremely theatrical by comparison, with Edward Judd getting very declarative by the end - he reminds me of the way Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes would practically give speeches on the proper order of things before the closing credits. I'm almost expecting him to turn to the quivering frequently-Carole Gray and say 'Don't worry, my dear - science will save you!' Nonetheless, Judd is the archetypal square-jawed hero and fits the part.
Director Terence Fisher was a firmly-established horror veteran by this point, with the Dracula series and one of my favorites, 'The Gorgon' his recent successes. Having seen the latter again fairly recently, I noticed the same approach to mood lighting, although this time around, the 'big reveal' happens earlier, and Fisher leaves the design team to breathe life into the antagonists of the piece. I think he would have gotten away with it for the most part, but for aspects of the design (read: appendages) that require puppetmasters more skilled than those on offer for them to stand a snowflake's chance in hell of convincing the viewer. They work fine when they're hovering menacingly around a door frame, but not so much when the dreaded miscreation they're attached to shuffles into view. The only reason it even half-works is because the cast face their foes with the same conviction the Doctor Who stars were so frequently seen to give down on the sound stages of Lime Grove.
Less defensible, unfortunately, is Malcolm Lockyer's frequently light and fluffy score. His trademark cues and melodies worked wonders in 1965's 'Dr Who & The Daleks', where the words 'kids matinée' were practically stamped into Roy Castle's forehead, but it's hard to feel a sense of creeping foreboding in 'Island Of Terror' when the camera is panning through the eerie, deserted scientist's mansion accompanied by xylophone motifs. This is a film where the production values need every other department on board to help project a convincingly menacing atmosphere - not have the composer imagining cartoon bees dancing on toadstools. Again, this underscores for me how the film sits between two genres and no-one's fully made up their minds which way it should go.
Putting all these elements together, I find myself giving 'Island Of Terror' a 6 out of 10. I'm frequently drawn to Peter Cushing like a magnet, and he's in fine form here. I love the idea behind the monsters of the piece, and the respect given to science as it triumphs over all when used properly. Alas, the creatures' design needed a slight revision on the drawing board under the title 'Let's be realistic about what we're able to do here', while James Bernard should have been placed in the conductor's chair. A pleasing effort, and worth a look especially if sci-fi of the period appeals.
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