Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

aka The Crawling Eye

Mind reading act sister duo Sarah (Jennifer Jayne) and Anne (Janet Munro) Pilgrim are on a holiday trip through Switzerland, when Anne – the actual, authentic mind reader of the two - quite suddenly feels an immense compulsion (complete with fainting fit and staring into the distance) for them to get out in a Swiss Alp town at the foot of a mountain known as the Trollenberg. It’s as if something is calling to her.

This is not a terrible good time and place to change one’s travel plans, though. For some time now, the Trollenberg’s peak has been surrounded by a curious, dare I say “unnatural”, fog. At least one mountaineer climbing it has somehow literally lost his head. As it happens, sharing a train compartment with the sisters is mysterious American Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker, in his phase as mandatory American lead in British movies, and certainly not the worst one in that particular bunch), nominally just visiting the local observatory for vague scientific reasons but as a matter of fact investigating what’s going on at the Trollenberg and its surroundings. For it isn’t the first mountain beset by mysterious circumstances and strange beheadings, caused by…aliens you might describe as crawling eyes if you want, though really, they are giant crawling eyes with a couple of thin tentacles – even better than the title promises.

Like Hammer’s Quatermass films, The Trollenberg Terror (which is the more fitting and somewhat more subtle if less awesome British title) is based on a successful TV mini series – in an era before home video obviously a lucrative way for a film to acquire an in-built audience. The script is written by Jimmy Sangster of Hammer fame, too, and the film’s tone and style – at least in the slightly longer UK cut – put it very much in the same science fiction horror sub-genre as Nigel Kneale's Quatermass scripts. I don’t think the film at hand is quite as thoughtful and artistically successful as Quatermass, but it certainly shares its spirit and demonstrates a seriousness throughout that rather puts it above the kind of 50s US monster movies it will probably have shared double bills with once it hit the US.

Sangster’s script is concise, avoiding filler (probably one of the automatic virtues when you have to adapt a four part TV mini series into an eighty minute film) and bad comic relief throughout, instead pushing things forward nicely, while creating a fine mood of mild paranoia. There are some clever ideas realized well, the film generally coping very well with its limitations and hitting just the right notes: who in the appropriate audience wouldn’t after all be fond of eye-mind-controlled dead people walking around sweating because their controller dislike warmth and having all the hand eye-coordination of something not used to stereoscopic vision, or the film’s plain weird giant eye monster things?

I also love the film’s monsters, mixing as they do the fear of eye trauma, and classic mind control “they are among us” tropes with a pure strangeness of conception. Of course, they are realized with the special effects capabilities of their time and place but given the wonderful creepiness of their concept, I can’t say I care when I see obvious back projection and imperfect miniature work. At the very least, it’s imperfection standing in the service of the wonderful.

Quentin Lawrence’s (also the director of the TV version) direction doesn’t always quite use Sangster’s set-ups to the fullest, yet while he isn’t a particularly subtle or elegant director, he is also never sloppy or ever letting things get bogged down.

All of this adds up to a film that is much more enjoyable than one might expect going in and provides The Trollenberg Terror with a well deserved place at the table of good UK SF horror from the 50s.

No comments: