Friday, 15 July 2011

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

aka The Crawling Eye

Adapted from his own TV serial by famed Hammer horror scribe Jimmy Sangster, this is a sub-Quatermass yarn and an early example of a sci-fi-horror crossbreed. This film is hampered by an extremely low budget, so that it doesn’t wring as much paranoia and atmosphere from the story as it could, and provides old B-movie mockers with plentiful ammunition. Nonetheless, the story is fun and irresistible to fans of invading alien movies, and director Quentin Lawrence conquered his straitened circumstances to conjure effective chiaroscuro lighting and dry-ice fogs, use smash cuts punctuating moments of fright and horror, and sustain a crisp dramatic by-play between his serviceable cast, all of which helps Trollenberg work a minatory magic. Mysterious, malevolent extraterrestrials have planted themselves on a Swiss mountain, needing to acclimatise in the thin atmosphere, ripping the heads off hapless mountaineers who stray too close. They also exude a psychic menace that attracts holidaying young clairvoyant Anne Pilgrim (Janet Munro) and her protective sister Sarah (Jennifer Jayne). Egghead scientist Crevett (Warren Mitchell), researching cosmic rays from his avalanche-proof station close to the mountain, recognises the proliferating phenomenon from a similar incident he investigated in South America with Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker), and he calls in Brooks to help investigate. Brooks recognises recurring elements of the earlier phenomenon, including the fact that the aliens can psychically possess people and use them to kill potential threats. They take over Brett (Andrew Faulds), an English climber, who then murders both his climb partner Dewhurst (Stuart Saunders) and rescuers sent up after them, before descending to ice his real target: Anne, whose psychic gifts threaten them.

Sangster’s script offers up ideas of potential and some characters that might have been interesting if developed more, particularly the protective sisterly angst of the Pilgrims, and it steadily cranks up the drama from chilling manifestations of the unknown to all-out survivalist warfare in the best traditions of this subgenre. The control of mood and imagery is strong, and John Carpenter has cited this as a major influence on The Fog (1980). That’s easy enough to spot. Like Carpenter’s film, this sports the motif of monsters moving about within a menacingly directed mist, a sequence with a slowly resurrecting corpse getting up from the slab to go stalk the heroine, and a sequence in which the sounds of horrible death in a remote outpost are audible to a listener on the other end of a phone line. What this lacks is a cinematic intelligence as solid as that wielded by Carpenter, or contemporaneous directors like Terence Fisher or Val Guest, who had directed Tucker’s previous tussle with high-altitude monstrosities, the Nigel Kneale-penned The Abominable Snowman (1957), which accomplishes what this film ought to but doesn’t. It also lacks the theoretical and human depth that Kneale wielded, and which Sangster himself usually squeezed in with his horror films. There’s an awkward lack of substantive conflict between the characters and their world-views to offset the alien drama and crank up the hysteria. The fact that Brooks and Crevett already basically know what they’re facing thanks to prior experience saps the narrative of the drama of discovery. Journalist Philip Truscott (Laurence Payne) is introduced chiefly for Brooks and Crevett to expound exposition at rather than offer a contradictory moral or strategic voice, for better or worse. Anne’s psychic link to the aliens doesn’t lead anywhere on a substantial plot level except for justifying having guys trying to kill the pretty girl in classic tradition.

The Trollenberg Terror was produced by Monty Berman and Robert Baker, who for a time in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s attempted with some success to rival Hammer with a distinctly trashier, but also more bizarrely inventive, brand of cinema nasty, often with more gore and a nastier tone, exhibited by the likes of Fiend Without A Face (1957) and Grip of the Strangler (1958). Glimpses of grotesqueness dot this film too, still a long way from the full-bore carnage horror fans would be used to by the ‘70s but certainly embryonic of the gore genre, with snatched visions of severed heads and bloodied corpses. One interesting scene depicts an amnesiac Brett returning to the hotel where Brooks and the other are congregated, Brooks watching in scientific fascination as Brett laboriously attempts to light a cigarette and pour a drink, his muscular and neural reflexes retarded, not by exhaustion but, as Brooks recognises, by alien influence. The monsters are first seen in a disorienting moment as Brooks saves a child from within a hotel they’re besieging, one of the beasties, a globular mass with a single giant ocular orb, looming rapidly towards the open door. But Lawrence overplays and shows too much of them in amusingly unconvincing model shots. Still, the almost entirely set-bound production gives the impression of having squeezed a hell of a lot out of very little indeed, and there are flourishes of cheapjack hype, like the opening titles appearing after the camera, mounted on the front of a train, plunges into a railway tunnel, lettering flashing out of the darkness. Tucker is appreciably cast in the sober rational scientist part after playing the huckster foil in The Abominable Snowman. In spite of its lacks, the film's modest intensity and concise, unfussy aesthetic are precisely the qualities that boost its entertainment factor.  Perhaps not the sort of movie that will keep you out of bed on a cold winter’s night. But if you can’t sleep, it fills in the time nicely with a cup of cocoa.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I know I always say this, but this movie was MSTed by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew. In fact, it is the first movie they covered after they went commercial (not counting their season on public access).

Roderick Heath said...

Yeah, I know, I've been wanting to check it out just to see what they did with it. It's probably ripe for an MST3K-ing, although it's far from "bad"; definitely no Manos or Space Mutiny, just cheap.

Stephen Gallagher said...

This is a well-remembered title for which I have a particular affection and I think you've probably hit upon some of the reasons why. Despite what the movie fails to achieve, you always know and appreciate what it's getting at.

You have to forgive a lot in order to enjoy it. Which may even make you a better person.

Roderick Heath said...

Ha, Stephen; we could start the world's first home needy and outcast monster movies. I've always, in essence, switched into a mode when watching this sort of thing that's a bit like theatre of the mind - the props are just standing in for ideas, and as long as the ideas are okay, I don't care much. Another thing is that hardly anyone does this kind of chamber piece sci-fi, which has always had an appeal for me, anymore outside of odd moments on TV, even if like this one it's not top-flight, and it's that concentrated, no-frills atmosphere that works a perverse magic. So yes, I'm very forgiving.

Sam Juliano said...

I have many personal experiences I can fondly recall about this film. This film, and Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS were the two that played most often on our local Chiller Theatre in the NYC area circa late 1960's, early 70's. They were more than guilty pleasures but emblematic of the consciousness where intended or unintended satiric application was instituted against the hokey dialogue, the bizarre premise, and some of the hammy acting. Of course we all loved Forest Tucker at that time for his role in the funny western sitcom F TROOP, where he played Sgt. O'Rourke, and were happy to see him in this B grade horror shocker (the opening scene on the cliff set the right sense of dread) that definitely had it's moments.

Two friends were (at that time) into smoking pot (to this day I have never done that) and getting high and watching THE CRAWLING EYE and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS was the thing to do!

But as you say yourself the story is irresistible and fun I think we are on the same page. Great essay as always!

And I will be responding to your stunning piece on "Turn of the Screw" tomorrow!

george brown said...

the story itself is very entertaining.i have learned to look beyond the lack of moviemaking technology. many modern movies with all the new techs don't deliver some of the same thrills as the older black and white films