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This essay originally appeared at An Island Where No One Lives.  It has been edited and adapted for inclusion here.


I'd love it if some video company would release a DVD of a swell British movie called Island of Terror. A nice digital version would certainly save wear and tear on my cassette copy. Peter Cushing is in it, and it was directed by Hammer mainstay Terrence Fisher, but despite what you may read here and there, it was not a Hammer film. It was made sometime in the mid-to-late sixties and, aside from one glaring aspect, the film holds up very well today.

Unfortunately, the one glaring aspect is the monsters, or rather, the way the monsters interact with the environment. When they move across the ground, they don't look realistic at all. They look like large-ish round plastic things being dragged by wires.

The real shame of this is that the design of the creatures is outstanding. They're generally described as "turtle-like" but I think they most resemble round starfish with short, stubby arms. There's an opening near the "front" of the creature through which a single tentacle emerges (this tentacle also moves pretty unconvincingly, but it's on screen a lot less).

The truly intriguing thing about these creatures (called Silicates in the film, since they're silicon-based life-forms) is that they have absolutely no features that a human being could relate to; there is no common ground between them and us. (Except for the fact that they eat us, hardly a basis for an enduring relationship.)

Think about that for a moment. Most every animal we encounter, from dogs to birds to fish to insects to snakes, has a face. There are two eyes (usually) and a mouth, right there in front; when we draw the attention of the creature, it turns the eyes toward us, and the mouth is right there beneath. We are never in doubt that the creature is looking at us; if we want to avoid being detected by the creature, we know when we've succeeded and when we've failed (we know this in relation to the other senses, too, such as hearing; less so with smell).

Even creatures lacking obvious eyes can have this "face-relatedness" direction. The creature in Ridley Scott's Alien was basically humanoid; it had a "face" with a mouth in front and thus, a definite orientation. Up til the end, Scott wisely filmed the alien so that only parts were visible at one time; because of this, the viewer was never able to get a clear picture of what the creature looked like, and thus, possible ways of dealing with it. It seemed to be a collection of teeth, tubes and whirling, jointed limbs.

Stephen King makes the excellent point that what we imagine is always much more frightening than what we actually see. Which is why I, personally, found the form of the Alien creature when ultimately revealed (a man in a suit) a little, teensy bit disappointing. Granted, it was a terrific suit, but still, when one knows the form of a thing, one begins to understand it, and it becomes less of a (psychological) menace. When the Alien was revealed to be humanoid, some of the mystery (and thus, some of the terror) was alleviated; here was something like a man, that might be vulnerable in the same ways as a man. Even if not right away, this is something we can deal with.

While the alien clearly had a face, one of the cast or crew of the film (I can't remember who) noted that the alien had no eyes, yet it seemed to navigate visually (it's interesting to speculate that it might have been blind, and hunted by some other sense, but so far as I can tell, it had no other way of knowing where Ripley was hiding in the lifeboat). This was one reason why the monster was so frightening; you couldn't really tell where it was "looking" and thus, if it had seen you. While the creature had no eyes, it did have a "face forward" direction, and if you were wondering if the creature spotted you, there's an easy answer: you'd know because you'd need fresh underwear.

By contrast, the Silicates have no features like ours. There are no eyes we can see, no face, no hands, and the opening from where the tentacle emerges seems nothing like a mouth--it's just an opening in the shell. For this reason, even to the end of Island of Terror, the Silicates remain very disturbing, despite the fact that (in the film) they were unconvincing. We see a great deal of them--we even see them reproduce, through fission. We hear their keening, electronic pulsing when they are around, and the piping shrieks they emit when excitedly feeding. In terms of what they are like in the world, there's not a lot of mystery, film-wise. There's a lot of mystery in the fact that we can't RELATE to these things at all. Even if the creatures were intelligent (one gets the impression that the very concept of intelligence is foreign to them), there's no common ground anywhere for us to meet on. They see us as food and that's the end of it. The fact that one of us was Shakespeare, and another Einstein, and another Elvis is totally irrelevant. It would be like one of us wondering if carrots wrote symphonies.

In the film, the creatures are also well-nigh indestructible. Most everything on the island, from axes to dynamite, is brought to bear against them, and it's all ineffective; while mankind does, ultimately, triumph, it's at the last minute and not at all certain until then.

The Silicates are also interesting in their method of hunting prey: they don't have one. They simply start at one end of the island and slowly move toward the other, devouring anything edible that's unlucky enough to be caught. You could easily outrun them; they're very sluggish. The problem is, you'd eventually run out of anywhere to run to. It's as if these creatures are showing us that our intelligence and ingenuity (our very humanity, if you like) are completely meaningless; Nature (albeit an artificial "nature") could simply render our finer qualities moot in an instant, should she so choose.

Despite their flaws, they remain among the most fascinating creatures in film.

Two excellent reviews of this film can be found here and here. Dr. Freex discusses some interesting socio-political aspects of the film, while Lyz's review exhibits her usual scientific acumen (but is far too short).

It's been mentioned here and there that Island of Terror is a film ripe for re-making, as the advances in creature special effects could create something really remarkable. I'm not convinced. Most CGI beasts nowadays are pretty unimaginative (mostly lizard-like or dog-like) and this film really boasts something special with its Silicates, flawed though they are.  Also, most CGI creatures also leap about and dash hither-and-yon (the technicians seem incapable of resisting this portrayal) and that kind of motion is simply foreign to the Silicates.  The fact that they can barely crawl, and are yet deadly is part of what makes them scary.  The Silicates seem to possess a weight that almost all CGI creatures lack.

Secondly, you know if they remake this, they'll ruin it. Can't you see the changes they'll make? Instead of scientists trying to cure cancer, they'll be trying to create the Ultimate Super Soldier. The team trying to defeat the creatures would have someone who was a traitor, trying to save the creatures for the Weapons Program*. (He would also have a spectacular death scene, as the creatures would swarm on him; "No! No! We had a deal!" he'd scream. "We had a deal!")

No, til they come out with a DVD, I'll stick with my VHS copy, thanks. Will they come out with a DVD? Well, the tape is still in print...obviously someone else out there likes this film. Let's hope.

*This was a nicely underplayed subtext of Alien. When the crew speculates about why the creature was brought on board, Ripley remarks, "All I can think of is they must have wanted the alien for the weapons program." That's it--just speculation, no evidence, no confirmation later. It's like the "Venus probe theory" from Night of the Living Dead. It's a pity this bit was dunderheaded up in the sequel. But as I frequently say, one can't have everything.

February 8, 2005

U     P     D     A     T     E

Dr Freex himself remarked:  "Thanks for the mention. Now I have to go re-read that review and bask in my own cleverness. ;)

Island of Terror recently came out on DVD in Jolly Old England, Region 2, of course. I'll doubtless wind up getting a copy but.... SPOILERS!!!!!

The scene where Cushing's hand is chopped off to save him from the silicates? That very brief gore shot is gone.

Checking with my *harumph* cadre of British correspondents, I found out that gore shot was *never* in the British version of the movie. You remember reading in how some British studios - particularly Hammer - would insert more violent footage for the Japanese market? Guess what? We ARE the Japanese market!" (February 9, 2005)

And we added, parenthetically: "Actually, I first encountered the film on afternoon television, and the "hand" scene was, of course, not shown then.

Being a callow youth, I thought that Edward Judd had simply chopped off the silicate's tentacle--I couldn't imagine what they were getting so upset about. (I thought, reasonably enough, that no one had tried any weapons on the tentacle part, and it might prove less invulnerable.)

Of course, I kind of grew up after that...." (February 9, 2005)

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