Friday, 6 January 2017

Invasion (1966, Alan Bridges)

Emerging from Britain's Merton Park Studios towards the end of their hallowed halls' tenure (after being in use from 1930 and producing a string of B-pictures - including the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series - and government-backed information films, Merton Park would produce it's last film a mere two years later in 1967), Invasion is an interesting little curio that long occupied a part of the back of my mind - having caught around half an hour of it many years ago caught by accident at the end of a videotape when recording whatever-film-it-was that had preceded it on broadcast back in the 1990s - and it was strangely satisfying to finally see the complete movie a mere two decades (give or take) later.

Directed by Alan Bridges (who had previously helmed some television policier series such as Z Cars and Maigret and an Edgar Wallace thriller [1964's Act of Murder], and would go on to direct the 1985 film The Shooting Party and the original 1987 Nicol Williamson-starring adaptation of Stephen King's Apt Pupil) from a screenplay by Roger Marshall (who had a huge background of writing credits, including six Edgar Wallaces, fifteen credits on The Avengers [a number of which are up there on my favourite episodes list for that series, being the slight pro-early years anti-Peel hipster that I am], nerve-jangling 1968 Hayley Mills-starring thriller Twisted Nerve, and the 1973 adaptation of David Case's "Fengriffen" And Now the Screaming Starts), based upon an original story by Robert Holmes (whose famed TV SF scribing career was soon to launch itself into the writing of the earliest of what would become an unprecedented seventy-three episodes of Doctor Who, and that's without mentioning his contributions to such small-screen sci-fi / fantasy classics as Doomwatch [1971], Blake's 7 [four episodes between 1979 and 1981], Douglas Camfield-directed SF horror The Nightmare Man [1981] and Into the Labyrinth [1981 and 1982]) the film certainly has a fine and intriguing pedigree.

The film's opening shots of a clouded sky followed by a crashing 'space rocket' are very redolent of Hammer Films / Exclusive Releasing's 1955 cinematic adaptation of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Xperiment, a parallel that continues with the domestic 'soap opera' sequences of an older middle-aged couple engaged in an extra-marital affair - the 1950s / '60s social realism aesthetic permeating into the genre: "You're the one who would always get scared that your wife would find out!" - who hit the alien being (played by Ric [nee Eric] Young: The Face of Fu Manchu Don Sharp, 1965], Lord Jim [Richard Brooks, 1965], Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [Steven Spielberg, 1984]) with their car, leading to the stranger being taken to the nearest hospital.

We have the true-to-the-period requisite Cold War paranoia among the locally-stationed soldiers, with dialogue such as "If the Russians decide to invade, you'll be sitting on this radar telling me it's a car ferry!" and "The Russians haven't sent anything up, have they?" as the autonomic responses to the evidence of a crashed spacecraft.  The shots of the military radar scanner are reminiscent of both the opening shots of the BBC's Quatermass II serial (Rudolph Cartier, 1955) and screenwriter Robert Holmes' later Doctor Who offering 'Spearhead From Space' (Derek Martinus, 1970), and the character of Major Muncaster is portrayed by actor Barrie Ingham (Alydon the Thal in the Amicus / Aaru Dr Who and the Daleks [Gordon Flemyng, 1965] and the eponymous hero in Hammer's A Challenge for Robin Hood [C. M. Pennington-Richards, 1967).  This recycling of imagery and ideas brings to mind the famed Robert Holmes quotation "All you need is a strong, original idea.  It doesn't have to be your own strong, original idea".

The film stars Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire [Val Guest, 1961], First Men in the Moon [Nathan Juran, 1964], Island of Terror [Terence Fisher, 1966]) as Dr Mike Vernon, Valerie Gearon (Nine Hours to Rama [Mark Robson, 1963], Anne of the Thousand Days [Charles Jarrott, 1969]) as Dr Claire Harland, Tsai Chin (lately of such things's as television's Marvel-ous Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [2014] and big screen Bond bonanza Casino Royale [Martin Campbell, 2006], but known to most genre aficionado's as the calculating Lin Tang, daughter of Fu Manchu, in five fiendish flicks between 1965 and 1969) as Nurse Lim, and - as credited on the DVD box and presumably the contemporary publicity, explaining the slightly problematic nature of the phraseology - 'Oriental beauty Yoko Tani' as the Lystrian leader.

Our crashed spaceman arrives at the local hospital (the building and surrounding environs familiar from sundry Merton park productions, from installments of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries to such features as Sidney J. Furie's 1964 The Leather Boys and the 1966 Ian Curteis / John Croydon monstrosity The Projected Man), and Dr Harland (the enchanting Valerie Gearon) finds herself in the same quandary that the irate Dr Lomax was to find himself in a few years later in 'Spearhead from Space' - cross matching a blood sample from the unearthly patient and not recognising it as human with a frustrated "Is this your idea of a joke?".  There are alien signifiers in the X-rays, too, not a binary cardiovascular system but an opaque disc inside the speech centre of the brain which turns out to be a Universal Translator as the visitor finds himself able to speak and understand human language (English of course - this is the 1960s after all!) after touching a nurse (not like that, this isn't a Carry On) - "a direct electronic pathway" having been established.

While the alien has his body temperature regulated and brought down with ice, the old eerie and mysterious standby of 'freak weather conditions' cause patches of localised fog to coalesce around the area as the hospital is isolated from the outside by sinister forces and communication is severed ("All outside lines are out of order!") and the temperature, both dramatic and thermal, begins to rise.  Officious hospital official Carter (Lyndon Brook) tries to barter with the alien visitor to set up an exclusive exchange of information, prompting Dr Vernon's boiling frustration to overspill with a cri de coeur of "Three hundred patients' lives are more important than any glory!", before the departing Carter crashes his car at full speed into the invisible force barrier placed around the hospital by the alien's pursuers and ends his days dashed upon the dashboard.  The army troops guarding / investigating the space vehicle's crash site are tres Quatermass and the Pit , and tension builds as Geiger counter readings detect large amounts of radioactivity around the site.  "We think it crashed here... Atomic powered"; there are definite undertones of atomic age nuclear paranoia - a fear that runs like a transuranic seam through many 1950s and '60s SF and horror movies.

The leader of the pursuit squadron from the planet Lystria (Tani) infiltrates the hospital by changing places with Chin's Nurse Lim, a substitution that seemingly goes unnoticed by the nurse's co-workers including the ward sister as the imposter homes in on her bed-ridden target, evoking the awful and parochial Western attitude that people of East Asian appearance "all look the same".  We learn that Young's character is the prisoner of the female Lystrians who was en route to a prison planet when an accident caused the crash landing, and the Lystrian socity is broadly painted as the old pulp SF cliche of the 'inverted' society of a 'planet ruled by women', a hoary trope that was still being trotted out contemporaneously on BBC television with Doctor Who: 'Galaxy 4' and its belligerent Drahvins - and in a serendipitous co-incidence of casting Stephanie Bidmead who played the Drahvin's ruthless leader-queen Maaga is featured here as the character of Elaine.

"Our justice is a poor thing - often conducted by women" say the gals from the gynocentric globe, playing a poor-me ploy and painting a picture of a female-led society as weaker, perhaps illogical and ruled by instinct - a curiously anti feminist message that clashes with the strong and capable portrayal of Dr Harland who responds to Judd's wavering ("Maybe we can reason with them - maybe they're not as savage as he says") with moral certainty ("They still have prisoners").  The uncertainty as to which Lystrian is telling the truth - is Young's character a dangerous criminal or a victim? - ceases to waver when the patient takes Dr Harland hostage in a bid to get through the force barrier and stabs Major Muncaster, and the old tableau of the strange, strange creature carrying off the beautiful woman (as seen in movies such as  Universal's The Creature from the Black Lagoon [Jack Arnold, 1954] and Hammer's The Mummy [Terence Fisher, 1959]) is played out once again.  Our sympathy for the visitor, which has grown over the course of the film, begins to waver and the cold and remote Lystrians become more plausible in their tale - his story "the product of an immature mind", as Tani's lead Lystrian says.  As the patient / prisoner gets to the ship and takes off, only to be shot down by the Lystrian pursuit ship, we are left with the contemplation of "I think i preferred the idea of space peopled by three-eyed monsters... Now we've got them killing each other just like us."

Invasion is a well-crafted little slice of Cold War era science fiction, which uses the 'Reds Under the Bed' metaphor employed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer in such films as William Cameron Menzies' 1953 Invaders from Mars in a more nuanced fashion and transcends its limited budget with an intelligent script, well-performed characters and a pervasively claustrophobic atmosphere that takes full advantage of the restricted locations.  I would certainly recommend any fans of genre movies to check it out, as well as anyone interested in the capabilities of the smaller studios in 1960s UK filmmaking.

B-movies could really be movies.

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