Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The much-maligned The Crawling Eye slithers in our direction in (finally) the good video version it deserves. Usually rating low on fan favorite charts, this atmospheric, well-scripted and fairly intelligent science fiction thriller has more than its share of genuine chills. Even better, Image's 'European edition' is a good 16:9 transfer of the original uncut English version, called The Trollenberg Terror.
Paranormal scientific investigator Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) comes to the Trollenberg to investigate strange killings of climbers on the Alpine mountain's cloudy slopes. The facts parallel an earlier experience in South America in which extraterrestrials were theorized to be involved. Also drawn to the mountain is the sister team of Sarah (Jennifer Jayne) and Anne (Janet Munro) Pilgrim. Anne, a clairvoyant, is receiving psychic mindstorms from the mountain,
and she's thrown into a state of near-hysteria by visions of climbers being menaced by horrible things coming out of the darkness - perceived by her from the 'thing's' point of view. Events quickly come to a head when more decapitated bodies are found. Then a returning climber suddenly behaves like a murderous zombie, trying to kill Anne because she's tapped into the brainwaves of creatures on the Trollenberg who aren't yet ready to show themselves...
Even before the success of Hammer films English moviemakers were trying to get a piece of the same boxoffice that Americans had tapped in fantastic science fiction stories. With a few exceptions, the attempts were pretty bleak: Stranger from Venus, Cosmic Monsters, etc. Usually lumped in with them is the wonderful little The Crawling Eye, which has its weaknesses yet is superior in
ideas, acting and visuals to most of what was being made at the time in England and America.
Another teleplay upgraded for the screen, as had been most of Hammer's Sci-Fi features, this moody and ambitious chiller has one of those perfectly constructed stories. A chalet welcomes a host of shady scientists, psychics and a reporter who may be a spy. All are drawn for different reasons to a mountain where mountain climbers are disappearing, or getting their heads ripped off.
The horror menace makes itself known through killings and also via the telepathic reception of a mind-reader. This puts the wonderfully expressive actress Janet Munro at the center of the drama, instead of making her a typical horror heroine who stands by to scream and be rescued. Her wide-eyed visions tell of unseen monsters, in nervous speeches that have the effect of a good ghost story.
The movie also has an excellent spatial schematic that helps even tiny kids (I was one, shuddering in fear) understand what's going on. The hotel is in a valley. An aerial tram connects it to a rather heavily fortified observatory. Up from there is the Trollenberg, with the mysterious clouds that cling to its sides and move about as if under their own power instead of being whisked away by the expected high winds! The monsters are radioactive and very cold, and when the clouds begin to move and cut off the escape road to the hotel, every 9-year old hits the ceiling.
Writers at the time seemed to sense that technical concepts didn't make very good drama, and as the attempts at purer Sci-Fi (Riders to the Stars, etc.) died out, pictures like The Crawling Eye ended up being outlandish horror fantasies whose thrills were merely initiated by a Sci-Fi premise. Ergo the entertaining emphasis on spooky clairvoyant visions, mutilated bodies and a bloodless killer who stalks the nightgowned heroines brandishing a wicked hatchet-like knife. The story rushes headlong toward a violent and suspenseful ending with the alien creatures attempting to freeze the tramway lines. Closed-circuit television is used to monitor the progress and position of the
The big effects finale is the obvious failing of The Crawling Eye for most viewers. The effects needed are far too ambitious for the limited resources of Les Bowie's little unit. Savant responds to visual ideas better than he does visual perfection; to look at movies otherwise would render most effects before Jurassic Park as 'unwatchable'. From Metropolis to "X"- the Man With the X-Ray Eyes, the fact is that if the story and ideas are working, the vintage of the effects shouldn't be an issue. In The Crawling Eye we have one really striking monster design, a bulbous, pulsating, tentacled sac of pus. It slides forth with a nervous, pivoting eyeball leading the way. When the chalet doors collapse, revealing it staring in from outside, it's awesome. 1 In what is probably the film's only really successful effects angle, the eye creeps forward at us, its tendrils waving as smoke and mist drift by. It's a vision out of Lovecraft.
But to be technically realistic, the rest of the effects are muffed by the simple fact that they involve miniature settings that not photographed in slow motion to give the smoke and fire the right heaviness. There's every likelihood that the budget simply placed the required high-speed camera motors out of reach. The normal shooting speed also betrays the scale of the fire in relation to the miniatures. It's actually a wonder they look as good as they do.
I tend to wince a little and enjoy the visuals just the same. They certainly didn't bother me when I was 10. But after seeing a dive-bombing jet represented by a model zinging in a foolish arc above the observatory, one has to admit that in the same year the Japanese were doing much better work. The monster of Varan, the Unbelievable is pretty silly, but Toho's photography of giant miniature landscapes and cities is far more sophisticated.
Les Bowie and his crew were obviously making their effects out of less than nothing and are to be commended for doing as well as they did. I still take exception to the oft-repeated story of the photo of a mountain with some cotton wool tacked on to represent the Trollenberg and its cloud. The mountain is obviously a painting and the cloud is not a cotton puff, thank you very much.
Image's DVD of The Crawling Eye is a great treat, as it presents the first watchable version of the movie since its short theatrical run in 1958. I'd seen it on television throughout the '60s in splicy, murky prints that always started with the Trollenberg valley out of focus, and with a big tear in the first shot. 2 Come the '80s, the title disappeared from TV, replaced by awful-looking video and laser versions with the same poor picture and the same flaws. Cannon Films in 1988 had a video transfer in its library (oh boy!), but popping it into the tape deck revealed that they'd obviously just duped an even worse copy to pirate in some territory or another.
Last January, when I was told that The Flesh and the Fiends was coming to Image DVD in its uncut sexier European version, I immediately asked about The Crawling Eye and was told not to hold my breath. Well it happened anyway, for the 'Widescreen European Edition' herein is actually the original The Trollenberg Terror complete with its original UK Certificate "X" card, 'Eros Films' logo and a couple of instances of restored frames showing a bit more when decapitated bodies are pulled out from under bunks, and the like. These moments were marred by big sloppy splices in the American cut. The sound is also greatly improved from the muffled and warbly 16mm prints that were all I had previously heard.
Finally, the widescreen enhancement reveals an image as sharp as a tack, fully demonstrating that The Crawling Eye was carefully photographed, with superior atmospherics in many scenes. Besides the beautiful close ups of Janet Munro's anguished eyes, we see the mechanics behind many of the effects and the various dodges used to make an Alpine location story solely on English sound stages. The miniatures don't look any better and there are more wires on view where none are wanted -- the sort of thing that Savant readily forgives but doesn't necessarily expect you to.
The cover looks great. I'm willing to bet that the design did not originate with Wade Williams, as the movie is not 'Quentin Lawrence's The Crawling Eye'. The misspelled and quasi-literate notes on the back are by Wade himself. The inside text is by David Del Valle, who places the film in context by discussing the backgrounds of its makers but shows little feeling for the movie. It's probably not his fault; he doesn't appear to have been told that what's in the box is this superior original version.
I was also hoping for anything interesting or new on the dreamboat actress Janet Munro. It appears that her standout performance here may have been what attracted the attention of Walt Disney. His contract kicked her career into the bigtime, only to later leave her to an early doom. Disney was keen on all things Alpine; perhaps he fell in love with Munro's screen persona (just as a lot of us did) while researching his Third Man on the Mountain.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Crawling Eye rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Supplements: A trailer, three stills
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2001
1. Perhaps this socko reveal of the Eye monster with the chalet doors bursting in was the inspiration for a similar door-smashing entrance in the next year's The Mummy. Jimmy Sangster wrote both shows.
2. The Crawling Eye was a late-night TV favorite for over a decade, The standard blurb text in TV Guide read: "Hidden in a radioactive cloud, a creature from outer space awaits its next victim." Great stuff.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson