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Island of Terror
...and The Mystery of Edward Judd
DD Video has another winner in Island of Terror (1966), an immensely enjoyable sci-fi potboiler about giant tortoise-size monsters loose on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. Though more than a little silly, the extremely low-budget (under 100,000 pounds) picture is fast-paced, engrossing and, rare by jaded 21st century standards, still pretty suspenseful with scattered shocks here and there.
On Petrie's Island, researchers looking for a cure for cancer inadvertently unleash artificially created monsters that resemble headless armadillos with a single, retractable tentacle. Looking for food, they begin attacking local villagers. Latching onto its victims, the creatures consume the body's calcium phosphate; in effect they suck out their bones leaving a deflated, gooey corpse in its wake.
After finding the first body, local Dr. Landers (Eddie Byrne) sends for "eminent pathologist" Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing), who in turns brings in bone disease expert (and ladies man) Dr. David West (Edward Judd). With West's sexy girlfriend Toni (Carole Gray) offering the use of her father's helicopter, the four adventurers return to the island, initially unaware of the danger they and the other islanders are in, especially after the helicopter returns to the mainland, leaving everyone stranded.
Though about as scientifically plausible as The Tingler (1958), Cushing, Judd, and Byrne work wonders suspending audience disbelief, while Hammer veteran director Terence Fisher strives hard to make the creatures scary in spite of their basic absurdity.
The monsters themselves are rather like big brothers of the walking brain critters in the equally outrageous Fiend without a Face (1958), and it comes as no surprise that Richard Gordon co-produced both films. According to the well-researched DVD "Viewing Notes" by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, Gordon claims to have entered into the production after reading Edward Andrew Mann and Alan Ramsen's script, but the film so resembles Fiend without a Face -- it's really an uncredited remake -- that one suspects either Gordon's memory is faulty here or that the script was heavily rewritten to ape Fiend's plot points. There are just too many similarities to pass it off as coincidence.
Though time and money precluded Fiend's use of gory stop-motion animation, the "silicates," and as monsters are called, are similarly and impressively disgusting on their own terms, especially when they divide and multiply, leaving what looks like vomited French fries in their wake.
One also wonders whether the subtly campy dialogue was the work of Mann and Ramsen, or if it was enhanced by Cushing and his co-stars on the set. The "whistling in the graveyard" approach works well here, rendering certain scenes both scary and funny at the same time. For instance, after one particularly gruesome shock cut to a boneless corpse with its skull-less head, Cushing's pathologist, with typical understatement and after a deliciously long pause, remarks, "Not a very pretty sight."
The cast had their work cut out for them. Though the idea of being de-boned by monster coelenterate is pretty creepy, the bodies of various cattle and human beings tend to look like rubbery costumes with no one inside them. (One recalls Gary Larson's Far Side cartoon of a "Boneless Chicken Farm") The script has its share of clunker ideas: in one scene the foursome comes across a vault door with, in ten-inch lettering, a sign warning "Keep Out -- Radiation Danger." Cushing immediately opens the heavy door and, as steam billows out, casually steps inside.
Somehow, though, Island of Terror delivers the goods. The basic concept of monsters loose in a confined space, particularly on an island with no escape, no telephones, and erratic electricity, is inherently scary. After a slightly pokey opening, the film builds real momentum, and the climatic confrontation between the silicates and the islanders at a besieged town hall is exciting.
Video & Audio
DD Video's release of Island of Terror is presented in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen, preserving Reginald H. Wyer's (Night of the Eagle) carefully composed cinematography, unusually good for such a low-budget film. Unfortunately, preprint material was apparently unavailable, and what looks like a theatrical print was used, complete with scratches, dirt, and some splices here and there. Though the original Eastman Color is faded (particularly during the first minutes of reel 1), the print is reasonably sharp with few frames actually missing. This reviewer doesn't object to this sort of thing now and then; in an age when too many films are digitally scrubbed clean of their film look, a transfer like Island of Terror's is actually rather refreshing, reminding one of the experience of seeing pictures like this in the theater or at drive-ins. The mono sound similarly suffers from being sourced from a print, though like the picture it's generally clean. There are no subtitle options.
As U.K. elements were sourced, a bit of gore involving an axe has been cut. Although the scene used to play on American television, British censors cut the bit for the picture's theatrical run.
Extras include an impressively restrained (no shots at all of the monsters) U.K. Trailer, in 4:3 matted format, and a modest Gallery of production stills. Better is a 25-minute, 2004 Interview with Christopher Lee in which the actor (who is not in Island of Terror) discusses director Terence Fisher.
However, as with all of DD Video's fantasy film titles, the best supplement is the 24-page, Full-Color Booklet, full of useful and fascinating information on the film's production.
One surprise in these liner notes is word of the 2004 passing of co-star Edward Judd. The actor, once described as "a threat to O'Toole, an ambush to Finney," is remembered by genre fans for his superb (and somewhat autobiographical) performance as an alcoholic newspaperman in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), as well as for his starring turn in the Ray Harryhausen/Charles Schneer First Men in the Moon (1964).
Judd was reportedly such a hell-raiser as to make Oliver Reed look like a teetotaler, but his commanding yet accessible presence, coupled with a vaguely weary vulnerability, gave even undemanding roles in films like Island of Terror a distinctiveness.
But the story doesn't end here. Surprised by the liner notes' assertion and that no obituaries for the actor have yet been published, others looking further into the matter have found evidence that Judd might just be alive after all. Evidence suggests that Judd has not worked as a paid actor for some time and that he was or may, if he is alive, be homeless, living with friends, or ailing in a nursing home. (As of February 17, 2005, there seems no definitive answer, despite the best efforts of several prominent researchers.) Whatever the case, that an actor the caliber of Edward Judd should have fallen so far and into such obscurity is terribly sad. If he is alive, one hopes the great concern many have expressed for his welfare might boost his spirits. Interested readers might want to check out the discussion here.
As for Island of Terror, science fiction/horror fans are in for another treat thanks to DD Video's thoughtful handling of this title, even if the film elements are as good as one would hope. It's possible that US rights holder Universal might release its own Region 1 DVD of the title someday, but don't hold your breath.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.