The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Times have certainly changed. The very beginning of the DVD presentation of this film is the BBFC card certifying that this movie, better known in the United States as The Crawling Eye, is not to be shown to an audience with anybody under the age of sixteen in it. Sixteen?! I first saw clips of this on some HBO special about sci-fi or monster movies when I was about our son’s age and could not freaking wait to see it. Later, its unconvincing icky-squicky monsters got it a brief revival moment in It Came From Hollywood – about which, stay tuned! – but when I finally landed a copy, when I was about, yes, sixteen, I realized this movie was all about everything except the icky-squicky monsters.

It really is a shame about the monsters. If they weren’t here, this film would probably have been forgotten. Instead, it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons. That’s why, when I gave our son a brief introduction, I glossed over the American title very quickly and moved right on. It’s a badly flawed film, but when it shines, it’s really creepy and really effective. Before the icky-squicky monsters decide to take matters into their own tentacles, they’re using clouds to decapitate people and frozen corpses to go after psychics with meat axes and knives. There are moments of this movie that are really skin-crawlingly gruesome and work tremendously well, and it’s a shame they couldn’t sustain it all the way through.

So The Trollenberg Terror started life as a six-part serial for British commercial television. So did another film, The Strange World of Planet X, made as a seven-parter for ATV, and The Creature, a one-off play for the BBC written by Nigel Kneale. All three of these productions, which I believe were all destroyed by the TV companies, were made into feature films in 1957-58, starring that fine actor Forrest Tucker, who was living and working in the UK and playing the American lead role so that movies made there would stand a better chance at landing American distribution. These three all got more lurid names in the States: Crawling Eye, Cosmic Monsters, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Interestingly, the film version of Trollenberg retained one member of the TV version’s cast, Laurence Payne, who plays a journalist who figures there’s a story in all these missing person reports coming out of Switzerland, and knows it must be true when a UN troubleshooter who had investigated a similar case in the Andes a couple of years before turns up. Several other familiar faces from the period are in the film, including Janet Munro, Colin Douglas, and Warren Mitchell, who seems to have employed a different European accent in everything I’ve ever seen him in.

The kid found this satisfyingly creepy, and gave a resounding noise of disgust and disapproval when the icky-squicky monster shows up, which I was glad to see. This is a very old-fashioned film in its pace and mood; Jimmy Sangster’s script has plenty of moments of shock and terror, but like quite a lot of fifties sci-fi horror, there are plenty more moments of people drinking like fish and smoking like chimneys while debating what to do next and demanding more proof before they can act. But he came through it just fine, and later in the evening discussed where the crawling eyes should end up in a “monsterpedia” that he’d like to see somebody write about movie monsters. There are probably many such books, although I fear the crawling eyes probably don’t command too many pages in them. Possibly an occasional footnote.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

When I was a kid in the seventies, we took a family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. It wasn’t the Haunted Mansion that scared me senseless, nor the hideous animatronics in the Hall of Presidents, it was just the idea of the Swiss Family Treehouse. Somehow I got the notion that you had to walk all around the attraction on tightropes, and if you fell, then tough luck, you would plummet to the ground or a raging river below.

Well, somehow I got over it and really enjoyed that part of the trip. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the original novel, but there was a Swiss Family Robinson TV series on the air around that time, which starred Martin Milner as the father, and I liked watching that a lot as a kid. I wanted to add that to our rotation here at the blog, but the darn thing’s never been available on home video. I guess we’ll have to make do with Disney’s version, which I’m reasonably confident is a bigger and better production anyhow.

This is a classic adventure tale in the tradition of many Disney films of the day, with one darn thing after another befalling the attractive cast. The Robinsons decided to flee the Napoleonic wars of Europe for a new life in the colonies of New Guinea, but are shipwrecked. From there, they have to put up with sharks, tigers, snakes, you name it. Oh, and pirates. These are fairly awesome, no-joke, downright mean south Pacific pirates, too. None of that “arrr” nonsense.

The cast is led by John Mills, and by chance I’d just finished watching him in a fun 1974 series called The Zoo Gang, which is kind of a Mission: Impossible cash-in set in the south of France. As for familiar Disney faces of the day, there’s also Dorothy McGuire, from Old Yeller, Janet Munro, from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and James MacArthur, who had made Kidnapped the previous year and would stay hugely in demand throughout the sixties before co-starring for more than a decade as “Danno” Williams on Hawaii Five-O.

While it is a good film, this was a long, long one, and boy, did we ever feel it. The problem is that once Fritz and Ernst rescue a cabin boy who turns out to be a girl disguised as a boy to avoid a grisly fate at the hands of the pirates, the simmering jealousy between them becomes incredibly tedious. If, perhaps, you’re a girl who wouldn’t mind imagining yourself in the place of Munro, with two good-looking shirtless young men to choose from, the twenty minutes they spend stewing might possibly be a little more bearable.

There’s enough animal action and close escapes in the film to keep our five year-old entertained, and the climactic battle against the pirates completely thrilled him. The whole film is full of surprising stunts and physical business between the animals. I wondered how on earth the stuntmen playing the pirates didn’t escape with serious injury, never mind the poor ostrich that keeps being mounted, and the tiger and two dogs that get into a rumble. It builds to a terrific climax and some surprising decisions taken in the conclusion, and is overall a very well-acted and well-made movie. If it were not for some mushy stuff as Munro comes closer to making her decision which boy she likes better, he’d probably have called it a complete success!