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Fantasia Obscura: ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, the less said, the better; no really, keep it short and sweet here…

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Terence Fisher

You don’t need all of that, you know.

There are pieces of flash fiction that can have more impact than a trilogy of novels. Sometimes the radio edit of a song will stay with a listener longer than the album cut. There are series where you can stream all seven seasons, yet keep coming back to that one episode that encapsulates the overall story.

So yes, you can accomplish quite a bit in a film shot on a low budget with a run time of only sixty-two minutes…

The opening of the film is given in the trailer, minus the annoying title overlays and obnoxious narration. In fact, there isn’t anything other than naturally occurring sound until the titles come up, accompanied by a brilliant score from Elisabeth Lutyens that assist the film in establishing its sense of dread.

Once the credits are finished, there are additional shots of the English countryside littered with more corpses than you see in your average season of Midsomer Murders. Soon, we get a shot of a Land Rover driving into a village, where the driver (Willard Parker) gets out to help himself to a shortwave radio in a shop before getting a better look at the carnage.

It’s a full eight minutes into the film (about 13% of its run time) before we know who this man is, when he meets two fellow survivors discussing the state of the world. He’s Jeff Nolan, an American test pilot who was flying an experimental VTOL craft during the dying below him. And after watching him get nothing on the shortwave he picked up earlier except for a weird unidentifiable signal, he seems to think what he’s experiencing is not localized to just this area.

His converses with Peggy (Virginia Field) and Taggart (Dennis Price), both up from London. Taggart does his best to avoid discussing his background, but between his vicious demeanor, sharp suit, proficiency with a revolver, and at one point handiness with lock picks, it’s heavily implied that he probably knew Ronnie and Reggie Kray on a first name basis. And with Peggy more or less Taggart’s prisoner, it’s a hard impression to deny.

They decide to hole up in the village hotel, where they are soon joined by Ed Otis (Thorley Walters) and Violet Courtland (Vanda Godsell). Nolan had thought they were dead when he checked on them, but they’d only crashed their car while still hungover from an office party the night before, and were just dozing it off where they stopped.

They compare notes and come to a few conclusions: Whatever killed everyone else was likely a gas attack of some sort, by hostile power or powers unknown. If someone was able to keep from breathing in the air at that moment, they avoided the catastrophe, as the gas appears to have abated.

It’s at that point that a new piece of data come up as visitors in what look to be NBC suits start walking through the village:

With Violet now dead for real this time, the survivors now know they have something else to worry about, with deadly alien robots afoot. And if things weren’t complicated enough, into town roll a young couple. We meet the Brenards, Lorna (Anna Palk) who’s with child, and Mel (David Spencer) who’s from the same pool that all the other Angry Young Men drew their leading characters from.

Things look bleak for our survivors. And it just doesn’t get any better, when Violet gets up and starts walking around once again, though this time, it’s not after being misidentified as a corpse…

There’s now alien robots with zombies to worry about. That, and a pregnancy, and a ruthless gangster who’s in it only for themselves, plus the end of civilization as we know it and maybe humanity as well; do these survivors have the resources to handle this crisis?

Speaking of resources, Fisher does remarkable work with what looks to be a budget of nearly zero. The small number of sets and exteriors around a single small village (Shere, in Surrey) help heighten the sense of isolation in a world where just about everyone around them has died. Through tight shots and quick edits, he manages to localize a global emergency and make it personal for the characters.

This works perfectly with the script by Harry Spalding (writing as “Harry Cross”) where the characters’ personal motivations drive their actions in the face of global disaster. Everyone in the film has to come together, but first has to find some way to overcome their personal issues, like Taggart’s criminally-driven worldview and Mel’s sense that the world is against him and his family. His script gives the cast plenty of good material to work with, which they handle wonderfully, with some outstanding work by Price as Taggart.

It all works despite Spalding’s objections to the title. He claimed it was just a working title mentioned at the onset that just stuck. Which seems ironic, considering that the title became so iconic that UB40 charted in the UK with a song inspired by the film:

 

The film opens at a sprint, and over the hour-and-two-minute run time is a taut compact piece that doesn’t need to bother with the bloat of exposition. You come away quite satisfied by a movie that doesn’t give you time to ponder some questions that a longer film might pose.

Questions like, “Wasn’t the aliens plan in the move a lot like the one from Plan 9 from Outer Space?”

Y’know, in this case, the less said, the better…

 

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