Night of the Big Heat/ Island of the Burning Damned (1967) ***

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) meets War of the Worlds with a nod in the direction of Star Trek.  In the absence of a decent budget director Terence Fisher (Dracula Prince of Darkness, 1966) loads the movie with decent actors and relies of suspense rather than revelation. Ignoring the obvious opportunities for beefcake, partially embraces cheesecake.

While you might anticipate a horde of sweat-soaked men you will be taken by surprise by that most un-English of scenes – delight in a downpour. This is more sensibly located on a remote island rather than a big city and dials down on the preachy stuff, nothing to do with  atomic bombs, but still alien invasion.

Instead of The Old Dark House it’s a very hot English pub in winter – a time when the rest of the country is freezing – where all the characters congregate. We’ve got author Jeff (Patrick Allen), wife and pub landlady Frankie (Sarah Lawson),  local doctor Vernon (Peter Cushing), mysterious guest Godfrey (Christopher Lee), mechanic Tinker (Kenneth Cope) and newly-arrived secretary Angela (Jane Merrow) who has been having an affair with Jeff. 

It’s so hot Angela has to cool off with a lager and lime. The women appear to withstand the heat better than the men who are all in shirtsleeves and soaked through with sweat. Angela’s got the right idea, nipping down to the sea in her bikini, cooling her neck (and cleavage as it happens) with an ice cube.

As well as the unseasonable weather there’s a high-pitched eerie noise that especially afflicts automobile drivers, forcing them off the road. Various characters are despatched before disclosure. There’s a surprisingly vivid slice of sexual competition between the two women for Jeff’s attentions. In an excellent scene the wife works out what’s going by Jeff’s attitude towards Angela.

Naturally, Jeff has little idea how to retrieve the situation and maybe it’s just the acceptable misogyny of the period or maybe Frankie is just a bit dim, but I doubt if many women would be happy to hear husband describe lover as a “common slut” without wondering how often he attracted to such. Luckily, the crisis is much bigger than a marriage being potentially wrecked.

The sight of the eventually sweat-soaked Angela is too much for Tinker resulting in a brutal scene of attempted rape. While the males, except for being overcome by the noise, tended to remain cool, Angela turns hysterical, threatening suicide and murder in turn, but in the context of being shunned by Jeff and attacked by Tinker it’s hardly surprising she’s at the end of her tether.

Turns out the aliens have taken a leaf out of the Star Trek playbook and can beam themselves to Earth and dematerialize and that the endless human search for life among the universe has prodded an alternative life form into action. Seeing Earth as one giant platter of energy, they have landed and started sating their appetites.

It’s a fairly standard premise and exposition is left to Christopher Lee (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) rather than the more obvious choice of Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965). Audiences expecting Lee and Cushing to be on opposite sides, with the former cast as villain, will be disappointed. Lee takes on the role of scientist that would normally fall to Cushing. He makes a good boffin, snappy, abrupt, remote and luckily without the slightest interest in any of the disporting damsels.

Patrick Allen (Puppet on a Chain, 1970) who spent most of the decade in television, the movies generally only interested in utilising his voice for narration duties (Carry On Up the Khyber, The File on the Golden Goose etc) takes the opportunity to grab the dramatic center, the character who has to work out what’s going on, while given a pair of conflicting love interests to increase the tension.

Jane Merrow (The System/The Girl Getters, 1964) is the surprise. Provided with the only genuine character arc in the picture, she goes from cool, confident, teasing chick to all-get-out-hysterical, but still with several ounces of sense, able to beat off her attacker, and willing to embrace the suicide option rather than being burned alive by invaders. The aliens, you won’t be surprised to learn, are not, despite the build-up, in the slightest bit scary.

But Fisher does a good job and the reason is a watchable low-budget sci-fi shocker.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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