Island of the Burning Doomed / Island of the Burning Damned / Night of the Big Heat (1967/1971) **Ĺ
Do not be misled. Island of the Burning Doomed/Island of the Burning Damned/Night of the Big Heat would like very much for you to think itís a Hammer production, but in fact it was made by a company called Planet Film Productions, the same outfit that produced the very similar Island of Terror the preceding year. It also wants you to think itís one of those low-key, ostensibly thoughtful sci-fi/horror movies that so many people seem to fawn over, but again, youíd be making a mistake to take appearances at face value. It may have that veneer of class that all but the trashiest English movies have, it may be the theatrical remake of a relatively prestigious TV miniseries like The Creeping Unknown and its sequels, and it may have both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but the story driving this flick is worthy of a Bert I. Gordon movie.
Great Britain is experiencing another of its characteristic harsh winters, but for some reason, the little island of Fara is gripped by an extremely localized and breathtakingly aberrant heat wave. How aberrant am I talking about here? Well, letís just say that, while the mainland is seeing temperatures in the mid-to-upper 20ís, the temperature on Fara stands at more than 90 degrees as the movie opens, and it will be well into the triple digits by the closing scene. But the unseasonable heat isnít the only strange thing going on. Within the first ten minutes, a mysterious man-- weíll later learn that he is a scientist, and that his name is Hanson-- has set up a camera in the woods to snap pictures when a tripwire is pulled, and an old bum is cooked to death in a cave by some glowing thing that we donít get to see. (I want to take a moment here to sing the praises of Christopher Lee. He plays Hanson, and from the moment he walks onscreen, there is no question but that the man is slightly less than fully sane. Lee has no dialogue in this scene, and while his behavior-- setting up some kind of photographic trap in the middle of the forest-- is a bit weird, it isnít that that tells us Hanson isnít quite right. All Lee needs to do this is the look in his eyes. Iím not talking about the kind of look that Vincent Price and Michael Gough have-- that mad glow that is simply intrinsic to the menís faces. Go watch him in The Gorgon, and youíll see no sign of the smoldering craziness that Lee has here. Itís absent from his eyes in The Mummy too. The difference between the look of madness that Lee has here and the one that Price has in every single movie heís ever made is that, here, itís part of Leeís performance. More impressive than the fact that he can just turn something like that on and off, though, is the fact that he can do it without drawing attention to it. Compare Leeís performance here with Anthony Perkinsís in The Edge of Sanity if you want a really obvious illustration of what Lee isnít doing.) Whatís more, everybody on Fara keeps hearing this strange whining sound, which comes and goes erratically and without warning. Finally, something starts doing to the livestock of Fara what it did to the bum. As the film wears on, it will become increasingly clear that somehow the heat wave, the whining noise, Hansonís odd behavior, and the deaths of the bum and the sheep are all connected.
Meanwhile, an author and pub-owner by the name of Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen, of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell) is learning that heís in for a rough time on the home front. He has just acquired a new secretary, and that secretary turns out to be none other than Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow, from Hands of the Ripper), the woman who, unbeknownst to Mrs. Callum (Sarah Lawson, who played Sarah Pilgrim in the original TV miniseries version of "The Trollenberg Terror", the basis for The Crawling Eye), nearly wrecked the Callumsí marriage some years before. Naturally, Angela has not come to live and work under the Callumsí roof out of an interest in Jeffís books, and despite his intentions to the contrary, Jeff seems to be having the damnedest hard time keeping his hands off of her.
But enough of this love-triangle crap. You donít care about any of that; you want to hear about burning doom! Goddamned right! And, lucky for you, some of that burning doom happens quite swiftly after the love-triangle subplot is set up. One of the Callumsí regular customers drives off the road when his car is attacked by some offscreen whining thing. And for once, thereís actually some excuse for a car in a movie to burst into flames after crashing into something-- if the offscreen whining thing can generate enough heat to turn a flock of sheep into a dozen little piles of cinders, it can certainly ignite a tank full of gasoline.
Another of Callumís regulars gets himself cooked (right after he tries, crazy with the ever-escalating heat, to force himself on Angela) soon thereafter, and Jeff finally works up the nerve to corner Hanson, and extract from him the information that he so clearly possesses regarding Faraís troubles. Apparently, the island is the site of an exploratory landing by creatures from space who are interested in colonizing Earth. The only obstacle is the planetís temperature, which is rather cold for the creaturesí liking. The aliens have thus arranged to raise the local temperature to a level better suited to their metabolism. The real kicker, as far as those of us who like the planetís climate just the way it is are concerned, is that the aliens appear to have traveled to Earth via radio waves, their bodies materializing (just like a television image, or so says Hanson-- I hope youíre smart enough to see why this is stupid) once they reach some kind of radio receiver. Iím sure you can grasp the gravity of the situation for a planet whose inhabitants have spent the last 70 or so years junking up their world with all sorts of devices that transmit and receive radio waves. Hanson somehow stumbled upon evidence of this silent invasion, and he has spent his stay on Fara attempting to gather the proof needed to convince somebody in a position of power to do something to stop it. The last half of the film concerns the efforts of Callum, Hanson, and the local physician, Dr. Stone (Peter Cushing, in a surprisingly tiny role), to trap and kill the aliens, and thus send a message that the Earth is an unacceptably hostile environment to whatever agency it was that set the invasion in motion.
Coming from me, this is going to sound awfully strange, but Island of the Burning Doomedís greatest strength is the fact that it mainly keeps the aliens offscreen. This is not because of any intrinsic advantage in scare value that the unseen has over the seen (and in any event, this is about as unscary a movie as you could ask for), but rather because of what the aliens look like once they are finally revealed. The aliens, and I am being completely serious here, resemble nothing so much as fried eggs the size of St. Bernard dogs. As it stands, the movie is not the tiniest bit frightening, but had I known all along that the Earth was on the verge of being conquered by sentient fried eggs, I would have spent the whole of its running time laughing out loud, instead of merely its last fifteen minutes. But on the other hand, that might not have been such a bad thing, either. (If you really want a laugh, try to find the French version of this movie-- some Gaullic madman tried to spruce it up by editing hardcore porno footage into it!!!!)