Horror changes with each generation. In the ‘50s, societal fear of the Atomic bomb was projected back at us through the use of metaphorical figures such as giant lizards, oversized sea-creatures, and warped representations of nature too often taken for granted. And then there’s fun fare like The Crawling Eye (1958), which posits that visitors from space don’t always come in peace, nor are they willing to go quietly. I guess films don’t always have to reflect society.
This British independent production was released at home under its original title The Trollenberg Terror (also the name of the 1956 BBC serial it is based on) in October with a stateside rollout at the end of the year; unloved by critics (and mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000), the film satiated the drive-in circuit looking for cheap thrills and cheaper monsters. But The Crawling Eye offers up more - atmosphere, solid performances, and some grisly goodies shocking to see in ’58 all delivered in a tidy 77 minutes.
We open on Mount Trollenberg in Switzerland, as three climbers make their ascent; number three speaks to one and two from a higher peak, and when they hear him scream and plummet below, they pull him up and discover him headless – number three has become two and three quarters. Cut to a train heading for Trollenberg, where we meet American Government Clean Up Guy Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker – The Ghost Busters) and two British sisters, Sarah and Anne (Jennifer Jayne and Janet Munro, respectively), who are on their way to Geneva. However, Anne is psychic and has a vision that they need to get off at Trollenberg, so they disembark along with Alan, who is there to investigate the rash (is that the right term?) of beheadings plaguing the area.
Alan meets up with Professor Crevett (Warren Mitchell – Carry On Cleo) in the local observatory; he’s called his old chum due to similar circumstances they dealt with in the Andes a few years prior – lots of decapitations and an ominous fog that shrouds the area. They never did discover what happened in the Andes, but this time the cloud is more aggressive, moves faster – and kills more. Will Alan, Crevett, and the psychic sisters manage to rid the world of…The Crawling Eye?
There is very little surprising about how The Crawling Eye plays out; if you’ve surmised that the military is called in, you receive the gift of congratulations. If you perceive that there’s an attraction between the girls and Alan, well done. Does the professor come complete with a cartoonish accent? You bet. All of these were standard issue sci-fi checkmarks even by this early date, and were not only expected but accepted; what the film offers is not only a slightly different tone than its brethren, but Lovecraftian atmosphere that permeates the screen until we finally get our monsters in the final reel.
Before the titular creatures appear (and they do look precisely as stated – giant eyeballs with tentacles) we’re bathed in fog as Alan et al try to figure where and when it will strike next; “it” being the collective word as the characters have no idea what is inside the mist, although the audience does thanks to the title change. There’s something charming in the way the studio gives away the mystery before the credits even roll.
If one forgives the warning of the reveal, the film excels at creating a certain amount of tension through a strong use of shadow and foreboding, with the characters alluding to the carnage; director Quentin Lawrence (The Voodoo Factor) teases the visuals before fleshing out the scares with a head here and there. This was ’58, don’t forget; filmmakers weren’t exactly chopping off domes all willy-nilly – a touch of decorum makes the gore go down.
Now, I’ve read many complaints that the film is slow to go; but what Hammer legend Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula)’s script does is flesh out the relationships between the characters so that when the activity unfurls, the audience is invested. And really, we’re talking about a chatty first half hour, which is every Tarantino film, so shush.
This isn’t to say that The Crawling Eye is a sweeping epic of terror on a grand scale, yet it does have some residue of influence; the fog as a malleable and malicious force is a conceit extended even further in John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980). Carpenter’s mist-draped inhabitants were vengeful undead pirates however, and designed to chill; Lawrence’s creatures, while impressive in spots, lose their impact the more they’re shown (which would be the last 20 minutes). A pity then they decided to take the “more is more” route when the eerie was right in front of them - the fog is the impenetrable deep of the water before the shark shows up. Having said that, if you’re going to make a creature feature you have to have a creature, and these are so goofy and bizarre that you simply can’t be mad at their domination of the third act.
As scripted by Sangster, The Crawling Eye is sharper and more focused than several of its day; the dialogue is snappy, curves are thrown, and the performances are for the most part understated (except for Mitchell, who rightly plays to the nosebleed section). There may not be relevance in the material, but if we are ever beset upon by one-eyed aliens with tentacles, we’ll be ready. Just make sure to keep that phone number labeled “government” handy.
The Crawling Eye is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE DEADLY SPAWN (1983)