Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Terrornauts, The (1967)

... aka: Rapto espacial (Space Rapture)

Directed by:
Montgomery Tully

Based on Murray Leinster's novel The Wailing Asteroid (adapted by John Brunner), this isn't one of the better British sci-fi flicks of the 60s but it's not completely horrible either. Four years after receiving a grant to start “Project Star Talk” to  try to discover possible extraterrestrial activity using a high-powered telescope, “radio astronomist” Dr. Joe Burke (Simon Oates) has come up empty-handed. Fed up with the lack of results and wanting to put the money to use on another project, his boss, Dr. Henry Shore (Max Adrian), threatens to pull the plug on his financing if he doesn't show results within three months. For reasons personal, Joe cannot have that happen as he explains in a flashback. As a child, his archaeologist uncle (Frank Forsyth) found a strange little black box while excavating in the south of France and gave it to him. Inside the box were thousands of blue, luminous crystals which caused him to have a dream that he was on an alien world. Joe painted the world he saw, keeping the framed painting on the wall of his office to this day, and felt this dream was too close to reality not to have been a sign of something.

Joe, his colleague / long distance communication's expert Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows) and secretary Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall), all hear a strange, repetitive “unidentified signal” coming from space. It was the same signal, a potential cry for help, that Joe heard in the dream alien world as a kid. They record the sounds and trace them to an asteroid. Naturally, Dr. Shore, the snarky asshole that he is, doesn't believe the asteroid is capable of hosting life and doubts their story since it conveniently coincides with the project potentially getting sacked. Nonetheless, Joe decides to use the remaining balance of his grant to buy equipment to do further research. Because of the sudden increase in expenditures, goofy accountant Joshua Yellowlees (Charles Hawtrey), is sent there from the Holmes Foundation to keep an eye on the project and audit their books.

Just minutes after Joe and company transmit a code of algebraic signals that take 18 minutes to reach their destination, a spaceship swings by Earth and sucks up the lab and everyone in it, including Joshua and the spider-hating comic relief lunch lady Mrs. Jones (Patricia Hayes); blowing all of the observatories fuses in the process. Shielded by some kind of force field that gives the normal air, temperatures and gravity, they're whisked away to the asteroid to await their fate. Upon exiting the lab, they're in an alien “fort” (space station), where a clunky robot leads them into another room. There, they must pass a basic intelligence test using a magnet as a key to unlock a box full of food and drink. In another room, a “vibrator” causes “ultra-sonic hallucinations” so they see a mutant monster. The simple nature of the sets and the challenges contained in different rooms that must be overcome in order to progress reminded me a lot of the later cult hit Cube (1997).

Joe seems to think these various tests are to figure out if they have the brains and bravery to somehow help the alien race with something, but perhaps it's the alien race that want to help us humans...  Once the challenges are overcome, our heroes get a prize, including a laser gun and a black box identical to the one Joe had as a boy.  The gang also accidentally stumble upon a “matter transposer” (portal) that can take one to other worlds, as Joe and Sandy find out when they enter and end up on some rocky planet filled with spear-chucking, green-painted men in green-painted swimming caps who attempt to sacrifice Sandy on an altar. It's the same world from Joe's childhood dream. More little black boxes show up in the space station, which can be hooked up to headsets and convey the aliens' message and reasoning for transporting the humans there.

Cool title. Very cool poster. So-so movie. No doubt about it, this is ultra low budget stuff with cheap-looking sets, unconvincing matte backdrops, toy special effects and the usual visible wires aplenty during the conclusion featuring missiles taking down alien spacecraft. The cast is OK but somewhat bland and even some flubbed dialogue has been allowed to make it into the finished product, including Joe accidentally calling Marshall's character by her real name instead of Sandy. They try to make up for all that by being as colorful as humanly possible, giving this the feel of some Saturday morning kid's show. Also helping keep this at least watchable is the fact there's a very interesting central concept at play here. Sure, it's a middling-to-poor handling of that concept, but the good ideas are still present. Though I typically frown upon remakes, this is one instance where I wouldn't mind someone tackling this same exact idea with a budget.

Terrornauts was released theatrically on a double bill with They Came from Beyond Space (1967), another Amicus production. Both were budgeted together but, according to Beyond Space's director Freddie Francis, this film actually received most of the money. Hard to believe once you watch it! Director / writer Tully made dozens of low budget crime dramas (usually to play as second features), as well as The Electronic Monster (1958), The House in Marsh Road (1960; U.S. title = Invisible Creature) and Battle Beneath the Earth (1967). This was his final film and was also the final film appearance for Dr. No co-star Marshall. There was a U.S. VHS release on the Charter label as well as a Region 2 DVD release through Network Distributing.

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