Delve Deeper

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review - The Trollenberg Terror (1958) (UR)

RT: 87mins
Pro Co: Tempean Films/Eros Films.
Dir: Quentin Lawrence;
Pros: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman;
Wr: Jimmy Sangster; TV serial: Peter Key.
Phot: Monty Berman;
Film Ed: Henry Richardson;
Mus: Stanley Black;
Art Dir: Duncan Sutherland.
SFX: Anglo Scottish Pictures.
Assist Dir: Norman Harrison;
Pro Sup: Ronald C. Lisles.
Camera Op: Desmond Davis.

Cast: Forrest Tucker, Laurence Payne, Janet Munro, Jennifer Jayne, Warren Mitchell, Frederick Schiller, Andrew Faulds, Stuart Saunders, Colin Douglas, Derek Sydney.

At the end of the 1950s, Hammer Films' biggest competitors in horror and sci-fi were undoubtedly independent filmmaking duo Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman.
Like Hammer, and its earlier incarnation as film distributor Exclusive, Baker and Berman established themselves by churning out cheap thrillers and melodramas, designed to take advantage of the generous quota system within the post-war British film industry. While Hammer were quick to exploit the burgeoning broadcasting media by adapting successful radio and television shows for the cinema, the pair concentrated on literary and theatrical adaptations.

After the international success of Val Guest's The Quatermass Xperiment (55) and Quatermass II (57), along with Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (57) and Dracula (58), Baker and Berman were quick to spot a new market and managed to secure the services of Hammer's in-house scribe Jimmy Sangster (who had penned the brace of Fisher films, as well as other projects for the studio), whose contract allowed him to work for other production companies. Abandoning their usual literary and theatrical source material, they had Sangster adapt a successful serial, The Trollenberg Terror, produced by the Midlands-based ATV station for the recently formed ITV network, in the process bringing on board that programme's director and some of its cast.

A week after the death of a student mountain climber on the Trollenberg mountain, next to the town which bears its name, in the Austrian Alps, a train is travelling through the area on its way to Geneva. In one of the carriages are two women and a man. The younger woman awakens from at troubled sleep and goes to look of the window at the Trollenberg mountain. She is unnerved by the sight of the mountain, and suddenly has a fit and collapses. The man, who identifies himself as Alan Brooks from America, tends to her. It turns out that the two women are sisters, Anne and Sarah Pilgrim. When the conductor announces the next stop is Trollenberg, she insists that this is their next stop and they have to leave the train there. It turns out that Trollenberg is also Brooks' stop. At the station they meet the manager of the local hotel who informs them that, although it is normally the height of his establishment's busy season, he still has plenty of rooms left. On the way to the hotel, Anne reveals that she knows a great deal about the area and the mysterious events that have been occurring recently such as the death of the climber, disappearances and locals abandoning the area. At the hotel, she is again disturbed by the sight of the Trollenberg. Inside they are introduced to another guest called Truscott, who seems to recognise the sisters' names, but can't quite place them. The women retire to their room where Anne experiences a strong feeling of déjà vu about the mountain and its surrounding area. In Brooks' room, Truscott is in conversation with the American when the former remembers that he had seen the sisters' mind-reading act in London just recently. He finds it surprising that they should abandon their journey to get off at a place like Trollenberg. He then notices that Brooks carries a gun. Shortly afterwards Truscott is heard phoning for information about Brooks. Downstairs, the American meets two men, Brett and Dewhurst who are making preparations to climb the mountain. Dewhurst is a geologist who is trying to establish a reason for the spate of accidents in the area, while the other man is his guide. Truscott and Sarah appear and he warns the climbers to watch out for their rope. When asked why, he is informed that apparently rope slippage killed the student climber the previous week, ripping his head off in the process, although rumours abound in the village that there was much more to the incident than this. Brooks decides to accompany the two men on part of their journey, with him stopping off at an observatory located on the side of the mountain. At the observatory, he meets an old friend, Professor Crevett, who had sent him a letter asking to visit him as soon as possible. They discuss the strange events happening in the area in recent weeks and their link with a mysterious, stationary radioactive cloud that never seems to move from a point on the side of the mountain. Crevett reminds Brooks that a very similar situation occurred in the Andess three years previously.

Despite its SF content, The Trollenberg Terror is initially presented in the form of a thriller. This becomes evident from the startling pre-credit sequence, featuring the decapitation of the climber, which then jump cuts to a train entering a tunnel, followed by the titles. The titles themselves, along with the driving theme music by Stanley Black (City Under the Sea 65), strongly evoke the style of a thriller, with some viewers possibly being reminded of Saul Bass's credit sequences for Alfred Hitchcock.

Although assumed to be a scientist by some of the other characters, hero Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) appears to be some sort of special agent-cum-trouble shooter for the United Nations, part of a wider team that investigates strange phenomenon throughout the world.

Thrown into this mix are the presence of the two innocent bystanders caught up in events outwith their control, the mysterious guest called Truscott (Laurence Payne), who spies on both Brooks and the women, and whose motives remain unclear for a lot of the film, along with a nearby scientific facility which has been observing some strange activities.
The Trollenberg Terror's narrative drive is also very thriller-like in its pacing. While part of the must be attributed the skill of film editor Henry Richardson (A Study in Terror 65), another important factor is that screenwriter Jimmy Sangster has condensed some 150 minutes of television drama into a feature film of less than 90 minutes duration. Thus the main plot components are very quickly established with a handful of establishing scenes, and Janet Munro's dialogue describing recent events in the area around the Trollenberg.

Even if the condensation of the source material had been far less successful, The Trollenberg Terror would in all probability still have proved compelling, since the initial premise of Peter Key's original teleplay, with its mixture of mystery, science fiction and bizarre incidents is strong enough to survive, almost any attempt at adaptation.
Sangster is well served by a mixture of second-rank and character performers, with lead actor Forest Tucker proving to be a dependable and likeable leading man. This was, in fact, one of three sci-fi movies that Tucker made in the UK at roughly the same time, with all being based on successful television material, the others being Val Guest's Nigel Kneale-scripted The Abominable Snowman (57) and Gilbert Gunn's The Strange World of Planet X (58).

Of the rest of the cast, two were employed on the original telecast, Laurence Payne (The Tell-Tale Heart 60) and Stuart Saunders (The Horrors of the Black Museum 59), as the inquisitive reporter and doomed geologist, respectively, and acquit themselves well as do the rest of the cast. Busy character actor and future sitcom superstar Warren Mitchell (Curse of the Werewolf 61) does, however, turn in a highly theatrical performance as the excitable German scientist in charge of the observatory. By far the most striking performance seen in the film comes from the diminutive Janet Munro (The Day the Earth Caught Fire 61) as the young psychic. Munro possesses the most extraordinary eyes, and here cinematographer/co-producer Monty Berman (What a Carve-Up! 61) makes outstanding use of them, aided by the actress's not inconsiderable talent, to convey the psychological terror inflicted on her by the alien invaders. Overall, she very effectively imparts the feelings of fear, confusion and bewilderment produced by her experiences, succeeding in turning in a very touching performance.

Regrettably, Sangster's script does not always repay Munro's efforts, as he fails to develop some of the concepts connected to her character, such as the reasons her growing link with the creatures in the cloud, and the nature of the breakdown that brought her to Trollenberg. It is extremely regrettable that Sangster cannot find anything for her to do in the final act and simply halts her involvement in any further proceedings when he has her attacked and knocked unconscious by a possessed villager. Jennifer Jayne (Dr Terror's House of Horrors 65) is treated even more shabbily, with her character of the older sister being reduced to mere decoration.

On the whole, Jimmy Sangster has successfully reworked the original material by Peter Key into a feature film format, there are some issues that may have been more fully resolved in the much longer teleplay. Among these are the aliens' keen interest in acquiring human heads, of which they seem to have quite a collection, and why they feel so threatened by humans with ESP along with some plot inconsistencies about the beings' strengths and abilities (notably how they can leave and enter a locked hut so easily).

The Trollenberg Terror shares many of the traits found in other genre product from Britain cinema of the time. The most obvious, of course, is the poverty-stricken budget. This means that, apart from a few scenes taking place in spartan settings like a railway carriage, cable car and studio-bound mountainside, much of the action takes place in the hotel foyer and the control room of the observatory, which actually adds to the sense of claustrophobia generated by the story.
As every low-budget filmmaker knows, talk is cheap, and Sangsters script is certainly dialogue-heavy. Some of this, however, may be attributable to the project's televisual origins that, in turn, owe a lot that medium's debt to Britain's theatrical past. Some of this dialogue is quite useful, not just expositional, providing technical and other details about the nature and scale of the threat faced by humanity, adding some veracity to the proceedings. Modern viewers may still consider it excessive padding.

Quentin Lawrence's background in television production is apparent throughout this film, to its frequent detriment. Although benefiting from moody photography by Monty Berman (featuring some imaginative composition) and the oversized expressionist-tinged settings from Duncan Sutherland (The Vulture 66), Lawrence's direction is at best workmanlike, with little in the way of style and imagination, apart from the occasional visual flourish (like the high-angled shot employed when showing Janet Munro attempting to escape from the observatory). He largely fails to generate any real tension and excitement, outside of that inherent in the narrative itself and it is plain to see why he worked almost exclusively in television, apart from the occasional minor cinematic work.

If Lawrence's overall contribution to The Trollenberg Terror is, overall, disappointing, there are some sequences, in a macabre vein, where he does raise his sights.

The first of these has the sisters perform their mind-reading act for the residents of the hotel. At first, everything goes as planned, then, apparently triggered by the image of the Trollenberg mountain in a paperweight, the psychic sister goes into a trance and seemingly witnesses events unfold on the peak as if she were actually present there. During this sequence, very effective use is made of deep focus and extreme close-ups (especially of Janet Munro's eyes) along with extremely atmospheric underlighting to create a genuine frisson.

In a later scene, a climber (Andrew Faulds, Jason and the Argonauts 63) thought lost on the mountain, suddenly reappears at the hotel. Acting somewhat disorientated, he gives the impression of being otherwise well, until he attacks the psychic girl with a dagger. At the start of this sequence, Faulds make a startling entrance, his face, lit and shot from below, suddenly filling the whole frame. He then lurches towards the camera, which tracks rapidly away from him. Where Lawrence really excels, however, is in the next few minutes when it becomes apparent, through small details and growing sense of unease, that something is terribly wrong with the climber. Faulds's performance here is exemplary, effectively conveying someone who is not in control of his own body. Munro's horrified reaction to his presence is also very good.

In a piece of filmmaking heavily indebted to the horror genre, an apparently dead Faulds is later resurrected, and escapes from the room where he is being held by graphically strangling (shot from a low-angle with a hand-held camera) the hotel manager (Frederick Schiller) and obtaining his keys. He then grabs a cleaver and makes his way to Munro's bedroom. With its expressionist lighting and composition, this harks back to an earlier era of genre filmmaking, while the shuffling, zombie-like human it looks forward to George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (68).

While somewhat primitive, the gore content in The Trollenberg Terror is significantly higher than would have been allowed in its television incarnation. Therefore the makers here can show images like a bloody headless corpse, a head sticking out of a rucksack and, most impressively, the skin on an arm melting away to reveal the bone.

A the climax of the movie, the cloud which has been hovering about on the side of the mountain, descends onto the town of Trollenberg itself and those controlling it are finally revealed. Seemingly inspired by the creatures seen in Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space (53), the alien invaders most prominent feature like the earlier work is a huge single, glaring eye. The cloud creatures, however, also feature lots of tentacles, to ensnare unwary humans and pustulent, pulsing bodies. Their overall grotesque appearance is enhanced by sound recordist Dick Smith's bizarre audio effects.

Some reviewers have drawn attention to the possibility that the normally hidden, multi-tentacled and mind-controlling aliens along with the movie's original title, The Trollenberg Terror, may in fact be an allusion to the work of American fantastic author H.P. Lovecraft, in particular his writings as part of the Cthulhu Mythos. While this is certainly an intriguing possibility, there appears little hard evidence to support it, since screenwriter Jimmy Sangster has never commented on it, and apparently nothing has ever been written (to this writer's knowledge) about original scripter Peter Key or his career (which seems to have ended at the end of the 1950s).

If the creatures themselves are of a nicely gross design, their actual creation and use is compromised by the lack of time and money that is such a feature of the world of low-budget film production. The remain impressive as long as they stand still but lose some of their menace when seen lumbering towards the camera (even though Forrest Tucker's character exclaims: "Those things can really move". Not true),

The effects credited to Anglo Scottish Pictures, but featuring the talents of Les Bowie (The Evil of Frankenstein 64) and his team, are ambitious for such a project and unfortunately are found wanting in a number of respects. A recurring bugbear in British cinema (including more lavish films like those in the James Bond franchise) is the ineptitude of much of the optical work. This is certainly true of The Trollenberg Terror, especially when live action, matte paintings and rear projection are used together.

Some of the best effects work is in the use of miniatures, such as that of the observatory along with the hotel and surrounding area, where some of the detail is impressive. This is somewhat marred, unfortunately by some very obvious scenic backdrops that are very obviously paintings.

Things really start to go wrong in the finale, when a pack of creatures descend onto the observatory, where they have to be fended off with petrol bombs. Even taking into consideration that this is a product of the 1950s, the miniatures, the mini-blobs and above the pyrotechnics are pretty risible and, for many less tolerant viewers, undermine the enjoyment of the movie.

The film is further hindered by a weak denouement that has the air force merely drop fire bombs onto the invaders, quickly solving the problem, rather than having Tucker and the people inside the observatory devise their own method of dealing with the invaders. A more imaginative piece of writing would possibly have allowed Janet Munro's character find a way for her to use her ESP abilities against the creatures' mind-control abilities.

Several of those involved in The Trollenberg Terror, had interesting careers following their work here.
Robert S. Baker and Monty moved into filmed episodic television in the early 1960s and had major success both domestically and internationally with titles like The Saint, Gideon's Way and The Baron. The partnership dissolved at the end of the decade and Berman continued working in television with titles like The Champions, Department S and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) to his credit. Baker, meanwhile made the occasional movie (for cinema and TV) and profitably exploited the rights to Leslie Charterist's The Saint well into the 1990s.

As Jay Fairbank, Jennifer Jayne had some screenwriting credits, including two Freddie Francis vehicles, the horror anthology Tales That Witness Madness (73), which she also appears in, and Son of Dracula (74).
Assistant Director later went on to helm episodic TV as well as the occasional "quota quickie" like Calculated Risk (63).
Under the name Ronald Liles, production supervisor Ronald C. Lisles produced John Gilling's The Night Caller (65) and helped script Terence Fisher's Night of the Big Heat (67).

Actor Andrew Faulds eventually became an outspoken Labour MP between 1966 and 1997 (for two different constituencies), whose main area of concern was the Palestinian issue.

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-Iain McLachlan

Special thanks to Iain McLachlan.for allowing me to use this review.