Saturday, July 23, 2016

DOOMWATCH

Peter Sasdy, 1972
Starring: Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, George Sanders

Dr. Dell Shaw, a member of the environmental agency Doomwatch, travels to a remote Cornish Island known as Balfe to take some wildlife samples in the wake of an oil spill. But the secretive, sometimes violently unwelcoming locals accidentally reveal to Shaw that something is going on with their community and he soon recognizes signs of a hormonal disease, acromegaly, which causes pronounced deformities (and here, violent behavior). Despite their resistance — and with the reluctant assistance of a young schoolteacher who is also a newcomer to the island — he begins collecting research. He sends this back to Doomwatch and the teams learns that there may be a connection between the islanders’ deformities and an unauthorized chemical dump that may have spread to the local fish population…

One of the last films made by Tigon Pictures, Doomwatch was based on, and is sort of a spinoff of, a British TV show with the same name. I’ve never seen the show, which is perhaps why I was able to enjoy this strange and unfairly maligned little film that is compellingly made but straddles a number of genres, which made it difficult to market upon its release (and makes it somewhat difficult to recommend now). Much like the two Doctor Who films produced by Amicus, this is a baffling departure from the show and probably frustrated loyal fans. Not only are the show’s main characters relegated to supporting roles, but Doomwatch was misguidedly marketed as a horror film, whereas it’s better described as sci fi-tinged, ecological suspense.

Doomwatch is a bit of a mixed bag, because it’s roughly split into two parts. The first half is a bit reminiscent of The Wicker Man, in the sense that an investigator (in this case a doctor and not a police inspector) arrives on a strange, insular island and is instantly struck by a sense of claustrophobia, even paranoia, as the islanders manipulate him into ignoring their true purpose. And like The Wicker Man, events revolve around a dead or missing body; in this case, Shaw finds the body of a young girl or a child in the woods, but as soon as he draws the island’s lone police officer back to investigate, it is gone and has been reburied elsewhere.

The second half is a completely different beast. Shaw returns to the mainland to brainstorm with the rest of Doomwatch and they confront a naval commander, played by the always magical George Sanders, here in one of his last roles. This wasn’t the first time he appeared in a Tigon film, though I have to say that Doomwatch is a marked improvement over The Body Stealers (1969). But not even Sanders is given the screen time to do much to spice up the conclusion, most of which is largely concerned with three different kinds of conversations: either Doomwatch is wrapped up in scientific investigation (they’re trying to find who dumped some experimental growth hormones into the sea); Shaw is trying to convince the islanders that their problem is medical and not divine retribution/inbreeding; and there are many shots of British people shouting at each other over the telephone, as should be expected.

And yet, despite its sort of glum reputation, I really have a soft spot for Doomwatch. No, it’s not a horror film, though it does have some delightfully Lovecraftian touches and plenty of atmosphere. It’s not even really a sci-fi film, but straddles a pleasant line between the two genres, adding in a hefty dose of what I would describe as moral responsibility drama. And the cinematography from Ken Talbot — shot on actual Cornish locations and not on a soundstage — goes quite a long way, as does the moody score from John Scott. 

Finally, I have to admit my real, abiding love for director Peter Sasdy, who was an undeniably bright note in British horror with enjoyable titles like Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), the mediocre but lovely Countess Dracula (1970), sleazy cheese-fest The Devil Within Her (1971) — about a bitchy exotic dancer who is being stalked by a Satanic dwarf, who may have possessed her unborn child (I could not make this shit up) — and classics like his masterpiece, Hands of the Ripper (1971), The Stone Tape (1972), and so on. I’m a little reluctant to recommend this, based on the rather intense hatred it seems to have experienced critically, but I really think you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you give it a shot and don’t expect The Wicker Man, Dunwich-style. Pick it up on DVD here.

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