John WyndhamHoward KeelJanette ScottCarole Ann Ford
The Day of the Triffids (1962)
Medium: film
Year: 1962
Director: Steve Sekely
Writer: John Wyndham, Bernard Gordon
Keywords: The Day of the Triffids, SF
Country: UK
Actor: Howard Keel, Nicole Maurey, Janette Scott, Kieron Moore, Mervyn Johns, Ewan Roberts, Alison Leggatt, Geoffrey Matthews, Janina Faye, Gilgi Hauser, John Tate, Carole Ann Ford
Format: 93 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 30 December 2009
It's great in the first half, but then it dribbles out later on. The second half I didn't mind, but having just watched the 2009 BBC adaptation left me really rather impressed by the early Wyndham-esque scenes. There's some lovely stuff in here. It's just that it eventually becomes obvious that they're determined to turn it into a generic 1950s Creature Feature, at which they unfortunately succeed.
For a while I really liked it, though. Its scenes of devastated London are well done, with the empty hospital and the hand reaching for Bill Masen's shoulder being genuinely eerie. Soames's summary of the situation is chilling and the movie's going out of its way to show us horrible things happening to people who've been blinded. You might think everyone's screwed on that ocean liner, but they've got off lightly compared with the people (and children) on that plane. The train crash is a shocker too. They don't keep it up, but for a while it really feels as if they're channelling John Wyndham and trying to make us feel what it would be like to be in this abandoned world. It's not as subtle and poignant as the original, but it's still good. If the rest of the film had been this strong, we'd have been looking at a classic.
The triffids are great too, if perhaps occasionally comical. Little triffids reminded me of the similar Audrey II babies in Little Shop of Horrors, but they have a terrific sound effect (bongo rattling) and a top-notch first kill. The guy turns green! This looks good with the bloody slash across his face, whereupon the plant eats him. Cool. They're appropriately indestructible and fulfil their oogie-boogie function admirably.
I even liked the little details, with cool freaky meteor effects and some lovely overblown music. It's not tongue-in-cheek, but it could have been. This is a score with character. Oh, and a burning triffid resembles a skull on three legs. The film's also in colour, which for some reason surprised me even though I'd watched it before.
Unfortunately the script has excised everything Wyndham was actually saying. These triffids weren't being harvested industrially or anything like that. They've come from space, or in other words they're nothing to do with us. Meanwhile the meteor shower is just a meteor shower, while the plague never even makes an appearance. The nearest this film gets to criticism of society or geopolitical realities is to include French people. Note that when bad people turn up at the chateau later in the film, we're explicitly told that they're a group of convicts and thus hadn't been part of regular society even before the world went blind. Meanwhile this Bill Masen isn't a scientist who had an accident while studying triffids, but instead an American sailor who's had an eye operation. He knows nothing about anything, basically. There are a couple of scientists in the film, but they're stuck in a lighthouse and don't know any more about what's going on than Masen. They're a married couple and the husband's got an alcohol problem, by the way.
The second half of the film is okay, but it's a bit random and episodic. Bill Masen collects friends and somehow wanders from England to France (eh?), eventually ending up in Spain. Bad things happen with triffids, but to be honest most of all this could happen in any order. Ironically one of the few sequences which feels important to the second half of the film (the triffids attacking the lighthouse) was a last-minute addition after the film was finished and found to be too short. There's not even any subtext or theme. Aliens attack us. That's about it, really.
The acting is mostly fine. This isn't the kind of film you watch for its nuanced performances, but the only person who's actually bad is Carole Ann Ford, the year before she became Susan in Doctor Who. She's playing a Frenchwoman, but listen to her accent if you want a few laughs. She also looks awkward with blind acting, although she's not alone in that (e.g. Spanish bloke). However the leads are all doing their jobs and perfectly watchable, even the little girl.
There are a few bits where you'll have to squint. The triffids aren't exactly Industrial Light and Magic, while there's an unconvincing fake punch and a bit of time-fudging. "In 24 hours, it'll be swarming with triffids!" Do they really grow that fast? The ones you saw were seedlings, mate! However in fairness, this movie takes place over the space of days rather than years, so it was always going to be a stretch to include everything Wyndham manages to. One could argue that the convicts being convicts was more plausible than such a sudden disintegration of society, for instance. For the most part these are just isolated pimples, the inevitable consequence of this being an alien-invasion SF film from 1962, but there's a stupid bit at the end which is just eye-popping. The only way to get over it today would be to regard it as a backward homage to War of the Worlds or something. The scientists in their lighthouse have been analysing captured bits of triffid for much of the film and yet couldn't find a way of killing them, with the monsters even being immune to nitric acid. You'll love this, though. Sea water dissolves them! Eh? If I'd been watching this with friends, we'd have probably burst out laughing.
To be honest, almost everything I love about John Wyndham is gone. I'd have said it was impossible to dumb this down any further, except that I've seen the 2009 TV series. The subtleties and intelligence are gone, the characters are a mockery of Wyndham's originals... and yet it's still surprisingly faithful to the book's spirit. What happens at the chateau is more brutal than I'd expected and even if the themes and social criticism are gone, at least they're trying to reproduce the novel's apocalyptic feel. Apparently this film (and the original novel) are what inspired 28 Days Later. I'd never call this a good adaptation of its original novel, but equally it wouldn't feel right to dismiss it. As a fifties monster movie, it's not bad at all. You'll think better of it if you turn it off halfway through, though.