They Came from Outer Space
but only on Friday and Saturday Nights
An affectionate reappraisal of 1967's The Terrornauts and Amicus’s other ‘terrors for tots’ by Adam Jezard...
Growing up in the UK in the 1970s was great if you were a horror film fan. The restrictive time slots of the then three terrestrial TV channels were pushing into the early hours of the morning with late films, rather than a vanishingly small white dot filling the screen after the national anthem at about 10pm or 10.30pm. And, fortunately for movie fans, horror and sci-fi flicks were often chosen as the medium to expand the schedulers’ horizons and Friday and Saturday nights the given days for these experiments – times when pre-teens could happily sit up late without the risk of being too tired for school the next morning.
This was long before the arrival of cable and satellite, and took place in the decade before Channel 4 redefined late-night scheduling in the 1980s by showing cult TV shows like The Prisoner. Twenty-four-hour, wall-to-wall TV had yet to make an appearance on this side of the Atlantic and we looked with envy at the programming range available across the pond, though now I look at its delivery with regret.
Fans d’un certain age, however, still fondly recall BBC2’s horror double-bills on Saturday nights in the 1970s, particularly in the early days, when Hammer’s 1950s and 60s films were routinely double-billed with classics from the Universal Studios of the 1930s and 40s, introducing us to the delights of Terence Fisher, James Whale, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for the first time.
These experiments in late-night terror tended to be reserved for the summer months, however, leaving something of a dearth of suitably chilling films for the rest of the year, and I remember eagerly getting hold of the separate TV listings magazines – TVTimes, covering the regional independent advertising-sponsored regional channels, and Radio Times, the BBC weekly magazine – as soon as they came through the door with the newspapers, so I could scan the film guides for something to excite my cinematic tastebuds.
I haven’t read a listings guide for two decades, nor have I had a newspaper or magazine delivered to my door for even longer, but the memory of those days speaks of a simpler, happier time. I recall the thrill of looking through the listings and the disappointment or excitement when there was nothing that looked exciting or when there was a film that made the heart beat a trifle faster.
One of the films that caught my attention was a movie that was shown on the Southern TV network (long gone but still known for having its own theme to start the day, written by film composer Richard Addinsell) on the evening of Friday, February 10, 1978 at 11.10pm: The Terrornauts (UK, Montgomery Tully, 1967).
As I recall, the film had also been trailed the previous week with an advert showing spaceships attacking some sort of space station. The name itself, The Terrornauts, was enough to ensure I’d sit up, accompanied by my older brother, to watch the film in a darkened sitting room lit only by the flickering images from the TV screen long after our parents, tired out from the working week, had gone to bed.
For many years, my memories of the film were coloured by that one viewing. Home video was still a couple of years away, commercial DVD not invented, and cable and streaming services were decades in the future for most people, so recollection was all I had.
In the film, a group of scientists, trying to contact aliens, are spirited away to a space station where, after a series of tests conducted by a strange alien robotic creature, they find themselves on a floating fortress in space defending the Earth from a group of invisible invaders in red spaceships known only as ‘the Enemy’.
For years, that – and the fact Charles Hawtrey from the Carry Ons was one of the adventurers – was all that stayed in my memory. There was also a vague recollection of bad and cheap special effects – actors wearing white plastic swimming hats covered with wires and what looked like the sticky suckers from toy pistols, poor process work that meant the clouds from explosions floated behind the twin moons on an alien planet rather than in front of them, and an alien monster that had a mouth made from a cheap blue plastic and wire doormat, but that one viewing had lent these a charm that only increased with the passing years. It was the sort of film that as adults my brother and I would occasionally recall as something we enjoyed because we saw it together rather than for any other reason.
I now don’t remember how I managed to see the film again. I have a copy on a disk with just the title written on it, which is the full film in better condition than the one on the official Network DVD release, though that itself was quite poor as I recall, and I think I recorded it off air on to VHS and then transferred it to a disk about a decade after I recorded it, but the details are sketchy. But what my rediscovery of the film revealed was that – while it was a cheap production made by Montgomery Tully, the King of the Bs, with awful effects and a decent cast whose members evidently wished they were doing something else, I thoroughly enjoyed it still. The script, by British science-fiction writer John Brunner, is based on a US sci-fi classic (The Wailing Asteroid by Murray Leinster (aka William Fitzgerald Jenkins) 1960), and is rather good. It manages to weave the tale of a boy who finds a strange object that transports him to another world and back – and inspires his determination to find other civilisations in the universe when he grows up – in a compelling way that would have been more plausible with better effects.
The adult scientist, Dr Joe Burke (an unfortunate name in English vernacular that Brunner perhaps should have changed) is played by Simon Oates (familiar to genre fans from his leading role in the series Doomwatch (BBC, 1970-72) and an actor who was reputed to have twice been considered for the role of James Bond). Burke is under pressure from the head of the radio astronomy research centre he works at (Max Adrian, the vampire doctor in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (UK, Freddie Francis, 1964)), who believes Burke’s work is of no value and threatens to undermine any faith the foundation providing him with funding has in his efforts.
Burke is ably assisted by engineer Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows) and assistant Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall, here in her last film and best remembered as Miss Taro, one of 007’s first conquests in Dr No (UK, Terence Young, 1962). While they have faith in Joe, the time limit of three months imposed by the grant-giving foundation, and the arrival of bean-counter Mr Yellowlees (Charles Hawtrey) puts unwanted pressure on the team of Project Startalk just as its members manage to record what seems to be the first attempt to contact them by alien life-forms. Their attempts to phone the aliens back, years before ET (US, Steven Spielberg, 1982) had the idea, go disastrously wrong, however, when an automated spaceship arrives and steals the Project Startalk’s lowly outbuilding and wafts it into outer space, leading the research station head to believe an explosion has obliterated the team.
Along with a tea lady, Mrs Jones (played by Patricia Hayes, the titular Edna The Inebriate Woman (BBC, 1971)), and Yellowlees, the scientists pass a series of tests set by a robot (Robert Jewell, a Dalek operator in both the TV and film versions of Doctor Who) before realising the communication they received on Earth was a warning that an alien fleet is about to attack their home planet. The space station they have been taken to is a remote floating fortress abandoned by its creators but built, perhaps ages before, to defend against the nameless Enemy, who take over planets for their natural resources and leave the previously intelligent inhabitants mindless, primitive brutes.
The film plays with concepts that would become the staple of TV series such as Star Trek (Desliu, 1966-67), which had yet to make its way into mainstream UK audiences’ consciousness, including teleportation and characters having to undergo a series of alien tests.
Its cheapness is betrayed by script devices such as having the beam that picks up the Startalk office also providing an atmosphere rather than the need for spacesuits. For cost reasons, it abandons a long space voyage, during which the astronauts are dependant on hydroponics for food and water, and a fleet of ships that would carry an army of scientists who would later follow the Startalk team and help prepare the abandoned space fortress for war, which are features of the source novel.
Eventually, the alien Enemy is defeated, for a time at least, the space station is destroyed and the team are teleported back to Earth, to arrive in France, where, in a joke worthy of post-Brexit Britain, the tea lady laments she’s never been one for foreign parts, while complaining: ‘Here’s me, never had a car in the family, being squirted through space like a BBC broadcast.’
One of the things I delight in is that it was made by Amicus in one of its attempts to broaden beyond the portmanteau horrors it began making with Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. If I spotted the Amicus name as a child, it would have only reinforced to me its horror credentials, I must admit.
It’s actually a children’s film, for all the late-night slot on Southern all those years ago, and a poster tagline that read ‘The virgin sacrifices to the gods of a ghastly galaxy!’. It was granted a family-friendly U certificate, released in time for the school holidays and was made as a half of a double-bill with They Came from Beyond Space (UK, Freddie Francis, 1967), a film that was poor, the director complained because the budget had all been used for The Terrornauts. I’ve only vague recollections of this other film, it certainly didn’t capture my imagination as The Terrornauts did, but I do like the fact both were made by the same people who made Dr Who and the Daleks (UK, Gordon Flemyng, 1965), Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150AD (UK, Gordon Flemyng, 1966), and the later Doug McClure dinosaur epics The Land That Time Forgot (UK, Kevin Connor, 1974), At the Earth’s Core (UK, Connor, 1976) and The People Time Forgot (UK, Connor, 1977). These, and two films Connor made with producer John Dark after Amicus wound up and its founders Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky had gone their separate ways (The Warlords of Atlantis (UK, Connor, 1978) and Arabian Adventure (UK, Connor, 1979)), were part of my adolescence.
I eagerly awaited the arrival of a new Amicus adventure each summer as one did the first cuckoo of spring. Their eventual disappearance from production and from cinemas coincided with my leaving school and the end of my childhood, something to be looked back on with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness. The showing on BBC1 of Milton Subotsky’s TV adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (NBC, Michael Anderson, 1980), which I deem the last of those wonderful screen adventures, coincided with the final closing of the first chapter in my life.
I shamelessly say, however, that I still enjoy The Terrornauts, as I do all of Amicus’s other ‘terror for tots’ efforts. The effects are poor, the alien planet is obviously a sand quarry somewhere in England, the primitives seem to be wearing some kind of hair net to make them look exotic, and the ray gun Joe Burke uses looks like it was bought in Woolworths. The sounds that accompany the alien ships are obviously lifted from Barry Gray’s effects for Gerry Anderson TV shows, especially UFO (ITV, 1969-71) and the space station doors open to the same sound as those in the Dalek city and spaceship in the Amicus Dr Who films.
But despite this, the memory of that first viewing of it as a child all those years ago captivates me in some ways more than the film itself. It is a reminder of days when my future, whatever it was going to be, was ahead and full of promise, and my concept of what a horror film might be could encompass more than gore and slasher movies: it could include films that had an innocence and a freshness that still appeal today.
Purchase The Terrornauts on DVD by clicking the image below.