Terror in the Midnight Sun

Put yourself in a 50's frame of mind and ask yourself: what are the basic ingredients for a horror/sci-fi film? I think the list would go something like this:
  • Your basic cast:
    • The stalwart, handsome, uninteresting hero;
    • The pretty heroine who gets menaced and screams a lot;
    • The Wise Old Man who has all the answers. Sort of.
  • Your basic villain(s):
    • Odd-looking invaders from space, --OR--
    • A giant monster, --OR--
    • Both.
  • And to fill it all out...
    • The military, --OR--
    • Torch-bearing villagers, --OR--
    • Both.
Take all of these elements, and add a surprising bonus in the form of a gratuitous nude scene (remember: this is the 50's we're talking about). Add ice, and stir. And there you have it: instant Terror in the Midnight Sun.

Oh, all right, there's a little more to the movie than that (though not much). First of all, we have goofy hats! You see, the film was made in Sweden; much of it was shot in Lappland, above the Arctic Circle, so in addition to some atmospheric and bleak locations, we also get to see a lot of people wearing hats with big pom-poms on them. We also get some ice skating, courtesy of our ingenue Barbara Wilson, and quite a bit more skiing. And, umm... that's really about it.

The film's original title was -- honestly! -- Rymd-Invasion i Lappland / The Space Invasion of Lappland. Why aliens would invade Lappland is never explained, although the Wise Old Scientist, Dr. Wilson, does venture a couple of unconvincing guesses as the picture unfolds. At first, he surmises that the UFO sighting might have something to do with the large iron deposits in the area, and later he speculates that the aliens were on a routine exploration mission that somehow went wrong. Neither supposition carries any weight.

The movie opens with an arresting image: we see a vast plain of snow, with bleak mountains in the background. In the distance, we see a a man and his reindeer sled making their way toward us. The only sound is the distant ringing of the reindeer's bell. Slowly, the sled team approaches, and as it does so, the evocative sound of the sleigh bell comes more and more into focus, hardening and losing its mystery. It's a great way to start the film, and it really uses the desolate landscape to good advantage.

And then, in an effects shot barely worthy of Bert I. Gordon, a big glowing tennis ball descends from the heavens. The carefully established mood of the opening comes crashing down with it. We see astonished Lapplanders pointing at the horizon in amazement. Their murmurings are left untranslated (since I'm sure they have neither rhubarb nor watermelons in Lappland, I imagine they're actually saying, "Hey, look at that really unconvincing matte!"). Eventually, the tennis ball hits the snow, digging a long trail before burying itself in the side of a mountain.

You can see the spot on the model mountain where the tennis ball is most likely to bury itself. In fact, the "alien space ship" doesn't so much crash as park. Later, we'll see that the spherical space craft is actually quite a bit larger than the hole it dug for itself. How it managed to get in and out of the mountainside is just another of the questions left unresolved by the movie.

Reports of the Lappland UFO are soon splashed all over the front pages of Swedish newspapers, and an American scientist, Dr. Vance Wilson, is called in to help investigate. His arrival is photographed very strangely: as the Doctor's limousine is shown riding down the streets of Stockholm, the camera tracking it suddenly stops and freezes on some readily-identifiable bit of architecture, while the car drives out of the frame. It's as though Virgil Vogel was trying to convince us that yes, this really is Sweden.

The effect of these shots is jarring and a little disconcerting, but it's only a hint of the odd shooting and editing style of the rest of the film. For instance, Vogel has a tendency to reposition his camera to follow each side of a conversation. Now, this is a common technique, known as "shot/reverse shot editing"; directors will sometimes do this to add activity to a scene which would otherwise be a static shot of two people talking. But in some scenes, Vogel does this by rote, without caring if the cuts back and forth add anything to the flow of the action. To make matters worse, the actors are often not in the same positions between takes. In the first scene between Dr. Wilson and his niece, the Doc is facing a slightly different direction each time the camera changes position.

Vogel also has a very strange idea of what constitutes effective montage. In one instance, we cut from the death of a scientist at the hands of the invaders, to a flag waving forlornly over the abandoned camp (which is a solid, if hackneyed gesture)... and then we dissolve to a close-up of a reindeer's eye! Perhaps this has some sort of special significance to Swedish audiences, but I don't understand it at all.

Sorry for the interruption: anyway, Dr. Wilson arrives at a building identified (on English, on a large cardboard sign) as the Royal Academy of Science. Here Wilson learns that he willl be travelling to a distant village on the uppermost tip of Scandinavia -- where, by an astonishing coincidence, his niece the Olympic skater just happens to be staying (boy howdy, what were the chances of that?). On his trip, he'll be accompanied by a young, handsome geologist named Erik (you can see where this is going, right?), who also happens to be something of a ladies' man... you know, a bon vivant... umm, a Don Juan... OK, he's a shallow, womanizing twit.

Once the two men get to the far north of Sweden, they run into Wilson's niece Diane, who is performing a graceful routine on her skates. Actually, they very nearly do run into her: the scientists are travelling in a military all-terrain vehicle which comes chugging over the hill just as Diane finishes her routine. The sight of this squat little tank suddenly popping up out of nowhere contrasts well with Diane's skate-dancing, and provides one of the film's stronger comic bits.

Erik takes one look at Diane and decides he needs to add her to his little black bøk. Not realizing that she's Dr. Wilson's niece, Erik embarrasses himself by drooling over her in front of the old man. As it happens, Diane is a spunky load o' noodles herself, who is anxious to catch the first male she sees who isn't wearing a bobbly hat. It's at this point that we get the Gratuitous Nude Scene, as "Diane" (replaced by a much more muscular body double) disrobes and showers behind an artfully-distorting pane of glass.

Later, when Erik meets her on the ski slopes, he suggests a long romantic walk in the snow. Diane responds by snatching his skis and leaving him to make his way on foot down the side of the mountain. As horror movie courtships go, this one is actually reasonably entertaining. Diane's position as a strong and resourceful woman will be seriously undermined by the end of the film, but at least for a short time she seems to be able to hold her own.

It isn't long before the men have to go about their manly deeds, leaving Diane to tag along and scream at discreet intervals. The party makes its way into a frozen forest in the little ATV. The lights of the ATV strain at the darkness, and you really get a feeling of how lonely and isolated the woods of Lappland must be... especially at night. I would call it the film's most eerily effective moment, but for one thing which bothers me: why is it so totally dark? If this is really taking place in the far, far north of Lappland, where is the midnight sun of the title? The rest of the film's night scenes are shot in the dim grey light we'd expect of a sun hanging on the horizon, but this one is pitch dark. How can this be, unless this scene takes place months before the rest of the movie?

(Perhaps I'm just unclear about the geography involved. It could be that these scenes take place further south. Perhaps the eventual expedition the team makes to the "meteorite" crash site takes them much further from their base than seems to be the case. But in that case, what is the monster doing there? And how does he make it all the way back to the north in time to meet the scientists, who are travelling by plane? I don't understand.)

Diane and the scientists suddenly find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun. Soldiers are revealed in the headlights; they stand down when they see that the new arrivals are authorized personnel. It seems that something or someone unknown has completely dismembered a herd of reindeer. The savaged remains are strewn all over the forest. Naturally, Diane wanders off alone, and soon attracts the others' attention with her piercing screams. You can fill a forest with trained soldiers and scientists looking for clues, but it takes a Helpless Screaming Female to find the enormous footprints all over the place. It's strange that the footprints would frighten her like that, when she seems unperturbed by the bloody animal bits that are scattered all around her.

The party makes their way to the site of the landing. Leaving Diane at the lip of the crater, the men-folk lower themselves via a ladder and go to investigate. What they find is obviously no meteorite. Inside the space craft, a dome-headed alien wtaches the men on a curiously primitive-looking video screen. The men decide not to tell Diane about what they've found -- they wouldn't want to worry her pretty little head. Diane guesses something is up from the expressions on their faces when they return, but the men remain stolid. Swedes are good at that.

While all this has been going on, something very large has been approaching their plane. The lone pilot looking after the plane suddenly notices something huge lumbering toward him. We're given a monster's-eye point-of-view shot from some twenty feet overhead as the terrified pilot tries to defend himself. The explorers, responding to the sounds of the shots, returns to find the plane destroyed and the pilot dead. Mysteriously -- or hilariously, if you prefer -- there is no sign of the enormous creature.

Doctor Wilson orders Erik and Diane, the two youngest and strongest skiers, to try to make it back to the nearest village and get help. Off they go in some very lengthy ski footage... The length of the skiing sequences and the bleakness of the landscape are probably supposed to suggest the vast, lonely distance between the lost scientists and the nearest settlement. Unforunately, the effect is seriously undermined by the dozens and dozens of fresh ski trails that are clearly visible in almost every shot. For a frozen, empty wasteland, the area sure gets a lot of traffic.

Typically for movies of this vintage, Olympic athlete Diane soon goes into Helpless Female mode again: she falls and hurts her knee. Actually, I have to commend Ms. Wilson for making her collision with a tree look fairly convincing. I'm sure it took a lot of skill to manage her "accident" without hurting herself. Erik, being the Strong Handsome Man, has to carry her to shelter. There just happens to be a cabin nearby. In an unintentionally funny bit, Erik goes out of the cabin to find some snow to melt for a hot compress. "Hmmm," he seems to be thinking, as he walks out with a little cook-pot in his hand, "I wonder where I can find some snow around here." Perhaps only a certain grade of snow will do for making hot compresses. Anyway, the guy has to walk halfway into the forest before he finds some suitable snow.

(With further reflection, perhaps I understand this... I don't remember seeing a rest-room or outhouse at the cabin. I think it might have been wise of him to avoid the area around the cabin when looking for clean snow.)

With Diane comfortably disrobed (naturally), she and Erik get a chance to look meaningfully into each other's eyes. Before things can get realy mawkish, Erik remembers that there are lives to save, so he gets back on his skis to finish the journey alone. Left by herself, Diane wanders to the window and looks out...

... and...

OK: The monster reveal shot is a crucial moment in any horror or sci-fi movie. Properly handled, it can really shake up an audience and even serve as the climax of the film. Badly handled, it can make the audience wet their pants with laughter rather than fear. In this case, director Vogel gives us a shot of Diana looking up out of the window, and then a jump cut to the monster's furry face. It's not frightening, and it's certainly not awe-inspiring -- it's foolish. It's like those Monty Python episodes where, for no reason, we'd suddenly cut to a Viking or a naked loony or other extraneous character, who'd say something inane ("Lemon curry?") or continue someone's sentence (".. was wearing...") before the camera jumped back to the story at hand.

Diane screams. Now, I'm willing to admit that Barbara Wilson has an uncomfortably loud and shrill scream. Still, I'm a little surprised that Erik, who seems to be miles away by this time, is able to hear Diane's scream and come racing back. When he gets back to the cabin, he fails to see the towering monster. I'm not sure how he manages to overlook the beast, but even when he goes out specifically to look for it, he doesn't see it. In the meantime, the Yeti-like creature has climbed to a ridge of snow above the cabin, where he starts the avalanche that probably should have followed Diane's screams.

Erik is caught in the collapsing cabin, but Diane (in spite of her bad knee) manages to sprint away. Incredibly, she manages to outrun the huge monster, even though she's supposedly injured and exhausted, and the creature has an enormous stride. Running in a panic, with no idea where to go, Diane finds herself lost and alone on an icy plain. A strong wind blows ice and snow into her face as she struggles along, in a scene that must have been very cold and uncomfortable to film. Diane at last collapses behind a log. When the wind dies down, the girl raises her ice-encrusted head to look around... only to see the 18-foot monster ambling across the tundra toward her. In the true monster movie tradition, the beast scoops the girl up in his arms and stalks away.

Up until this point, camera positions and scale models have given us a pretty good impression that the monster is about 18 feet high. Once he picks up Diane, though, the illusion is spoiled: unless Diane has suddenly grown to twice her normal height, the monster can't be more than about eight feet tall.

In the meantime, back at the impact site, one of the scientists has gone back to investigate the space ship. He sees a shadowy form moving behind one of the craft's windows. All the while, he is watched on the peculiar video screen by the dome-headed alien. When the scientist, terrified, attempts to flee back up the ladder, the alien pushes a knob on his control panel... and the scientist falls dead from the ladder, as though he'd been electrocuted.

Shortly thereafter, the scientists are found by a party of locals and taken to a Lapp village. As time passes and nothing is heard of Erik or Diane, they go out to search for the missing pair. Dr. Wilson finds Erik in the wrecked cabin, and Erik tells him about their encounter with the monster. Said beastie, in the meantime, has managed to scare a group of bobble-hatted Lapps away from their campsite. The action here is very unclear, but I think what happens is that the monster senses the approach of the aliens, drops Diane and skedaddles. Diane suddenly finds herself surrounded by the space men, who seem to speak in synthesizer notes and who tend to pop up at odd, arty angles.

The impression seems to be that the Big Hairy Monster is some sort of pet of the aliens, which got loose after the landing. Now they're trying to capture it before it does any more damage. Of course, this doesn't make sense when you realize the aliens have callously murdered one of the scientists.

Meanwhile, back in the Lapp village, the alien Bigfoot arrives. I don't care how good the model work is: nothing destroys a monster's dignity like the wrong architecture. I'll accept Tokyo, New York, even Copenhagen, but somehow it's just not the same when a monster has only log cabins and teepees to smash. Anyway, the locals resent the loss of their assortment of tents and hovels, and go on the offensive. In the half-light of the midnight sun, the whole villageful of torch-bearing Lapps chases the critter to the edge of a cliff. The monster stands there meekly as the Lapps set fire to it. From their space craft, the aliens watch their monster topple from the cliff in flames (their monitor is one of those advanced types that can photograph anything anywhere from any angle, which proves how advanced they must be!). As Erik skis in to rescue the captive Diane, the alien ship takes off... or perhaps I should say it "un-lands", since they simply play the landing footage in reverse. Marvel as the space craft's tracks in the snow magically erase themselves!

Pff. Some invasion.

And some movie, too: a harmless time-waster that bumbles around as aimlessly as its main monster. It's a splendid example of generic film-making, with little to commend it to anyone but fans of bad science fiction or bobbly hats. Something Weird Video has done a pretty good job of resurrecting this Swedish rarity for all of us bobble-hatted DVD enthusiasts. However, the print SWV uses is cropped a bit on the right-hand side. I guess the original aspect ratio must have been around 1.66:1; the full-frame version on the DVD is scanned, but not panned. You first become aware of this during the opening credits, which are off-center. Once you notice it, you start to see many other places where the composition is thrown off just a bit: faces and arms are cut off, or objects that ought to be centered on-screen come out unbalanced. Otherwise, the film looks good, if a bit dark. The sound quality fares worse, but I suppose that's to be expected in a film of this age.

SWV fills out the disc with a number of wacky Swedish shorts and trailers. Few of these feature bobbly hats, but several of them feature other things which bobble, if you know what I mean. Sweden was known for other kinds of film than science fiction.

But the really significant extra on the DVD is Jerry Warren's terrible US version of the feature film: Invasion of the Animal People. Warren had the unfortunate habit of buying up the distribution rights to other people's movies, re-editing them with extra footage of his own, and coming up with... well, let's not go into that. If Virgil Vogel's original is goofy, Warren's version is completely insane.

Instead of providing a separate review for Warren's film -- which it frankly doesn't deserve -- I've decided to approach it much in the spirit of Warren himself. I've taken the text of this review and added some routines: first to add some bogus Warren-English, and then to break it up at random and reassemble it into a brand new review. The result should be every bit as incomprehensible as Warren's version of the movie.


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