NOTE: I really, really, really wanted to go to Chicago's B-Fest this year. B-Fest is an annual 24-hour non-stop marathon of cheap cinema, at which heckling is strongly encouraged. Now, bear in mind that I live in an area where cultural opportunities (whether for Good Art or Bad Art) are rather limited. The opportunity to sit in a darkened theatre full of like-minded folk is enormously appealing to me.

Unfortunately, I can't get away. There's this thing called "work", you see, and as much as I try to avoid it, lately it's been taking up more and more of my time. If I don't even have the chance to watch a single movie at home, what are the chances I'm going to be able to get to Chicago on a Friday, suffer through a grueling day of bad movies, fly home by Sunday evening and hope to survive the commute on Monday morning? It isn't possible -- and so, on Friday night and all through Saturday, while B-Fest victims are jeering their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, Battlefield Eurggh and The Lonely Lady, I will be stuck at my computer, migrating a large and particularly badly-built database.

This sucks. This sucks even worse than John Travolta's vanity project.

However, I was determined to be at this year's B-Fest in spirit, even if I couldn't manage the journey. That's why is proud to sponsor this year's showing of The Crawling Eye. I can think of few better films to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of low-budget horror.

My dog Nimbus, on the other hand, sponsored The Slime People (of course, she also likes to eat out of the cats' litter box, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised). Of that film I can think of few good things to say, so perhaps I'll let her write that review.

Post B-Fest note: I've finally seen the DVD of this movie. Though (as usual for Image Entertainment discs) it has little in the way of Special Features, it does have wonderfully restored image and sound quality. In fact, the picture quality is so clear that it brings to light several unfortunate technical mistakes that didn't show up very clearly on the old grainy VHS prints.

For example, note the Amazing Transparent Car that takes Brooks and the Pilgrim sisters up to the Inn. Or watch the scenic backdrop as the two rescuers communicate by radio to the search plane: if you're going to place your actors in front of a wall photograph instead of shooting on location, you should at least make sure the actors' shadows aren't visible on the "mountain" behind them.

I also couldn't help but start thinking of lines from Frank Zappa tunes all the way through the movie. In particular, I realized that this movie really sums up the qualities Zappa referred to as Cheepnis. If you don't know the song, which is a highlight of the "Roxy and Elsewhere" album, look it up and see if you don't agree.

In the early 1950's, a British television series called "The Quatermass Experiment" attracted a lot of attention. The TV show was so successful that it spawned sequels on the large and small screen through the late 1970's. As usual for any successful form of entertainment, Quatermass also inspired a number of imitators, with greater and less success. Perhaps the most famous of the Quatermass cousins was the long-running series "Doctor Who", which also featured an enigmatic scientist as its central character, and featured an outlandish array of alien menaces; but even as late as 1985, writer Dan O'Bannon and director Tobe Hooper created the very Quatermassive Lifeforce, while in 1987 John Carpenter credited his screenplay for his Prince of Darkness to "Martin Quatermass".

Shortly after the original Quatermass series ran, Tempean Studios produced their own 6-episode serial, built along similar lines, called "The Trollenberg Terror". After the release of The Quatermass Xperiment, the feature film version of the original Quatermass series, Tempean decided to make a feature based on their own series. The Quatermass Xperiment had replaced Reginald Tate, the lead in the TV series, with Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy (Tate in fact passed away before the feature version premiered). Not to be outdone, Tempean replaced its lead for The Trollenberg Terror with an American character actor as well: none other than Forrest Tucker.

I read a post by an IMDB user who considered the film to be a total failure simply because Tucker was in it. That's not a very fair assessment. Tucker may not have been particularly inspiring as a leading man, but he was certainly a capable actor. Tucker is good as two-fisted scientist Alan Brooks, anchoring the goings-on with a solid and restrained performance. The rest of the cast is also reasonably good -- although in spite of a few half-hearted "Jawohl"s, the "Swiss mountain villagers" are clearly English extras trying to be Swiss (and not trying very hard at that).

Tempean didn't have the advantage of a first-rate writer like Quatermass's Nigel Kneale. They did, however, have the talented Jimmy Sangster, who is most famous for the huge contribution he made to horror movie history at Hammer Studios. In this relatively early engagement, Sangster managed to capture at least one important aspect of Kneale's original: its earnest tone. In most other respects, the script of The Trollenberg Terror is sheer idiocy, but the action unfolds so seriously and at such a careful pace that you might not notice right away how silly it is.

The film begins with three young climbers on the face of an alp. Two are crouching on a ledge, while a third, connected to the others by a rope, is above them offscreen. The third man calls down to the others that he sees someone up on the rock face with him. His companions think he's joking: after all, who else would be up there clinging to the side of a mountain? But the third man insists there's someone (or something) coming toward him through the mountain mists. All at once, the man above lets out a terrible scream, which is suddenly, violently cut off... the man goes plummeting off the cliff, pulling the safety rope taut after him. His two friends frantically attempt to pull him back up. Just as they manage to bring him to the lip of the ledge, one of the men discovers that his scream is not the only thing which has been violently cut off.

There is a sudden cut to a speeding train. As the train enters the darkness of a tunnel through a mountainside, the opening credits begin. I guess this is as good a point as any to bring up the American title: The Crawling Eye.

The original title -- "The Trollenberg Terror" -- has some good Lovecraftian associations (for example, think of the crawling, hill-climbing monstrosity which is "The Dunwich Horror"), and those associations are appropriate under the circumstances. After all, we are faced with tentacled monstrosities which hint at unnamed cosmic horrors. We don't really know what they want, or how they got here, or where they come from... only that they have crawled down from the "vast skyey void", and are bent on destruction. It's difficult to imagine these creatures piloting a space ship, so perhaps they creep from planet to planet through hidden dimensions, like Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth. Their apparent craving for human heads adds an extra level of ghastliness. It's the sort of half-thought-out story that Lovecraft might have helped a young author to re-write.

But the crass new title is a letdown. At best, it steals the thunder from the monsters' eventual appearance (and to grown-up eyes, their appearance needs all the extra help it can get). At worst, it promises something the movie has no intention of delivering. After all, these things aren't eyes, though they do have a single bulbous eye at the bases of their bodies. They're brains.

Brains, eyes and hands are really the only body parts suitable for becoming a "crawling something" in a horror story, and there's a huge difference in implication between them. A crawling hand, a dumb body part moving without an apparent intelligence behind it, would be a scary and dangerous thing. Hands, after all, can do terrible things, and relieved of a controlling conscience they certainly would. By contrast, a crawling brain suggests a roving intelligence, capable (as the Trollenberg creatures are) of influencing the minds of smaller creatures. But eyes? As long as eyes are attached in their sockets, they represent our human vulnerability. We depend on them; they have helped to define us in our evolution... but they are soft and unprotected. So violence against them has all kinds of resonance for the audience. But a crawling eye doesn't seem particularly fraught with implications: it's just icky. Calling these beasts crawling eyes implies that their appearance is more important than what they can do or what they mean to do. And that makes their appearance doubly disappointing.

Where was I? Oh, yeah: the credits end as the train emerges from the tunnel.

On the train sits Alan Brooks, reading a newspaper. In the same compartment sit the Pilgrim sisters, Sarah and Anne. It later comes to light that the Pilgrim sisters are a mind-reading act, and that the psychic sister, Anne, is the genuine article. We get our first hint that Anne may be a little... different... when she is suddenly overcome, and faints right onto Brooks's newspaper. Anne is suddenly convinced that rather than go on to Geneva as planned, she and her sister must get off at Trollenberg. In spite of the fact that neither she nor her sister have ever been to the little village, Anne seems to know quite a bit about it. She even knows a good deal about the recent spate of "accidents" that have given the resort town a bad name among the tourists.

Coincidentally, Brooks is headed for Trollenberg as well. When they arrive at the local Gasthof, they are welcomed by one of the few remaining tourists, an Englishman named Philip Truscott. Truscott seems particularly interested in Brooks, and though he seems affable enough, he doesn't seem to believe that Brooks is in town on vacation. He's particularly intrigued by the pistol he sees in Brooks's suitcase. Brooks overhears Truscott making a hurried telephone call, asking some unknown party to dog up information on this odd American.

As it happens, Brooks is not out for a holiday. He's come at the urgent request of his old friend Dr. Crevett (whose first name is probably Gepetto, by the look of him 1). Crevett is in charge of a laboratory studying cosmic radiation on a neighboring peak. The lab has been built on the side of a mountain to minimize the amount of atmospheric disturbance; but the trouble with building on the side of an alp is the ever-present danger of avalanches. Thus the lab has been built like a bunker, with only one entrance, video monitors in place of windows, a heavy shutter on the lab's one traditional window, and heavily reinforced walls.

Convenient, isn't it? I mean, in case giant monsters should show up?

Crevett reminds Brooks of something that happened a few years ago, in the Andes. He offers some vague hints both to Brooks and to the audience, but Brooks (to his credit as a "scientist") is having none of it. He insists on more than insinuations, however suggestive they may be. Furthermore, he points out, the circumstances aren't the same at all. There's been no evidence of mental compulsion, he says. This line made me scratch my head, since he had just observed Anne go into a fit, and emerge with a fixation on a place she'd never seen... And then the thought strikes Brooks, too.

But perhaps Brooks's reluctance to take Crevett's word is understandable. It seems that Brooks and Crevett had both been members of a scientific team investigating strange incidents on behalf of the United Nations. They had apparently taken too much for granted during the Andes incident, with the result that they had no convincing proof to offer their superiors. Without adequate support, Brooks's claims (whatever they were) had seemed absurd, and the result had been disastrous for his reputation. Now he's reluctant to jump to conclusions.

But even Brooks is troubled by a mysterious cloud which Crevett points out to him. It stays just at the same place on the summit of the Trollenberg, regardless of the weather conditions. It's also radioactive. Could there be something in that cloud which is responsible for the recent tragic events?

Others besides Crevett have been speculating about the accidents. As Crevett and Brooks return to the village, they meet an English geologist named Dewhurst and his guide, Brett, who are beginning their ascent of the Trollenberg that evening (Brett insists on buying a quick drink for everyone at the Inn before he starts up the Trollenberg. Ironically, considering what happens to him later, he calls this stirrup-cup a "noggin"). Crevett is troubled when he learns that more climbers are going up the mountain, but reasons that since their path is well away from the cloud's position, they should be all right.

In the evening, as Dewhurst and Brett reach the cabin in the mountainside where they will camp until the morning, the Pilgrim sisters perform their act at the Inn. All goes remarkably well until Ann is asked to identify a paperweight: a snowglobe with a miniature cabin inside. In the film's creepiest scene, Anne suddenly has a vision of the real cabin, as though she were creeping up to it from the slopes of the Trollenberg... as though she were somehow summoning Brett to come out and meet her.

In the meantime, on the mountain, the sinister cloud has begun to move...

That's enough for Brooks, who tries to raise the climbers on the telephone as Anne sinks into a faint. Dewhurst answers; Brett, it seems, has disappeared. Wait, though; this could be Brett coming back now, says Dewhurst, who goes to the door to check. Ah; no. That's not Brett. If it had been Brett, why would Dewhurst be barring the door and screaming like that?

In the morning, a rescue party goes up to see what's happened to the pair. they find the cabin still barred from the inside. Dewhurst is inside -- at least, most of him is. His head is missing. The cabin shows signs of having been exposed to incredibly low temperatures. The phone wires have broken in pieces, like glass.

And here some very serious problems begin to accrue. If the door was bolted from the inside, what got in and killed Dewhurst? If we are to believe a tentacle slipped in and tore off his head, we're still faced with a problem: how did the head get out? If there's a hole somewhere large enough for a head to fit through, that kills the mystery of the Murder in the Sealed Room... so why bother with the sealed room in the first place?

There's another big problem with the head. You see, unlike the head of the climber in the prologue, Dewhurst's head does turn up. Rescuers find Brett's knapsack, and in it is the geologist's bloody noggin. Before the stunned mountaineers can react to the discovery, Brett himself has shown up with his pick to silence them forever.

Now then: what exactly do these creatures do with the heads they chop off? At first I thought they ate them. Being giant brains themselves, I wondered if they didn't somehow thrive on a diet of human grey matter. But that doesn't seem to be the case: here they decapitated Dewhurst, only to hand the dripping head to their puppet Brett, who has no possible use for it. Not only does it make Dewhurst's sealed-room mystery even less sensible, it also makes us question the point of the beheading in the prologue. Generally in a sci-fi flick, these details lead up to something. Here, the inner logic of the aliens' behavior is wrecked for the sake of a cheap shock. 2 + 2 = (OOH, LOOK, A BLOODY HEAD!!!) 5. I don't buy it.

In the meantime, Anne seems to obey some sort of compulsion (DA DA DUMM!) to go up to the Trollenberg. Crevett seems to have anticipated this, though, and the laboratory crew are on hand to make sure she doesn't go up the mountain alone. When Brooks and the others arrive, they make sure to escort her back down to town.

Nobody seems to notice that two of the rescuers have failed to return by evening. They can't help but notice the sudden, unexplained return of Brett himself, though. The guide is strangely unable to control his movements, a fact which Brooks notes with suspicion. He also complains of being terribly hot. Brooks pays very careful attention to Brett, which turns out to be a very good thing. When Anne appears unexpectedly, Brett suddenly flies into a murderous rage. Brooks has been expecting just such a development, and he clocks the knife-wielding guide before he can hurt the girl. Sarah then notices that although the unconscious Brett has a nasty wound in his forehead, the cut is not bleeding.

Now it's time for everybody to put more of their cards on the table. Truscott, it turns out, is a journalist, who knew about the Andes incident and had been interested in the similarities with the Trollenberg case. Brooks obviously knows more about what is going on than anyone could have guessed, and Truscott presses him for answers.

Then again, if Truscott knew about the Andes incident, why didn't he know about Brooks -- who was, after all, the guy who wrecked his reputation over it? Well, nobody ever said Truscott was a good journalist.

Now, at last, we get the full story of the Andes incident. There had been a series of strange incidents in the South American mountains, and Brooks had gone to investigate... a sort of eccentric scientific advisor to a United Nations... er... intelligence taskforce. Or something. Anyway: in the village where Brooks and Crevett had camped, there was an old woman who was rumored to be a witch. In fact, she was simply gifted with a greater-than-natural sensitivity, almost as though she could read minds. Then, however, it seemed as though a much stronger mind had reached out to hers, like, say, a hyperpowerful rock station overpowering your favorite local radio show (ahem, not that I'm bitter). But before Brooks and Crevett could perform experiments to figure out what was going on, a man had come down from the mountains and chopped the old woman to pieces.

The man who had killed the old woman had the same loss of muscle control as Brett had shown. And there's a kicker: after the murder, the killer had been discovered to have been dead for over a day. The old woman had been killed by a walking corpse!

Now, I'm willing to admit that this is a neat and macabre twist. But it's really not handled very well. I know that it's difficult to be consistent with the walking dead: after all, if you were to be strictly scientific about it, they wouldn't be walking at all. That is, you can put an alien intelligence inside a dead man's body, but even granting that the deceased's brain would be functional, there's still a lot of nasty biological fact that has to be overcome. If he's truly dead, then there's rigor mortis and cell decomposition to deal with -- let alone the fact that normal breathing and speaking would be out of the question -- and he wouldn't be merely uncoordinated: he'd be stiff and shambling. If his body functions are still going on somehow, even though his mind is dead, then 1.) how could anyone know he'd been dead, since the post-mortem changes they say they'd measure wouldn't have a chance to take place; and 2.) why wouldn't his forehead wound bleed?

I will say this: if his forehead didn't bleed, then it makes no sense at all for Crevett to inject a sedative into the "dead" man's veins. No pulse? Then the sedative won't work, because it can't travel through the bloodstream to the brain. In fact, I'm not even sure why a "dead" man would be knocked unconscious, either by a drug OR a blow to the head... especially since his new "consciousness" is a long way away, on the side of a mountain.

Naturally, it isn't long before the Brett-zombie works all this out for himself, and comes after poor Anne2. Brooks puts Brett out of the picture permanently. When Brooks, Crevett and Truscott examine the corpse by the light of a kerosene lamp, the heat of the lamp actually causes Brett's flesh to melt...

Except that earlier, zombie Brett was smoking a cigarette. Wouldn't the heat from the smoke have caused him to melt from the inside? Besides, cold flesh doesn't usually melt like ice cream, does it?

Having failed twice to get rid of the girl that can read its thoughts, the Trollenberg Terror decides to take matters into its own tentacles. The cloud comes creeping down into the valley. Brooks and Crevett shepherd the entire village into the relative safety of the laboratory. Of course, just as the last cable car is preparing to leave, a woman notices that her child is missing. The little idiot has gone all the way back to the Inn to get her ball. Brooks sees the child in the far distance, just at the point where the unearthly cloud is starting to flow into the village, and he rushes off to rescue her...

My complaints at this point:

  • Why does it seem like there's only one child in the whole village?
  • Why does she wait until the last minute to go racing all the way down to the village -- which looks to be about a mile away?
  • When Brooks (naturally) grabs the girl out of harm's way at the last minute, and brings her back to the cable car, we see her abandoned teddy bear lying in the station. Maybe my recollections of childhood are atypical, or maybe children think differently in Engla-- er, Switzerland, but I know I would never abandon a stuffed animal to go back for a boring ol' ball.
  • If these creatures have the ability to freeze metal at tremendous sub-zero temperatures, how can either Brooks or the child come so close to them without freezing? And if the cloud is the creatures' own atmosphere, how do the humans breathe so close to them? (This is aside from the question of how the aliens get the cloud to move so tidily...)
  • To illustrate the presence of extreme cold, the movie shows the motors operating the cables start to frost over. Wouldn't they have to be exposed to moisture first? Or is this the actual atmosphere freezing (if that's the case, I re-state my quibble above!)? Besides, wouldn't the motor on top of the mountain be responsible for most of the work?

  • All this becomes moot once we get our first glimpse of the title beasties. This is the part that will either make or break the film for the individual viewer. The title proves to be inappropriate yet again, as we find out that the Trollenberg Terror is not one, but four Crawling Eyes. More accurately, they're huge bulbous brains, each with one watery eye and a mass of stiff tentacles. OK, the tentacles aren't supposed to be stiff, but it's painfully obvious that they are being manipulated by wires. As these nasty creatures crawl (that is, get pulled) up the (model) mountainside, they're accompanied by a gasping, grunting sound. They sound less like a serious alien menace than like dirty old men working themselves into a frenzy.

    I think they're pretty neat. Then again, I have a strange affection for the ridiculous. I can see why their appearance would cause some viewers to give up in disgust. Younger viewers may appreciate them more than us old folks -- I once knew a little boy who was terrified for days by The Giant Claw.

    Now there's little left to do but set up the climactic battle between Humanity and the Creeping Menace. The aliens try their zombie trick once again, and once again our heroes are only just in time to save Anne. The humans use Molotov cocktails to ward off the Eyes -- since these things require cold, the heat from the explosions thwarts them as much as the actual blast. In addition to the extremely dubious effects work for these scenes, I have my usual round of complaints:

  • Several times we see the Creatures' tentacles grab people: first the child, then Philip Truscott (whoi at least appears to be a little chilly afterwards), then Brooks himself. I've already wondered why these people don't either freeze to death at once, or at least suffer frostbite. But now I begin to wonder what's become of the aliens' habit of collecting heads. Both Truscott and Brooks get throttled by the beasts, yet both manage to keep their heads.
  • If Brooks was discredited with the UN after the Andes incident, why does UN Headquarters send out firebombing planes at his first request? You'd think if somebody -- anybody -- called UN headquarters to report an invasion by huge, one-eyed, tentacled head-hunters from space, there'd be a little discreet inquiry before the big (and expensive) military hardware was called into action.
  • If the laboratory is reinforced strongly enough to withstand repeated bombing attacks, how is it that one of the Eyes is able to break through a wall to get to Anne?

  • As the UN bombers come to the rescue, there's one further bit of unintentional comedy. One of the planes announces that it's going in for a lower-altitude run. We then see an obvious model plane zooming down the mountainside at such a low altitude that no one could possibly believe it was real. It's just not reasonable to expect a heavy bomber to strafe a mountain slope, a mere twenty feet or so from the rock face. You can almost imagine the hand of an enormous six-year-old wrapped around the fuselage, while the kid makes "vroom, vroom!" noises. The silliness of the "special" effects at this point make me wonder if this movie, rather than Quatermass, was the real inspiration for "Doctor Who".

    Alert reader Scott Ashlin writes: I've always loved The Crawling Eye/The Trollenberg Terror, but I f***ing hate the ending. It isn't the mechanics of the conclusion that bother me, though (those aren't heavy bombers, but rather Canberras [which the US Air Force would later adopt in small numbers as the B-57], which were designed to attack small, mobile targets -- tank columns, for instance -- at high speed from treetop height), but the awful deus ex machina tidiness of the whole thing. Like you said, one would expect a bit more hesitation on the part of the military (and what in the hell is the Royal Air Force doing in neutral Switzerland, anyway?) in the face of a request for an airstrike against monsters from space, especially if it came from a man with Brooks' reputation.

    And the Braineater replies: Thank you for the information. Watching the film again (on my brand-new DVD, which I bought to to console myself after missing B-fest), I paid more attention to the plane, and noting the useless aerobatics the plane performs (in what's probably test-flight stock footage), I realized that the aircraft must be much lighter and more maneuverable than I thought. But in mountains?? Wouldn't it be awfully tricky to do a low-level strike on the side of a very tall and craggy peak? You'd think the winds would make such a strike very tricky. Still, maybe in the future I'd better refrain from talking about things I know nothing about.

    (Yeah, sure.)

    And you're exactly right about the ridiculous pat ending. I think it's forgiveable, though, since the true climax of the film is (as it ought to be) the Big Reveal of the monsters. That's what we've been waiting for, and the movie does a credible job of getting us there. And I think the goofy creatures are the perfect mix of shocking surprise and funny anticlimax, like the unexpected punchline to a very long shaggy dog story. After that, there's very little left to do except get rid of the monsters -- and how on Earth are they supposed to do that without a little help from the God Machine?

    Yes, the ending is perfunctory, and way too convenient, but it's at least a little better than the ending of, say, Day of the Triffids, which not only defied all reason but also went completely against the point of John Wyndham's novel. Now that's an ending I f***ing hate.

    If I give the impression that I'm a little exasperated by this film, it's only because I find it so much fun to watch in spite of its shortcomings. Note that I don't say "because of" its problems... I think there's really too much good here to write it off completely. in spite of the movie's many idiocies, I still find that a lot of it succeeds, if only because of its poker-faced seriousness. I can still put myself in the place of an appreciative 10-year-old, watching the film that might have been if it had been made just a little more carefully. Perhaps there are more bits which my adult mind is unwilling to accept without reservations; it doesn't matter. It's a noble attempt, and I love it -- warts, tentacles and all.

    For Zappa's hilariously appropriate introduction and the lyrics to the whole song, you can go here, but in the meantime, here's the part I though of as I watched this movie again:

    Little Miss Muffett on a squat by me,
    Can you see the little string dangling down
    Makes the legs go wabble and the mouth flop shut
    And the horrible eye, Horrible Eye, HORRIBLE EYE go rolling around...

    Can you see it all? Can you see it from here?
    Can you laugh till you're weak on your knees??
    If you can't, I'm sorry 'cause that's all I wanna know;
    I need a little more cheepnis, please.
    Baby, I'm sorry 'cause it's all I wanna know;
    I need a little more cheepnis please.
    Baby, I'm sorry 'cause it's all I wanna know;
    I need a little more cheepnis please.

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    "Whether he's really a nice person, or if he has a son named Pinocchio, or what."

    -- Frank Zappa, from (appropriately enough)
    "Billy the Mountain"
    (Just Another Band from L.A.)

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    When I raid your dormatorium,
    Don't try an' remain aloof;
    I might snatch you up screamin' through the window all nekkid
    and do it to you up on the roof...
    Don't mess with the Zomby Woof!

    Tellin' you all the Zomby troof -- Here I'm is, the Zomby Woof!

    -- Frank Zappa, from "Zomby Woof"
    (Overnite Sensation)

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