Wailing Asteroid, Crouching Hawtrey

Ah, Montgomery Tully, reliably awful as ever — THE TERRORNAUTS (1967) has the appeal of being scripted by respected sci-fi  scribe John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar) from a novel (The Wailing Asteroid) by the equally celebrated Murray Leinster (who, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, invented front projection). Unfortunately, the script is pretty awful, but not so bad that director Tully can’t enhance its dreadfulness with a variety of pleasing touches.

We’re at a giant radar dish place (that’s the technical term for them, I assure you) where rubbish actor Simon Oates has an underfunded research project, Star Talk (sounds like a chat show, I know) under threat from hissy, officious official Max Adrian. Things get even swishier when Charles Hawtrey turns up to audit the project, but then the whole building is sucked into the asteroid belt, taking with it tea lady Patricia Hayes, fellow scientist Stanley Meadows (outstanding in PERFORMANCE, just about hanging onto his dignity here) and charm school secretary Zena Marshall.

OK, so we have to admire any seriously-intended science fiction film with the stones to cast Hawtrey, a sort of superannuated camp schoolboy, referred to in CARRY ON CLEOPATRA by no less a person than Kenneth Williams as “you silly old faggot.” True, he is called upon to deliver some sort of comedy relief, and in the absence of any scripted humour he’s required to do it with his presence alone.

I was mysteriously and unpleasantly reminded of Intergalactic Kitchen, a kids’ TV show I once worked on, and I kind of wonder if series creator Frank Rodgers was possibly inspired to greatness by this movie. There’s a scene of the assembled cast wondering what kind of weird alien being is going to come through the door which is very reminiscent of a bit in our first episode… what comes through the door this time is a crap robot bristling with aerials. Patricia Hayes, who has been luridly imagining tentacles and giant spiders,  immediately wonders what the robot would be like to shag. I’m not making this up.

“I wouldn’t fancy spending the night with one of them things, look at all them spiky bits.”

The production designer has really pulled all the stops out. Out of his ass. The alien craft interior is sucky, but the quarry with spray-painted “cave art” really puts the tin lid on it.

Glass painting, or just a really dirty lens?

Les Bowie’s tabletop special effects are probably a lot cheaper than they look, because he was a dedicated craftsman… I guess that means in this case he must have paid them.

Just keep repeating to yourself, “The following year, we made 2001.”

Using front projection, which was invented by the author of the story which became this ludicrous film. Strange.

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16 Responses to “Wailing Asteroid, Crouching Hawtrey”

  1. Hawtrey! Hayes! Sci Fi! I MUST see this. (surely Mr McLaren knows about this?)

  2. They should have called the film Carry on Terrornauts instead. It has a nice ring to it.

  3. It would’ve been even better if Hawtrey had played a malevolent alien mastermind: casting him as comic relief is a bit cowardly. I’m thinking of that Star Trek alien in the end credits with the big head and the outraged expression.

  4. Ah, Balok, who served as a disguise for Ron Howard’s little brother.

  5. As a kid and since I missed the episode, I thought Balok was a picture of Herbert Solow. Really.

  6. Heh! Beware of where you put your credit, Mr Executive Producer!

  7. The Big One for Front Projection is of course Syberberg

  8. Ah, but is it front or back? I can’t tell one from the other, except that in principle, front projection provides a brighter, more even image — thus the incredible Dawn of Man landscapes in 2001 which I still find completely convincing. When I saw off the top of the front projection screen in one shot, due to a masking error, it was still hard to believe that was a Borehamwood sound stage.

  9. It’s front. There’s an illustration in Cahiers du Cinema’s hors series Syberberg issue that explains how its done.

  10. No offense to Clint Howard, but I’m not sure the Balok dummy is scarier than young Clint.

  11. Few things are.

    The trick with front projection seems to be avoiding casting shadows on the screen — in every other respect it’s superior to rear projection.

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    Now dears, here’s a nice cuppa, there’s nothing like a nice cup of strong tea when them dreadful alien robots are taking such liberties with respectable women. I says to Maisie, I says, we got through the war awlright, didn’t we, on strong tea and a birrofa sing-song, and them aliens is nothing compared to Hitler…

    (imagining a film which I am unable to see. . .)

  13. To be fair, the pic of the creature that leads off this article reminds me of the monsters from ASTRO-ZOMBIES. There is something creepy about how low-rent and poorly-made they are.

  14. You’re not far off, DB.

    The “aliens” — green-painted men in fussy costumes — whom we eventually meet in The Terrornauts are almost surreally low-rent and unconvincing, as is their “alien world,” which would barely have made the grade on Dr Who in the 70s.

  15. Clint Howard’s greatest role was of course Eaglebauer in Rock ‘n Roll High School

  16. I like how his graph has one line on it, from which he draws three separate statistics!

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