Monday, April 12, 2010

The Crawling Eye (1958) — Set LASIK blasters on "poke"

Occasioned solely by my realization that I need to get my contact lenses Rx updated:

"Giant, tentacled eyeballs from outer space use their alien powers to reanimate corpses and send zombies to murder telepathic earthlings!"

With PR like that, what's not to love? For aficionados of old, low-budget genre movies grades B-through-Z, the DVD age is a godsend. Studios are releasing their dusty-basement back-catalog items, and often in no-frills, priced-to-sell editions that give fans and collectors guilty pleasures and fodder for deep-geek analysis. Sometimes gold can indeed be found in creaky sci-fi or horror, um, "classics." Other times ... well, a bad movie can have its charms and still be acknowledged as a bad movie. The U.K.'s The Crawling Eye (1958) is a bad movie — but it's the good kind of bad, with not a mean-spirited bone in its gelatinous, pimple-shaped, tentacled, one-eyed body.

On an Alpine mountain under a mysterious radioactive cloud hide a squad of ill-tempered invaders from outer space, bulbous blinkers anticipating The Simpsons' Kang and Kodos.

They exert telepathic influence over some local humans, notably a pair of mind-reading sisters (Jennifer Jayne and the lovely, well-chosen Janet Munro). Before long, with headless corpses and mind-controlled killer zombies entering the mix like downmarket H.P. Lovecraft, an American investigator (genre go-to hero Forrest Tucker), who's haunted by memories of a similar event that "happened in the Andes," is on the case right up through the climactic siege battle between the humans and the aliens.

(For added entertainment, make a drinking game out of every time a character in the movie has a drink. You may not make it to the final battle at all.)

The Crawling Eye moves through its 84 minutes at a fair clip, often with mood and atmosphere. While the script offers not a single deliberate joke or moment of witty repartee to add even a dash of pith, the movie's straight-faced earnestness, especially when Kang and Kodos show up, is pretty funny all by itself.

The special effects — backdrops, model work, miniatures, the whole Swiss cheese assortment — never really succeed at providing meaning to either "special" or "effects," although when the titular monsters finally reveal themselves, a happier use of papier-mâché cabbage heads can't be found this side of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957). Meanwhile, crisp DVD resolution reveals the wires moving the tentacles about.

Jimmy Sangster, one of England's best postwar horror film writers (Revenge of Frankenstein and other Hammers), adapted this screenplay from a 1956 BBC TV serial called The Trollenberg Terror. Like Britain's Fiend Without a Face (also from '58), this is silly, formulaic stuff, in black-and-white, but well-brought-up kids and sincere grown-up appreciators of vintage low-budget genre cinema will find plenty to enjoy here.

Stephen King, in his 1986 novel It, includes a scene with The Crawling Eye showing on TV. Later in the story, the novel's eponymous pandimensional horror manifests briefly as a Crawling Eye.

Image Entertainment's DVD release of The Crawling Eye is nothing less than the original "Widescreen European Edition" that debuted in England as The Trollenberg Terror in 1958 with an "X" rating certificate — a significant improvement over prints shown on television over the decades. The transfer used an original source print supplied by the British Film Institute, so it looks great, and its monaural audio track sounds fine.

Within a fold-out insert, two pages of production notes are appropriately respectful.

Naturally, this is the sort of movie that stands on a corner with a hand-made sign reading, "Plese give me the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment -- anything helps." So here it is in MST3K's 101st ep, back when Joel was still on board the Satellite of Love:

Music: Modest Mouse, "Little Hotel"
Near at hand: Empty plate that moments ago held a sliced orange. Yum.