From looking at this list in comparison with these much longer ones, it seems to me that in the 1960’s, science fiction flicks exclusively made in the US were in a bit of a rut. You can also see from those longer lists that horror films have fared far better and you can probably name quite a few memorable fright films from the era off the top of your head from Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead, A few Herschel Gordon Lewis flicks, Rosemary’s Baby and many (many) more. Let’s just say that truncated list in the last sentence was about 20 or so films before common sense made me edit it down.
The reason I’m focusing on US-made films is simple. As other countries were just more prolific and innovative in their sci-fi films and during this time, the US seemed not to know what to do well despite kicking off and ending the decade with some pretty solid films (1960’s The Time Machine and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Which brings us to one of the less stellar efforts of the decade, 1966’s The Navy vs The Night Monsters. The film looks and feels as if it was made a decade earlier and interestingly enough, the best thing about it is the actress playing the requisite eye candy, Mamie Van Doren. “Best” meaning she plays her role as straight as can be does it without chewing the scenery or mugging it up for zero laughs like some of the guys here do. Stripped of its silly jokes, it might have been a decent “B” flick, but hey – some things just won’t die a natural death.
Granted, this sort of sci-fi drama with added light comedic elements has a Roger Corman connection, as he was an uncredited producer of the film, which was partially based on The Monster from Earth’s End a novel by the rather prolific Murray Leinster. The film takes a few cues from The Thing From Another World, with desiccated prehistoric mutant tree stumps as the main threat. Well, there’s one bigger monster tree that was made as well, but the ending has those angry stumps getting bombed by Navy planes, so they’re the last thing you see before the smell of napalm in the morning strikes. Also, Molotov cocktails work, but the film seems to suggest that the guy who comes up with this rather obvious method is the only one who knows how to make them. What, are there no flamethrowers in that Navy’s arsenal?
Truth be told, it’s not a terrible idea for a film and if you read the chapters available in that link to the book above, it works pretty well. Of course, the camp value from some of the less serious performances in the film don’t help matters, as the movie zips between its sci-fi, a bit of horror and attempts at humor a bit erratically. Basic plot time: A Navy plane carrying samples from an Antarctic excavation runs into trouble and crashes at a Navy airstrip on Gow Island, cutting off its human inhabitants from communication from the outside until they can repair the communications system. When one of the biologists suggest planting the trees found on board the wreckage to keep them alive, well… that turns into a surprise when those trees start leaving (heh) acidic residue and whittling down the small population on the island (oops).
As the trees mostly massacre the Navy staffers off screen, there’s mostly a lot of talk about people gone missing or who have been killed. But we at least get a non-gory scene where a character gets an arm yanked off and another where some poor sap (snicker) gets more or less eaten or whatever by a formerly fossilized flora. A few bodies turn up as sort of mutated (see above), and there’s the sole survivor of the plane wreck, who’s in a coma of sorts, but springs to life later, but the film has a very padded feeling to it overall making what could have been a taut little chiller into a talky and somewhat dull film. It turns out that a tidy 78 minute cut was turned into a 90-minute flick expanded for television and the added footage drags things out and changes the tone.
By the inevitable ending (which was one if the things added), you may sort of shrug your shoulders, pop in a better film and forget this one existed. But it’s not a total waste of time maybe you’ll look up much better films from one of those lists at the start of this review. That said, I got a laugh when a friend who dropped by to see this when he was returning some films said “Did they think planting those old trees would get them anything good? Free weed from a weed, or something?” Well, there’s a modern remake for you, I guess. Preservation turns to self-preservation is a pretty good theme in any era, but this one doesn’t quite do it for me at the end of the day.
The print I saw was a bit washed out and fuzzy, but it sort of fits when you think about it. The good thing here was it made me track down a better film I hadn’t seen in maybe 25 years, so that will be reviewed soon for a blogathon I’ve done a piece for already. The way things turn out sometimes, right?