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May 17, 2011

Movie Review: The Day Of The Triffids (1962)

by Greg Goodsell

Directed by Steve Sekely

"And I got really hot, When I saw Jeanette Scott, Fight a triffid that spits poison and kills -- "

“Science-Fiction Double Feature” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Buy The Day of the Triffids on DVD

Angry asparagus plants with tentacles threaten mankind with abject boredom in The Day of the Triffids, an eloquent demonstration of all that is wrong with British science-fiction. It’s really too bad, as the previous alien-invasion film based on a John Wyndham novel, “The Midwich Cuckoos” was rendered unto film as the Village of the Damned (1980) and has since reached iconic status. That story, about cold-blooded tow-headed children born in an isolated English village ratcheted up the suspense with all manner of subtle underpinnings. Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” is a run-of-the-mill walking killer plant movie, a stale relic of the Fifties adjusted to the widescreen color films of the Sixties.

Triffids intercuts two stories: the first thread follows macho American sailor Bill Masen (Howard Keel) denied a celestial light show after eye surgery while hospitalized in London . It’s really just as well as the meteorite shower has struck all human spectators blind, and the mass of humanity must feel its way around a rapidly decaying world. Removing his bandages to see an abandoned and disheveled hospital (echoed in the much later British doomsday film 28 Days Later), Masen makes his way to the London train station where he meets another sighted person, a runaway schoolgirl named Susan (Janina Faye).

Masen and Susan wander around to look at all the death and destruction descending on Londontown with polite ennui as the film then cuts to a dysfunctional scientific married couple conducting experiments on manta rays. “I don’t want to conduct any more experiments on manta rays!’ cries the alcoholic Tom Goodwin (Kieron Moore) as his passive, whiny wife Karen Goodwin (Janette Scott) wrinkles her lovely brow. The meteor shower has brought with it Triffids, ugly plants that spit poison and kill (reference that song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, above). As the majority of mankind is now blind, there’s little hope of them avoiding these ill-mannered weeds, and the struggle for survival begins.

The Triffids join a long-standing British tradition of barely ambulatory monsters. Witness how humanity is brought to its knees in Terrence Fisher’s The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) by two, count ‘em two junkyard robots walking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y on platform shoes. In that programmer, characters literally have to hold doors open for the invaders to corner them for the story’s big climax. Even Dr. Who’s much beloved space-age tanks the Daleks were foiled by a little girl’s windbreaker lying on the ground at one point.

Part of Triffids' premise, about the world being rendered sightless has a lot of intriguing science-fiction possibilities. It was in fact, the premise of the 1995 novel “Blindness” by Portuguese writer José Saramago, later made into an English-language film of the same name in 2008. Wyndham couldn’t leave well enough alone, and had to add the walking asparagus monsters in a bid to excite the public’s imagination, I suppose.

After being bored to death with a long flight throughout the European continent on the part of Maser and Susan and incessant lighthouse bickering courtesy of the Goodwins, the audience’s intelligence is insulted with (cue the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons) the lamest, most improbably deux-ex-machina ending in science-fiction history, EVER!

Trapped on the lighthouse staircase, the Goodwins pick up a hose utilizing nearby seawater and spritz the Veggies with it, whereupon they dissolve into green goo! Since seawater covers two-thirds of the world’s surface, the Earth is saved, right?

Anyone with an I.Q. in the triple digits will realize – with humanity blind, and the majority of the population living on landlocked areas, AND the fact that the Goodwins’ discovery can’t possibly be disseminated with civilization in chaos, will realize, that yes – MANKIND IS DOOMED. No downbeat ending here, as the survivors are last seen going to a coastal church to thank God for sparing their lives.

Yet another intriguing science-fiction premise bites the dust here, as it would certainly be ironic and clever if mankind dies with its ready salvation unknowingly just beyond reach. YOU JUST KNOW George A. Romero saw this and went “check!” when the Goodwins barricade the windows in their lighthouse as Jeannette Scott drearily exclaims, “I feel like I’m in my own coffin!” You can even hear the young Romero sputtering at the film’s ending, “None of this seawater bullshit for me!” when he penned the rightly downbeat ending for Night of the Living Dead (1968). (He did keep the sound-alike title, however.)

As a monster-hungry child, I would frequently begin to watch Triffids on television only to snap it off long before the conclusion, as it was my case as an adult. It’s heartening to know that some things never change.

Oh. The Day of the Triffids was remade in 1981 and 2009, but I knew well enough in advance not to seek those versions out.

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