The Day of the Triffids, 1962, dir. Steve Sekely.
Now, a Sci-Fi horror film that’s almost sixty years old deserves cutting a little slack. These days we’ve got CGI, green screen, motion capture and all those other things I know absolutely nothing about. But setting aside the limitations of technology and special effects, and the difficulty of seeing a film without the baggage and preconceptions of a thousand other films I’ve seen, still – I think it’s fair to say that The Day of the Triffids is pretty terrible.
It’s a fun watch, though. Here’s how it goes, in case you’re not sufficiently motivated or medicated to bother:
- There’s a male voiceover at the beginning. He talks very authoritatively about carnivorous plants (‘or eating plants’ he adds, helpfully). He mentions the Venus flytrap, and we get a close up of a rubber version where the jaws clap together like toothy castanets. ‘How these plants digest their prey has yet to be explained…’ (Erm – I think it’s juices, mate.) Then he mentions the hero of the story, Triffidus Celestus, brought to earth on … da-da-daaaaah … The Day of the Triffids.’ Cut to an endless credit roll of actors I’ve never heard of, except maybe Howard Keel, who was either a singer, or on Dallas, or both.
- The meteor shower is nice to look at (which I suppose was half the problem). Splodges of colour, whites, yellows and reds, and a noise like someone drawing curtains on a rail, open and shut. Cut to a nightwatchman at Kew Gardens. You can tell he’s a nightwatchman because he has a torch, a flask of tea and a hard boiled egg. He goes into the Palm House for lunch. A triffid plant detaches itself from one of the beds and starts sneaking up him. Despite being a nightwatchman – whose main function is to watch, FFS – he can’t bear to turn round and see what’s making all those alarming squelching noises. When he does, he sees something that he and the hyperactive orchestra find absolutely terrifying but which actually looks ridiculous – an ‘orrible, great big wobbly thing with hairy tentacles waving about on levers and a rotten tulip expression on its maw. It looks about as dangerous as a drunk waddling up to the mic on karaoke night. The triffid eats the watchman more neatly than the watchman ate his egg. Triffids 1, Humans 0.
- We meet the hero, Howard, sitting up in a hospital bed (private room, natch), with what looks like pants on his head, his ears sticking out at the side like satellite dishes. He’s had an operation on his eyes, so he can’t see ‘the light show of the century’ – the meteorite shower that will blind everyone on earth and have them all walking around with their arms straight out in front of them, tripping over suitcases, trying to fly planes and so on. But back to the room. Howard’s talking to the doctor, a man in a three piece suit with creases sharper than his manner, and a nurse, who helps Howard light his cigarette, and then puts it out the moment the doctor leaves the room. She also lowers the head-end by cranking a handle at the foot end, which isn’t very dignified, but she does her best.
- When Howard wakes up next morning the hospital is quiet. He’s suspicious. Where’s the nurse with his cigarette? He presses the call button, which doesn’t work. Then he takes the pants off his head and – after a blurry moment the cameraman obviously enjoyed – sees that the hospital is trashed. He meets the doctor, who is talking very, very calmly and staring without blinking (much as he was before). He gets Howard to test his eyes with a torch. ‘The optic nerve is gone’ he says, then after warning Howard (and the audience) that ‘you’ll see things you wished you hadn’t’, throws himself out of the window.
- Turns out, the doctor’s right. London, post-apocalypse, is strewn with badly parked cars and extras wandering around with their hands straight out in front in the approved way, or feeling their way along railings, coming to a corner, meeting other people feeling in the other direction, making their apologies, tripping over suitcases, and so on. Like London today, then, only with less litter and no congestion charge.
- Howard has very noisy shoes – the kind with clips on. He’s basically pretty military in bearing. He wears a cap, too, which rounds the look off nicely. When he removes the cap, his hair is slicked down so hard it makes Action Man’s head look wild.
- Howard goes to the railway station, where everyone is blind but still hopefully waiting for a train, which is quite authentically British, I suppose. There’s a man at the ticket office who’s come in to work despite being blind. An old woman falls backwards over a suitcase. Howard helps her up, then goes out onto the platform. Seconds later, a train hurtles in and crashes in a spectacularly cheap and off-camera kinda way. Cut to lots of people screaming and falling out of the doors with their hands straight out in front of them. One of the extras, a middle aged man in a middle aged suit, is staggering towards the camera carrying a teddy bear, which is a tender little detail, and no doubt got the extra fired. There’s a girl in a school uniform, fake pigtails and fake smile, who jumps down out of a carriage and is almost immediately identified as being sighted (why she didn’t watch the meteor show like everyone else we’re not told – but I’m guessing a ketamine addiction). Anyway, a rough sort grabs her. Howard intervenes and takes her with him instead, but he’s got a cap, solid hair and noisy shoes so that’s okay. The girl explains she’s run away from boarding school, her parents are dead and so she’s pretty much a free agent. They jump in a car and go off to France, for some reason.
- Cut to a lighthouse. A scientist and his wife. They’ve gone to live there for six months because the scientist can’t get his shit together and finish his study of sting rays or something. He drinks and is very, very grumpy. The boat is late and he’s running out of whisky. Meanwhile, his wife wanders around looking sad and gorgeous and does a lot of mournful peering into goop-filled beakers. She wishes their marriage was better. They stand together at the top of the lighthouse. He looks out to sea with his binoculars and all he sees is sea. It doesn’t improve his mood. The radio announcer comes on with an urgent message. (I’m guessing the announcer is actually Steve, the director, but that’s only a guess. As the film goes on and the announcer makes more announcements, it’s a feature that he says everything twice. I suppose they want to make it sound more urgent, but actually the announcements are never that difficult, so it ends up having the opposite effect). The message goes something like: Everyone’s been blinded by the meteor shower, and now giant, man-eating plants are wandering about. So watch out, and keep listening for more encouraging messages like this one. I repeat…). The scientist looks around for whisky.
- Howard and the girl have pulled up at a luxurious convent where the everyone’s blind – natch – except the husband and wife who run the place (we’re not told why they didn’t watch the meteor shower, but the man looks permanently stunned, so that’s some kind of clue, I suppose). They want Howard to stay and help them look after all the blind nuns and so on, who are trailing round the house doing a very tentative conga. Howard is sympathetic but firm. They’re all going to die, he says. *Shrug*. The radio comes on. Important information it says. The triffids are everywhere and eating shit. Stay in the house. I repeat. Stay in the house. ‘See what I mean?’ says Howard (he probably doesn’t say that, but I can’t be arsed to google the script. Watching the film was bad enough. Reading it might be fatal)
- Howard and the stunned husband drive off into the French countryside, for some reason. Supplies, maybe? Anyway, they find a huge crater with lots of baby triffids, seeds blowing all around. ‘That’s how they spread!’ says Howard, showing the same level of horticultural knowledge as the announcer at the beginning of the flick. Bigger triffids lunge after them. Howard takes a shot at one. It runs like you do when the phone rings and you’re still wet from the shower. Turns out – guns are no use. The stunned husband trips and fractures his contract. Howard slings him over his shoulder, which turns out to be a good move, as the triffids fling something deadly and the stunned husband gets it instead of Howard. There’s a tender moment when Howard lies him on the ground, toes him with his clippy shoes and then hurries on. Meanwhile, back at the convent, a bunch of drunken extras have taken over, dancing to Jazz and swigging from empty bottles. Howard rescues the stunned husband’s wife (let’s call her Sheila) by pretending to dance with her, then hundreds of triffids gatecrash the party, so Howard and Sheila and little KK escape in the prison van.
- The lighthouse scientist and his glam / morose wife are being attacked by a triffid. He pokes at it with an improvised harpoon whilst his wife bites her knuckle and screams a lot. Turns out the triffid has very poor tendril-stamen coordination, so it’s not that difficult to cut it to pieces. (You have to think – if the night watchman at Kew had shown a little more gumption – and maybe not stuffed himself so full of egg – he might’ve stood a chance. He could’ve clouted it with his tea flask and done a runner. But then again he’s a Night watchman. Not a Fight watchman.) The scientist dissects the triffid. Apparently if they learn more about it they might stand a better chance of killing it, which seems fair. He scoops out a great deal of goop, which his wife collects in another beaker. Then they go upstairs to sleep (which is obviously part of a longer and less tractable problem). Meanwhile, the triffid reanimates – slithers up the spiral staircase – an obvious hand in a decorated sock – the wife screams, bites her knuckle. The scientist wakes up, battles the sock on the stairs, and wins again, somehow, I’m not sure. They barricade the front door with planks, nails and a hammer that the scientist orders his wife to fetch. I’m not sure if the scientist is aware of just how close he comes to being brained with the hammer. She could always blame it on the triffid.
- Howard, Sheila & KK end up in Spain, somehow, travelling across country in what looks like a joke ice cream van. How or why they go to Spain is not explained, but Waze is still years off, so fair play. They arrive at the villa of a couple who act like mannequins operated by tiny motors. Turns out the wife was always blind, and the husband is learning as he goes along. They’re both very happy to see them (er-hem). The wife is pregnant, about to give birth even though there’s no bump whatsoever. Sheila is happy to have a go delivering it. I’ve got every confidence in Sheila. Her hair is even slicker than Howard’s, which explains their obvious chemistry. Meanwhile, Millions of triffids are massing outside the villa. Howard knocks up an electric fence, but when that fails, he finds a fuel truck and sprays them all with fire. The triffids look particularly woebegone at this point, a whole line of them, in flames, wilting at the wire. A bit like Glastonbury, but hotter.
- The triffids have regrouped at the lighthouse, and a load of them gloop their way up the spiral stairs towards the scientist and his screaming wife. As a last ditch effort he sprays them all with seawater from a hose, which immediately turns them into something that looks like a healthy kale & kiwi smoothie. ‘Three fifths of the earth’s surface is covered by seawater, so we should be alright there,’ says the scientist. His wife hugs him, even though her shoes are ruined.
- Howard leads the triffids away from the villa by driving ahead of them in the ice cream van, which is so poignant I almost weep. At the last moment he dives out of the van and I think the triffids just carry on after it optimistically holding out for a 99, until they all plunge over the cliff ( you don’t see that, mercifully). A few minutes later Howard is diving off the cliff himself, after recklessly flinging his cap away. He’s keen to make a rendezvous with the submarine that’s evacuating people like him and leaving in five minutes (As the announcer announced on the radio, if you were listening. Twice.)
- Cut to the closing scene. Howard, Sheila and KK going into church. Howard takes his cap off (Who rescued his cap from the sea? Who?) The announcer says something about the battle having been won… man’s ingenuity, the benefits of salty water yaddah yaddah.
And that’s it. Day of the Triffids.
It felt considerably longer than a day.
My daughters both pointed out that you’d never guess Psycho was made two years earlier – which is such a great & interesting thing to say, it made me think all this film watching might really be paying off.