Executive produced and 'written by' Philip Yordan, Day of the Triffids was a bungled attempt to make a glossy post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic that reportedly was never in any firm shape. The script by blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon severely diluted John Wyndham’s story into a fast-moving but often muddled monster movie about alien plants made mobile by alien lights and an apparent alien meteor with more alien plants that were previously being housed in greenhouses - like the one in London, where the first activated triffid plant sprays a night guard with some goo, and starts to chomp away, face-first.
Apparently Wyndham’s creatures weren’t alien at all, but genetically tweaked, thorny plants whose fine oil was useful in industrial applications. In the film, the time-frame from fixed to mobile plants was compressed to an overnight happening, and the story was diluted down to a killer plant movie, even though one senses vestiges of themes about the loss of humanity, people reverting to primal, self-preservationist behaviour, and the issue of nature mucked up by science throughout several undercooked scenes.
Where the film clicks is in capturing the scope of a global disaster: with most people blind, planes staring running out of gas and crash from the sky, trains bulldoze into stations, and the streets are filled with the wandering blind, desperately hoping a sighted person can aid them in getting food, shelter, and comfort. It’s a potent undercurrent about urbanized folk suddenly unable to cope in a frozen mechanized world, as well as the inference that food stocks will collapse, since the blind farmers can lo longer manage the land nor livestock (which itself has likely become blind).
The issue of self-preservation pops up when the film’s hero, a ship captain named Bill Masen (Howard Keel, well into his non-singing, non-dancing career after hits like Kiss Me Kate), rescues a runaway girl from the clutches of a blind mob wanting her as a guide moppet. The two eventually make their way from London to a French country estate as they head towards a military base. A night later, the unlikely pair must rescue an estate governess, Nicole Maurey (Christine Durant), from the clutches of armed prison escapees wanting singing, dancing, drunken maidens. The trio then head for Spain, where news reports describe a last-call pickup by a submarine, whose crew was safely isolated from the comet lights and hungry plants.
Clearly a lot of moral issues would’ve been addressed in the estate sequence, but the scenes exist purely to separate the three characters from the group, simplifying the script to humans-on-the-run, but the film still maintains a firm sense of urgency, particularly as the makeshift family make their way through deserted towns and roads. Once they pit stop at an isolated Spanish villa, the must do battle with a mass of triffids, drooling at the villa's perimeter.
The filmmakers’ sloppiness really glows once the characters reach the French estate. Masen is able to fix the generator and keep the lights running, but there’s no reason to waste generator fuel now that the means of transporting and distributing such a valuable commodity is kaput. Moreover, if triffids were attracted by light, it’s daft to keep the estate heavily illuminated, particularly if the lights are only of use to 4 people out of 44 inhabitants.
Then there’s the Spanish villa where the trio must defend the owner, his wife, and their newborn from the triffids. The villa’s demarcation points are fuzzily established by the filmmakers: it's partly surrounded by walls, but there’s apparently a long stretch nothing, which Masen quickly fences up and wires to the hydro line. When he uses a nearby flame-throwing truck (its raison d’etre at the villa remains murky) to burn the triffids, the footage shows Masen spraying a narrow quadrant of the fencing, rather than an entire stretch. We see a wide shot where front-line triffids burn, but it’s established early on the hose used by Masen isn’t long enough to reach the fence extremes.
Moreover, the film starts with Masen in hospital, anxiously awaiting the removal of bandages from a recent operation to restore his sight. The next morning he awakens and finds the grounds wrecked and deserted, save for his doctor, who chooses to jump out of a window; that spastic action was presumably written in to inject a morbid irony where an eye surgeon is unwilling to live without the fifth sense he’s able to restore in others.
According to music producer David Schecter, who reconstructed Ron Goodwin’s complete score for a 2006 re-recording (see soundtrack link at end), the original 90 min. cut was rejected by studios Allied Artists and Rank, largely due to poor special effects, as well an ending that reportedly had Masen luring the triffids into the ocean using the musical carnival truck he and his surrogate family used to reach Spain.
The removal of the unsatisfactory scenes and bad effects footage yielded a film with a running time below the standard feature length. In addition to re-editing the finale where Masen leaves the truck with the triffids, dives into the ocean, and is safely taken by dinghy to the submarine with the women, former cinematographer Freddie Francis, fresh from his directorial debut of Two and Two Make Six (1962), was wrangled by Yordan to helm reshoots written by Gordon, involving a couple’s efforts to use their marine biology training to find the triffids’ weakness after their isolated lighthouse is swarmed by the hungry plants.
Those scenes were intercut between the Masen storyline. One could argue their inclusion adds scope to the dilemma of the triffids’ infestation, but the new material adds a conflicting resolution: Masen discovers the plants are attracted by noise, whereas the couple in the new scenes – drunkard Tom Goodwin (Satellite in the Sky's Kieron Moore) and long-suffering wife Karen (Janette Scott) – find saltwater turns the plants into green mush.
Whichever weakness helps the humans reclaim the Earth from the plants is unclear, but the final shot is a ridiculous moment where presumably sighted people ascend the steps of a Spanish church, over which a narrator tries to sum up the human’s windfall as divine – stealing the ideological epilogue from George Pal’s version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1953), a film drenched in fifties religiosity.
The Goodwin characters are whiny, during each triffid assault, Karen (also a trained marine egghead) just stands and screams by the walls, hand over pretty mouth, while her husband does all the defensive work. There’s the slight problem of how the triffids didn’t immediately turn to mush because of the surrounding saltwater and salty mist.
The title music by Ron Goodwin (Village of the Damned) is superb, but there are a few stylistic differences between his cues and the extra music by Johnny Douglas (Crack in the World). The sound effects for the carnivorous monsters are quite creepy, though, and Ted Moore’s colour effects are very chilling – perhaps an important factor that made the film such a favourite among kids, much in the way Invaders from Mars (1953) became a terror classic.
Isolation among leading characters is ongoing, and in spite of some poor matte and layered photographic effects (not to mention the triffid suits), one gets a good sense of a slowly disintegrating world, but it's a mood that should’ve been milked in specific scenes.
Another issue with the film is the way it’s been treated over the years on TV and home video, from ugly 16mm prints to poor widescreen DVDs whose sources are equally substandard. This Cheezy Flicks edition is reportedly taken from a prior laserdisc (hence its 4x3 state), and the colours are tinted pinkish, mucking up Moore’s obviously pre-planned colour schemes for the attack sequences.
A restored ‘scope print was recently screened at the 2010 TCM Classic Film Festival, so hopefully its mere existence will ensure a proper DVD release, with archival extras that address the film’s troubled production.
Perhaps convinced the time was ripe for a more faithful rendition of Wyndham’s novel, the BBC produced an economical but literary version in 1981, as well as a revised version in 2009.
Whereas Keel stayed away from horror and sci-fi after this experience, Kieron Moore also appeared in Yordan’s productions of The Thin Red Line (1964), Crack in the World (1965), and Custer of the West (1967). Janette Scott also appeared in Francis’ Two and Two Make Six (1962), Paranoiac (1963), and Yordan’s Crack in the World. In addition to Triffids, screenwriter Gordon also wrote 55 Days at Peking (1963), The Thin Red Line, Circus World (1964), Custer of the West, and Krakatoa: East of Java (1969) for Yordan.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan