Forgotten from the archives: concept art for The Terrornauts

❉ We take a peak at the concept art for Amicus produced sci-fi film ‘The Terrornauts’

I wouldn’t be surprised if less than a roomful of people had ever heard of Montgomery Tully’s 1967 film ‘The Terrornauts’, much less actually seen it. Too obscure for ‘cult’ cinema and too bad to be a long-lost cinematic gem, ‘The Terrornauts’ is interesting for, well, reasons. Reasons which go far beyond a selfish personal desire to exhume an old B-movie which sank without a trace 5 decades ago simply in order to revel in its campy badness. Er, I promise?

‘The Terrornauts’ was produced by Amicus, a company which was active in Britain throughout the 60s and 70s and run by American film producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. Today, Amicus is well known for its horror films, but in the 1960s the company’s slate was actually pretty varied. Along with music films like ‘It’s Trad, Dad!’ (1962) Amicus had also produced the first two Doctor Who feature films, ‘Dr. Who and the Daleks’ (1965) and ‘Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD’ (1966) which starred Peter Cushing in the title role.

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What many exploitation sci-fi horrors lacked in production values, they more than made up for in lurid promotional materials.

It’s easy to see ‘The Terrornauts’ as predictable low-budget sci-fi fodder, though as Kim Newman points out the film was actually “among the first sci-fi films to deal with the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) type set-up later seen in the likes of Species and Contact.” ‘The Terrornauts’ follows the crew of Project Star Talk, whose mission is to send out radio signals in the hope of making contact with alien civilisations. Unfortunately for the main characters this hope is realised, and this culminates in the entire crew being kidnapped and held on an alien spaceship which is moored on a nearby asteroid. Most of the action takes place on the spacecraft, where the main cast are greeted by a colourful spiny robot who leads them through a series of tests to determine the sophistication of their reasoning faculties.

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Verdict on costume design: my mum could do better.

Simon Oates plays Dr Joe Burke, a scientist who has long harboured lofty dreams of making contact with extra-terrestrials, while Zena Marshall plays Sandy Lund, the office manager. Charles Hawtrey plays to type as a fussy, stuffy accountant while Patricia Hayes plays a tea lady whose job is to make hilariously mundane little-Englander type remarks about the comfyness of the alien spacecraft and to say things like “Ohh! I wouldn’t fancy spending the night wiv one of them fings [the robot]. Look at all them spiky bits!”

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There’s also a fair bit of unintended innuendo in there too:

“What do you make of that then?”

“It’s a kind of vibrator. Can’t you feel it?” (actual dialogue)

I had a chance to look through the file for ‘The Terrornauts’ at the archives of the bond company Film Finances, who acted as completion guarantors on the film. The file partly consisted of the cost report of production consultant John Croydon, who had the job of reviewing the project. Croydon had worked in the film industry in various capacities for decades, and his role as consultant involved judging whether a film could be produced in the time projected for the cost allowed. He judged that the special effects meant that it would cost a ‘fabulous’ amount to produce the film for the mooted budget (which was £87,000. It actually came in only very slightly over budget), but he did note that a point in the films’ favour was that Montgomery Tully was a ‘very fast director’. Though he approved the budget, Croydon was roundly unimpressed with the script, stating in his report:

It is, I suppose, a poor copy of ‘2001’ [A Space Odyssey] and contains many of the elements I found in that script when I was given the chance of reading it.

The Film Finances files also included some concept art by production designer Bill Constable, an extremely prolific designer and illustrator who had also worked on a number of Amicus’ other productions, including the anthology film ‘Dr Terror’s House of Horrors’ (1965) as well as Alan Cooke’s 1970 film ‘The Mind of Mr Soames’ (which stars Terence Stamp aka one of the biggest film stars of the 1960s as a giant man-baby. Quite literally. Worth a watch). The pre-production art shows the disconnect between Constable’s aspirations and the need to keep the budget under £90,000.

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Alien monster: terrifying concept.
Alien monster: slightly less-than-terrifying reality.
Alien monster: slightly less-than-terrifying reality.

 

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Interior asteroid concept.
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Actual interior.

 

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Exterior asteroid concept.
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Actual exterior asteroid (model) shot.

‘The Terrornauts’ isn’t actually as bad as one might expect. The particularly British reactions of the characters to an impending alien invasion do have a certain charm, while the savage aliens on the asteroid (men covered in green paint, wearing what looks suspiciously like bald-caps) and the (plastic?) ray gun Dr Burke uses to fight them off raises more of a smirk than a cringe. The production background also provides an insight into how British independent production companies were continuing to survive on minuscule budgets (the average budget for even a low-budget British film at the time would have been upwards of £200,000) at a time when US money was driving up costs.

Indeed, that Amicus continued to survive at all in this hostile industrial landscape is nothing short of amazing. ‘The Terrornauts’ does not, perhaps, stand the test of time, but as an insight into British independent film production in the late 1960s it is a pretty useful relic.


❉ ‘The Terrornauts’ is available on DVD from Network, RRP £5.00.

2 Comments

  1. One thing not mentioned in this article is the fact that the script for The Terrornauts was written by the well-regarded science fiction writer John Brunner, who won the Hugo Award in 1969 for his novel Stand On Zanzibar. The same novel also netted him a British Science Fiction Association award the same year, and a year later he won another BSFA award with the novel The Jagged Orbit.

    As far as I know, this was the only movie script Brunner ever wrote and it was based on a short story by an older sci-fi writer, Murray Leinster.

    Brunner talked about his involvement with The Terrornauts when he was interviewed by the film critic John Brosnan, in the afterword to Brosnan’s 1978 book about science fiction cinema, Future Tense. It sounded like he wrote it as a favour to Milton Subotsky whom he described as a personal friend. It’s telling that Brosnan himself refrained from reviewing The Terrornauts in Future Tense, presumably to avoid upsetting Brunner. (I saw The Terrornauts on late-night TV when I was nine or ten and even at that young age I thought it was absolutely terrible.)

    Then again, J.G. Ballard wrote the original treatment for Hammer’s 1969 caveman epic When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, so maybe there was a curse dooming respectable 1960s British sci-fi writers to be associated with dodgy movies. (Though Arthur C. Clarke evidently escaped it!)

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