Monday, December 17, 2018

Little Shop of Triffids

Published in 1951, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids has had quite the legacy, with three film/television adaptations and plenty of blatant referencing in The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later’s handling of apocalyptic hospital scenarios. The first of these, 1962’s Steve Sekely-directed (with, apparently, some later help by Freddie Francis) I snow streaming on Amazon Prime.

Quick Plot: Navy-man Bill Mason (the incredibly broad-shouldered Howard Keel) is recovering from surgery to restore his vision, meaning his bandaged eyes deny him the chance to witness a once-in-a-lifetime meteor shower that’s keeping the rest of London entranced. Lucky for him. The next morning, a now-seeing Bill discovers anyone who watched the out of this world light show has been blinded.

Bill slowly travels through a quickly decaying Europe, picking up a plucky orphan named Susan along the way. The pair have to fight off not only the increasingly dangerous hoards of the blind, but also the titular killer plants. Triffids are large, green, carnivorous, and seemingly immune from any kind of attack. 

Humanity’s only real chance against the triffids just might be in the hands of an angry, alcoholic researcher and his pushover wife. As chaos mounts across the city and rural landscapes, a softer Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-ish prelude between bickering spouses slowly morphs into a scientific breakthrough.

The Day of the Triffids is a fairly loose adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel, retaining the concept and character basics but taking some fairly wide detours in plot specifics. It’s not a shocking decision, since polygamy wasn’t quite the cinematic rage in the early ‘60s. 

Despite side-stepping some of the more risqué elements from the novel, The Day of the Triffids still manages to work as something occasionally rather scary. The triffids themselves aren’t at Audrey II levels of engineering, but there’s something supremely wrong about their design (both in the visuals and sound) that works on a creepy level. The mass blindness is treated with heft. If you were wondering how a pilot who suddenly went blind would handling flying a plane, the answer is of course, “not well.”

Effective scares aside, The Day of the Triffids suffers from some messy storytelling.The pacing never quite clicks, and when I read that the entire island research subplot was added after principal filming ended because the producers realized they only had a 57 minute movie, I wasn’t terribly surprised. 

That being said, The Day of the Triffids worked for me, as it probably would for anyone with a hunger for cinematic apocalypses,. You can see its influence on later work, and it has a certain “the plants are trying to eat us” charm that stands the test of time. 

High Points
It’s a movie that combines killer plants with mass blindness and an apocalypse. What’s not to like?

Low Points 
Yes, it was 1962, but it’s still a shame that most of the women play the important role of standing immobilized by fear and screaming while their men fight the human-eating plant monsters

Lessons Learned (the Blindness Edition)
The only danger in mass blindness is that the victims might accidentally start fires

Surgeons do not perform well under the pressure of blindness

As we also learned in Jose Saramago’s Blindness, all apocalyptic eyesight-based plagues will eventually end in systematized rape

Subtitle Strangeness
For whatever reason (laziness, Martian-ness, etc.), Amazon’s subtitles are just…wrong. Observe some translations:

Dialogue: I’ll tuck you in
Subtitles: I Kentucky

Dialogue: Ms. Durham!
Subtitles: Mr. Rat!

And my favorite, which has no translation because I was too distracted trying to figure out what time travel shenanigans would have allowed Mena Suvari to star in a film made 20 years before her birth:

The Day of the Triffids had been on my to-watch list for years, so it’s great to finally have it easily accessible via Amazon Prime. While it’s no Them! Or The Thing From Another World, it’s entertaining enough on its own merits, and even more intriguing as an early example of the kind of apocalyptic horror that has become fairly common these days. Fans of the novel will probably be annoyed at some of the choices, but in the context of its time, The Day of the Triffids is an interesting capsule. 

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