Film

Don’t Open That Door! #41: 'Terror Is a Man' (1959)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: an island haven turns into a horrible nightmare in Terror Is a Man.


Terror Is a Man

Director: Gerardo de Leon
Cast: Francis Lederer, Greta Thyssen, Richard Derr, Oscar Keesee
US Release Date: 1959-11

Alternative titles: The Island of Dr Girard; The Scientists Are Revolting!

POSITIVES:

Helpful "warning" tells you to close your eyes when you hear the bell.

Atmospheric location shooting in the Philippines.

Nifty POV camera work & inventive angles throughout.

Solid no-nonsense performances.

NEGATIVES:

Not enough monster.

Not enough monster.

Too much chit chat and: Not enough monster.

SYNOPSIS: Shipwrecked sailor William Fitzgerald could have done better than wash up on an island a thousand miles off the South American coast—it's the kind of place where strange noises come out of the nighttime dark. But he could have done worse, too: after all, bodacious blonde Frances is whiling away the time time with her somewhat less bodacious husband, Dr. Girard (you can tell he’s a scientist by his handy i.v. tube). Gerard's good-natured assistant Walter wanders around saying stuff like, "Do you really want that thing back?" and getting soundly rebuffed by the doc in return. William is too dazed to make much of this—but he'll learn!


It soon becomes apparent that some sort of experimental animal has escaped Girard's clutches, and Frances wants nothing more than to leave the island. The locals agree with her, especially after they start turning up dead, leaving only Selene and Tiago to wait on the white people. The doc remains obsessive about his work and refuses to give it up, so the shapely Frances appeals to William for help. Willy, who's pretty shapely himself, is happy to oblige, and snoops around the doc's lab long enough to spy on him operating on the newly-captured "animal". However, even though it's supposed to be a panther he's working on, that bandage-wrapped mummy looks awfully humanoid…

Thickening the already-thick plot, Frances goes sunbathing and free Willy makes a play for her, which she rebuffs halfheartedly—at first. Good-natured Walter drinks too much, dropping hints about how sinister Girard is, as if we didn't know already. Willy soon faces Girard directly, and the doc explains the details of his research, asking, "What do you think?" Willy tells him, "I think you've given me something to think about," which is a polite way of saying, "I think you've spent too many years painting interior rooms without adequate ventilation."

Alas, what William thinks is pretty much beside the point. There's a monster down in the basement just itching to go on a rampage, which takes a while, but when it does, it's not pretty. Alas it's not very extensive, either—we're a thousand miles from anywhere, and most everybody's left, and much of the movie has been spent in setting up an elaborate multi-level soap opera. So "going on a rampage" pretty much equals "waiting for all the people to stop talking, and then doing something scary."

What gets turned into cat chow: a guy; a woman; another guy; another woman; another guy; another sort-of guy (??)—but it's ambiguous.

Best line of dialogue: “I'll have a little talk with you later—mister!”

What gets saved: Young love, or at least, a version thereof.

Moral of the story: Animals are people too.

This reminds me of… …the HG Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), of which this is a fairly blatant rip-off. The book was made into film several times, notably in 1932 version called The Island of Lost Souls, with Charles "Quasimodo" Laughton and Bela "Dracula" Lugosi, as well as in 1977, with Burt Lancaster and Michael York. The 1996 version, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, was disappointing.

Did you know? Greta Thyssen (Frances) was 1951's Miss Denmark, and boasted measurements of 40-24-36. Va-va-voom, as they say.

Somehow their careers survived: Prague-born Francis Lederer (Girard)’s career had begun back in 1928, in Germany's Zuflucht (English title: Refuge), and in 1958 he played the title role in The Return of Dracula. Greta Thyssen (Frances) had played in The Beast of Budapest (1958) and would be seen in Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962) with John Agar; she had also been Marilyn Monroe's body double in 1956's Bus Stop. Richard Derr (William) had starred in 1951's epic When Worlds Collide plus plenty of TV; he would guest star in two episodes of the original Star Trek (1966-68), "The Mark of Gideon" and "The Alternative Factor." Oscar Keesee (Walter) appeared in many Filipino films in the '40s and '50s, concluding his career with 1968's Brides of Blood. This was the only movie in the careers of Lilia Duran (Selene), Peyton Keesee (Tiago), and Flory Carlos (the Beast-man).


BOTTOM LINE: Atmospheric camerawork + decent performances = a good time.

NEXT WEEK: Devil Woman From Mars (1954)

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