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The Day Of The Triffids (1962)

Writer John Wyndham ploughed a singular literary furrow through the 20th century, producing some very British visions of “the end of the world as we know it”. His best known work, The Day Of The Triffids, is a terrific potboiler of a book – fast moving, and packed with great imagery and ideas. It also showcased Wyndham’s obsession with the dangers of science, and how mankind’s tinkering with the natural order of things could eventually lead to Armageddon. A genre-defining novel, its far-reaching impact can still be seen – witness the scenes of deserted London at the beginning of 28 Days Later. That’s quite a fine legacy, which makes it all the more surprising that it has only received one shoddy attempt to put the source material on the big screen.

For anyone who has read the book (or seen the utterly terrifying - and completely faithful - early 80s BBC television adaptation), the film version of The Day Of The Triffids is nothing short of a travesty. The makers have filleted the novel, changing the triffids from being the product of man’s incessant need to play God into that hoariest of clichés, the “invaders from space”. Our hero is now American, and the storyline is split between his quest to find safety and the tale of a bickering married couple trapped in a lighthouse. Even worse, the whole thing is given an incongruous War Of The Worlds – style happy ending, as humanity finds that the answer to the triffid problem was under their noses the whole time (phew!) and not as many people have lost their sight as was first feared (huzzah!). All of which begs the question: If you’re going to bugger about with the storyline that much, why bother buying the rights to the novel in the first place? If they’d called it “Attack of the man eating plants from space” and avoided using the t-word, nobody would have been any the wiser.

On the plus side, the film does attempt to move the action around a bit, taking us on a tour of devastated England before carting us over to an equally ruined mainland Europe (something the book only alludes to). There are also some ambitious (the charitable might call them slightly over-ambitious) destructive set-pieces on screen, as planes fall out of the sky, trains crash into stations and cities burst into flame.

But the whole thing has been turned into a cold war era “bugs from space” b-movie, designed for American audiences and saddled with annoying voiceovers. What’s more, someone seems to have left the only copy of the film out in the sun, as it’s fuzzy and washed-out, making viewing it a migraine-inducing experience.

After a brief introduction to the world of carnivorous plants (hey – who says films can’t be educational?), the camera zooms in on a particular specimen. “This is a newcomer,” the strident voiceover tells us. “Brought to Earth on the meteorites during… THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS!”

Bill Masen (Howard “Bless your beautiful hide” Keele) is recovering from an eye operation. He is due to find out whether it has been a success when the bandages are removed tomorrow. Meanwhile outside the hospital, brightly-coloured meteorites are lighting up the night sky.

In a lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall, married couple Tom and Karen are bickering (as usual). She wants to carry on their important scientific research, he wants to drink lots of Scotch. They’re so intent on being miserable that neither is particularly bothered about watching the free light show.

As a security guard at a botanical gardens sits peeling a boiled egg, something creeps up on him. Very. Slowly. Indeed. He is stung, his face turns green, and the thing then eats him.

The next morning, Masen wakes up to silence. He removes the bandages himself and sees that the hospital has been smashed up around him (he must be a very heavy sleeper). Making his way through the wreckage, he finds his doctor (how does Masen know what he looks like?), who informs him “I don’t envy you” before jumping to his death out of the window.

Masen then makes his way through a devastated London, realising quickly that everyone else is blind, their eyes destroyed by the light from the meteorites. It also becomes clear that letting people know he can still see is a bad idea. He heads for a train station, only to arrive as a train smashes its way into the station. He rescues a young girl who has also retained her sight from the marauding blind people, and the pair of them escape a now-burning London in a stolen car.

Masen and the girl (whose name is Susan) caught glimpses of things other than staggering blind people as they left London, and it isn’t long before they’re attacked by one – a huge, but laughably slow, plant-like thing with a big body and three solid-looking necks connected to a single flower/head, with a tongue-like stinger.

Masen, who is a sailor, decides that their best bet would be to make for his ship on the coast. And as they make their way there, they hear a radio broadcast saying that there is to be an emergency meeting in Paris. Once in France the pair find themselves at a chateau-cum-hospital, which is filled with blind people being looked after by former patients (a French girl tells them of the tragic irony: “The sick stayed well and the healthy became blind”). But all of them are now in trouble – there are hundreds of triffids nearby.

Meanwhile, in the lighthouse, Tom and Karen have discovered a worrying thing about the invaders. Tom has been dissecting a specimen he managed to kill (“Dammit – I’m not even a botanist”), but the thing has suddenly sprung back to life and reassembled its cut-off limbs, ready to start menacing the couple once more.

A plane crashes near the chateau, and Masen goes to investigate with one of the patients (Mervyn “Dead Of Night” Johns). But they are attacked by triffids, and his companion is killed. When he arrives back at the chateau he finds it has been taken over by a group of marauding convicts, who have retained their sight thanks to their incarceration (which is a nice touch which isn’t in the book). The convicts are busy doing what convicts do – knocking back all the drink in the place and dancing to jazz records with the protesting female contingent. Masen effects an escape with Susan and the sighted French girl, leaving the convicts (and the other, innocent residents of the chateau) to their fate at the stingers of the marauding triffids.

The group have discovered that Paris is no longer a viable option – the place has been destroyed in the same way London was. So Masen decides to make for Spain. They liberate an ice cream van and find another house, this one lived in by a couple – both are blind, but the woman had lost her sight before the meteors fell, and has become carer for her husband. The triffids aren’t far behind, however, and have soon laid siege to this house too – Masen keeping them at bay with a hastily thrown-together electric fence and a makeshift flamethrower. When all seems lost, he realises that the plants are attracted to sound and leads them away from the house using the chimes on the ice cream van.

And over in the lighthouse, Tom has made an even more momentous discovery. With the pair of them trapped in the very top by marauding plants, he grabs the only thing to hand, the fire hose, and lets rip, the triffids dissolving in front of him. “Sea water!” he yells, grabbing his wife. “Two thirds of the Earth is covered in it! You hunt and you search and the answer is right in front of you all the time!”

So, with a combination of ice cream vans and the bleeding obvious, mankind is saved (as the voiceover at the end of the film helpfully reminds us), with the entire world piling into the nearest church to “give thanks”. God’s in his house, and all’s right with the world. That’s the end of the “day of the triffids”.

Although cheesy and saddled with that ending, some bits of the film do work – the sense of doom when all seems lost, for one. And you’ve got to love the way Masen keeps his jaunty sailor’s cap on throughout all his adventures. Wyndham was well served by the makers of Village Of The Damned (based on his novel The Midwich Cuckoos), but he must have been disappointed by this. Although a reasonable b-movie, there’s nothing of his original vision left.

Directed by: Steve Sekely, Freddie Francis; Cast: Howard Keel - Bill Masen; Nicole Maurey - Christine Durrant; Janette Scott - Karen Goodwin; Kieron Moore - Tom Goodwin; Mervyn Johns - Mr. Coker; Ewan Roberts - Dr. Soames; Alison Leggatt - Miss Coker; Geoffrey Matthews - Luis de la Vega; Janina Faye - Susan (child on the train); Gilgi Hauser - Teresa de la Vega; John Tate - Captain, SS Midland; Carole Ann Ford - Bettina (as Carol Ann Ford); Arthur Gross - Flight 356 radioman; Colette Wilde - Nurse Jamieson (as Collette Wilde); Ian Wilson - Greenhouse watchman; Victor Brooks – Poiret.

Last updated: February 22, 2010

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