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Friday, June 14, 2013

Terror in the Midnight Sun

Kaiju (怪獣 ) is a Japanese word that means "strange beast," but often translated in English as "monster" or "giant monster." 

Terror in the Midnight Sun (aka Invasion of the Animal People*)
1959
Virgil Vogel

In the far north of Sweden a strange glowing object is reported landing deep in the mountains. Reindeer herds begin disappearing, so Dr. Frederick Wilson (Robert Burton) along with womanizing scientist Erik Engström (Sten  Gester), make the trek to uncover the mystery. They meet up with an Olympic figure skater who just happens to be Dr. Wilson’s niece, Diane (Barbara Wilson).  Together they discover giant footprints near the landing site, and local villagers mention something huge moving through the snow. Meanwhile, strange bald figures observe the scientists on monitors.

The plot of ‘Terror in the Midnight Sun’ was already a cliché in 1959, which in turn makes the film lean pretty hard on its unique setting.  The desolate enviroment is occasionally quite striking, and the novelty of seeing the Laplander culture on screen go a long way to keeping the film from bogging down into standard monster hunting fare. 

Aside from a just a bit more nudity (read: any) than you would see in a US production from the same era, there are some other elements that make the whole film unusual. The aliens are completely mysterious; we never hear them speak and their motivations are unknowable. They seem to be ok with killing an intruder, but later leave another one unmolested. The huge hairy beast they’ve unleashed on the countryside is shot with none of the bombast you might expect. It’s often shown silently approaching its prey, the only sound being the crunching of the snow. The whole film exudes a welcome eeriness.

The humans fare less well. Dr. Wilson is a bland character, his only spark provided by being protective of his niece. This fades away almost immediately once she announces her intention to spend time with Erik. Erik is supposed to be a ladies man, and often it is exceptionally difficult to write these kinds of characters in a way that isn’t off putting. Erik is no exception, even when Diane does everything she can to take the wind out of his sails, you know they are going to end up together and its a bit galling. Diane initially is independent, confident and more than happy taunt Erik. It’s a shame the story sidelines her with an injured knee so Erik can come to her rescue.

The special effects are minimal, but what is there works very well. The giant looks good, often shot from extreme low angles to emphasize its size. It rarely interacts with the environment, but the moments where it is called upon to smash up some cabins or get attacked by a torch bearing mob get the job done. The aliens look basically like bald guys in hoodies, but they are often shot at tilted angles and accompanied by a high pitch electronic note to emphasize their other-worldliness.

I would also like to make special note of the extremely catchy theme song that opens and closes the film.  It is supposedly based on a Swedish legend, but very jazzed up, it's a very quirky opening and closing number to an equally quirky but still fun monster movie.

*There is a version of this film entitled, ‘Invasion of the Animal People’ which was edited and new footage inserted for an American audience. If you ever want to see how to ruin a perfectly serviceable film with poor editing and pointless long scenes of talking, watch both versions back to back. Thanks again for nothing, Jerry Warren.

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