Year of Release: 1972
Director: Peter Sasdy
Length: 92 mins
Starring: Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, Simon Oates, Jean Trend
Given what we’ve done to our world, you could argue that we’re already living in an age of ecological terror. Movies like Doomwatch may exaggerate certain elements for dramatic effect, but in essence they serve to ram home the point. This is what happens when man interferes with the delicate balance of nature. The movie was based on the BBC TV series of the same name which ran from 1970-72 and focused on a government department charged with combatting technological and environmental dangers, making it a kind of eco-friendly X Files. Ironically, as was standard practice back in the day, after airing the master tapes were wiped by the BBC and recorded over as a cost-cutting measure, meaning that many of the episodes have been lost forever. Luckily, we still have the movie spin-off produced by Tigon British Film Productions, who had previously made Witchfinder General (1968) which was released in March 1972. In the the United States, it was released by Embassy Pictures with the alternative title Island of the Ghouls.
So… what’s this all about? Well, we have Doctor Del Shaw (Bannen), an investigator from the British ecological watchdog group nicknamed Doomwatch, who is dispatched to an insular fishing village on the island of Balfe off the Cornish coast to file a report on the effects of a recent oil tanker spill. There, he finds a child’s body hidden in the woods and becomes fascinated with the mysterious behavioural disorders of the locals who display rudeness and random aggression and generally act like a bunch of arses as they rebuff his attempts to solve the mystery. One woman loses her shit when Shaw tries to take her picture, yelling, “We don’t like that! Taking people’s likeness! We don’t like that kind of carry on at all, in fact!”
Shaw teams up with another outsider, a schoolteacher called Victoria (Gleeson), and notes certain physical abnormalities, such as a strange genetic prevalence of thick lips and sloping brows, in many of the local populace. His investigation reveals that the villagers have been suffering over a prolonged period from hormonal disorders, which are likely being caused by leeking drums of growth stimulants that have been dumped offshore by callous business types. The islanders have been infected by eating fish and as a result are developing acromegaly, (usually the result of interbreeding, wink-wink) which produces aggression and eventually madness.
Though the movie was well-received by the public, writing for Radio Times, Tom Hutchinson only awarded the film two stars out of five, stating, “This mystery thriller crash-landed unhappily in the swamp of horror instead of on the firmer ground of science fact or fiction. It’s risibly alarmist, certainly, but the environmental dangers it pinpoints are only too topical.”
True, the movie comes with a great premise and both starts and finishes well, but it sags slightly in the middle and is weighed down with far too much long-winded, redundant dialogue which seems to exist purely for clever people to show everyone just how clever they are. Sometimes, less is more. There is also some confusion as to how the locals are portrayed. You get the feeling director Peter Sasdy would like you to sympathise with them, which is hard, because frankly, most of them have been dicks throughout and have very few redeeming qualities. I like to think that this conflict is intentional, though it that doesn’t make it any less jarring. A contemporary review for cultmovieforums.com notes, “It has to be said that while Doomwatch ultimately remains something of a missed opportunity by any standard of judgment, Peter Sasdy’s film is still in all fairness, probably a slightly better film than what its poor reputation might suggest.”
Generally, the all-too believable storyline of corporate greed combined with the overriding sense of isolation make good use of Sasdy’s talents, a man who made his name directing Blood of Dracula (1969) and Hands of the Ripper (1971) for Hammer before turning his attention to the TV production of Sue Townsend’s classic The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133/4. Curiously, references to a certain Castle Rock will no doubt strike a chord with some of Stephen King’s constant readers and could offer clues as to where the Master acquired the name. In 1999, Channel 5 in the UK bought the rights to Doomwatch from the BBC and in December that year screened a 100-minute TV movie, which was a continuation of the story rather than a remake. Though the movie was well-received it didn’t lead to the anticipated series, perhaps due to the amount of money it would require. Still, it’s a great concept, and could be a huge success in the right hands.
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Both the film and the original series was created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, who had previously collaborated on scripts for Doctor Who. Their interest in the problems of science changing and endangering human life apparently led them to create the popular cyborg villains the Cybermen.