Sunday, July 19, 2009

END OF THE WORLD (1977)

I can't hope to match the terse assessment of John Hayes's doomsday scenario that comes from the critic T. S. Eliot




This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


So I'll focus on particular details of interest. For instance, the movie has a pretty action-packed opening, at least by comparison with what comes afterward. We find ourselves in a kind of diner where the cook is playing a Disco-Tek pinball game. All of a sudden, in walks Christopher Lee in priestly regalia, as if he were reporting at the wrong door for an Exorcist sequel. Perhaps understandably confused, he asks to use a pay phone, which practically blows up in his face before he can dial a number.





That's not all. The cook's coffee-maker explodes as well, showering the man with scalding water. There follows some heroic stuntwork as cookie runs out from behind the counter and down the length of the diner, screaming and covering his face, before taking a sharp turn away from Lee to hurl himself through an exploding neon window. It's a rare triple-play: scalding, defenestration and electrocution all in one -- a quadruple play if you count damage from the broken glass.






Not forgetting his priestly duties despite his anxiety, Lee coolly steps over to bless the corpse, but not until a final flinch-inducing burst of sparks from the window. Then, with the air of a beaten man, he trudges to a church, presumably his own. It must be, because Christopher Lee is waiting to welcome him in. This is the last really interesting thing to happen for about 45 minutes.

During that interval, we're introduced to Andrew and Sylvia Boran, a computer-savvy scientist and his wife. Andy is enjoying an unexplained sexual second wind at the same time that he's trying to decipher apparent alien signals on the computers, despite his boss's determination to send him off on a speaking tour. He cracks the code, which seems to have predicted both a major Chinese earthquake and a volcanic eruption in Zaire. Rather than lecture kids about the thrills of space exploration, Andy wants to find the source of the alien signals. The most likely spot, improbably, is this little mission where Father Pergardo (guess who?) presides over a little flock of six old nuns. Nope, no alien signals coming out of here, he says, unless you count Sister Whatsername's transistor radio. But blind alleys elsewhere bring Andy and Sylvia back to the mission. This time they're grabbed by a nun with a gnarly clawed hand and taken into the basement, which reveals itself as an alien operations base with all the amenities, including a big spinning globe representing the imperiled Earth. There remain a good Chris Lee and a bad Chris Lee to sort out, but that doesn't last much longer.



Nunsploitation meets hard sci-fi in End of the World. Below, Christopher Lee meets a red overlay.





There's an odd hint here that the evil nuns need human energy to fuel their so-far mysterious whatsit, and that the real Father Pergardo was a kind of human sacrifice, but the truth is even stranger, as only fiction can be. What follows, in words crafted by Frank Ray Perilli, the future author of Laserblast and Dracula's Dog, features some of the most innovative science since Eros explained the principles of solarite, er, solanite, ...oh, you know what I mean, in Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Andy: Obviously, everything in this room has some connection with velocity-time relationships.
Lee (his alien self is called Zindar): Exactly. Interstellar travel.
Andy: What happened to the nuns who were here before?
Lee: You humans are just beginning to understand cloning. We mastered it many years ago. We took on the appearance of Father Pergardo and the six nuns of this mission, because we were forced to for our experiment.
Sylvia: You're telling us that you murdered six nuns and a priest?
Lee: We had no choice. There was a malfunction in negative velocity.
Andy (intuitively): A spaceship!
Lee: No, we use inertial navigation. We have paid many visits to your planet, but now your planet has become restructured through seismic disturbance, and we cannot return to our planet as we did before.
Andy: How did you manage then?
Lee: We used what you humans would call a time warp, such as that one.



No lie: this is exactly what they cut to after Lee says that line. This is the time warp device.



Andy: What do you want from us?
Lee: Your planet has been working on a speed coordination system. We know that, Mr. Boran. What we don't know is what you have achieved.
Andy: We've developed an emergency speed.
Lee: How many kilometers per hour?
Andy: Close to 200,000,000.
Lee: What precisely do you use to achieve this emergency speed?
Andy: A small capsule containing zero time reference. A variance crystal.
Lee: That is exactly what we need.

Got that? Well, Zindar, if we must call him that, simply insists that Andy go back to his job and steal the zero-time-reference variance crystal so the aliens can overcome the crippling effects of the Earth's restructuring and achieve the emergency speed necessary to activate the time warp. And they'll do stuff to Sylvia if he doesn't. But first, the pseudo-Catholics give our couple a chance to sleep on it, i.e., try to escape. They head out in the dead of night and take a nice, slow walk that leads them back to the mission. Of course! Andy deduces; the aliens have been controlling our every move -- that's why we're walking in circles. Way to save face, Andy. But this crippling realization doesn't stop them from venturing out again, this time in the hope of intercepting someone passing through who might rescue them. They find a promising motorist, but just as Father Pergardo found phones and coffee machines malfunctioning when he wanted to escape in those long-gone optimistic times, so this poor slob's engine goes boom. It may be a matter of seconds before the whole car goes up with this would-be Samaritan in it. In those crucial seconds, Andy and Sylvia run as far away from that car as their little legs will carry them. But maybe it's for the best, because the nuns would have grabbed that driver anyway and sent him out on an errand, probably. Isn't death preferable?




So there's nothing else for Andy to do but steal that variance crystal. By now it's becoming commonplace for things to blow up around him, so it's little more than cause for a sigh to see the place go up as security guards fire wildly at fuel tanks trying to plug him. Then it's back to the mission and a little clarification from Zindar on the details of his mission.





Sue Lyon and Kirk Scott in a moment of repose as the endangered globe spins on



Lee: The planet Earth has emitted an overabundance of diseases. They are contaminating the universe. All the planets light-years away from here will suffer, unless it is destroyed....We have received our orders. An earthquake in a remote part of China. The eruption of a long-dead volcano. We stopped when we discovered that the restructioning of the Earth was preventing us from returning to our own planet. That problem has been rectified. Your world will end. Nothing can prevent it. This convent will be the last to go. I have set the emergency speed to 200,000,000 kilometers per hour, three times the speed required. We have a direct path.


To elaborate on Eliot a little, the world ends with lots of stock footage of disaster movies: dams bursting, avalanches, more volcanoes, und so weiter. As our oppressed humans watch it all on the monitors, the nuns step on the inertial navigation dingus and zap happily homeward. The last to leave, Zindar says regretfully that a scientist like Andy would be welcome on his world because over there they're dedicated to building things, not destruction. He has a lot of gall saying that while destroying -- I mean, restructioning the planet, but I suppose scientists are like that everywhere. Perhaps as a gesture of respect, Zindar show the Borans his true face, leaving us the hope that it was, in fact, not Christopher Lee embarrassing himself by uttering this dialogue, but some severely mutated being who needed the money for medical expenses and was willing to wear a pretty advanced makeup.




In any event, Zindar's parting words plant a thought in Andy's already thoughtful brain. The planet Earth is about to be destroyed. All of Andy and Sylvia's friends and extended family, as well as everything that makes their lives meaningful, is about to be annihilated, just like that poor motorist was when he tried to help them...and you see where this is leading.

"God knows what's on the other side of that wall," he tells his wife, "It's our only chance. Let's take it." For crying out loud, by the standards of this picture you'd think that Andy could work up some pseudoscience to reverse the inertia or induce negative time references or, well, something heroic. Instead, our randy couple decide to ditch their homeworld and try their luck elsewhere. Bastards.




When you find yourself making a bad science fiction film, you really may as well try to make it one of the worst ever. That might be the one thing that would make it watchable. John Hayes, whose only other work I'm familiar with is Grave of the Vampire, nearly fails at this. For very long stretches End of the World is merely boring, betraying the promise of that somewhat spectacular diner scene. It's really Perilli who saves the day by taking his writing to a special level of bad. It is bad both as concept and as dialogue. It is such science as Ed Wood would have laughed out of the room. Sir Christopher Lee is shamelessly straightfaced while uttering it all in the guise of an emotionless alien. I'm guessing he was attracted to this film (or I'm guessing this is what he'd say now) by the idea of the dual role, though his good self ends up with pitiably little to do and he never gets a good self-to-self dialogue scene. Still, I think deadpan was the right approach to this dialogue. Try to read it Dudley Manlove-style and the attention will all be on you. Lee's line readings are a way to let Perilli's lines twist in the wind of bad-movie history, so that credit ends up where it belongs. Apart from Lee, the cast includes a lot of the usual suspects from genre movies of this period: Dean Jagger as Andy's boss, MacDonald Carey as a security guard and Lew Ayres as the commander of a secret compound whom Andy stumbles across in another ultimately pointless scene. The role of Andrew Boran was a rare escape from television for Kirk Scott, though he also turns up in Heathers later on. Sue Lyon is Sylvia, fifteen years after Kubrick's Lolita, but that means she was still relatively young compared with the other guest stars in this picture. Her looks, at least, are a saving grace of the film.

I can only honestly recommend this film to connoisseurs of cinematic badness or Seventies negativity, and you know who you are. You'll find it in Mill Creek Entertainment's Nightmare Worlds box set, and probably in some others from that admirable salvage operation. You can also find it right here on your computer via the equally admirable Internet Archive. Watch in amazement, if you choose, and reflect that this came out in the same year as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Actually, Eliot's review wasn't quite accurate.





BANG!

5 comments:

Rev. Phantom said...

If I ever compile a book of my reviews I'm going to call it "For Connoisseurs of Cinematic Badness" and I'll credit you for the title. lol

I've always wondered about this one, but never did get a chance to see it. I'm kind of picky about my sci-fi though. Given its easy availability, I'm sure I'll check it out at some point.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., I'll take any credit I can get in these tough times. But End of the World definitely isn't for the picky in the usual sense of that word.

Neil Fulwood said...

If not for your warning that long stretches are deadly dull, I could almost go for this one in a big way: "nunsploitation meets hard sci-fi" (great line!), plus the original Lolita all growed up. And Christopher Lee!

I'd have to go back and re-read it, but I don't seem to recall 'End of the World' getting a mention in the great man's autobiography.

c.bren said...

it's really not that bad... yes, it has some made-up jargon in it, but the script and concept are excellent

Doc said...

This one sounds pretty bad. It would have worked well enough if it had been done 20 years earlier.

Goofy sci-fi from the 50's had a certain charm and innocence that later eras can't put a claim on.