Terence Fisher | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | UK / English | 15
These days largely sold as a horror movie (the old Collector’s Edition DVD is branded as part of a “Masters of Horror” series), probably thanks to its cast (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), director (Terence Fisher, of many a Hammer Horror, including five with Cushing and Lee), and rating (an X originally, a 15 now), Night of the Big Heat is not really anything of the sort. Well, maybe a little; but you’re more likely to get scared by a contemporaneous episode of Doctor Who.
Based on a novel by John Lymington (a pseudonym for John Newton Chance, who under a different name again wrote some of the Sexton Blake detective stories), Night of the Big Heat concerns the island of Fara (in real life an uninhabited Orkney Island, here a fairly busy place where everyone has a very English accent) undergoing a heatwave while the rest of the UK endures a cold winter. The locals soon (well, eventually) come to realise that something is afoot… something not of this world…
Opting for slow-burn tension rather than alien invasion excitement, the film takes rather a while to get to the point, attempting to distract us with a subplot about the sudden appearance of the pub landlord’s former mistress, who gets the already hot-and-bothered islanders hotter and bothereder. On the audio commentary, co-writers Pip and Jane Baker talk about how you had to sneak in and dash through such character/romantic subplots, because the audience wanted to get to the sci-fi stuff — which rather begs the question, why put it in at all? (Incidentally, according to Pip Baker on the audio commentary, the pair were brought in to redraft because the original screenplay’s dialogue was “unsayable”. Anyone familiar with their ’80s work on Doctor Who, and their associated reputation, will find that highly ironic.) However, when the sci-fi stuff does roll in it’s a bit of a damp squib, leaving the scenes relating to the affair, whether it will be discovered, and what various characters do about their various feelings, as some of the more unique and interesting elements.
The sci-fi does border on offering the same, but can’t pay it off. There’s an interesting concept about aliens transporting themselves through radio frequencies and satellite communications, apparently a new idea at the time because higher frequencies were only just being discovered. Sadly, it’s not very well developed. They invade through radio waves, but then somehow manifest as weird blob-things? And they feed off light/heat/energy, so the solution at the end is to… blow them up? Because explosions don’t have a lot of light, heat and energy. In the end, they seem to be defeated by it suddenly raining. Why does it suddenly rain? How does that stop them? We’ll never know, because the film stops with a thud as soon as that happens. Won’t more of these aliens follow in the future? We’re not told.
Even if it doesn’t make sense, as a bit of B-movie tosh it has its moments, even if the most memorable tend to involve Jane Merrow in either a wet bikini or rubbing ice over her chest. All round there’s a good evocation of it being uncomfortably hot, which considering it was shot in February and March is a real achievement. During night shoots the cast had to suck ice to stop their breath being visible, while running around in wet clothing to look like they were drenched in sweat. Poor sods. Said night scenes are a mess of genuine and atmospheric nighttime shooting, alongside the kind of day-for-night filming where everything’s extremely dark except for the sky, and also the kind of day-for-night filming where it’s day and… um… shh!
The appeal of Night of the Big Heat now is firmly with fans of not only the genre, but this particular era of it. It’s not so bad as to be enjoyably laughable, not so atmospheric that it can trump the lapses in logic, not so scary as to merit its rating (which was actually awarded for an attempted rape, by-the-by). It does have its moments, though, so people who are fans of ’60s British SF may find it a minor, passing enjoyment.
Night of the Big Heat is released on Blu-ray from Monday, 28th July. Probably. I mean, they’ve rescheduled it half a dozen times, so who knows?