Thursday, August 19, 2010

People-eating Plants Stalk Howard Keel and Janette Scott in "The Day of the Triffids"

British author John Wyndham provided the literary basis for two of the most compelling science fiction films of the 1960s: Village of the Damned and The Day of the Triffids. While the former film has a more prestigious reputation, Triffids has its share of admirers. While a low budget often prevents it from achieving its aims, The Day of Triffids remains an intriguing, satisfying vision of life on Earth after a different kind of alien invasion.

As in Village of the Damned, an inexplicable, seemingly harmless phenomenon ultimately threatens the existence of the human race. In this case, it’s a worldwide meteor shower touted by the media as a “once-in- lifetime spectacle that must be seen.” Unfortunately, the glare from the meteors severs the optic nerve—leaving most of Earth’s population blind. To make matters worse, the meteors activate exterrestrial seeds that had been dormant for years. The seeds quickly sprout into Triffids, giant man-eating plants that can uproot themselves and seek their human quarry.

The film’s main protagonist is Mason (Howard Keel), a first mate who can see only because he was recovering from eye surgery on the night of the meteor shower. As Mason travels throughout the ruins of Europe looking for answers, his story is intercut with the Goodwins. Tom Goodwin (Kieron Moore) is an alcoholic marine biologist battling Triffids in a remote lighthouse laboratory off the coast of Cornwall with his long-suffering wife (Janette Scott).

When I first saw The Day of the Triffids, I was struck by the film’s unusual structure, for the two plots (Mason and the Goodwins) never converge. Years later, I learned that the footage of the Goodwins was filmed by famed cinematographer and occasional director Freddie Francis after principal photography was completed. The reason: the film’s original running time was too short! Ironically, it’s the most interesting plot because of what it doesn’t tell us. We never learn why Tom started drinking or why Susan stays with her self-centered husband. It’s almost a snapshot of a faltering marriage, with no beginning and no end.

The film’s strength, though, lies with its frightening premise. Forget the Triffids (who are too lumbering to be a real threat). Imagine what would happen if most of the world’s inhabitants suddenly went blind. Day of the Triffids explores this theme with several chilling sequences: a airplane full of panicked passengers; blind people groping frantically when they learn a young girl can see; and escaped convicts who take advantage of the visually impaired. It’s too bad that the variable, low-budget special effects (by Wally Veevers from Night of the Demon) lessen some of the impact.

Those who have read Wyndham’s novel deride the 1962 version of The Day of Triffids. They tend to favor the 1981 British miniseries, which I've never seen. It may be very good, but the original Triffids will always remain a favorite: a well-done, low-budget feature that rises above the ordinary on the basis of its ingenuity.


  1. Rick, I haven't seen Day of the Triffids for years. I used to love that movie. The lumbering plants were pretty cheesy, but they grew on you (hey, I made a funny!) I liked the story too, but I always wondered why the handsome, imposing singing star of so many great musicals, Howard Keel, would do a movie like that. Maybe he had to pay off a bet or something. Now I would just love to see this movie again. I didn't know the same writer did Village of the Damned, which I always thought to be a really excellent movie. Thanks for a really entertaining article, Rick.

  2. This is an interesting film with a great premise. It is fascinating that the two storylines never merge and the fact that they were filmed separately must be the reason. I also think the story, written in 1951, may have inspired other plant dominated plots like 1960's "Little Shop of Horrors," possibly "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," whose source was serialized in 1954, and the much later released "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes." Loved your post, Rick!

  3. This movie holds a special place in my heart because it's the first one that I can remember buying on video. I found it for about $3, and I watched it repeatedly, because it was the only videotape I had for quite some time. I find it quite enjoyable, with a solid plot, nice pace, and strong characters -- and I like the characters for the same reason you pointed out: without having a complete background on them, they seemed more mysterious and even a little more human. I have seen the British miniseries, and while it's good, I much prefer the 1962 film. Some of that I'm sure is nostalgia, but it's also because I found it more intriguing (and the effects are much better than the later adaptation). Thanks, Rick, for a smashing write-up of a wonderfully memorable film.

  4. Rick, I've not seen this film. Not a big sci-fi fan, as you know, but I do enjoy reading about some of the obscure films you've watched and enjoyed.

  5. Rick, this is a great movie. Hey, I am a big fan of cheesy special effects and don't mind them at all if I like the story. I have been looking forward all summer to seeing the new Piranha 3D movie. Now that ought to tell you...cheesy is fine with me!! I like Howard Keel in anything. He is a good actor and can play many different characters. I have the British 1981 miniseries in my Netflix queue right now. Everytime my husband uses the weed eater, he says, "honey, those Triffids will take over everything if I don't keep them at bay." It always makes me laugh when he says that!!