“Most plants thrive on animal waste, but I’m afraid this mutation possesses an appetite for the animal itself.”
Continuing to review some of the films I added to the 50 Underrated Moves You Need to See list, this week we come to a dubious classic. This is a film that holds a special place in my horror history, despite being something a disaster of a production and a very lackluster adaptation of a classic science fiction novel.
I first saw Day of the Triffids when I was 5 or 6 years old, stuck inside on a summer’s day with the shades drawn because I was sick, like really sick. Shaking, sweating, feverish. This was at my Gram’s house and it was the first of what would be many Saturday afternoons watching classic horror and sci-fi flicks on her TV. I don’t really remember a lot of the film – in fact for years I thought it was about ALL the plants coming to life – but I remember one scene in particular. There’s a car, stuck in the mud, and a man and a young girl are looking for rocks to put under the tires. Suddenly the plants are coming to life, tearing themselves out of the ground and coming after them. There are other cars on the road, empty, like their occupants have already been taken by the plants. I was terrified. I was fascinated. Later that night I dreamt about the pine trees around the house tearing themselves out of the ground by the roots and chasing me down to the river.
I forgot all about that afternoon until I was writing my novel the The Monster War and it all came back, that afternoon in the dimness – watching Day of the Triffids and realizing I could be both scared and happy. That sometimes that visceral thrill was comforting. There’s a good chunk of the July chapter that’s directly inspired by Day of the Triffids – including those killer pine trees.
“And I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott/Fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills.”
The next time I saw the film I have to admit to being a little disappointed. The movie, despite being only 93 minutes long, is pretty slow going. The monsters weren’t the entirety of the plant kingdom, just a specific type of plant – and a rubbery slow-moving one at that.
I still love the movie, though. Half of that is probably nostalgia, but it’s still an effective monster movie for its time. A lot of the social commentary of the book gets lost in the translation, but that’s why I call it a monster movie, as opposed to a disaster or horror movie. If you want a more faithful translation of the book you should check out the 1981 BBC mini-series, as it’s quite good. (I haven’t seen the 2009 version.)
There’s no way to see an acceptable version of Day of the Triffids right now. Oh, you can see it on almost any streaming service – including Amazon Prime where I watched it for this review – but every copy is a sub-par, low-quality version. You might as well watch it on YouTube. I even have a DVD, by the aptly named Cheezy Flicks, which at least preserves the original aspect ratio, but is also of terrible quality.
Mike Hyatt, who owns the original negative and is a huge fan of the film has been painstakingly restoring it by hand, with an eye towards a 4k and Blu-ray release at some point in the future. I’ve been hearing about his work for several years now, and can only hope it’s coming soon!
Day of the Triffids starts with the end of the world. A spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime meteor shower results in the majority of the world going blind. It also results in the title plant, a panspermia arrival from a previous meteor shower, to grow to enormous size and become ambulatory. The Triffids are also able to spit a lethal poison, immobilizing their pray for easy consumption. If the world was normal then they’d be a pest, and dangerous in groups, but not a world ending phenomenon. Unfortunately, the world is no longer normal.
We’re introduced to our main character, Bill Masen (Howard Keel) in circumstances that will feel instantly familiar. Due to eye surgery, Bill is unable to watch the meteor shower and wakes from a sedative only to find himself in an abandoned hospital. Scenes like this have become commonplace, with The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later specifically echoing the details, but it’s still effective. As is the scene where Bill’s doctor, blinded like most of the rest of humanity, throws himself out of a window rather than deal with the consequences of a world that’s about to fall apart.
The novel is all about the consequences of a world where the haves and have nots are suddenly and starkly separated. The movie doesn’t really spend a lot of time on it, though, and Bill’s few interactions with blind people who need his help are quickly dispensed with once he meets a young, sighted girl, named Susan (Janina Faye). For the most part, Bill treats blind humanity as just as much of a danger and an obstacle as the Triffids, and goes out of his way to avoid them.
A second and parallel storyline involves two scientists trapped on a small island in a lighthouse. These scenes are almost completely disconnected from the larger narrative, despite being a familiar “let’s science the shit out of this” storyline from many a 1950’s monster film. This is because the main film production was so disjointed and problematic that when the producers came to edit the film together they found less than an hours’ worth of usable footage! Director and cinematographer Freddie Francis was brought in to shoot the additional storyline featuring husband and wife actors Jeanette Scott and Kieron Moore (as Karen and Tom Goodwin).
The Triffids, rubbery as they are (and with heads now reminiscent of the pea-shooters in Plants vs Zombies), are actually pretty creepy. Most lingering shots of them diminish the horror somewhat, as they’re essentially big stalks of asparagus with a bizarre head, but the quick cuts or scenes where they creep around in the dark are effective. There’s a shot late in the film when Bill looks up from a task and sees literally thousands of the things lined up at a wire fence. That’s a damn effective moment, but does make you wonder how great things could have been if there’d been a decent budget.
The scene with the car, stuck on a road filled with abandoned vehicles, is still a standout. Watching the Triffid loom out of the fog while Susan watches, unable to do anything other than hope that Bill can get the car unstuck, is a nice moment of tension.
Though the budget for the film was obviously meager, and this hurts the film in the set pieces (like a plane crash early on, or any scene in which the Triffids have to do more than shiver menacingly), it actually works for the sense of post-apocalyptic emptiness. Without the money for a ton of extras we end up with plenty of scenes of empty streets, abandoned carnivals and a countryside where the only movement is that of a group of triffids, making their way along the horizon.
While the scenes at the lighthouse take away from what little momentum the main storyline builds up, it’s nicely done as well. The Triffid attacks in particular are more dynamic and interesting, including a late assault by multiple plants that forces the Goodwins to retreat up the lighyouse stairs. It makes you wonder what Freddie Francis could have done if he’s been in charge of the whole film, rather than just this subplot.
The movie takes only the most cursory look at the collapse of the social order and the difficult moral choices facing those who still have sight. It seems to come down pretty heavily on survival of the fittest – Bill quickly moves past any blinded person in London and an entire house full of blind people is abandoned to drunken convicts and a huge Triffid attack. The movie also opts for the easy, monster-movie way out of the Triffid menace: they have a weakness that is easily exploited once discovered. In that way it’s very much like The War of the Worlds (and also the end of M. Night Shamalan’s film, Signs).
The Bottom Line
It’s got a lot of flaws, but I still have a fondness for Day of the Triffids. The Triffids themselves are way creepier than they should be, and the abandoned landscape (enhanced with the occasional matte shot of a burning city skyline) is surprisingly eerie. It’s hard to take it seriously as an adaptation of the novel, but as last-gasp of the 1950’s type of monster movie it’s pretty enjoyable.
Fun fact: Look closely and you’ll see a pre-Doctor Who Carol Ann Ford in a minor role. One hopes that this wasn’t the final fate of the Doctor’s granddaughter.