Monday, November 18, 2019

"So We'll Miss the Food Part. Who Cares?" - End of the World (1977) - Film #161

It is time (past time, if you ask me) to explore one of Charles Band's early films as a producer, a collaboration with the great Christopher Lee called End of the World (1977), a science fiction classic produced one year before one of Mr. Band's breakout hits, Laserblast (1978).

As usual, brilliance tends to go unrecognized by your universe's film critics. Reviewer buddydavis writes, "this movie is truly almost unwatchable due to the disjointed script and plot, poor effects and sound, poor image quality (the image is so dark it is almost impossible to view many of the scenes)..." Reviewer vampi1960 writes inaccurately, "like tentacles(77) a good cast does not mean it'll be a good film." And reviewer Maciste_Brother writes, "Wow, END OF THE WORLD is a singularly underwhelming cinematic experience."

Please read on...

As many of the best films do, End of the World begins with a fry cook playing a game of Diskotek pinball as priest Christopher Lee enters the diner. Father Christopher Lee asks to use a telephone to call the police; the fry cook gives him change.

Unfortunately, supernatural shenanigans are afoot. As Father Lee approaches the pay phone, it suddenly explodes, forcing him to stagger back with a charming, stiff grimace.

Also, the fry cook gets scalded by water, which makes him jump through a window and electrocute himself on an exploding neon sign (this also makes Father Lee grimace before he gestures the stations of the cross over the deceased man).

Elsewhere, a man named Andrew stares at a computer screen showing gibberish. He pushes buttons on various other computers for about ten minutes before calling someone named Commander Beckerman to say matter-of-factory, “I’ve just been deciphering some signals from outer space, and the patterns are...well...consistent, as though they’re trying to form words or...uh...sentences.”

Receiving no interest from the commander, Andrew hangs up the phone, then picks up his checkered sport coat and drives through Los Angeles. The camera leaves Andrew for a while, leisurely panning across a hillside dotted with swimming pools for about ten minutes before finding Andrew’s car as he pulls up in front of his ranch house. Andrew runs up the steps to his house, timing his movement to the automatic sprinklers spraying the front lawn.

When he enters the house, he is wearing not the checkered jacket but a tuxedo and a ruffled powder-blue shirt. His wife Sylvia (played by Sue Lyon, who played the title role in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, 1962) reminds him they will be late to a banquet in his honor tonight, but he tries to seduce her.

“Andrew,” she says, “come on. We’ll be late.”

“So we’ll miss the food part,” he responds eloquently. “Who cares?”

They kiss, and the film cuts to later in Andrew’s lab, where he types on a computer and his wife dispenses coffee from a machine in the corridor. Andrew decodes a message from space: “LARGE EARTH DISRUPTION.” Calmly, he tells Sylvia, “These messages didn’t come from our world.”

“Andrew, what are you talking about?”

“I’m not talking about anything on this earth.”

Of course, Sylvia simply says, “Well, come on, we better go, huh? We’re going to be late. Andrew? The banquet.”

They go to the banquet at a fancy locale called Golf Clubhouse.

We don’t see the banquet itself. On the drive home, Andrew and Sylvia hear a radio report about an earthquake in China. Andrew recalls the message from space: “LARGE EARTH DISRUPTION.”

Back at work, Andrew speaks with Commander Beckerman, played by Lew Ayres. The commander tries to convince Andrew to go on a speaking tour to make space science more attractive to youngsters, who only seem to be interested in ecology and other earthbound topics. “Talk to them about outer space and all those wonderful flying saucers we see every day.”

Andrew refuses, but the commander says he has no choice. (In a fascinating acting choice, both actors slur most of their words while speaking during this sequence.)

The filmmakers throw in a new twist, revealing that Andrew is working on an experiment with his friend, security guard Macdonald Carey, in which Andrew dresses in a striped radiation suit to handle glowing green rods. We find out nothing about this experiment, however, as the film cuts back to Andrew at a computer, where he receives another message from outer space about a latitude and longitude in Zaire, Africa where something will happen in TEN STANDARD MINUTES.

After Andrew’s first lecture at a university, a random radio somewhere in the lecture hall informs Andrew and Sylvia about a tragic lava flow in Zaire.

The next day, Andrew and Sylvia drive through the hills, searching for the origin of one of the signals Andrew’s research picked up. (Regarding the timing of the volcanic explosion, they theorize that whoever sent the signals defines minutes differently from humans.) In a twist on expectations, hey arrive not at a radio transmission station but a convent crawling with nuns. Oddly, Andrew and Sylvia park, get out of their cart, walk through a garden where nuns tend rose bushes, then get back into the car and shut the doors. Dejected, Andrew says, “You know, maybe I better send my instruments back to Woolworth’s.”

They drive to the next signal location 40 miles away, where they break into a gated facility.

“What is this place?” Sylvia asks.

“It looks like a zoo,” Andrew says, basing his answer on the presence of a few chain link fences.

“A zoo for what?” she replies.

They walk around in the dark for about ten minutes before something moves in front of the camera, causing Sylvia to scream until Andrew finds her and comforts her. (She does not mention seeing anything to Andrew.)

Eventually, they are discovered by three men with a flashlight and a gun. One of the men is Commander Beckerman, played by Lew Ayres. Mr. Ayres shows Andrew and Sylvia the secret communications facility they have discovered by coincidence. When Mr. Ayres asks what they are doing in the facility, Andrew responds, “I wish I could tell you. But I can’t.” (He does not explain why he called Beckerman earlier to tell him about possible alien signals.)

Andrew and Sylvia stay in a motel. Out of the blue, Sylvia says, “I know what you’re thinking. Tomorrow we go back to that convent.” Then they make love.

The next day, they drive back to the convent, asking a nun who is in charge of the convent. The response is Father Pergado. “Come,” she says. “He always welcomes strangers.”

The father turns out to be a smiling Christopher Lee. “The convent was on our way home,” Andrew explains, “and we wanted to satisfy a curiosity.” He says he works in communications, and a signal is coming from the convent. Father Lee quips, “I should never have allowed Sister Theresa to bring her transistor radio in here, but she does love the opera so much.”

“Father, do you ever hear any strange noises here in the convent? Or nearby, in the forest?”

“Not really. The occasional animal noises, of course, and from time to time a gunshot from a hunter. Nothing else. It’s very quiet here.”

Andrew walks around the convent with a beeping device to find the source of the mysterious signal for about ten minutes before he gives up, finding nothing.

Back at his lab, Andrew discovers yet another signal, this one appearing to describing people. This time, he prints it out on a high-tech line printer. Then he returns home and gives it to Sylvia, who peruses it next to their beautiful pool with water feature.

“That message was sent to outer space,” he explains, “It described you and me. We both know where it came from. The convent.”

“What are we going to do?”

“The only thing we can do. Go it alone.”

“Going it alone” means returning to the convent at night, and breaking and entering. Shockingly, they are discovered by one of the nuns, whose hand is grossly deformed.

They are taken to a chamber inside the convent, where they see both Father Christopher Lee dressed in black and his white-clad priestly counterpart.

Andrew and Sylvia are led into a high-tech chamber full of alien technology, which the nuns activate using crystals.

One of the nuns passes a glass jar over her malformed alien hand, and it becomes a relatively normal human hand.

Father Lee asks, “Have repairs been made to the velocity control system?”

“We did the best we could.”

“Then some warp speed should be in order,” he replies. “We shall soon find out.”

The nun places a small PVC pipe in front of Father Lee.

Back in the convent’s chapel, the white-clad Father Christopher Lee says the Lord’s Prayer before being escorted down into the high-tech center by two burly nuns, where he stands in a triangle of red light before collapsing.

“We’ve exhausted all the possibilities,” the black-clad Father Lee says.

His right-hand nun says chillingly, “All except two” as she turns toward Andrew and Sylvia.

Father Lee says ambiguously, “We need them now.”

Father Lee speaks with Andrew, asking him what he sees in the high-tech room. Of course, Andrew replies, “Obviously everything in this room has some connection with velocity-time relationships.”

“Exactly,” says Father Lee. “Interstellar travel.”

“What happened to the nuns who were here before?” Andrew says, asking the question at the forefront of the audience’s collective mind.

“You humans are just beginning to understand cloning. We mastered it many years ago. We took on the appearance of Father Pagado and the six nuns in this mission because we were forced to for our experiments.” He adds, “There was a malfunction in negative velocity.”

Andrew gasps. “A spaceship!”

“No,” says Father Lee. “We use inertial navigation. We have paid many visits to your planet, Professor, but now your Earth has become restructured through seismic disturbance and we cannot return to our planet as we did before.”

The aliens need something Andrew’s group has developed on Earth. Andrew explains, “We’ve developed an emergency speed.”

“How many kilometers per hour?” asks Father Lee.

“Close to two hundred million.”

“What precisely do you use to achieve this emergency speed?”

“A small capsule containing zero time reference, a variance crystal.”

“That is exactly what we need.”

Andrew seems ready to help these aliens who have murdered seven people and inhabited their clones, but he is worried about security at his workplace. Father Lee threatens him—either he steals the zero time reference capsule or he will lose his wife.

After Andrew and Sylvia are left alone in a nice candlelit room, Andrew, contemplating escape, suggests, “Maybe when they sleep, their powers sleep with them.” They leave through the unlocked door, but they discover their car is gone so they run along the street. Unfortunately, Father Lee is watching from somewhere, and he uses his undefined powers to make them run back to the convent every time they seem to be escaping. This continues for about ten minutes before Andrew realizes, “They’re controlling our every move.”

They run off into the dark again, and this time a car stops to help them. “Take us to the nearest police station,” Andrew says.

Unfortunately for all three characters, the car explodes, killing their would-be rescuer.

They have no choice but to return to Saint Catherine’s.

In the morning, they are treated to a breakfast of eggs, orange juice, and coffee. Father Lee threatens Andrew, and Andrew agrees to help them. As Andrew and Sylvia part, Andrew tells her ironically, “What can happen, with all those nuns to pray for me?”

He returns to his lab, sneaking inside at night. Joel Goldsmith's musical score becomes a thrilling game of Pong as Andrew sneaks up on a guard and renders him unconscious with a handkerchief, presumably soaked somehow in chloroform. Andrew sneaks into the chamber where he was performing his earlier secret experiment, dressing in his radiation suit. He steals the glowing green crystal, but he is confronted by his friend, security guard Macdonald Carey, who allows him to escape, though Andrew is pursued by more security guards.

Another guard fires his gun. Something explodes.

Back at the convent, Andrew returns with a black handbag. “You have what you want. Now I want my wife.”

“I’m afraid that will not be possible,” says Father Lee. He renders Andrew unconscious.

Andrew wakes up in the high-tech room with Sylvia.

Father Lee tells them, “We are going back today. The crystal has been installed. The planet Earth has emitted an over abundance of diseases. They are contaminating the universe. All the planets light-years away from here will suffer unless it is destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” Sylvia says.

“We have received our orders,” Father Lee explains, for some reason. “An earthquake in a remote part of China. The eruption of a long-dead volcano. We stopped when we discovered that the restructuring of the earth was preventing us from returning to our home planet. That problem has now been rectified. Your world will end. Nothing can prevent it. This convent will be the last to go.”

Using the emergency speed crystal, he sends his nuns through the time-warp portal. On video monitors, we see normal ocean waves, which are presumably part of the ongoing destruction of the planet. We also see a house explode. When all the nuns have vanished, Father Lee stands in the triangle of light. “You would make an excellent citizen of our world, Professor. I wish that you and your wife would come with us. On Earth, your talents are used for destruction. On our planet, we use them to build.”

Father Lee reveals his true alien form before warping himself home.

Volcanoes erupt outside, causing mass destruction.

Andrew approaches the warp portal, facing a dramatic conundrum. Will he choose to live on another planet, or die with the Earth?

I will not reveal the film’s surprise ending, but suffice it to say Andrew proves himself to be no dummy. Also, the Earth explodes in a shower of glitter, for about ten minutes before the credits start to roll.

If nothing else, End of the World is a master class in how to stretch a twelve-minute story into a feature-length film. This wonderful artistry is used here in an even more sophisticated way than in Bill Rebane's classic of the same year, The Alpha Incident (1977). Our hats, and perhaps other pieces of clothing, must go off to director John Hayes (auteur of other classics such as Grave of the Vampire, 1972; Dream No Evil, 1972; and Garden of the Dead, 1972) and writer Frank Ray Perilli (credited for the story of John Sayles's Alligator, 1980, along with The Doberman Gang, 1972, and Laserblast).

Another notable aspect of End of the World is the fascinating contest the actors appear to be having in which they attempt to slur their dialogue until it is just barely understandable. Kirk Scott, who plays Andrew, is the clear champion of this contest, but he is nearly matched by his elderly co-stars Dean Jagger, Lew Ayres, and Macdonald Carey. While these men might have the advantages of advanced age and/or decades of alcoholism, and while slurred voices are most likely the result of the director's advice to stretch each scene as long as possible, Mr. Scott's achievement cannot be questioned. Only Christopher Lee fails to participate in this contest, though if he had wanted to, it is a certainty Mr. Lee could have bested even Mr. Scott's performance.

In the end, as it were, End of the World ends with a bit of a mystery. In fact, it could be interpreted as open to a sequel, despite the destruction of the entire planet on which the first film was set. Alas, a sequel was not in the cards, and Mr. Band's production would be eclipsed by Laserblast (1978), a film more directly inspired by the likes of Star Wars (1977) with its more ambitious stop-motion aliens. Unfortunately, John Hayes would go on to direct only a handful of adult films before his death in 2000.