Thursday, May 18, 2017

“THEY STILL HAVE PRISONERS”: A REVIEW OF INVASION

by Philip Nathaniel Poggiali

Late at night a rural English hospital receives an unusual patient who has been struck down by an automobile. The patient is rubber-suited, has an unidentifiable blood type, and claims to have crash-landed on Earth while pursuing an escaped prisoner from the planet Lystria. An oppressive heat settles over the grounds, the phone lines are cut off, and a physician, Dr. Mike Vernon (Edward Judd), theorizes that the high temperature has been caused by a force field surrounding the hospital, created to keep the patient’s unseen convict trapped. Vernon and a hospital administrator bicker over whether to leave, and when the administrator attempts to do so he crashes his car into an invisible barrier and is killed instantly.

INVASION, a 1965 British production directed by Alan Bridges, is a sci-fi thriller about confinement, literally and figuratively. Even before the hospital has been besieged by extraterrestrials, the humans seem trapped, whether in disabled or deteriorating physical conditions (the film opens with the image of a child in an iron lung), or in occupations and relationships that leave them unsatisfied – from the cynical, overworked doctors to the bored army soldiers to the philandering husband who delivers the injured alien to the hospital. An invisible force field becomes a metaphor for the frustrations of its central characters.

To emphasize this sense of confinement, Bridges draws attention to the cinematic frame. In one unusually lengthy shot, he foregrounds a minor military character so that the actor seems to become part of the audience, both character and viewer observing two other people as they inspect the Lystrian crash site.



The film’s self-consciousness extends to frequent shots of actors looking or staring into the camera.







Later, after the hospital administrator smashes into the force field and is ejected through his car windshield, Vernon, colleague Dr. Claire Harland (Valerie Gearon), and Major Muncaster (Barrie Ingham) examine the wreckage. We see the smoking remains of the car and its driver lying dead on the hood, but there are no special effects or mimed movements from the actors to illustrate a physical barrier. Instead, the actors look up, down, to the side and directly at the camera, as if indicating the edges of the frame.



The filmmakers were presumably limited in how they might visualize a force field from a budgetary standpoint, but the result is far more interesting than any effect: It is as if the cinema screen has acted as the imprisoning structure.

Veteran television writer Robert Holmes receives credit for INVASION's story. As recounted in Robert Holmes: A Life in Words by Richard Molesworth, Holmes concocted the idea for INVASION with Dr. Phyllis Spreadbury (later Phyllis Mortimer, and misidentified in Molesworth’s book as Phyllis Gibbons), a medical advisor on the series Emergency Ward 10, a popular hospital-based soap opera for which Holmes contributed over 40 teleplays. Holmes brought the idea to producer Jack Greenwood of struggling Merton Park Studios but, not wanting a television writer involved, Greenwood hired Roger Marshall, a friend of Holmes, to expand the treatment into a screenplay. At his friend’s insistence, Marshall wrote the script in collaboration with Spreadbury, who went uncredited.

Although Holmes had a successful career over the next few decades, particularly as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who, he never worked on another feature film and remained in the confines of television. He later recycled story elements and dialogue from INVASION for Spearhead from Space, the only Doctor Who serial to be shot entirely on (16mm) film and the first produced in color.



Ironically, INVASION had only a brief theatrical run overseas and was sold to AIP-TV in the States, where it aired late at night with its beautiful widescreen visuals cropped.

In a surprise reveal, the Lystrian patient turns out to be the escaped prisoner; he stabs Muncaster, takes Dr. Harland hostage, and attempts to flee Earth. The Lystrian Leader (Yoko Tani) has arrived at the hospital to re-capture the criminal and leave with her two female guards. The Leader is ultimately benevolent and expresses remorse over whatever calamities have befallen the humans because of the Lystrians’ arrival: “You wonder why a civilization like ours can still produce destructive people. We are ashamed.”

Intriguingly, the extraterrestrial characters are played by East Asian actors, including “guest star” Tani and, in the role of the Lystrian patient, Eric Young (later Ric Young of THE LAST EMPEROR and THE TRANSPORTER). The filmmakers seem to have hired Chinese and Japanese actors interchangeably for roles intended to reflect western fears of communist subversion (a sci-fi cliche), which is seemingly a deliberate choice considering the film’s treatment of race.

As it turns out, any trepidations from the characters regarding the “other” are mostly unwarranted: The Lystrians are a peaceful species and have no plans of conquering Earth. Moreover, there are indications of social progression beyond even the humans’ capabilities. For one thing, Lystrian females seem to be holding most leadership positions, and the patient finds it unusual that nurses take orders from a male doctor.

Dr. Harland isn’t so convinced of Lystrian superiority: “They still have prisoners,” she notes cynically as a door swings back at her. Curiously, Bridges repeats the image of a door swinging back at actress Tsai Chin, who portrays Nurse Lin.



Does INVASION offer something of a commentary on racial stereotypes in the entertainment industry? Chin toiled in many thankless roles in British film and television, and is probably best known to genre fans as Fu Manchu’s daughter and James Bond’s sexual conquest in the opening of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (“Darling, I give you very best duck”). She is the only Asian actor in the film who is not one of the aliens, but frequently seen alongside supervising doctor and Caucasian hero Dr. Vernon.

As Chin recalls in her autobiography Daughter of Shanghai:

For Asian or black actors, there are particular disadvantages, now as then. […] Stereotypes … are one-dimensional characters, demanding little creative energy or artistic truth from those who play them. […] As actors, the danger for us is that we begin to perform according to the stereotype. […] Reality becomes divorced from truth and we lose our collective and individual identity, and with it our self-respect. (143-144)



Although not stereotypical, Nurse Lin is, on the page, merely a functional character and, at times, representative of the superficial roles available to Asian actors in the 1960s. But there seems to be something else going on with her. In the early scenes, her lack of individuality is reflected in Eric Young’s Lystrian, who is at first perceived to have no distinguishing characteristics beyond his racial features (“His condition is more important than his identity,” Vernon says.)

In one scene Lin is asked her opinion on the origin of the patient, as if she would automatically know simply because of her race.

VERNON: He’s not Chinese.
SISTER EVANS: How do you know?
VERNON: Well …
SISTER EVANS: Is he, nurse?
NURSE LIN: No, I don’t think so.
SISTER EVANS: Japanese?
NURSE LIN: No, I don’t think –
VERNON: It doesn’t matter. We’ll worry about his nationality later.

Although played in a subtle way, Nurse Lin is visibly uncomfortable, as if she were reacting to the insensitivity of the questions.



When the Lystrian Leader arrives to locate her prisoner, she hypnotizes Lin into an unconscious state and then assumes the nurse’s role. The hospital employees, seeing only a female with East Asian features, cannot tell the difference and are taken in by the ruse. In this scene Bridges (later known for his indictments of the British class system in THE HIRELING and THE SHOOTING PARTY) expands on the theme of confinement, as Lin is seemingly “trapped” and unable to be recognized as an individual beyond her racial characteristics.

A thoughtful and often challenging piece of science fiction, INVASION is one of the more underrated genre films of the 1960s. It is currently available as a Region 2 DVD from Network.

Robert Holmes: A Life in Words was published by Telos in 2013.

Daughter of Shanghai was originally published by St. Martin’s Press in 1989 and is out of print.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Freezer Burn: "A Notional Bestseller"

Richard Burges Smith (1962-2011) was a writer and creative director of digital media for trade shows, live events, and museum installations. After receiving a master's degree from the USC School of Cinema-Television, Smith sold his screenplay LOCK UP to Carolco Pictures. The script was rewritten (by Jeb Stuart and Henry Rosenbaum) and produced as the 1989 prison thriller starring Sylvester Stallone.

Although LOCK UP is the only feature film on which he is credited, Smith worked as a screenwriter for several years. In 1993 Danjaq hired Smith to develop stories for the James Bond series, and some of the ideas from that creative period ended up in the Pierce Brosnan films. In the article announcing Smith and (fellow USC graduate) John Cork's recruitment by Danjaq, the Variety journalist confused Smith with three other people in the industry, including TV movie producer Richard Smith and visual effects artist Richard Smith.

Smith's only novel, published in 2010, is the bizarre and hilarious Freezer Burn. It's the story of two brothers, hunting guides in Maine, who discover a refrigerator that functions as a portal to the Ice Age. When the brothers try to turn their strange luck into a hunting expedition business, giant Pleistocene animals -- dire wolves, saber-toothed cats and a brain-eating short-faced bear -- climb through the portal and into the present-day, wreaking havoc in a small town. The novel could be described as a mix of Jurassic Park and My Name is Earl, with Smith's wry narrative voice providing a unique flavor.

Smith died of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma at 48. His obituary can be found here.

Smith also managed a blog that features much of his excellent work for clients such as Cisco Systems and The History Channel.


-- Philip Nathaniel Poggiali