Directed By: Terence Fisher
Written By: Ronald Liles, Jane Baker, Pip Baker, John Lymington (novel)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Patrick Allen, Peter Cushing, Jane Merrow
UK Certification: 15
Running Time: 90 minutes
Distributor: Odeon Entertainment
UK Release Date: 28th July 2014
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were credited together in 24 films, from Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) where Lee played the uncredited role of a spear carrier right through to Pete Walker’s House of the Long Shadows (1983). While both Lee and Cushing are forever destined to be mentioned in the same breath when describing something like Hammer Studios output, they regularly cropped up together outside this framework in interesting, if not always successful productions.
Peter Sasdy’s Nothing but the Night (1973) is one that falls into this bracket, so too is this curio – Night of the Big Heat. Based on John Lymington’s 1959 novel of the same name, it was shot in Pinewood in February / March 1967. The director’s chair was taken by the inimitable Terence Fisher who of course had directed both Cushing and Lee together in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) as well as a couple of others. More interesting though was the fact that Night of the Big Heat was about to become the third of what’s regarded as Fisher’s Planet Films trilogy.
With mid-60s relations between Fisher and Hammer being somewhat fractured, Terence had found himself at Planet Pictures involved in the production of a couple of science-fiction pictures. The first he directed was The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) using the template of a small group of survivors under the threat of invasion. He followed it with the far superior Island of Terror (1966) in which he cast Peter Cushing to fend off some tentacled silicates, before finishing off this themed threesome of British sci-fi with Night of the Big Heat.
In the movie we find that Britain is experiencing quite a harsh winter, but conversely the sparsely populated island of Fara appears to be enduring a heatwave. Jeff (Allen) and Frankie Callum (Sarah Lawson) run The Swan, the sole pub on the island. Jeff, who is also a published novelist has just hired Angela (Merrow) as his secretary who unbeknownst to his wife happens to be his former lover. Angela is intent on resuming her affair with Jeff who is less than keen to comply – all of which makes for quite the sexual undercurrent in the film. Meanwhile though Dr. Godfrey Hanson (Lee), a scientist from the mainland, is occupying a room in the pub which he uses as his base to attain as much scientific evidence as he can in an attempt to determine the reasons for this heat. With peculiar and sinister events happening to the islands habitants, it’s left to Jeff, Frankie and Angela to put their personal issues aside and assist Dr. Hanson in saving the island from a threat that could well prove to be extra-terrestrial.
Christopher Lee wasn’t exactly glowing in his biography about this entry into his filmography with the special effects taking the brunt of his disdain. That said, I think the general shrugging shoulder level of mediocrity that is aimed at this film is a little undeserved. There’s plenty to scoff at, be it the aforementioned SFX lead by some eggs over easy style monsters, or the overbearing melodrama that envelopes the world of Jeff Callum and the objects of his affection. However I think the general claustrophobic isolation of this small community easily transcends the occasional budgetary restriction or the odd moment of hammy love triangle dialogue.
It’s an unsettling film, and as you cast your eye over the actors dripping in sweat with clothes glued to their body through relentless perspiration, the distressing nature of the situation easily transmits to the viewer. Both Lee and Cushing having received top billing in most of the promotional material but are largely relegated to supporting performances, which gives the opportunity for the participants in our menage a trois – Allen, Lawson and Merrow to take centre stage. You do find yourself pining for a greater input from Mssrs Lee and Cushing, but having said that Patrick Allen delivers a solid performance for which it would be churlish to overshadow it simply by wishing for more from the previously mentioned cast members.
It took until 1971 for the film to be released in America, to which it found itself under the alternate title of Island of the Burning Damned and paired on a nationwide double bill with Godzilla’s Revenge (1969). Although as title changes go, my favourite would be its Italian guise as Demoni Di Fuoco with a demonic Christopher Lee accompanied by a deathly stare adorning the artwork.
For Odeon’s release of this film (also available on Blu-ray) we have a commentary moderated by Marcus Hearn (author; The Authorised History of Hammer Films) that features Christopher Lee as well as husband and wife scripters Jane and Pip Baker. It’s a great commentary – but for those upgrading from their DD Video edition from ten years ago it is the very same one. Topics discussed include Lee’s lack of desire to ever watch Coronation Street, the Nuremberg Trials and the occasional emotionally charged story about Peter Cushing. There’s also a 19 minute Christopher Lee interview – but sadly this is out of synch by about two seconds. Odeon have said they’ll replace these discs with their new pressing, but I have to admit it was a disappointing part of a highly anticipated release.
Night of the Big Heat does come recommended, but the lack of quality control on the extras as well as little transparency on the box – commentary is just listed as ‘audio commentary’ -means that this release is undoubtedly disappointing. Frustratingly, oversights such as these can often overshadow the feature that has been brought to the fore here, and that’s a shame, as for all its faults Night of the Big Heat deserves a contemporary audience reappraisal which will certainly win it a new following.
Film: 7 out of 10
Extras: 4 out of 10
- Audio commentary moderated by Marcus Hearn, featuring Christopher Lee and Jane & Pip Baker
- Christopher Lee interview (19 mins)