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There is a natural conjunction between horror movies and science fiction. Horror is often about things that we don’t understand, and that’s something the genre has in common with science fiction. Frequently, science fiction becomes horror when our characters do or create something with unintended consequences. “Science gone mad” is a common enough idea that it’s a legitimate subgenre of both horror and science fiction. Island of Terror (also called Night of the Silicates) is exactly that sort of film. All of the good intentions of science are twisted into the creation of something that, unchecked, could destroy the world. Of course, since this is 1966, it’s also going to be wonderfully goofy, and have an early Doctor Who or Quatermass and the Pit sense about it.
What we’ve got is an isolated island where a team of researchers led by Dr. Lawrence Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson) are working on a cure for cancer. With this basic set up, we soon see the local medico, Dr. Landers (Eddie Byrne) discovers the body of a local farmer. It appears that the farmer has had all of his bones removed. Flummoxed by this, he contacts Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing), who leads him to bone expert Dr. David West (Edward Judd). Interrupting his evening with high society jetsetter Toni Merrill (Carole Gray), they decide to head to the island, assisted by Toni’s father’s helicopter. Of course, the ‘copter can’t stay, so everyone is stranded on the island.
A little investigation and a few more boneless bodies, both human and equine, and our heroes discover what has happened in the cancer research lab. The research has created a race of silicon-based creatures (immediately dubbed “silicates”) that devour bone. If you’ve ever played classic D&D, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a rust monster. The silicates are essentially bone monsters—their tentacle (a bit reminiscent of a Dalek) grabs hold of a person and absorbs the bone out of them. Naturally, this happens at the rate necessary for the plot, but it’s a pretty fun idea.
Much of the movie, then, is watching the people in the cast get attacked by the creatures as the doctors look to figure out what kills the creatures. They appear impervious to axes, explosives, firearms, and fire. Eventually, they discover that radiation will kill them, but since the creatures divide at a staggering rate, dooming the island population if things aren’t handled quickly.
There’s a lot going on here that works surprisingly well for a mid-60s creature feature. The overall plot is one that you’ve seen before. There are a lot of similarities to a film like Fiend Without a Face, both in terms of the plot and in the creature design. The beats here are familiar, but this is because they are really effective. There are moments where you know that one of the creatures is going to pop up and attack and you’re absolutely waiting for it to happen, and when it does, it’s still a surprise. Evidently, this aspect of the film was cited by David Robert Mitchell as a partial inspiration for It Follows.
It's also a movie that really wants the audience to know about the science that is happening. When Doctors Stanley and West realize that radiation is what can kill the silicates, they head to the cancer lab to collect as much radioactive material (specifically strontium-90) as possible. This film has a short running time, but we’re still going to spend a great deal of it watching the two doctors suiting up in radiation suits and collecting the materials. There’s definitely a sense that the filmmakers expect the audience to want to know about the science, since the interest in the science is what is going to drive a lot of the audience’s desire to see the film. There are also some great characters here that are mildly surprising. Sure, Toni is going to be typically scared to tears, but she also handles a lot of the terror pretty well. Island headman Roger Campbell (Niall MacGinnis) is a particular favorite. He doesn’t understand the science, but is smart enough to trust the people who do, and to keep them in line as well as he can.
If there is a downside to Island of Terror, it’s the fact that it was made in 1966 rather than in a more modern time. The plot of silcon-based cancer medicine monsters seems ridiculous as a plot, but it’s honestly not any weirder than the latest Planet of the Apes movies, Splice, or 28 Days Later. No, the issue is that the monsters are ridiculously goofy looking. They look like a cross between an armadillo and the spacecraft from the original War of the Worlds.
If you can get beyond that—and you definitely can if you like science fiction and horror from this era—this is a really surprisingly fun and effective film.
Why to watch Island of Terror: It’s a fun take on a creature feature.
Why not to watch: It’s the same “science gone wild” creature feature that you’ve seen before.