Monster Movie Monday: The Day of the Triffids (1962)
Triffids' fatal flaw6
Matthew Turner | On 08, Mar 2021
Director: Steve Sekely, Freddie Francis
Cast: Howard Keel, Nicole Maurey, Janette Scott, Kieron Moore, Mervyn Johns
Watch The Day of the Triffids online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
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“And I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott / Fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills.” It’s impossible to watch this 1962 sci-fi horror without thinking of that line from Science-Fiction Double-Feature, the opening credits song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Strictly speaking, Scott doesn’t do any actual fighting, but she certainly pulls her weight in the screaming department, and that’s an essential component when it comes to creature features.
Co-directed by Freddie Francis and Steve Sekely and adapted, not too faithfully, from the novel by John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids stars Howard Keel as merchant navy officer Bill Masen, who’s recovering from an operation and has his eyes bandaged when a spectacular meteor shower renders most of the Earth’s population blind. Things quickly get worse when Bill discovers that a race of alien, mobile and carnivorous plants known as Triffids are preying on the now-sightless population, spitting poison to kill their victims before eating them.
Meanwhile, married scientists Tom and Karen (Kieron Moore and Janette Scott) find themselves trapped in their remote lighthouse laboratory as Triffids gather outside.
The Triffids themselves are genuinely scary – they make a creepy clicking noise when they move, they’re surprisingly strong (they can break down doors) and they have an almost spider-like design with long, viney limbs and a plant-like mouth at their centre. You wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley, let’s put it that way.
Throughout the film, the special effects are impressive – there’s only one laughable moment where you can clearly see the shape of a hand inside what’s meant to be a Triffid frond as it crawls up some stairs. That’s right, Triffids can climb stairs! Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The film is packed with great creature feature scenes, all of which are superbly staged by Francis and Sekely. Highlights include the Triffids invading a house, Keel fighting them off with a flamethrower, a scene where you suddenly realise there are thousands of them, and a terrific, genuinely frightening fight in the lighthouse that’s deliberately shot and edited so it resembles the attack scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, at least in terms of Scott’s reaction shots. (There’s also a cheeky steal of a bit of the Vertigo score when Tom and Karen are climbing the lighthouse steps later, suggesting the directors were big fans of the Master of Suspense.)
In addition to being an excellent creature feature, the film also functions as a great post-apocalyptic disaster movie, with scenes of London in flames and a properly terrifying sequence involving a passenger plane where everyone on board is blind. As with the best post-apocalyptic properties, the film points out that it’s not just the Triffids that are scary – there’s an extremely dark sequence where a group of escaped convicts (who can all see because they were in prison during the meteor shower) have their way with a house full of women. It’s a measure of the film’s darkness that Keel only saves one of them – the rest are left to fend for themselves.
Francis and Sekely’s direction is consistently impressive, particularly during the build-up to the lighthouse attack sequence, which offers a great spin on a classic horror movie cliché. Similarly, the early London sequences are strikingly atmospheric – having established that there are fires all over the city, the streets are filled with smoke, with the Triffids looming menacingly out of the clouds.
As for the performances, Keel makes a solid lead and can handle a flamethrower with the best of them, although he really should have spent the entire film in his hospital dressing gown, like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Scott is relatively under-used by contrast (it’s odd that she never has any scenes with Keel), but she proves a terrific screamer and brings warmth and humanity to a slightly under-developed subplot about her alcoholic (and, it’s suggested, potentially violent) husband.
The other performance of note comes from young Janina Faye as Susan, the orphaned schoolgirl Keel rescues from a train crash and takes under his wing. The film treats her with both sensitivity and intelligence – it’s Susan that eventually figures out a way to lead the Triffids away from their hideout, in one of the film’s best scenes. (Clue: it involves an ice cream van.)
The only real problem with the film is that – spoiler alert – the script dispenses with Wyndham’s doom and gloom in favour of not just a happy ending, but a happy ending that’s directly ripped off War of the Worlds, as the Triffids are revealed to have a rather laughable fatal flaw. If you want proper miserablism, check out the terrifying 1980s BBC series instead.
Also, please note that although the film is on Amazon Prime in its correct aspect ratio, the image doesn’t fill the entire screen, so it’s a bit like watching a YouTube video without being able to blow it up to full size.
The Day of the Triffids is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.