Kino Lorber has released on Blu-ray DOOMWATCH, the 1972 U.K. eco-horror-sci-fi mystery from Tigon British Film Productions, written by Clive Exton, directed by Peter Sasdy, and starring Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, Simon Oates, Jean Trend, Joby Blanshard, Percy Herbert, Shelagh Fraser, Geoffrey Keen, Joseph O’Conor, Norman Bird, Constance Chapman, Michael Brennan (LUST FOR A VAMPIRE) and George Sanders. A big-screen adaptation of the popular U.K. television series of the same name, DOOMWATCH didn’t please a whole lot of fans of the small-screen production, nor did it make much of an impact with international audiences (it was released straight to television in the U.S. by Avco Embassy). Seen today, DOOMWATCH is a mostly daft faux-rural British folk horror, awkwardly hammered into a cautionary eco-thriller that delivers some bare bones “strange village” subgenre pleasures. A video introduction and a full-length audio commentary from director Sasdy, and a new interview with star Geeson, are the big bonuses here (some original trailers are also included), for this okay Blu 1920x1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen transfer.
The tiny Scottish coastal hamlet of Balfe. A hurried nighttime funeral, in the pouring rain, as a little girl is unceremoniously dumped into a shallow, muddy grave. Welcome to Balfe! Among other tourist attractions, you’ll find inbred, sometimes violent natives who will welcome your polite inquiries with a slammed door and a snarled, “On yer bike!”, as well as a colorful gallery of local shadowy figures who resemble the cast from KORG: 70,000 B.C., with heavy brows, broad noses, and surly dispositions. Meanwhile, back in London, at the laboratory headquarters of governmental watchdog “Doomwatch” (“The Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work”), leader Dr. Spencer Quist (John Paul, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR) is sending Dr. Del Shaw (Ian Bannen, FRIGHT, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE) to Balfe to check on the environmental impact of not only a year-old oil spill near there, but also of the new detergent used to clean up the site. When Shaw is met with open suspicion and hostility from the locals, as well as dog attacks, beatings, and worst of all, the chilly rejection of ridiculously fine schoolmarm Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson, BERSERK!, PERCY’S PROGRESS), it’s more than he can stand: something must be in the water to cause him not to score! It’s time to activate the Doomwatch crew, chasing down various sea polluters, including shady chemical manufacturer Sir Henry Leyton (Geoffrey Keen, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, MOONRAKER), a sarcastic, dismissive Navy Admiral (George Sanders, THE KREMLIN LETTER, PSYCHOMANIA), and a clueless salvage hauler, Brewer (Norman Bird, HANDS OF THE RIPPER, OOH...YOU ARE AWFUL), who did the dodgy dumping. Will Dr. Del solve the riddle in time to save everyone’s pituitary glands?
DOOMWATCH was a compromised, inorganic project which was probably doomed right from the start. Riding (too late) the successful wave of Brit TV-to-film adaptations that very briefly reinvigorated U.K. movie houses in the early 1970s (after Hollywood finally pulled out financing stakes when the mid-1960s U.K. movie bubble burst), DOOMWATCH was hobbled at the beginning when producer Tony Tenser (THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE CREEPING FLESH) made the fatal decision to demote the popular television series’ original cast to the sidelines, while slotting in “bigger” names Bannen and Geeson as new characters to the format, in the slim hopes of attracting overseas audiences. Of course there’s no guarantee that British audiences would have supported a slavishly faithful movie version of the eco-friendly TV series (after all: they’re watching it for free—minus a license fee—every week on the telly). But it seems risky to have largely abandoned a familiar, well-liked cast that 13 million viewers had cottoned to on a regular basis, in exchange for two highly talented “names” who were, nonetheless, hardly A-level box office magic.
Not helping DOOMWATCH’s chances at the box office, either, was its fragmented focus. Teased as a combination “strange village” and British rural folk horror (think “The Reptile Enters the Village of the Damned”), DOOMWATCH bizarrely changes direction midstream to become a desultory medico-mystery that explains away the monsters with remarkably anti-climactic science-fact. The initial DOOMWATCH script was written by series creators Gerry Davis (THE FINAL COUNTDOWN, CAPTAIN POWER AND THE SOLDIERS OF THE FUTURE) and Kit Pedler (TV’s DOCTOR WHO), but their contributions were largely nixed by final screenwriter Clive Exton (Albert Finney’s brilliant NIGHT MUST FALL, and the equally disturbing Richard Fleischer classic, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE). What remained of the script makes for a frequently unintentionally funny outing, with wrongheaded story decisions left and right, further marred by a cheap production.
“Eco”-whatever leaves me cold (particularly if a bunch of crybaby critics tell me how necessary and important it is that I and you see it), but I’ll watch anything approaching a vintage 1960s-1970s U.K. thriller, or a U.K. “strange village”/rural folk horror combo, and for what it’s worth, DOOMWATCH does provide a few slight pleasures in those veins. Bannen, a solid, sometimes mannered, sometimes brilliant actor (see his same-year turn in Sidney Lumet’s THE OFFENSE), is entirely wasted here. He’s either bored into a sullen stare, or hamming it up something awful, yelling and carrying on before he catches himself and stops, realizing how silly it all is. I hit the floor when he couldn’t understand why the townspeople wouldn’t trust and listen to him...after spending five minutes screeching at them like a madman (and don’t get me started on one of my all-time favorites, the delectable Judy Geeson: throwing her away on this nothing role, at the peak of her career, is a crime). However, when director Sasdy (COUNTESS DRACULA, THE LONELY LADY) puts Bannen ashore at Balfe, and fearful people start peeping out at him through closed shutters, and the realization that he has no friends in the village grows as the “monsters” begin to show themselves, fans of those subgenres will get the (minor) fix they seek here.
Too bad, then, that DOOMWATCH ditches this overly familiar-but-mildly satisfying storyline and has Bannen leave the island to head back to Doomwatch’s London headquarters. All the growing tension from Bannen being trapped on the hostile island immediately evaporates. Not only are those chintzy Doomwatch sequences unexciting (they’re like THUNDERBIRDS fillers without the fun puppets or snazzy model work), the subsequent investigatory scenes play like very bad television, with pros Keen (sure an industrialist would spill his guts and own up to criminal negligence just because Doomwatch asked...) and Sanders merely going through the tired motions (sadly diminished in one of his final roles, Sanders gets a big, unintended laugh with a bored, snotty “Oh, good...who?” when told Bannen has discovered who dumped the illegal drums). The script becomes increasingly inane, while interesting tangents—the island’s inbreeding—are completely dropped (I love it when the team discovers serial numbers on the underwater drums, and Sanders enthusiastically exclaims, “There’s a number on this one! Do you think there’s a way this could be checked?” Uh...that’s what serial numbers are for, George...).
Plain and simple: science fact is never as interesting as science fiction (...at least not in a big-screen horror thriller). So when DOOMWATCH tells us the real reason for the “monsters” here, it’s not thrilling or exciting or horrifying. It’s just...blah. Glands, huh. Okay. Whatever. The final “siege” scene is a perfect example of DOOMWATCH’s wet blanket approach. We know the “monsters” are just people. We know they can be cured. And we know their threat to kill Bannen and Geeson is just that: a threat, and nothing more...before they literally stop in their murderous tracks and start bawling like babies. No one really pays for anything in DOOMWATCH—the industrialist isn’t punished, or the dumper, or the admiral, no lead or sympathetic secondary character gets killed, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for the possible demise of the fishing village’s culture of inbreeding? Um...why? There’s no cathartic release in DOOMWATCH. If they had just kept Bannen cut off at the village, it might have helped, but his easy escape and rather simple solution to the villagers’ problems via advanced medicine sink an initially promising DOOMWATCH into humdrum banality.
Was always-inferior-looking DOOMWATCH shot on Super 16mm or something? Logic says no (although you’d be shocked at how many U.K. features and TV shows from that time period sneaked by with that cheat), but the image from this Blu 1920x1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen transfer says different. Grain is big and coarse and distracting. Colors are mostly faded, and fine image detail at points is as hazy as the original cinematography. Although a big improvement over the old Image Entertainment DVD, it’s an unimpressive picture, mimicking at times, frankly, a high-class VHS tape. It appears to be the same Euro London Films transfer that Screenbound Entertainment released on Blu-ray in the U.K. earlier this year, so it’s likely the best elements that could be found were utilized (the DTS-HD MA English audio track fares better: it’s unexceptional but it’s clean and leveled nicely). No subtitle options are included.
As for bonuses, if you watch director Peter Sasdy’s opening introduction, you can’t wait to listen to his audio commentary. He’s amusing, well-spoken, and pretty interesting. However...what’s tasty in a short bite becomes tough-to-chew over the course of 92 minutes. Sasdy’s slow manner of speech makes this interminable, while his few tidbits about the production wilt against constant literal descriptions of action happening on the screen (that drives me crazy in an audio commentary—I have eyes!). Geeson’s interview (6:20) is nice, with some fun asides about the production (Bannen is carefully described as “eccentric”—wonder what that means?), before she gets bogged down in silly seriousness, claiming, of all things, that DOOMWATCH is “an important film”. Once Scottish salmon with mixed genitalia was brought up, I politely excused myself from the discussion. Original trailers for THE NEPTUNE FACTOR, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, and WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP (all available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber) are included. (Paul Mavis)
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