Thursday 13 April 2023

The Twilight People (1972)

Director: Eddie Romero
Writer: Jerome Small
Stars: John Ashley, Pat Woodell, Jan Merlin and Pam Grier

Index: The First Thirty.

In 1971, officially, at least, there had only been one big screen adaptation of H. G. Wells’s seminal novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, namely the famous precode, Island of Lost Souls, which had been banned in the UK. Unofficially, there had been many, often made in the Philippines, where Gerry de Leon, director of Pam Grier’s previous film, Women in Cages, started a horror boom in 1959 with one of them, Terror is a Man.

It seems appropriate then that Grier would stay in the Philippines after her two women in prison flicks and diversify her range with yet another Island of Dr. Moreau rip-off, this one directed by Eddie Romero, a co-producer and uncredited director on Terror is a Man.

It’s not a good effort, but it has its moments. It starts out well with an underwater segment, someone scuba diving in tropical waters full of shoals of fish set to an exotica soundtrack. It’s all very nice but then the title arrives and the music gets sinister. After the opening credits, we remain in the water waiting for a story to show up and suddenly there it is, because our unwary diver is caught, tied up and hauled up onto a ship to be anaesthetised.

He’s Matt Farrell, an adventurer, known as the Last Renaissance Man, and he’s caught by Steinman, an adventurer himself, by the order of Dr. Gordon, a reclusive genius who clearly inspires fierce loyalty in his followers.

Eventually we get to meet him, in his huge house at the top of an island, but we’re given a few hints first at someone or something in the undergrowth who’s watching the trucks drive Farrell up there. We don’t know what yet, but the opening credits provided us with hints in some of the character names: Panther Woman, Antelope Man, Bat Man (no, not that one), Ape Man and Wolf Woman.

Gordon, in the form of Charles Macaulay, is a relatively typical mad scientist who doesn’t believe himself to be mad. He rants about the “single most important event in the history of life on this planet”, something he’s preparing for in his work. What could that be, you ask? Well, “The world is changing. Man isn’t. We’re not equipped.” Just in case you hadn’t caught any Dr. Moreau vibes, he hazards, “The human race cannot survive if it doesn’t remake itself.”

And so we’re set. Gordon is a mad scientist. His beautiful daughter, Neva, is his assistant, though she’s questioning his morality, and an obvious future love interest for Farrell, who’s his latest subject, selected for his mental and physical abilities. Steinman is the henchman who keeps his beady eye on Farrell because he clearly relishes the potential challenge of the new arrival doing a runner, at which point we would find ourselves moving out of The Island of Dr. Moreau and into The Most Dangerous Game. What are the odds of that happening? Well, I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.

Romero can’t make the Island of Dr. Gordon particularly sinister, even when we get to the inevitable hunt, but he does a little better with his mansion. Farrell is able to roam around at leisure and explore the place, down to rooting around in Gordon’s office when the guards are busy not doing anything, so provides us with a little useful back story.

Eventually, of course, he stumbles onto the secret wall that leads down to a dungeon full of cages, each occupied by an animal/human hybrid, and that’s what we’ve been waiting for all along. Well, I say “full” but there aren’t too many of them, perhaps suggesting either that Dr. Gordon isn’t very good at his job or that he hsan’t been doing it for long.

This is also when Pam Grier arrives, because she’s Ayesa, the Panther Woman, and it seems like she has a lot of fun playing up her sensual and feral sides. Given Farrell’s presence, we’re pretty sure that Gordon has been turning men and women into animals rather than the other way around but, in every instance, the animal side is gradually taking over and that change is most pronounced in Ayesa. She’s clearly the most dangerous of the bunch and the one who seems most likely to stop walking on two legs.

It’s easy to imagine exploitation fans in 1971 becoming fast fans of Grier because of her first two women in prison pictures. She wasn’t the lead in either but she had plenty to do in both and she met the challenge. Anyone back then going to see The Twilight People because of her presence in the cast might have left a little disappointed, not because she doesn’t do what the script tasks her to do but because she has no lines beyond mostly overdubbed snarls and she’s hidden beneath a poor make-up job.

At least she’s not Lupa, the Wolf Woman, as she doesn’t even look like a wolf. What sort of weird Filipino wolves are green? She looks like a Lizard Woman to me. In some bizarre cross-species attraction, she gets close with Kuzma, the Antelope Man, who at least boasts a pair of horns to live up to his billing. Primo, the Ape Man, just bounds about because he can’t climb trees. Darmo, the Bat Man, can and does so as often as he can, hanging upside down from the branches so his huge wings can make a better silhouette. Eventually he flies and should have done it much sooner.

While Tony Gosalvez is a trooper as Bat Man and Jan Merlin plays Steinman with sinister relish, the best reasons to watch are Grier and Pat Woodell. Grier is sleek and animalistic and she gets to rip out a few throats, even if she should have been given more to do. Woodell, who was the first of two Bobbie Jo Bradleys on Petticoat Junction, gets the only character with a real story arc and she takes that seriously.

Beyond them, there aren’t a heck of a lot of reasons to track this one down. The location is decent, but the story is weak and predictable. What’s more, it’s played more as a drama than an exploitation film, which is a clear mistake. Filipino movies often played in this ballpark and, while many of them also had weak and predictable stories, they benefitted from blood and boobs. This one hasn’t got enough of the former and it entirely forgot about the latter.

Personally, this was also awkward because of a particular piece of music that shows up on four separate occasions. It’s called Approaching Menace, by British composer Neil Richardson, and it might have worked here if it didn’t also become the theme to Mastermind, an iconic TV quiz show, starting in 1972 and continuing to today. Whenever menace approached, I heard Magnus Magnusson saying, “I’ve started so I’ll finish” and that really didn’t help this movie, which frankly needed all the help it could get.

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