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The Crawling Eye (1958)
The Trollenberg Terror is the title of a 1958 British-produced feature based on the six part mini series of the same name that aired in 1956/57 on English television. In what amounts to a pre-emptive spoiler, the title of the US release was changed to The Crawling Eye. (More on this unfortunate choice later). While this is not a perfect film, it possesses virtues that make it eminently watchable and elevate it above many of the other Mystery Science Theater-bound genre films of the 1950s.
The Swiss village of Trollenberg has experienced an unusually high number of fatal mountain climbing accidents this season. They coincide with the arrival of a cloud formation that settles in one spot high up the slopes. American Alan Brooks arrives to confer with Dr. Clevett from the local observatory about the phenomenon. Coincidental with the arrival of Brooks is that of sisters Anne and Sarah Pilgrim. They stop in Trollenberg because Anne, who is telepathic, feels compelled to do so. Clevett and Brooks try to unravel the mystery of the cloud as the body count increases. It becomes clear that Anne has a psychic connection with the entity on the mountain, and this link has put her in danger.
In The Crawling Eye first time director Quentin Lawrence accomplishes a lot with a little. He spent the vast majority of his career before and after The Crawling Eye in television. The TV experience serves him well as he shows an economy of style and a knack for moving a story along. The film's introductory scene depicts an off-screen attack on one member of a climbing party. Just as the survivors make the horrific discovery of the victim's decapitated torso the action jump cuts nicely to a minute of credits, then to a train carrying Alan Brooks and the Pilgrim sisters, characters are introduced, and our story is underway. This entire sequence is completed in just over five minutes.
Lawrence shows a flair for suspense, too. The sequence when Brett, a mountain guide who recently disappeared, returns from the mountain to the surprise of the surviving members of the search party is reminiscent of Karloff's return from the wilderness in the "Wurdalak" episode from Bava's Black Sabbath. We know that Brett is not "right" and, as he struggles to coordinate pouring a drink and lighting a cigarette, we can feel the tension in the room rise as the others begin to realize it as well. A short time later we discover that Brett is dead and has been reanimated for the purpose of killing Anne. When viewing the film for the first time we know there is a monster (remember the title / spoiler) but Lawrence and company keeps us off balance as to when and how it will be revealed. Building our anticipation of that moment is one of The Crawling Eye's greatest strengths. Lawrence, with able assistance from soon to be Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster's screenplay, keeps the focus on the unknown "thing". Of course, this ignites our imagination, which is what good horror movies are all about.
In a solid cast two performances stand out. It was customary for foreign produced films of this era to install an American as one of the leads (e.g. Brian Donlevy in The Quatermass Xperiment, Dana Andrews in Curse of the Demon). As Alan Brooks, Forest Tucker creates a believable, low key hero. He is capable of heroic action, but just as likely to worry out loud about what is going to happen next. And in her last film before embarking on a multi picture deal with Disney, Janet Munro shines as alien target Anne Pilgrim. It seems as if her eyes are an incredibly clear blue, the eyes of a clairvoyant. And this is in a black and white movie! She plays Anne as shy and rather childlike. When her "gift" attracts the attention of the aliens our sympathies are drawn to her immediately. Only a year later she would be scaring audiences in an entirely different way in Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
To open the discussion of the negatives in this film, let's go back to that title. When you go to a movie in 1958 called The Crawling Eye you expect if nothing else to see some scary eyes, and they best be crawlin'. What you actually get are several oversized one-eyed brains with wire operated tentacles. They look like a hairless ancient ancestor of Pac Man. Unless you can very quickly get in touch with your inner 10 year old this just doesn't work. Luckily this disappointment does not arrive until the last 18 minutes of the film. I can't help but imagine what a difference maker a Ray Harryhausen stop action version of the aliens would have made to this movie.
The other thing that crisp direction or good acting can't overcome are several story points that defy logical explanation. I will mention just a few. One climber is attacked while locked inside a tiny hut. The search party arrives and has to break down the locked door. Inside they discover another headless victim but it is never revealed how the aliens pull this off with no sign of forced entry. The resolution of the climactic battle at the observatory comes courtesy of a single phone call for an air strike from Brooks. Now that's a guy with connections! And why are the aliens even here? Until Anne Pilgrim shows up they seem content to just camp out behind their cloud, picking off climbers who come too close. Is their motivation world domination or finding the perfect vacation spot?
Ultimately, The Crawling Eye is a film that presents a story with enough suspense and style to hold the audience for the majority of the picture. Logic lapses and the inevitable letdown when the eye creatures appear prevent it from being a complete success. However, if your disbelief can be suspended by a wire as thin as the ones used to move those eye creature tentacles, I would still suggest giving this one a look.