‘MOST URGENT – TO COMBAT GLOBAL POLLUTION PROBLEM, RECOMEND NEW GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT…. TO BE CALLED……. DOOMWATCH’
There is, we have been told, significant potential harm associated with some of the outlying islands that surround ‘this scepter’d isle’, think Edward Woodward’s pagan problems in The Wicker Man (1973) or Sean Bean’s spooky shenanigans and shocking sheep in The Dark (2005). And then there is Ian Bannen’s scientific mission which leads to the events that play out in Doomwatch. These days we live in an era where films and television programmes are available to watch whenever you wish on VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray/VOD, but in the 1960s and 1970s many TV series were made into feature films, such as Hammer’s Quatermass films or the seemingly endless On The Bus spin-offs. Doomwatch is a cinematic colour interpretation of a popular series which ran from 1970 to 1971 and was directed by Peter Sasdy, a Hammer veteran of such films as Countess Dracula (1971), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and the under-rated Hands of the Ripper (1971). The impact of the scares on show are less outre here than the deliberately lurid Kensington gore of his Hammer films, but Sasdy balances that with the creepy television scares that featured in a number of key spooky works such as The Stone Tape (1972).
Pollution threatens the planet, with potentially horrific worldwide consequences, and so the government initiates Doomwatch, a new defence department which aims to understand their origins and hopefully locate and eradicate any possible incidents. One of their top scientists, Dr. Del Shaw (Ian Bannen), is sent to the island of Balfe in order to collect a variety of samples for testing for possible contagion to the local environment and wider afield. The island, despite its pleasant appearance, is not exactly a hospitable place with the locals decidedly dismissive to outsiders, even down to the police Constable Hartwell (Percy Herbert) and the local vicar (Joseph O’Conor), whom you would expect to offer a little assistance or hospitality. Dr. Shaw eventually finds a place to stay and there he meets the local teacher Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson). She, too, is not from the island but she has spent a couple of years there for vocational purposes. But things seem decidedly more odd than the locals’ fear of outsiders. Whilst collecting samples Dr. Shaw realises he is being followed. On inspection of specifically gulls’ eggs, he decides that his investigation merits a longer stay than the 24 hours he originally thought necessary. Matters become increasingly worrying following a mysterious encounter at night with many locals demanding that a misshapen figure should ‘not get out again’. Science and survival become central to Shaw and there may be wider implications for society as a whole, especially when it becomes apparent that the ministry of defence may be involved. With samples coming back indicating the ingestion of local fish could create a derivation of acromegaly the prospects for the islanders become increasingly disturbing.
Doomwatch is an enjoyable ‘scientist against the world’ horror sci-fi drama that mixes commercial and governmental issues with proletariat prejudices and unforeseen results to create an adventure in survival. Sasdy’s use of often hand-held shots gives a sense of realist immediacy to proceedings and he links these with jump cuts in order to provide the revelations and scares, be they locals on the rampage or horrors unseen. The narrative keeps the audience guessing as to the reasons behind the community’s animosity towards outsiders – as the vicar suggests that the island community is the result of ‘a life of inbreeding and immorality.’ So the questions and criticisms offer a context for what is, at heart, an enjoyable film of challenges and horrors, both real and perceived, caused by the islanders’ increasingly erratic and violent behaviour.
Doomwatch was made for Tigon, the UK film company that made a number of modest budget films, many from the exploitation genre of one kind or another – like those produced by Hammer or Amicus studios – in the 1960s and 1970s, which gave us the last two films of Michael Reeves, The Sorcerers (1967) and Witchfinder General (1968). A well structured SF/horror hybrid with hints of environmental concerns and slight anti-governmental leanings which add to the science verses superstition plot, and the politics never overwhelm a good story well told.