DOOMWATCH (1972)

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Something strange is going on in the remote island community of Balfe. When the ecological department ‘Doomwatch’ sends Dr Del Shaw (Ian Bannen) to the island, to gather evidence following a recent oil tanker spill, he receives a frosty reception - the islanders are more insular and inbred than expected and even the local police make it clear he isn’t welcome. When Shaw finds the body of a young girl buried in the woods, and is viciously attacked by a deformed man while investigating the villager’s suspicious behaviour, he discovers that illegal chemicals dumped in the waters around the island have infected the fish the islanders are eating, causing hideous mutations in many of the population which lead to random violent outbursts and eventual madness. Shaw enlists the help of schoolteacher Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson) to try and uncover the truth, not realising that the islanders will go to terrifying lengths to protect their community and make sure that news of their condition doesn’t make it back to the mainland. 

Released in 1972, Doomwatch was a big screen version of the popular BBC TV series created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedlar, the brainchildren behind Dr. Who’s iconic Cybermen. Despite its horror movie trappings (there’s a decidedly ‘Wicker Man’ quality to this island, even though The Wicker Man wouldn’t be released until almost two years later) it’s really a cautionary thriller that is probably more relevant now than it has ever been, plugging into our primal neuroses about chemically tainted or suspiciously bio-engineered foods, chem trails, pollutants and other government / big business conspiracies.

At the time of its release, fans of the TV series were upset by the sidelining of their favourite characters in favour of Ian Bannen and Judy Geeson, neither of whom had featured in the small screen incarnation. Although the stars of the television show did appear, their presence in the story was significantly reduced but that’s probably just as well because the TV cast seem a pretty dull bunch whereas Bannen makes for a convincing and sympathetic leading man, and his chemistry with Geeson is excellent. The island location is terrific as well (the exteriors were actually shot in Cornwall) and director Peter Sasdy, a horror stalwart at the height of his powers (he had recently completed Hammer’s ‘Hands of the Ripper’ and his next project would be Nigel Kneale’s legendary ‘The Stone Tape’) makes a fine job of ramping up the atmosphere.

But it’s the screenplay, which is peculiarly credited to the much-underrated English screenwriter Clive Exton as the ‘final screenplay’, suggesting that too many cooks might have already spoiled the broth before Exton even arrived on the scene, which is the problem. It doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be, and the ending – despite a commendable injection of pathos during a town meeting, when Shaw desperately tries to convince the islanders to accept outside help – doesn’t carry the punch this story deserved. It also reduces Geeson’s character to a cowering damsel-in-distress, which is a disservice.

Still, it’s heart-warming to see ‘Doomwatch’ finally get a bluray release. The print is in good condition, apart from some strange ghosting during the opening night time scene that’s so brief it seems unfair to mention, but the only extra is a trailer which is a little bit of a shame considering the film’s quirky importance in the annals of 70s horror / sci-fi cinema. But, despite the lack of extras, this is well worth adding to your collection. Even with its flaws, Doomwatch is a highly watchable and occasionally fascinating movie. 

DOOMWATCH / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: PETER SASDY / SCREENPLAY: CLIVE EXTON / STARRING: IAN BANNEN, JUDY GEESON, JOHN PAUL, SIMON OATES, JEAN TREND / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
 


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