Written by: Eddie Romero, Jerome Small (screenplay), H.G. Wells (novel)
Directed by: Eddie Romero
Starring: John Ashley, Pat Woodell, and Charles Macaulay
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Test Tube terrors... half beast, all monster!
You don’t have to look very hard to see the potential appeal of The Twilight People. While Eddie Romero isn’t the first name that rolls off of your tongue when discussing cult filmmakers, the Filipino exploitation maven was something of a pioneer, helming a slew of movies that were instrumental in ushering in a new, gore-soaked era for horror. Many of these fell under the umbrella of his Blood Island movies, a sort of unofficial “series” of splatter movies set in exotic Filipino locales that allowed Romero and his frequent collaborators to indulge their gruesome, envelope-pushing whims. In many ways, The Twilight People closes the loop on this cycle: arriving 13 years after Romero’s initial, Dr. Morneau-inspired Terror is a Man, the director returned to H.G. Well’s classic tale, this time with over a decade of experience, and Roger Corman in tow (at least unofficially, since frequent collaborator Lawrence Woolner took this project to Dimension after hatching the project alongside the King of the Bs). Unfortunately, however, it feels more like a perfunctory, dull epilogue to this run rather than an emphatic punctuation mark, a disappointing turn of events considering how wild Romero’s other efforts often were.
For a brief moment, it looks like The Twilight People will follow suit, as it opens with a scuba diver exploring the ocean floor. Soon, he’s joined by a pair of other divers before he’s inexplicably fished right out of the sea and plopped onto a boat, where he learns he’s being kidnapped. We learn that this guy—adventurer and all-around tough guy Matt Farrell (John Ashley)--is wanted by Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay), an enigmatic scientist performing mysterious experiments on a remote island. Farrell quickly discovers he’s one of several captives that Dr. Gordon plans to conduct further experiments upon in his quest to create a super race of human-animal hybrids; naturally, he’s not inclined to have his brain removed, so he hatches a plan to escape, enlisting the mad doctor’s own daughter (Pat Woodell) to help jailbreak the other, poor unfortunate souls who have already been twisted into savage beasts.
There’s not much more to Twilight People than that, something that shouldn’t be of much surprise considering how familiar this tale is. Even by 1972, it would have been old hat, and the adaptations the followed have only relegated it further into the dustbin of absurdity. Where those other versions offer some distinctive qualities—be it the genuine eeriness of Island of Lost Souls, the lush, pulpy thrills of AIP’s take, or the utter insanity of the Richard Stanley/John Frankenheimer fiasco—The Twilight People just trudges along, never finding anything approaching a pulse as it ticks off the expected story beats. Just about everything following that absurd shot of Ashley being scooped up out the water within the opening minutes is a deflating comedown: you wait for a hint of Romero’s typical brand of lurid grisliness, only to be met with cheap sets adorned with test tube brains and plasticine prison cells. Occasionally, a burst of violence—often accompanied by that distinct, painterly 70s bloodshed—tries to jolt the proceedings, but it comes across more like a kid trying to nudge a dead animal with a stick. “Do something,” you plea to The Twilight People, only to have it sleepily turn over on its other side, content to keep disappointing you.
Somehow, it takes one of the most fascinating and intriguing stories imaginable and completely snoozes through it, creating the impression of someone drowsily recalling bits of pieces of the story and inexplicably mingling them with other recollections. Most of the scenes with Farrell and Gordon play more like the encounters out of a James Bond movie, with the maniacal villain reveling in his diabolical plan amidst the whizzing and whirring of various gadgets (it doesn’t help that Macaulay even comes across as a low-rent Telly Savalas). Sequences set in the bowels of the lair—where the monstrous experiments are kept in cages—approach the exploitative nastiness Romero became famous for, but even these are undermined by poor makeup effects and a lack of commitment towards making these creatures feel like anything more than elaborate set decorations. Yet another subplot finds Gordon’s daughter terrorized by a lecherous henchman, an unseemly encounter that feels ripped right out of the era’s skeezier grindhouse fare.
Perhaps appropriately (if not predictably), these disparate parts form an ungainly creation, one that stumbles about in search of a direction. Eventually, it settles for being an escape picture, albeit one that can hardly be considered “action-packed.” Instead, it’s sort of a disastrously paced sequence that takes up half the movie, as Dr. Gordon’s goons pursue both Farrell and the group of escaped captives. Romero has little feel for this, though, as the film’s stock score drones throughout, accenting dismal proceedings that should be much more exciting considering they involve mutant beast people going wild on their tormentors. In reality, however, this mostly amounts to watching these poor actors (among them: a barely recognizable Pam Grier!) giving performances dubbed with actual animal howls and grunts, which sounds a lot wackier than it comes across. It and some of the other effects provides the occasional (and unintended) laugh, but it’s not enough to compensate for how dreadfully boring the rest of it is.
Two things do warrant further mentioning: one is the incredible bat-man creature, who does everything in his power to steal the show. Not that it takes much, of course, but you appreciate the effort it took to affix this stunt actor to a wire, allowing him to swoop in for an incredible freak-out moment. The other moment is a late-movie twist that accounts for Dr. Gordon’s missing wife, who has suffered the predictable fate of being buried under mounds of inhuman make-up. Something about it is striking, though: despite the makeup being a hot mess, it accentuates the utter horror of hearing a human voice struggle to fight through. Considering the rest of her fellow creatures come across as goofs in Halloween costumes, this a rare, affecting instance of Romero realizing that maybe he should have dedicated more time to the titular twilight people. For example, the Panther Woman figures heavily as an actual character in Island of Lost Souls, all poor Pam Grier has to do here is pounce upon unsuspecting victims as dubbed-in roars comically fly from her mouth.
As such, moments like those involving the bat-man and Gordon’s wife only hint at what any adaptation of Dr. Moreau should be: wild, unhinged pulp underscored by the unholy, horrific suffering of these experiments. The Twilight People doesn’t offer nearly enough of any of this to qualify as anything other than a disappointing end to the Blood Island saga. You wouldn’t quite glean this from VCI’s new Blu-ray release, however: with their original DVD long out-of-print, the label finally upgrades the title to Blu-ray, where it receives a decent enough treatment. The transfer isn’t exactly anything to write home about—the elements are relatively clean, but the colors tend to push towards various tints, sometimes from scene-to-scene. It’s not too distracting, though, and it’s certainly an improvement on the DVD (which you can also check out for yourself since this is a DVD/Blu combo pack). A trailer, TV spots, an hour-long interview with Romero, and a feature commentary with film historian David Del Valle and schlock-master David DeCoteau make for a solid round-up of supplements, meaning long-time fans should be satisfied. As someone who had just been wanting to see The Twilight People for all these years, I can at least appreciate the effort—even though I’m pretty sure no movie whose credits boast “Pam Grier as the Panther Woman” should be this dull.
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