With the summer hoopla of the end-of-the-world saga The Day After Tomorrow smashing theaters, I'm reminded of one of the great disaster films of all time. You probably haven't heard of the 1962 flick, as it was made in England of all places. But it was a brilliant little suspense drama, told from the viewpoint of a bustling London newsroom.
Called The Day the Earth Caught Fire, this terrific disaster drama did not have great box office success, but critics rightfully regarded it as a diamond awaiting discovery. The special effects are minimal, as we see littered abandoned streets, thick London fogs, a few burning buildings and drunk beatniks dancing on cars. I've never run into a drunk beatnik before, but according to The Day the Earth Caught Fire, once they start to groovin' baby, they're hard to stop. Damn hippies.
The beauty of this film is emphasis on story and character rather than special effects. British science fiction from this period leaned towards respectability, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire's writer/director Val Guest was responsible for many of these films. His The Quatermass Experiment began the trend in 1955, and he continued with Quatermass II: Enemy From Space (1957) and The Abominable Snowman (1957). This notable British sci-fi class also includes Village of the Damned (1960), Day of the Triffids (1962), Island of Terror (1966) and Five Million Years to Earth (1967). American cult director John Carpenter has been a fan of these films for years, writing Prince of Darkness in 1987 under the name "Martin Quatermass" and even remaking Village of the Damned in 1995.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire has been a favorite of mine because most of the intense drama is played out in the confines of the newsroom. Edward Judd plays a down-on-his-luck reporter suffering the trauma of divorce, writer's block and alcoholism. His buddy and mentor, wonderfully played by Leo McKern, covers his ass and even writes a few stories under his friend's byline. At one point frustrated with Judd's destructive melancholy, McKern tells the wet noodle, "There will be somebody else sooner or later. London's full of somebody else's. Find yourself another. Find yourself a dozen." Judd replies with appropriate British dryness, "You dirty old man."