Twilight People – Directed by Eddie Romero. Written by Eddie Romero, Jerome Small & HG Wells (Uncredited). Starring: John Ashley (Matt Farrell), Pat Woodell (Neva Gordon), Jan Merlin (Steinman), Charles Macaulay (Doctor Gordon), Pam Grier (Ayesa, the Panther Woman) & Mona Morena (Lupa, the Wolf Woman) – Blu-Ray (MVD Visual / VCI)
Point number 1 – this is a review of a movie from 1972. If the title has fooled you into looking for twinkly, angsty vampire teens, move right the hell along.
Point number 2 – Re-read that cast list a moment. If you can read the words ‘Pam Grier (Ayesa, the Panther Woman)’ and think ‘I’m not gonna have a good time with this movie,’ well, good luck on your planet is all there is to say.
Twilight People is essentially HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau with a budget of nothing, a hefty helping of schlock, a very slight amount of characterisation, a hefty ‘Seventies-isation’ in terms of the role of women, and, just when you thought you’d been schlocked right up to bursting point, it adds extra schlock on top in terms of some of the ‘Twilight People’ themselves and the make-up that turns human beings into animal hybrids, allowing the original movie to tout itself as showing ‘Animal Desires…Human Lust’.
For all this, and some technical issues besides, Twilight People is absurdly watchable popcorn horror from the early Seventies. It’s a study in lurid advertising and what should be underwhelming delivery, presented with the sort of verve that should be exhausting, but actually makes it work on its own terms.
It’s also worth noting that given it was produced in the early Seventies, there are moments of very modern genius here. Doctor Gordon, the ‘Moreau’ of this telling, explains in a short expositional speech near the start of the film that Mankind is failing to evolve fast enough to deal with the havoc he’s wreaking on the planet, and that the species will have to be forcibly crossed with other creatures who can better deal either with the new environment we’re making for ourselves or the likely environment on the other worlds to which we will have to flee. You don’t need a great deal more than that as a rationalisation for the action of the movie – genius, on an island, kidnapping humans and changing them into beast-people. Perhaps a little more logic on why the island is full of the particular cross-breeds to which it plays host would be useful, but in terms of the bedrock, it’s there, and it’s especially resonant in terms of recent news coverage about the artificial reef of plastic threatening the Earth’s oceans, and plans to send a manned mission to Mars.
What’s more, there’s a moment of gloriously modern and scarily pertinent pop psychology too. Matt Farrell, the film’s hero and the latest acquisition in Gordon’s laboratory of experimentation, becomes both the far-too-easy-and-unexplained heartthrob of Gordon’s daughter, Neva (played with an almost charming dedication to simply reading what’s in the script by Pat Woodell), and the particular focus for the bullying of brutal dyed-blonde thug and hunter, Steinman. In these more enlightened times, we’d readily identify him as a closeted self-hating gay man, with incel and ammosexual tendencies. Spare some praise for this 1972 movie then, because when he tells Neva she has ‘a real case of hot pants’ for Farrell (oh, it’s classy dialogue all the way through), she spits back at him the uncomfortable truth – ‘That makes two of us!’ – and receives a mouthful of misogynistic slurs for her words of too-close-for-comfort rebellion.
Are we making the case then that Twilight People is a classic of iconic Seventies cinema?
No – it’s pretty leaden and straightforward stuff, with touches of exploitation thrown in, including an attempted rape of Neva by Primo, the Ape Man (read into that whatever Seventies cultural fears you like), and for all it starts with the intriguing premise of Wells’ Island of Doctor Moreau, it quickly – and probably for reasons of budget – shifts its narrative to something more like Predator, as two groups try to cross the island and escape, while being hunted down by Steinman and some local goons. So the intelligence of the initial concept collapses into a fight for survival between predatory hunter-man and weird-combination creatures. It absolutely shouldn’t work, but some actually quite solid acting from Merlin as Steinman and some of the creature-actors makes you watch their progress all the way through to the somewhat bizarre end. Pam Grier as Ayesa, the Panther Woman, Mona Morena as Lupa, the Wolf Woman (acting her socks off through a fairly solid and uncompromising face make-up), Ken Metcalfe as Kuzma, the Antelope Man (yes, really – believe it or not, the performance is pretty spellbinding), and Tony Gosalvez as Darmo, the Bat Man (You…erm…absolutely won’t believe a man can fly, but you will believe he can be sulky and unsure about his place in the new world), all deserve props for giving the premise of their roles more humanity and dignity than they sometimes deserve, and making us care about the fate of these hapless experiments in human advancement, almost in spite of the script.
The ending is rushed, confused, and feels as though it was delivered in the only way possible – we really don’t want to spoil it for you, because your eyes won’t believe what they’re seeing. But for all that, and for the abandonment of interesting plot for a simple jungle hunt movie, you can still get through Twilight People feeling like you’ve had an experience that’s left you richer.
The new Blu-rRay release from VCI and MVD Visual – ‘remastered in 2K from the 35mm negative — first time in widescreen!’ as it screams, rather aping the movie’s sensationalist self-promotion – doesn’t particularly help sell the movie as an immersive experience, though some of the underwater images from the title sequence are glorious. There are some colour issues – the island initially has a slab of green down the middle of the screen – and some audio-sync issue, that are presented here in more than previous clarity, rather than in any way corrected. That’s true to the spirit of the release, and the spirit of the original movie though – it’s a slice of its time, and its budget, and in some ways its plagiaristic chutzpah, and those are things that actually recommend Twilight People to an audience with an interest in that time, and the kind of schlocky but ambitious movie it was. If you’re in that audience, you’ll know it, because even as you read this, the spirit of the time and the filmmaking ethos will be calling to you. And if you’re in that audience, the new release of Twilight People, like the call of ‘Animal Desire…Human Lust’, will be utterly irresistible. Tony Fyler