Burlington Film Society Blog

BFS Presents: The Day of the Triffids

Posted on Feb 8, 2015
BFS Presents: The Day of the Triffids

The Burlington Film Society (BFS) and the Regional Educational Television Network (RETN) are pleased to announce Burlington Film Society Presents, a community curated series of classic films, from Hollywood hits to B-list sci-fi and horror, that explores our personal connections to the movies. Community members will share stories about the films that are important to them, followed by a full-length film on RETN Channel 16. A new introduction and film screening will premiere on Channel 16 every Sunday evening at 8pm, starting on February 8th. Films will replay on Thursdays at 10:00am and Fridays at Midnight (early Saturday morning). A full schedule of presenters and films can be found at www.retn.org/bfs.

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Barry Snyder, Co-Founder of BFS begins the series tonight at 8:00pm by introducing The Day of the Triffids.

Here’s some thoughts he had about the film and it’s connection to his youth in Pennsylvania:

Gimme that old time (60’s sci-fi) religion

In Palmerton, the small town in eastern Pennsylvania where I grew up, a bored 11-year old would never find anything quite so interesting as giant, ambulatory, poison-spitting Triffids, if it were not for the movies. Theaters like the local Palm Theater were the real life equivalent to the wardrobe the children discover in the The Chronicles of Narnia: a portal to worlds so radically different from everyday reality, you couldn’t come away from Saturday matinee excursion to a film like The Day of the Triffids without somehow being transformed. The images of burning cities, planes falling from the skies, marauding convicts settled into the crevasses of my still young brains like seeds. What rooted there haunted has haunted my imagination for years.

For someone who grew up in today’s world, where access to all sorts of audio visual experiences are a keystroke away, it’s hard to describe how utterly captivating movies were for anyone growing up in a rural America in 1962. Television was still in its infancy. There were books, delivered by a bookmobile, through the back doors of which you entered on your knees like a supplicant, and comic books, that you could pick up at the candy store with a pinball machine in the back. For sheer sensation, there was the county fair, all loudness and light and movement, and sideshows offering tantalizing hints of things not found in the Book of Knowledge, the colorful encyclopedia sold door to door to aspirational parents of the baby boom generation. But for pure entrancement, nothing could come close to the movies. Your unsuspecting parents dropped you off at the front door, and for the price of 50 cents you were allowed admission to a haunted, liminal space, where armed skeletons sprout from the ground, Eloi peek from behind trees, and fallen Vikings drift off in burning longships.

The decade and a half following the 1948 Supreme Court decision breaking up the vertically integrated studios were the golden years for independent exhibitors, freed from the dictates of the studios that previously dictated the program. Into the breach flooded low budget creature features from American International Pictures, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy cycles from Britain’s Hammer Films, sword-and-sandal epics from Italy starring Steve Reeves as Hercules (unchained). Not to be outdone, studios like Columbia Pictures hired master showman like William Castle, who rigged theaters with vibrating seats and skeletons that flew out at the audience on wires, to add extra dimensions of sensation to films like The Tingler and The House on Haunted Hill. All those babies begotten by all the sweethearts of soldiers happy to have made it through the war was money in the pocket for moviemakers and the small town movie houses that marketed their fare.

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim claims that children are natural born philosophers, and they find answers to the questions they have about things they observe but don’t understand, and in a language that makes them comprehensible, in fairy tales.  Significantly, they are also all the things parents and teachers would not talk about, all those things that reside on the boundaries of taboo. Religion broached these boundaries, but no preacher was a match for the immersive enchantment of movies. The dull, abstract propositions of sermons hardly made a dent in one’s consciousness, and if you had a choice, you wouldn’t go to Sunday School. But films like Day of the Triffids hooked you from the start, and didn’t let go when the lights came back on. You left the theater in wonder, thinking: what would the world be like if plants fed on humans, rather than the other way around? What would I do if I woke up and found that everyone around me was overnight rendered blind?

Doomsday scenarios like that of The Day of the Triffids – a specialty of the great British sci-fi writer John Wyndham – gave vivid, tangible expression to the kind of world shattering catastrophe that is only spoken of obscurely and abstractly in the Bible. Earthly apocalypse was one of the great leitmotifs of B-movies of the 50’s and 60’s, from Panic in Year Zero (“A-day…When civilization came to an end!) to The Last Man on Earth, the first and still the best of the adaptations of Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend. These movies made immediate and comprehensible the idea of disaster spoken of only obscurely and abstractly in the Bible. The lesson was from the Book of Prometheus: the punishment visited upon humans for wrangling powers, like breaking the bonds of atoms, that only belong to God. As a dedicated member of the Church of the Flickering Image, I was henceforth conditioned to always think about unforeseen consequences, about the boundaries of knowledge and the questionable character of humans.

Although first television and then recording technologies like the VCR would soon change things, movies, in the days when I first encountered them, were not available for re-visitation beyond their appearance in theaters. Like exotic plants they blossomed in the light cast by the projector on a Saturday afternoon, and then disappeared. After they made the rounds of movie houses, movies lived on only in one’s memory and imagination. The fact of this spectral existence somehow added to the movie’s cabalistic power. Leaving the theater, you blinked in the fading light of Saturday afternoon, and did a kind of mental adjustment, to re-enter the world as it really was. But the real world had changed. You knew there were things haunting it, dangerous, dark and frightening things, utterly heedless of humanity. The noise of everyday life took over, but underneath you could still hear the whisper of some faint injunction: watch out!  Be prepared!

Re-seeing The Day of the Triffids in its reincarnation on the small screen, a half century on, is like looking at family slides of your youth. It recalls something, and experience that marked you, but now observed at a distance. I feel a kind of heartbreak at not being able to have the raw, naive experience I had when I saw the films like The Day of the Triffids ask a kid. Sophisticated laughter at the sheer silliness and tawdriness of the production is hardly a substitute. But it does help me see where some of my thinking about the world comes from. And why I have and always will love the movies.

-Barry Snyder, Co-Founder, Burlington Film Society