By Rob Kelly
Editor’s note: Thanks to Rob Kelly for his patience in getting this story published!
Eddie Romero’s The Twilight People is a strange, grungy, ultra-low-rent, unofficial version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, itself the subject of several film adaptations. It starts with some stock footage of fish, and ends with an animated half-man, half-bat flying off into the horizon. And the eighty-three minutes in between aren’t bad either!
A soldier of fortune named Matt Farrell (John Ashley, who looks like what would happen if Fabian and Earl Holliman had a baby) is kidnapped while scuba diving, dragged onto a boat, tied down, and taken to an island. The people behind it are the comely Neva Gordon (Pat Woodell) and the crew-cutted, one-named Steinman (Jan Merlin).
Waiting for him in the remote island is Neva’s father, Dr. Gordon (Charles Macauly), who has been engaging in bizarre experiments to combine humans and animals. Examples of his handiwork wander the grounds—Ayesa The Panther Woman (Pam Grier—Pam Grier!), an antelope-man, an ape-man, a boar-man, a were-woman and, most spectacularly, Darmo the Bat-Man (Tony Gonsalvez), whose olive skin and hairy torso makes one think poor Jamie Farr has been kidnapped and brought to the island as well. Dr. Gordon explains he wants Farrell to be one of his experiments because of his intelligence and physical prowess, something Farrell is not interested in. You just can’t please some people!
Steinman, who shoots the boar-man for trying to escape, spends a lot of time trying to get Farrell to like him. The whole kidnapping thing gets in the way of this, of course, and their budding friendship hits a speed bump when Neva realizes her father is, in fact, nuts and decides to help Farrell and the animal people escape. At one point, Neva even confronts Steinman about his feelings for Farrell, which is met with a slap across the face.
The final third of The Twilight People is a chase film, with Steinman and his goons hunting down Farrell and Neva, while simultaneously fending off the animal people. The film concludes in a cave where Dr. Gordon confronts his first experiment, his wife, whose face looks not so much like an animal but a pot of Hamburger Helper. Matt and Neva survive, and watch the aforementioned Darmo the Bat-Man fly away to freedom, sweet freedom. You’ve seen this story many times before (okay, maybe not that last part), in movies good and bad. What makes The Twilight People special—and ultimately worth seeking out–is that it’s part of Eddie Romero’s filmography.
Eddie Romero directed almost sixty films in a six-decade career, with most of them coming between 1947-1977, when he averaged a movie a year (just like Woody Allen!). His films have a grubby, Ed Wood-ian texture, and you get the feeling more than one person on the crew walked away from the shoot with Hepatitis. When any character in an Eddie Romero films bleeds, out comes this neon-bright orange tempura paint that looks so little like blood that you have to mentally remind yourself that it’s supposed to be blood. The whole sub-plot about Steinman having the hots for Farrell is surprising—it’s either daringly progressive or just another example of Gay Panic, I can’t decide which.
Acting-wise, as our square-jawed hero, John Ashley is pretty much a stiff (maybe he was distracted with other duties, since he co-produced along with Romero). Charles Macauly is suitably bonkers as Dr. Gordon, though he’s never really given anything all that weird to do—which in itself is weird considering the guy spends his time crossbreeding humans and animals (of course, when it comes to this role, the brass ring for weird was grabbed by the legendary Marlon Brando, who played the “real” Dr. Moreau in the ill-fated 1996 film). The most notable presence is Tony Gonsalvez as Darmo the Bat-Man, since it seems the lion’s share of the film’s budget was spent on his make-up and prosthetics. Darmo gets a lot of flying around scenes, and there a few sequences that are fairly technically impressive given how cheapjack the rest of the production was.
Speaking of notable presences, while watching The Twilight People, you wonder what Eddie Romero was thinking, burying one of the most beautiful, magnetic of screen stars like Pam Grier under a bunch of cruddy make-up and only giving her grunts as dialog. I guess he learned his lesson, since Grier starred in Romero’s next film, the “kittens in a can” drama Black Mama, White Mama, which uses a lot more of her natural gifts.
The Twilight People is not a “good” movie by any definition of that word, but I have to admit it does contain a certain loopy charm that is compelling to watch. I saw it for the first time around 1am as the second half of a double feature, and was sucked in by all the sheer weirdness on display. By the time the winged Jamie Farr took off into the sky, I was hysterical with laughter, convinced I’d seen one of the best movies of all time. In the cold light of day I can see that’s not strictly true, but if you enjoy deeply strange little curios, then you’d do worse than to spend eighty minutes with The Twilight People.
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack, and the film critic for 13thDimension.com