Zombie Herring Explosion: Stornoway’s B-Movie Industry in the 1950s

16 02 2011

BBC Alba is soon to appear on Freeview, (not to be confused with FreePew- the new digital channel for the Free Church). Gaelic TV has transformed Stornoway into a media powerhouse with cameras on every street corner – and not just the CCTV ones, and these days it seems the town is awash with people shouting “Acsean” and “Cùt” all over the place.

Younger readers might think this is a new phenomenon, but older SYs smile to themselves and think back to the 1950s, when the islands were home to a thriving B-Movie industry. Back then you couldn’t walk 20 yards through downtown Stornoway without bumping into monsters, zombies and aliens. Especially outside the Macs.

In the early 1950s, hardline Carloway councillor Leodhasach Rayburn Macarthur waged an aggressive campaign against perceived Rubhach influence in government and the media. Macarthur was convinced that the local Holywood studio system had been infiltrated by agents of the Garrabost politburo, intent on spreading their subversive Point propaganda to the West side of the Braighe. During the 30’s Holywood (so called as the studio, on Riggs Road, was built from the old timbers from St Lennan’s Church) had indeed been home to a number of left-leaning figures, many of whom had openly expressed admiration for the Peninsula’s ruthless dictator Josef StarInn and his big gulags. Among them were the directors Ossian Wellies and John Uibhisteach, the radical Sgitheanach dramatist Bertolt Breakish and the actors Humphrey Boke-Ceard and Lauren Bac-Coll

Macarthur and his supporters in the council’s House Un-Stoarnowaywegian Activities Committee decided that the only way to prevent a Rubhach takeover of the entire Outer Hebrides was to keep Holywood’s ideologically suspicious movies out, and in 1952, they succeeded in passing a local bye-law that banned the import and screening of all films from Away.

Stornoway’s Playhouse cinema found itself forced to repeat the only locally-made film in its possession, every night – a 3-minute silent reel of Cailleach Dhomhaill Aonghais Iain’s peats being taken home from Loch Sanndabhat in 1932. When audiences inevitably began to decline, the Playhouse’s desperate management put an advert in the Gazette seeking other home-made movies to screen.

Local entrepreneurs were quick to exploit the opportunity, and a number of film studios sprang up overnight. Without exception, the new studios catered to the taste for poor-quality monster and horror flicks that characterised the paranoia of the Macarthurite era.

Airidhbhruach International Pictures operated from a decrepit bus at the side of the Stornoway-Tarbert road; Eel Ling Studios established itself round the back of Cailean Neillie’s fish shop, and Stornoway’s (H)Amadan House of Horror grew so rapidly that it soon established subsidiary studios in different parts of the islands – Hamnaway House of Horror in Uig, Habost House of Horror in South Lochs and – south of the border – the legendary Harris House of Horgabost.

Other local businesses grew rapidly to service the industry; DD Morrison’s and Maciver & Dart made a fortune renting out cine cameras and flogging batteries, while Kenny Froggan’s expanded their film development labs to run 24-6.

Top directors of the day included Roger Croman, Russ Meyerybank, George A Rodelmero and Herschel Gordon Leodhasach.

Members of the Stornoway Thespians soon became well known film stars, including Belle-Anne Lugosi, Christopher Lackalee, Boris Carlowayov and even Rev Peat R MacCuishing. These stars soon moved into luxurious Holy Wood mansions (the new Town Council houses on Springfield Road) and their every move featured in glossy pull out supplements in the Gazette.

In 1959, Belle-Anne Lugosi was billed as the star of notorious transvestite director Edward D Woodlandcentre Jr’s “Plan 9 From Outend Coll”. In fact she’d got the cuiream just before filming started, and was replaced at the last minute by a young R*ddy L*nnt**r with a cailleach’s headscarf over his face. 20 years later, as a member of short lived proto-goth megastars the Dram Boys (also featuring Rev F*rg*s*n and Father C*p*ldi), R*ddy used the experience as material for the hit single “Belle-Anne Lugosi’s Beannag”(1980).

Forgotten cult classics from Stornoway’s B-Movie heyday included:

Zombie Herring Explosion (1956, Dir Roger Croman)

In a secret military bunker on Bells Road lies a vast cache of salt herring, intended to feed allied troops should WWIII break out. When an atomic bomb test is carried out nearby, the bunker and its contents are accidentally exposed to an intense burst of gamma rays. A mysterious reaction between the fish salt and the radiation re-animates the herring and – in a horrifying undead state – they go on a shocking rampage through the streets of Stornoway. Their leader, Dr Spealtrag, plans to wreak a terrible vengeance on Stornowegian humanity for its part in the fishing industry, by pickling everybody in barrels and exporting them to the Baltic. Nothing stands between the zombie herring and world domination except heroic scientist Bo Iledinmilk, his lovely assistant Friedi Noatmeal and a giant pan of mashed buntata. And also a ruppish plan to lure the undead fish into a big mincing machine in the Gut Factory and then hit the “on” button.

I Was a Teenage Hearach (1957, Dir Gene Foulurgha Jr)

Delinquent townie teenager Seonaidh “Bayhead” Rivers is treated by a mad scientist who injects him with the dangerous drug sgorpamine, believing that he has to be regressed to a primal state of total maw-ness in order to be cured of being a wee bleigeard. But the experiment goes too far; Seonaidh regresses right over the Clisham and becomes a Hearach from Grosebay, with terrifying and tragic results.

Creature from the Black House (1954, Dir Jack Arnol)

This movie was billed as“3D” but sadly this was based entirely on a Gazette review that described it as “Dire, Desperate and Downright ruppish”. A party of archaeologists on an expedition to the remote West Side of Lewis are forced to spend the night in a dark and sinister native dwelling. During the night, one of them goes to the byre to answer a call of nature and disturbs a monstrous prehistoric creature lurking there, with terrifying and tragic results. Starring Arnoltonio Moreno, Julie Arnoldams and Dolag the Cow.

Vatisker Pussycat, Kill Kill! (1964, Dir Russ Meyerybank)

There wasn’t much of a plot in this one, to be honest. Three thrill-seeking Niseach guga dancers – Murdag, Peigi-Barabal and Angusina – are out racing their sports tractors on the moor between Skigersta and Tolsta. They run over a bodach at the peats, nick his ceann cropaig sandwiches and flee South, rampaging through Tolsta and Gress in a gratuitous display of violence, beannags and floral aprons. Then they hatch a plan to rob Back filling station, with terrifying and tragic results.

Plan Nine from Outend Coll (1959 Dir Ed Woodlandcentre Jr)

This ill-fated film is now best remembered for being one of the worst films ever made. Critics have made much of the wooden acting, wobbly sets and incoherent plot, but it should be remembered that this was a feature of all of Lewis’ B-Movies of this era.

This film involved aliens, zombies, space craft and was largely filmed in Sandwick Cemetery and in the Coll bus. It was not helped by the fact that its star Belle Anne Lugosi had got the cuiream and resigned two days into filming and her on screen presence was relegated to a large poster of her appearing in every shot, with terrifying and tragic results.

Other well known Hebridean B-movies from this era were;

It Came from Outend Coll

I Married a Minister from Outend Coll

Urgha vs the Flying Saucers

Attack of the 5 Foot Cailleach

God Zilla vs the Ministers

The Wild Women of Waltos

Tolstaglen or Tolstaglenda