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Quatermass 2

by Glenn Erickson Aug 06, 2019

What ought to be appreciated as one of the most prescient of 1950s suspense films holds a place among the best science fiction movies ever — and it formed a style template for a thousand paranoid spy thrillers to follow. Val Guest pares Nigel Kneale’s fantastic storyline down to its essentials, making his scientist-hero the perfect secret agent to confront a sinister techno-political conspiracy… from outer space.

Quatermass 2
Blu-ray
Scream Factory
1957 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 85 min. / Street Date July 30, 2019 / 29.95
Starring: Brian Donlevy, John Longdon, Sidney James, Bryan Forbes, William Franklyn, Vera Day, Charles Lloyd Pack, Tom Chatto, John Van Eyssen, Percy Herbert, Michael Ripper, John Rae, Michael Balfour.
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Film Editor: James Needs
Makeup: Philip Leakey
Art Direction: Bernard Robinson
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Val Guest, Nigel Kneale from his teleplay
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Directed by
Val Guest

 

Here’s yet another fine 2019 Blu-ray release that closes a big gap in Sci-fi history. Quatermass 2 has had a rocky ride, owing to its general unavailability for twenty years, and present-day problems sourcing acceptable elements. I have more on that to say below, but for starters it can be proclaimed that Scream Factory’s Blu of the second Quatermass thriller is a huge improvement on anything seen before, and it has been appointed with some very good extras.

To have a respectable Blu-ray of Quatermass 2 completes the ‘Big Five’ collection of classic Brit Sci-fi, the other four being the first and third filmic adventures of Professor Quatermass, and the stand-alone thrillers These are the Damned and The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Quatermass 2 is simply superior filmmaking, intelligent and fast-paced. The screenplay repeats an explanation once or twice but for most part barrels forward, encouraging the audience to pay close attention. Variety’s August 27, ’57 review by Whit. dismisses the film in three short paragraphs, calling it a ‘lesser science-fiction entry,’ and ‘vague in approach.’ ‘The yarn unfolds in fine confusion.’

 

Wake up, Whit — nothing could be further from the truth. Quatermass 2 (Q2) begins where The Quatermass Xperiment (Q1) leaves off, with the professor’s British Rocket Group preparing another space shot, this time with an atomic rocket. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) berates his assistants Brand and Marsh (William Franklyn & future director Bryan Forbes) for using the base’s equipment to track an odd shower of meteorites, until they stumble onto what seems a strange militaristic secret project, that slowly reveals itself as a vast, sinister conspiracy. Only by quick thinking does Quatermass avoid being neutralized, and he can continue to pursue his investigation only because he has an ally in the person of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (John Longden). But it soon becomes clear that the conspiracy is already so far along, it may not be possible to stop it. Q1envisioned a direct parasitical invasion from a ‘space seed;’ and Q3 posits a failed alien attempt to make Earth a biological lab, five million years ago. The more political Q2 shows an alien invasion that conquers Britain by infiltrating its governmental bureaucracy with mind-controlled Quislings.

Here in the United States we knew Q2 as Enemy From Space. Unlike Hammer’s first Quatermass feature, United Artists lost the rights and it disappeared from view (at least in California) between roughly 1968 and 1987. Bill Warren tried to schedule it for the FILMEX 1975 Science Fiction Marathon but nobody could locate a print.

The movie races along at top speed, introducing something alarming in every new scene. Brian Donlevy is again excellent as the tough-guy ‘Rocket Man,’ still abrasive but less insultingly blunt than in the first movie. Author Nigel Kneale must have deeply resented losing control over his BBC creations at the hands of Hammer Films and Val Guest. His anger at the casting of Brian Donlevy seems sourced in a disliking of pushy Americans — as reflected in the sophisticated ‘ugly American’ character he wrote for the TV play that became The Abominable Snowman.

Authors have every right to resist having their work changed by others. In 1972 I listened to Richard Matheson slam what Universal had done to his book The Shrinking Man. Only after a later re-viewing of the Jack Arnold movie did Matheson understand why everybody else loves it. Val Guest freely adapted Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass II teleplay, and almost everything is an improvement. Three hours of TV scripting is beautifully condensed into 85 minutes, throwing out superfluous characters and dropping repetitions of scenes that reveal that the conspiracy has permeated all levels of government. Guest’s biggest excision is an extravagant finale in outer space, that in 1955 Hammer couldn’t have filmed convincingly. At any rate, it would have seemed like a new movie had started, with a ‘space patrol’ theme.

 

Val Guest’s direction is perfectly suited to the material — his precise images are always arresting. The story has a bit of gothic ‘Terence Fisher’ iconography, as pointed out by author John Brosnan: the ‘Mark’ indicating the alien entry point in human flesh is like the Mark of the Devil. Once the alien influence is removed, The Mark and its effects disappear as if a magic spell had been lifted. Given a bigger budget and the fine assist of art director Bernard Robinson, Guest successfully turns a real Shell oil refinery into a sinister alien base of operations. An interior pump distribution room looks authentic: Methane! Ammonia! Oxygen!  The simple addition of a sliding airlock turns a cavernous refinery space into the Sci-fi equivalent of a Nazi execution chamber, complete with guards ready to don gas masks. Anybody who has ever felt manipulated or misled on a guided tour will feel very uncomfortable when the Public Relations Officer (John Van Eyssen) directs Bernard’s inspection party toward one of the Big Domes.

The film’s thriller innovations emphasize innocuous elements that only James Bernard’s nervous strings identify as malevolent: construction trucks moving through the center of the city, all bearing a nondescript, unidentified logo; abandoned buses outside the Winnderden Flats- adjacent worker housing development. The politely elitist, patronizing guide serves as a high-toned Judas Goat for the extra-special tour guests. The only overtly menacing images are the monosyllabic ‘Zombie’ guards patrolling the mystery plant at Winnderden, with their gas masks, bullet helmets and sten guns. Director Guest places them in ominous compositions, lined up in a row and standing still.

 

Critic Brosnan also suggested a topical subtext for Nigel Kneale’s ‘political’ invasion from outer space: Quatermass 2 is a stealth slam against socialist trends in England’s war recovery period. A centralized government gives fewer bureaucrats more power and authority — and control over public sources of information. The resulting secrecy allows new military and atomic ‘establishments’ to be erected without opposition, and the top secret classification keeps civilian neighbors from even daring to ask what might be going on inside. Quatermass and Marsh drive for hours in a restricted area, on newly-laid concrete roadways prepared for… what?  Even Bernard is spooked by this massive establishment that the public is not supposed to know about: ‘Don’t step off the concrete … it might be mined.’

Kneale identifies England’s socialist bureaucracy as an ideal system for conquest. ‘Top Secret’ programs provide excellent cover for an invasion from within. The tightly-regimented chain of authority allows the takeover to progress with only a few top decision-makers under alien control. The vast majority of the aliens’ catspaws don’t need to be mind-controlled — the local Camp Secretary (Charles Lloyd Pack) toes the Company Line as loyally as does a Minister of Parliament directly infected with The Mark.

The setup equally describes working in a corporation. Retaining one’s job and livelihood requires submissive obedience and a lack of curiosity about what others are doing. The local workers just assemble the pipes as instructed, and accept whatever lies they are told. The ‘things that fall at night’ are over-shots, just part of the process. The Zombie-like guards with their machine guns are ‘special police,’ and anybody saying otherwise is a suspect subversive. The biggest lie is told only in confidence to specially-targeted top government officials: the secret plant is producing synthetic food to feed an overpopulated world. The hideous joke, discovered too late by the headstrong M.P. Broadhead (Tom Chatto) is that the ‘food’ is “poison to every living thing on Earth.”

 

Bernard Quatermass is quite different from the military organizer that Brian Donlevy played ten years earlier in MGM’s ‘atom bomb biography’ The Beginning or the End. Like Sherlock Holmes with a slide rule, Bernard attacks the mystery as a scientist, assessing scraps of information and repeatedly formulating inspired deductions. Quatermass sees The Mark on the faces of the automaton-like guards, and concludes that he’s witnessing “the mass destruction of men’s minds.” Knowing that the projectiles from outer space contain methane, Quatermass thinks of the moons of other planets known to be enveloped by methane gas.

But not even Quatermass is ready for what he sees through the viewing port inside the mysterious Big Dome: a life form so alien, it’s almost beyond comprehension. Are the ‘things in the Domes’ science fiction’s first organic amorphous blob-monsters?

Although it unspools as an action thriller, Quatermass 2 is as sophisticated as Science Fiction got in the 1950s. The ‘multiple organism’ invader has a unique modus operandi to compel human collusion in its sinister invasion. Like a scientific James Bond, Bernard Quatermass detects the threat, discovers how deeply it has penetrated into the government, and takes upon himself the task of saving the world. The middle-aged commando is helped by a daring police inspector and an unruly mob of laborers that storm the ‘mystery chemical plant’ that they themselves have built.

The plant’s labor force is passive until they see a man killed in cold blood, and the girlfriend (Vera Day) of a construction worker (Percy Herbert) is ‘infected.’ The resulting worker’s revolt is the story’s least convincing development, but it’s still brilliantly realized. Unintimidated by machine guns, the worker mob prevails because the sluggard Zombies lack individual initiative, and are therefore slow on the trigger.

Lifting imagery from Raoul Walsh’s White Heat — a machine gun battle in what ought to be the worst possible place — Val Guest expands the concept of mind control onto a political battleground. Only outright heroism turns the tide. Reporter Jimmy Hall (Sidney James) remains true to his profession, despite the danger. The patriotic Brand sacrifices himself for King, Country and Planet, walking through machine-gun fire to throw a switch, just like the same year’s conflicted patriot Colonel Nicholson.

 

Cinematically speaking, Q2 is a scientific extension of Fritz Lang’s paranoid ‘Empire of Crime’ classics. From the Mabuse films comes a conspiracy so polished, it is invisible to the complacent public. Nigel Kneale had just done the television adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, in which surveillance and information-control technology replace Mabuse’s blackmail and hypnotic mind control.

American viewers may have thought Q2 to be a derivative ‘alien possession’ movie, in that its 1957 release here followed Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But the original Q2 teleseries aired in England in 1955. Actually, none of the ’50s sci-fi classics can claim a first use of the theme of The Remote Control of Human Beings. There are doubtless examples going back much further, but Robert Heinlein’s 1951 book The Puppet Masters clearly spawned the wave of RC zombies in’50s Sci-fi. By the time an authorized The Puppet Masters movie came along, every element of its concept had been worked over by derivative stories.

The watchdogs of the U.S. Production Code promoted church values in films, doing their best to nip transgressive ‘secular subversion’ in the bud. Several Hollywood Sci-fi films loudly credit a Judeo-Christian God for the workings of the universe. But the English Quatermass films never suggest a religious context; no priest tries to cow a Martian war machine with Bibles and crosses. The dog-eat-dog competition of nature exists in space as well, with alien predators that want to absorb us, turn us into helpless hosts, or experiment with our evolution. The Q2 aliens do a good job of exploiting our weaknesses, which include our inability to imagine beings that are entirely ‘other.’ Extrapolating the premise of Q2, we can imagine what might be said if the gigantic, obscene multi-organism ‘heap’ inside the dome deigned to grant Quatermass an interview:

Quatermass:
“You’re just a disgusting conglomeration of individual cells, surviving by exploiting other living things.”
The Heap:
Just what do you think YOU are?”


Other observations from 30 years of perusing Quatermass 2:

Quatermass’s rather modest Rocket Group has similarities with Morris Ankrum’s rocket program in the earlier Lippert production Rocketship X-M. After losing his Expedition Moon One ship first ship, Ankrum vows to follow it with a second, X-M 2. Quatermass does the exact same thing in his first film, despite his failure. The numbered launches appear to be the basis of the film’s title — as pointed out by the commentators, the Q2 teleplay begins with a launch failure, which is why the government has decided to chloroform Bernard’s Rocket Group.

 

The beautiful Rocket Group matte shot, at sunset with the Quatermass 2 rocket in the distance, reveals its matte line on the drive next to Bernard’s car — a ladder has been matted away, but its shadow remains. Near the end, when Brand and his assistant prepare to launch the rocket, they walk through the same matte setup — and Brand’s head partially disappears behind the matte!

As only a strong central government can do, an entire town has been eradicated so that the sinister Alien Plant can be constructed. The disc subtitles misspell the town’s name. I’d squawk louder but everybody’s gotten it wrong since day one, even John Brosnan. The published teleplay, the feature shooting script and even the IMDB get it right. It’s Winnerden Flats, not Wynerton or whatever the subtitles say. This has been opportunity #203 for me to act like a know-it-all.

 

I don’t think anybody points it out elsewhere: the prominently displayed vertical rocket model seen behind Bernard’s Moon Project miniature, is the miniature prop spaceship from the previous year’s color & ‘scope science fiction film Satellite in the Sky.

The disused buses (bearing the alien logo!) outside the prefab workers’ town are a great touch… to me they infer that nobody goes anywhere, which is pretty much the norm for lower-class workers in general. But it also infers a social malaise in a depressed community. The socialist system keeps the population as isolated as possible.

About the V-shaped scar in The Mark of those possessed — to author John Brosnan they evoke the ‘V for Victory’ sign from WW2, and the ‘England can take it’ spirit that the aliens exploit so well. The Winnerden workers, led by the Camp Secretary, know the drill from the earlier conflict: don’t talk about your job or the enemy might find out; talk about your job and you’ll lose it. Only with the Plant almost complete and layoffs rumored, are the workers beginning to grumble.

Jimmy Sangster’s X The Unknown has been acknowledged as a direct attempt to continue the Quatermass series; the commentators say that Hammer unsuccessfully asked Kneale if they could rename X’s Dr. Royston, as Quatermass. Unacknowledged but very much a grim variant on the Quatermass ethos is the company’s later These are the Damned, directed by Joseph Losey. A malevolent bureaucrat-scientist, an anti- Quatermass, conducts an inhuman experiment behind a Top Secret curtain. The scientist’s name is Bernard!

Q2 is also very much a proto-007 adventure, so much so that we think it may have influenced Ian Fleming — sci-fi elements proliferate in James Bond. Quatermass infiltrates an enemy stronghold, blows it up and saves the world, as in Dr. No and innumerable super-spy movies that followed. But the format does have antecedents — the 1943 anti-Nazi The Adventures of Tartu (Sabotage Agent) follows the exploits of secret agent Robert Donat, who destroys a colossal underground munitions plant run by the German occupiers of Hungary.

The fast pace of Q2 never lets up, not even for the fadeout. The swift and tidy wrap-up offers a comparison with North by Northwest — the end credits begin rolling even though the fantastic adventure is barely resolved.

 

Hammer plays up the horror angle as much as it can. An auto collision with a man in the road is far more graphic than the norm for 1955. Quatermass and Lomax are in such a rush, they barely acknowledge the accident. The key scene of ‘the man covered with the mystery substance’ is horrific in concept and execution, and Hammer and actor Tom Chatto play if for all it is worth. It reminds us of horrendous industrial accidents — we’re shocked that Quatermass can even function after witnessing such a fright.

When Quatermass escapes in a Rolls-Royce (1938 Phantom III), commentator Ted Newsom alludes to an interesting detail at the Plant Gate. The gate is open because a tow truck is hauling a disabled automobile, that we see for only a fraction of a second. In the teleplay the auto belongs to a picnicking family that the Zombies have murdered, for trespassing in a restricted area. The shot suggests that the picnic scene may have been filmed, and then dropped.

I suppose that, if we want to get picky, an alien mother ship ‘hiding’ in orbit was seen the year before in Ivan Tors’ sci-fi thriller GOG. That film’s secret, futuristic science establishment is threatened by a stealth rocket plane in a high orbit … and undetectable because it’s made of Fiberglass.

One reason the scenes in the alien Plant are so effective, graphically and dramatically, is that Q2 the movie filmed much the same action in many of the exact same places as the TV teleplay. Hammer’s resourceful new art director Bernard Robinson was able to improve on everything. The commentators say that some of the props and costumes were simply re-used as well.

And finally, for quite a while I’ve noted a serendipitous bit of design in three different 1957 sci-fi films, from three different countries. In each, an ominous dome is the centerpoint of an alien invasion. The first, from Kronos, is a weird energy sphere that appears briefly after an alien craft crashes into the ocean. The second dome from The Mysterians is alien military hardware — a battle dome constructed to conduct all-out war. The domes in Quatermass 2 are baleful dark industrial structures — completely mysterious in function. All all three are poised on the horizon in unnervingly direct angles. Visual poetry-wise, they seem to represent the frightening challenges that await us in the technological future.


Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Quatermass 2 is a very good encoding of a picture that has seemingly looked terrible forever. The first laserdisc licensed from Corinth was miserable, with clogged grays and fuzzy audio. The 2000 DVD was only a slight improvement, likely from the same NTSC master. At that time we were told that only one print of the movie could be located, and it had a severely flawed opening that was way too dark.

As do some other disc boutiques, Scream Factory remasters films when necessary. They originally announced a plan to transfer the film from a 35mm fine grain, and then discovered that the final two reels were damaged. Searching under the Enemy from Space title, they did find more elements, but the disc text confirms that they went with the existing ‘solo’ print. Twenty years of video software advancements have fixed almost everything. That dark opening, a total mess in the old DVD, is now only a little grainy and a little dark — which is fine because the prologue is a day-for-night scene. The show now begins with a United Artists logo, which had been dropped frome earlier video copies.

The picture is far sharper and widescreen formatting flatters cameraman Gerald Gibbs’ exacting compositions. My copy incorrectly lists 1:37 on the outside. Audio is clean, highlighting James Bernard’s quivering music score. It hasn’t dated and it’s even more nerve-jangling than his similar all-string compositions for The Quatermass Xperiment. With that track in place, the film’s tension never gets a chance to slacken.

 

The new scan improves the special effects as well. Those matte shots of the big dome are quite beautiful, and the images of the night sky are much sharper. The fantastic, Kaiju-like conclusion succeeds with a good miniature setting, which in the wide mastershot is just detailed enough to convince. Quatermass 2 should be considered a classic of British filmmaking, so we’re glad that Scream went to the trouble to give us the best possible iteration. Perhaps somebody will someday track down the original negative, but this copy looks great.

The show is given three commentaries and one interview piece with Val Guest, who was the recipient of a retrospective at the American Cinematheque several years before he passed away. He tells fascinating old stories about his sci-fi pictures. The commentary pairing Guest with Nigel Kneale was first heard on the old Laserdisc and DVD. It turns out to be a pleasant conversation between two retired film people, without mention that Kneale was responsible for Q2’s disappearance: Bill Warren wrote that Kneale himself suppressed it when the rights reverted to him.

The new commentaries are informative, pleasant pieces with good research and delivered with listenability in mind. Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr dig into a lot of areas I wasn’t aware of, such as the negotiations with the BBC and the budget — the film was given a decent shooting schedule. They try to analyze what the show means as well, which is always good to hear. Ted Newsom knows his stuff when it comes to Hammer; he interviewed Val Guest for a long ago DVD of The Day the Earth Caught Fire. His eccentric take on Q2 sees a lot of inconsistencies I don’t see, but overall he’s just as convinced that it’s a masterpiece.

Quick interviews with crew members Hugh Harlow and Brian Johnson give us an idea of the camaraderie on the set, without imparting a great deal of new information. A World of Hammer episode, a fat still gallery and a slightly better copy of the Enemy from Space trailer round out the package.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Quatermass 2
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Interview with Val Guest; archived commentary with Guest and author Nigel Kneale; new commentaries with Ted Newsom, and Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman; trailer, World of Hammer Episode ‘Sci-fi,’ and a still gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 4, 2019
(6054q2)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.