I wanted to do something different this week for “The Monday Meme”. Usually I scour the interwebs for random Doctor Who images or anything that makes me chuckle. I feel like I’ve burnt myself out on the ones I’ve seen, because a lot of ones I find have been going around for months, if not years. Starting today, I want to do some for some more obscure shows – especially Quatermass! Let me know what you think in the comments, maybe, I can keep these AAVOBSF originals going and going!
– Picture is from 1957’s Quatermass 2 from Hammer Films
After the immense success of the first Hammer Films Iteration of the Quatermass saga, The Quatermass Xperiment, it was nearly two years before another film was produced in the series. Hammer attempted to get another one off the ground, but Nigel Kneale (who got no money for the first film) vetoed the idea immediately. Kneale felt that his creation had been abused the first time around, and wanted more control over what the BBC did with his material. Hammer went on with a film in 1956 anyway called X the Unknown. The movie, starring Dean Jagger as a new character essentially the same as Quatermass, did decently well, but failed to reach the critical and monetary heights of its predecessor. Hammer dropped the whole “X” related X certificate gloating in their marketing, and worked with Kneale himself to produce a new screenplay that would see Brian Donlevy back in the saddle for another adventure. Enter Quatermass 2 or Enemy from Space as it was called overseas.
The plot of Quatermass 2 is largely the same as the previous television version Quatermass II, with a few changes made for a shorter runtime, and a much larger special effects budget. I would say that this TV-to-movie remake is actually far closer to the original TV version than the first Quatermass film and more of a science fiction piece, as Quatermass Xperiment was definitely altered to be horror. Professor Quatermass is once again trying to improve the human race through his scientific endeavors, this time by trying to gather support for Moon exploration and eventual colonization. He is sidetracked early on by budget setbacks as well as the discovery of a curiously large amount of meteorites falling recently in the area, a fact that really piques his interest. He goes to an area where the impacts have been the most numerous only to find that there is a destroyed city and an ominous government facility (which looks similar to his planned moon colony) in its place inhabited by people with “V” shaped marks on their skin.
I loved The Quatermass Xperiment with one quibble – Brian Donlevy wasn’t “cup of tea” when it came to potential actors playing Quatermass. He was a bit too harsh and unlikeable, a fact that led to me likening him to “[…] Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens […]”. My fears were tested in one of the very first scenes involving Quatermass and his “crew”; we see him throwing a suitcase down and belittling his associates like a bully. He insinuates that they are wasting his time, and they may lose their jobs. It was here that I feared the worst – not only was Donlevy back, but he was gruffer than ever. Then he softened, he apologized and explained the predicament they are in. From here on we have a “better” take on the character. Quatermass is still “no nonsense” as with the first film, but none of the borderline bipolar personality disorder is there. I think it may be up to Kneale’s writing here that Donlevy seems to be a bit more “level” as this script was essentially written with his TV character in mind, but whatever the reason – I’m happy.
As I mentioned earlier on, Quatermass 2 is not as much of a horror film as its predecessor, though it does keep some of the horror trappings in place. Much like the mutating astronaut in the first film, there are many shocking scenes that really put the viewer on the proverbial “edge of their seat”. I think one of the most shocking moments has to be a scene towards the middle of the film involving Quatermass leading a group of “inspectors” through the government-run domed city that lay on the ashes of a small town. A member of parliament named Vincent Broadhead, as played by Tom Chatto, wanders off during the investigation as he realizes that they are being shown things that the dome dwellers want them to see. Upon attempting to gain access to one of the domes, he is covered with a thick black tar-like substance that ultimately kills him. His prolonged death, complete with a tumble down a series of stairs and ladders and accompanied by stinging 1950’s horror music, is pretty gruesome and holds up here with other similar death scenes of modern films.
I commented that Hammer films was pretty good at making their science fiction and horror films look more realistic than other films of the time, and much of this can be chalked up to the production’s director and cinematographer being ahead of their time. The director, Val Guest, utilized many cinema verite’ (documentary style cinema) techniques such as hand-held cameras and location shooting in an oil refinery to great success. His cinematographer, Gerald Gibbs, picked great locations and framed shots worthy of far more expensive films. I’m not a huge fan of “day as night” scenes that populated these older films, but some of these are really well done. Others, as one might expect, looked like they film daytime through a pair of sunglasses rather than a convincing night shoot.
The main change in the plotline of this film against its source material happens at the end of the story. In the original TV serial, Quatermass and his assistant Pugh donned spacesuits and flew the Quatermass 2 rocket to an asteroid heading towards the earth. This final act was very silly and made the original piece fall apart in about every way. This has been replaced with the launch of the same rocket modified into a nuclear warhead in an unmanned state, and an escape from multiple 200 foot creatures. This finale resulted in something similar to a “kaiju film” from Japan – a man in a suit stomping over a model of a city. I actually preferred this ending, as it makes the alien threat a bit more…well… threatening.
Overall, I really enjoyed Quatermass 2. Unlike the first part, I can compare both the TV series and the movie to each other fairly well as the entire TV version survives. All of my problems with the first Quatermass film – mostly Brian Donlevy – have disappeared entirely in this production. I know that many regard Quatermass 2 inferior to the first in every way, but I disagree. Not only is it on a far larger scale, it has better acting, and more thrills. It will be quite a long time before another Quatermass film pops up, but if the hype is anything to gauge I’m in for a treat. Next up on “Quatermass Week” we have both versions of Quatermass and the Pit, a beloved favorite of many.
After the successful release of The Quatermass Xperiment essentially re-launched Hammer Films, they attempted to get another slice of the proverbial pie, by doing a sequel the very next year. Hammer had a huge stumbling block in the way as Nigel Kneale, the man behind the original BBC dramas, wanted nothing to do with this. The BBC had sold the film rights to Quatermass out from under him for the first installment, a fact that soured him towards both companies completely. This coupled with the casting choices of the first film, changes to plot compared to the TV version, and his lack of monetary compensation meant that Hammer was not allowed to use his character for a sequel. Hammer decided to keep the silly “X-rated” promotional tactics going and created what essentially amounts to a “ripoff” of their own film franchise. X: The Unknown starred Dean Jagger as Dr. Adam Royston, a character that seems to essentially be a stand in for Quatermass had this been a true sequel.
Aside from the problems associated with Kneale, this film had another huge controversy that put this production into jeopardy. The film’s first director was An American film director by the name of Joseph Losey (credited as Joseph Walton at the time). Losey had basically fled Hollywood to make films in Europe as he was added to the infamous “Hollywood Blacklist” that denied work to communist sympathizers in the industry. Everything was running smooth until Jagger, an American actor himself, refused to work with Losey. This resulted in Losey’s departure from the film two days into production due to “illness”. Since Hammer had spent the majority of the budget acquiring such a renowned actor as Jagger, it seems that it was a situation of “either he goes or I go” with Jagger winning out. The job went to Leslie Norman soon after.
The plot of X: The Unknown follows Dr. Royston, a scientist from an Atomic Energy Laboratory at Lochmouth, as he investigates a troubling situation involving a threat to the human race. The British Army has been conducting radioactive material detection drills at a remote Scottish base in what appears to be a mud pit. These seemingly harmless training exercises (they involve a game of “hide and seek” with a Geiger counter) somehow attract a creature from a subterranean lair, leaving two severely radiation-burned soldiers in its wake. This creature can apparently vanish and feeds on radiation. It then goes on a rampage and grows larger and larger in a similar fashion to the creature in The Blob. In fact, this movie was so much like The Blob, that I assumed it was a direct copy, only to find out that X: the Unknown was actually made two years earlier! Sadly, due to production issues, a squandered budget, and other issues, this movie remains quite obscure, and The Blob became of classic of it’s time.
I mentioned that Royston was a stand-in for Quatermass, but that’s not completely true. Thankfully the production team came up with a slightly different take on the lead character – making him an atomic energy specialist rather than a rocket scientist. Jagger takes on this role in an entirely different manner than Brian Donlevy in Quatermass, acting a bit softer, even eccentric to a degree. When we first see Royston, he gets in trouble for wasting time on an amateur made experiment seemingly made from Meccano model sets. He allows his subordinates to do his real work, the work he’s getting paid for, while he tests radiation’s effect on radio waves, something dubbed an “anti-radiation device”. The fact that they show this scene for so long, makes you realize that this will be important later on, maybe this “frivolous” experiment won’t be so “frivolous” after all (wink wink!). I really liked the character of Dr. Royston, and almost wish they did more with the character.
Sadly, I was not a huge fan of this film for many reasons, but most notably the cast. Dean Jagger is easily one of the best actors in this film, and had he been surrounded by a great cast, things could have been different. There are a few people that simply made the whole production seem like a cheesy “monster of the week” flick. The acting in some places reminded me of just about every 1980’s “slasher film” – overacting in every scene and actors being a caricature of a real person. All the tired tropes you can imagine like the dumb soldier, the slutty nurse, and the jerky government official are in place, and none of these seemed like a fleshed out character – more like a prop of some sort. I commented how I liked the “realism” of the original Quatermass TV serial and the subsequent movie. There is really none of that here, as the writing, acting, and plot seems exactly like any other B-movie of the time. While I can’t really commend his acting here, this film is notable for the inclusion of a VERY young Frazer Hines playing a kid named Ian. Frazer later went on to play one of the most beloved “companions” in Doctor Who – Jamie McCrimmon!
One can immediately tell that this film has a small budget, but the effects, what little of them there are, are at least competently done. For around half the movie we barely see anything other than burn make-up on someone’s back. It’s pretty good makeup, but we’re comparing it to the mutating man in Quatermass, so there really is no contest. The majority of the movie has no real scenes that warrant the X-rating the movie got. That was until the aforementioned “slutty nurse” and “horndog doctor” come into play, making out with no cares in the world like they are in a Jason Vorhees movie. The monster attacks the doctor leading to a rather silly close-up shot of the doctor yelling:
Followed by a wax head melting to show a skull underneath – pretty grisly for a 1950’s movie!
But for every good effect like this one in place, there are ones not quite there. They aren’t bad, like dressing a dog up like a dinosaur, but they involve the monster so it’s really unfortunate. I honestly thought that there would never be a monster reveal and would find out that it was invisible all along. When the movie FINALLY reveals the creature one hour into the 72 minute film, it is a blobby stop motion creature. I’m not saying that it was the worst thing I’ve seen, but it’s underwhelming after all the hype. They do some decent shots of it placed into the background of scenes and oozing over fences, but small-scale model shots of it up close aren’t as good.
All in all, I felt that X: the Unknown was not as good as it could have been. After the numerous problems behind the scenes and a script that wasn’t really there, what is left is a film desperately trying to play “catch-up” with its predecessor. Much of the plot is largely the same, except with a larger body count this time around and a slightly different monster. We never find out what the monster is, and the whole movie ends with Dr. Royston using his “anti-radiation” experiment to kill the creature, something you see miles away. This really goes to show how special the right script and director can be in a film like this, and I can see why it was set right for the eventual return of Quatermass. Hammer wised up and got Kneale to work with them, hired the original director, and some of the actors from the first film. They basically pretend that X: The Unknown never existed.
I think we can sum the whole thing up with a bit of dialog from the end of the film:
Elliott: “what was that?!”
Royston: “I don’t know, but it shouldn’t have happened…”
When we last saw Bernard Quatermass, he was fighting an alien threat in a dingy low-budget studio, but imagine what would happen if money was sunk into the project! I usually have reservations for these TV to movie conversions, as the production companies had a tendency in those days to “mess up” the original plot and characters. I recall watching the Peter Cushing Doctor Who and the Daleks movies, and not really liking them too much for this very reason. They were bright and colorful, but somehow were also soulless and bland. In the case of Quatermass, however, only two episodes of the serial exist today, so watching a film based on the original script is amazing, as I can now see what happens after the slow and talkative first few episodes. So here we have The Quatermass Xperiment, from Hammer films – can it live up to the original?
Before any Grammar Nazis try to correct me, dropping the “E” in the title isn’t a typo on my part! Hammer Films deliberately went for an “X-Certificate” rating (nobody permitted under the age of sixteen) with the release of this film. This included branding all the posters with a huge red “X” to make them stand out. This audacious plan was met with reservations within the BBC and Hammer Films, but ultimately was a success. The Quatermass Xperiment was one of the first films from the ailing production company to be sold overseas (as The Creeping Unknown) and basically kicked off their “Hammer Horror” line, which became synonymous with the company.
One will immediately notice that the character of Bernard Quatermass isn’t the same reserved thinking man that he was in the TV serial. Now played by Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy, the character was reinvented to be gruff and more action oriented. According to Wikipedia: “’Donlevy, in his own words, specialized in “he-men roles–rough, tough and realistic’”; a far cry from the way the late Reginald Tate carried the role. Basically think of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens, that is Donlevy’s Quatermass to a tee. At first I wasn’t too thrilled with this take on the character, but when viewing the movie as a whole – Donlevy’s take works best with the movie. The entire serial’s tone has also shifted to go along with the new Quatermass; it’s darker, dingier, and more grotesque. This honestly reminds me of the evolution of Doctor Who; specifically in that once the show changed to a 45 minute format, the character became more of an action hero.
The plot has been changed around a bit as well, mostly for time constraints. This condensed time means that things that took an entire episode to explain before had to be cut down. An example of this is: in the serial, episode one was mostly dialog between Quatermass and his assistant about how distraught they all were because of the disappearance of the rocket. This segment was completely removed meaning that the movie kicks right into gear when the rocket crashes to Earth (in an awesome special effect scene). Better special effects and more money also mean that scenes involving dialog to explain a situation can be replaced with an effect shot, a scene change, or an action scene. Since I don’t have anything to compare it to, I will state that the rest of the film is definitely more of a horror film than a science fiction film, thus explaining most of the aforementioned differences. The plot centers on the transformation of the creature and it wreaking havoc, not Quatermass and his team.
I mentioned the special effect shots being pretty cool earlier, and for an older film they do not disappoint. Most 1950’s era science fiction films had terrible costuming and set design in my opinion; Quatermass stands heads and tails above a lot of them. Granted, most of my knowledge of films in this genre of this era are the kind of movies that would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that most 1950’s science fiction is sort of camp. There is one effects shot in particular towards the middle of the film that got my attention. Quatermass and his crew are studying a grainy film that was taken onboard the rocket during the ill-fated flight. At one point, one of the astronauts walks up onto the wall – suggesting a low-gravity environment of some sort. It couldn’t have been a huge special effect, but a remarkable one in its simplicity. I’ll even excuse that the crew seems to be piloting the craft by turning a series of steering wheels mounted on the far wall.
There are some truly grotesque horror shots in the film, ones that definitely lead the movie being branded X-rated at the time. While there isn’t any gushing blood or gore, there are things like shots of dead bodies with their skulls caved-in and an entire zoo of dead animals left in the wake of the monsters rampage. I was actually pretty surprised at a few of these considering the puritanical nature of most film violence at the time, and now can see how Hammer got its shocking reputation early on. The creature make-up is also pretty impressive at times. When we finally get a good look at the transformation Victor Carroon has undergone (as played by Richard Wordsworth ), he has his arm bandaged up, and the now swollen mass of cactus like spikes and putrid flesh in its place is a bit unnerving.
It was also during this scene that I truly saw the influence that this movie has had on later pop culture. Doctor Who has used a similar “man turning into a monster” plot most notably in The Lazarus Experiment, and much earlier in The Ark in Space. Other shows and films such as The Fly (the newer one) and even an anime film I love called Akira all seem to have been somewhat influenced as well, directly or not is up to speculation. This really shows that Nigel Kneale really had the pulse of televised science fiction and horror under his belt, as he seems to have basically influenced most of it for the last sixty years!
So there we have it, it wasn’t the first piece of film cast into the Quatermass catalog, but it was definitely the one that got the property noticed. Not only has the plot from this movie been used over and over countless times, but I haven’t seen anything more influential to other science fiction and horror for a while. As I stated, I’m not sure I like Donlevy as much as Tate in the role of Bernard Quatermass, but the two characters couldn’t be any more different. Aside from the plot, it’s honestly better to think of the film and the TV show as separate entities; a fact that is hard for me to do, but the quality of this movie makes it easier. I’m not a huge horror fan, much less older horror movies, so any film of the genre that keeps my attention must be good. Hammer Films went on to make two more Quatermass films, both of which I will be looking at on here! Come back again tomorrow as I take a look at the TV version of Quatermass II, continuing “Quatermass Week!”
“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer… And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people's lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you're able to entertain people, you're doing a good thing.” -Stan Lee