Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Anchor Bay has finally come forward with its DVD of a Hammer Science Fiction film whose
reputation has skyrocketed in recent years - Quatermass 2, the sequel to
The Quatermass Xperiment. It was released in the US by United Artists in 1957 as
Enemy From Space, stopped being shown on television in the 60s and fell into
undeserved obscurity. Savant misremembered it from grade school as a 'really cool' movie
about 'Nazis from Space' but didn't catch up to it as an adult until editorial pal Todd
Stribich loaned me a blurry Sinister Cinema tape in 1988.
It took my head off. I'd seen and respected the other Quatermass thrillers (see the early
Savant entry, Quatermass Who?) but wasn't ready for the rich
experience to be found here.
Along with Fritz Lang's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Quatermass 2 was the missing link
in the progression of pop pulp sci-fi from the serial thrillers of the 40's, and the James
Bond films of the 60's. (Mabuse is coming out soon - Savant is awaiting it breathlessly.)
Synopsis (no spoilers):
Dr. Bernard Quatermass's (Brian Donlevy) Rocket Research Group is being disbanded because
funds are needed for other, more urgent research. With his unreliable atomic rocket standing
idle on its launch pad, the arrogant and bullying Dr. Q turns his attention to a new
phenomenon - strange objects falling from the skies that can mysteriously infect people.
He inspects the locus of these meteorites, and finds that an entire town called Winnerden
Flats has been razed to make way for a secret scientific establishment, the very one
that has siphoned off the Rocket Group's funding. What's even stranger is that the secret
plant bears a close resemblance to Quatermass's own proposed Moonbase.
Q's assistant Marsh (Bryan Forbes, before he became a director) finds some of the
projectile-like meteorites, and one of them explodes in his face, leaving a wicked scar
and rendering him unconscious. Then sinister guards from the Winnerden plant arrive,
and spirit Marsh away at gunpoint. The guards
all bear traces of the same 'mark' on Marsh's face. In London, Quatermass finds that
anyone associated with the mystery plant refuses to talk about it, and his inquiries
even at high levels are met with suspicion. An old Scotland Yard pal, Lomax (John Longden)
puts him in contact with a rebel Parliament Minister named Broadhead (Tom Chatto), who is
convinced that Winnerden is simply a scandalous waste of public money. Broadhead manages
to wangle himself and Quatermass passes for an inspection tour of the Winnerden facility, which
is supposed to be making 'synthetic food.' But as they enter the security gate, pass the
zombie-like guards, and are politely herded toward a giant, malevolent-looking dome, Quatermass
is forming another theory ... Invasion from Outer Space.
The original 1955 Quatermass 2 television serial
its story out over five episodes and its action over a larger number of characters, and even
ended with a trip into space to deal directly with the interplanetary threat, a conclusion
identical to the end of 1995's Independence Day. Author Nigel Kneale hated director Val
Guest's interpretation of the Quatermass character, and especially the casting of the blunt
and unsentimental Brian Donlevy as his beloved Professor. But Guest's condensation of the
serial's action into 80 minutes of intense plotting is superb. The film version simply alludes
to most of the alien possession that is elaborated in the teleplay, reducing what would now
be obvious repetition to the sinister image of the alien 'mark' as it turns up in
increasingly higher levels of government ... Scotland Yard, the Houses of Parliament. Although
Americans must have thought it derivative of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
Quatermass 2 approaches its invasion- by- posssession theme from a more political angle.
The socialist-leaning postwar England satirized in 1984 is the perfect
ground zero for invasion ... a bureaucratic system full of 'secrets'. A few key people
under alien influence, and the whole country
is ripe for the taking.
Once Quatermass comes in contact with the cancer cell-like Winnerden plant, Quatermass 2 hits high gear and
never lets up. Key themes from future conspiracy movies emerge fully-developed here:
Quatermass shouts: 'Top Secret! Top Secret! Use words like that and law and order go out
the window!" Equally chilling (and aided by James Bernard's nervous music) are details
as subtle as our Professor observing truckloads of building materials bearing the anonymous
Winnerden symbol moving unnoticed through the streets of London. The invasion is everywhere,
yet undetected. This is also the birth of paranoid cinema.
The zombie guards wear bullet-shaped helmets and aim machine pistols
through gas masks that make them look like ants working in an anthill. The immediate visual link
is to the gas-masked ant-fighters of Them!, who in defeating the monsters seemingly
had to become like them. Here in Quatermass 2 the alien threat is a composite being,
whose individual parts arrive meteorite-by-meteorite but who only have strength as a
combined mass. When this alien intelligence possesses humans, it uses them as it considers
its own basic units - as disposable functionaries. It is a political invasion as much as
it is a biological one ... a brilliant twist that makes this Hammer film as relevant
today as the much more celebrated Don Siegel classic. When the 'workers' start bloody
revolt against their 'employers' ... only the fantastic abstraction of science fiction
saved Q2 from the British censor.
For Hammer fans who know only their crimson-drenched horror films, this will
be familiar ground. Made in b&w at the same time as The Curse of Frankenstein, Q2 uses
most of the familiar personnel, including composer Bernard, editor James Needs and makeup
artist Phil Leakey. One look at Public Relations Officer John Van Eyssen ( Jonathan Harker
from Horror of Dracula) and you know something is up. Visually, the mark of
infection is treated more like a demonic mark of the Devil, giving the political-biological
threat a supernatural taint.
Perhaps the sinister secret
government project theme is what attracted Hammer to what became the Joseph Losey film These Are
The Damned several years later. Also on display is Hammer's willingess to get
rough - Q2 has a traumatic hit-and-run accident scene that, for 1957, is shockingly graphic.
Kneale and Guest's Quatermass 2 also seems very familiar in that it contains the
basis of the generic James Bond movie. Uniquely equipped to detect a subversive conspiracy,
Quatermass tracks it to a mysterious technological complex guarded by a ruthless
army. At first singlehandedly, and then with the help of small force of fighters, he
penetrates the awesome establishment, puts paid to its ringleaders, and blows it all to
bits. This, the basic formula for Dr. No, was repeated ad infinitum in two Flint
movies, four Matt Helm movies, dozens of Man from Uncle episodes, etc.
The SuperSpies always righteously eliminate these
futuristic threats, which thematically makes them conservative (anti-progress, anti-socialism)
Quatermass 2 not only presages the SuperSpy epic, it seems to mark the end of the
British 'we won the war' genre, that Peter Hutchings
claims was an effort by a geopolitically impotent nation to
bask in its recent war glory. The unsung hero of Q2 is the valiant Rocket Group
second-in-command, the unglamorous, bookish Dr. Tom Brand (William Franklyn). In what
would be a sci-fi imitation of the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai (if they
weren't produced in the same year), Brand sacrifices himself to save our planet, diving
at a launch trigger rigged like the dynamite detonator Alec Guiness falls on in
the David Lean film. Brand is no semi-quisling like Guiness' Colonel Nicholson; he
gallantly walks through a machinegun blast to save the day, as defiantly as the
hero of any 'Queen and country' English epic.
Savant doesn't know how Quatermass 2 fared in England. The third TV serial
adaptation, Quatermass and the Pit, was deferred for a decade while Hammer pursued
its lucrative horror line. In America Q2 made no waves whatsoever. Its Variety
review dismissed it as 'vague' and 'uncertain.' Hollywood in 1957 expected Science Fiction
to be more like The Brain From Planet Arous, which garnered relative
praise only a few weeks later.
Quatermass 2 pulls in images from a some interesting sources. It has a machinegun
battle in a refinery that is
reminiscent of White Heat, with very similar angles. Its vision of tiny figures walking
toward an immense dome on the horizon is echoed in the same year's Chikyu Boeigun
(The Mysterians); in both films the image evokes a post-modern feeling of fearful humans
walking with trepidation toward a looming, Science Fiction Future. After all the mystery, in its
last moments Quatermass 2 transforms into an almost Godzilla-like monster
movie. As Raymond Durgnat 5
remarked of the
appearance of the flying saucer in This Island Earth, we've been racing in
frantic, unfamiliar circles, but are suddenly confronted with something we KNOW ...
The Professor peers through a porthole into a dome and sees nothing less than a colossal heap
of alien protoplasm. Finally face to face with his foe, and it hasn't a face at all. The sight
of the usually unflappable Quatermass recoiling in shock is priceless - how can he defeat that?
Quatermass 2 is shot in gloomy black and white, with less than stellar production
values (some folks don't like the monsters much), but it is a taut thriller told with Val
Guest's most cinematic direction, and with a cast that really believes they're fighting
to save the world. Savant has purposely left out some of the highlights of the story (that man
covered in goo, for one) hoping that more people might 'discover' Q2 for themselves,
and without its secrets spoiled! Therefore I've used images to illustrate this review,
without in each case explaining their relevance to the story.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Quatermass 2 is essentially the same as its laserdisc from two
years ago (the last Laser Savant bought!). The picture was reportedly taken from an English
archive print in excellent condition, and I don't think a remaster has been done. Some
shots were very dark on the laser; a strange thing
has happened on the DVD in that these shots are digitally brightened, but have
become very grainy ... like ... pincushion grainy. There is actually a disclaimer insert
in the DVD package saying the first two minutes are of lesser quality. Beyond that it
is only a few shots that are affected. The rest of the picture is sharper and brighter
than the laser, by far.
For extras there is a trailer for the American version of the film, Enemy from Space.
There is also a World of Hammer so-called docu that is just as terrible as the ones
on the other Anchor Bay Hammer DVDs.
The big goodie is a feature-length commentary by Val Guest and Nigel Kneale, the same as
was on the laser. They seem to get on quite well together. Kneale doesn't take Guest to task
for 'simplifying' his television plays, and Guest doesn't try to make any cases about
his film versions being better. They're both elderly gentlemen, and it's a nice thing that their
commentary was recorded while it could be. Jolly good. 6
There are classic Science Fiction movies, and there are essential ones, and Quatermass 2
sits firmly in both categories. In Savant's personal pantheon of British Science Fiction, it is
paramount, with These are the Damned and Day the Earth Caught Fire (promised for
DVD, hooray) only one notch below. Anchor Bay's long-awaited DVD is a very welcome release indeed.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Quatermass 2 rates:
Supplements: trailer, commentary track with Val Guest and Nigel Kneale, 'World of Hammer' featurette.
Packaging: keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2000
1. On the posters the film is called Quatermass II,
prompting many to say it is the first movie sequel designated with a number, a trend
started by French Connection 2, in 1975. Onscreen the title is just '2'. In reality
the 2 in Q2 refers to Quatermass's second attempt at a space rocket, the first of
which also ended in alien invasion in The Quatermass Xperiment.
1950's Rocketship X-M ends with a Quatermass-like Morris Ankrum declaring the beginning
of an X-M 2 project .... perhaps that film was a Kneale inspiration. Return
2. John Brosnan noted that the alien mark is V-shaped, and made
a nice reference to the 'V for Victory' sign immortalized by Churchill in WW2. The socialist
government so easily penetrated in Q2 was a direct result of that war, and now its
own symbol is being turned against England. With the working populace relocated to soulless
temporary housing, in communities cut off from society (their buses are abandoned - does
nobody go anywhere any more?), those scurvy socialists are already turning Britons into ant
Brosnan, John Future Tense 1978, St. Martin's Press Return
3. This trend is of course the subject of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville ... whose citizens
are reduced to zombie-like ants when deprived the support of their all-controlling computer Alpha-60. Return
4. Hutchings, Peter Hammer and Beyond, The British
Horror Film, Manchester University Press, 1993 Return
5. Durgnat, Raymond Films and Feelings, 1967, the M.I.T. Press Return
6. The teleplay makes the 'Marsh' character into the
fiancee of Quatermass's daughter. His 'cure' provides the emotional climax of
the show. The Dr. Brand character doesn't launch a rocket, instead, he and Quatermass become astronauts
themselves and intercept the mystery alien ship in space. This ship is conceived as just
a black, non-reflecting shape, as the mothership was originally conceived for Close
Encounters of the Third Kind, but Kneale cleverly invents a radio-telescope 'blind spot' orbit
where it can go undetected. Brand's counterpart in the teleplay also reveals himself as a
possessed 'traitor', just as Quatermass goes on an EVA spacewalk to attach a nuclear bomb to
the alien craft. The teleplay reads well and would make a great miniseries; the movie assumes
the audience will catch on to the alien's Game and leaves much of detail unspoken, to better concentrate on a thrilling pace.
Rare behind the scenes shot of crew filming Quatermass 2 miniatures.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2001 Glenn Erickson
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