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Quatermass 2

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Review by DVD Savant | posted May 12, 2001 | E-mail the Author

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   1  spread 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.  2  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.   3  The SuperSpies always righteously eliminate these futuristic threats, which thematically makes them conservative (anti-progress, anti-socialism) fantasies ....

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  4  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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
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 functionaries ....

Brosnan, John Future Tense 1978, St. Martin's Press  

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. Return

Rare behind the scenes shot of crew filming Quatermass 2 miniatures.

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2001 Glenn Erickson

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