|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 May 2000|
In the early 1950s, BBC television writer Nigel Kneale wrote a six-part, three-hour serial called "The Quatermass Experiment" -- which became the most popular show aired on British TV until that time. Hammer Films bought the rights, and turned it into a movie, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (yes, spelled that way), which was released in the U.S. as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, directed by Val Guest. Tough-guy American actor Brian Donlevy played rocketry expert Bernard Quatermass, who has to deal, firmly, with an alien presence in London. Are you getting bored with this history lesson yet?
Kneale wrote a sequel for the BBC, QUATERMASS 2, and Hammer bought that as well, though this time they hired Kneale to write the screenplay. Donlevy returned as Quatermass, and the movie became ENEMY FROM SPACE in the United States. Those who had loved THE CREEPING UNKNOWN were startled to discover that ENEMY FROM SPACE was a sequel to that well-made thriller. Kneale wrote a third, and a fourth Quatermass serial as well.
QUATERMASS 2 has been restored to its original title for its video release by the blessed Anchor Bay, but under any title, it's one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s. Crisp, authoritative, fast-paced, well-structured and intelligent, it's almost as good as the later, similar INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and definitely deserves to be better known.
Puzzled by his encounter with an apparently disturbed man with a strange scar, Quatermass doesn't consider it as important as the launch of his new rocket, which he hopes to use to establish a base on the Moon. But strange radar tracks lead him and his assistant Marsh (Bryan Forbes, later a major director) to investigate the area where the man, his girlfriend said, got the odd scar. To their utter surprise, they find an installation very much like Quatermass' proposed Moon base -- a vast array of pipes, tanks, and huge domes. (The domes were added to a Shell refinery by special effects.) Marsh finds a rock-like object that pops open -- and now he has one of those scars, too. He's quickly rounded up by men in military garb, and whisked away, leaving a stunned and angered Quatermass behind.
Now caught up, he learns that the stone is one of thousands that have been raining down for the last two years. A small scientific installation suddenly got vast government funding, leading to the construction of the "Moon project." Locals work at the plant, said to be for the development of artificial food, and angrily refuse to cooperate with Quatermass. He first turns to zealous Member of Parliament Vincent Broadhead (Tom Chatto), who's on his way with a team to inspect the puzzling "artificial food" project. But when things go very wrong there, only Quatermass escapes; he turns to Inspector Lomax (John Longden), helpful in his first adventure, and they slowly learn the awful truth.
Aliens have taken over human bodies by the hundreds, and have infiltrated the British government from the lowest to the highest levels. The "Moon project" is to allow the methane/ammonia-breathing aliens, really small individual cells of a group creature, to adjust to the Earth's atmosphere -- with the intent of conquering the world. Can Quatermass stop them? Can there be any doubt?
The movie is presented in a matter-of-fact, gray, documentary-like style which makes the fantastic events grippingly credible. It's also fast-paced and intelligently written, one of the most hypnotically involving movies of its period. It's surprising that none of the Quatermass films have been remade, but THE ARRIVAL did borrow a few ideas from QUATERMASS 2.
The separately-conducted interviews with director Val Guest and writer Nigel Kneale have been skillfully edited together, providing an ongoing commentary not just on the film, but on each other. It's clear that Kneale respects Guest very much, but also that he had some strong disagreements about what should have been left in, and what should have been left out. The climax of the TV serial took Quatermass and a friend (omitted altogether form the movie) into outer space, to deal with the aliens in their home asteroid on a more direct level. The movie's budget precluded that, and the somewhat unsatisfactory climax features three huge, blob-like creature, each composed of thousands of individual aliens (and a lot of rubber), lurching around the burning remains of their base.
Kneale is still bitter about not having been consulted on the first film, and complains at some length about Brian Donlevy, whom he considered altogether wrong for the role of Quatermass. It's true that Donlevy would have been wrong to play Quatermass as Kneale originally conceived of him -- a thoughtful scientist, a bit of a loner, quiet and bookish -- but Donlevy is ideal for the movie Quatermass. He's more bullheaded, more inclined to take charge, and though he's not tall, Donlevy looks determined enough to walk through the nearest wall.
While the commentary by both writer and director is consistently interesting, although we do hear a bit more about Donlevy's toupée than was really necessary, it's too bad that there's not more about the individual actors, the locations and the production of the film. Occasionally, the insights are excellent: Guest points out that no film can predict the future. All it can do is present today's ideas about the future; we're always limited by being in the here and now. When one of the alien's stone containers falls inside a dance hall, a local dismisses it -- "it's just an overshot." Kneale points out that giving the unknown a name (overshot) reduces it to the known, and therefore it doesn't have to be considered. The locals have fooled themselves into believing that stones falling from the sky are a part of a benign government project.
The movie is a classic expression of 1950s paranoia; Kneale says that Britain was much more secrecy-prone in that period than was the United States, and yet communist spies got much higher into the British government echelons than they ever did in America. But the movie is not about the Red Menace; it's about trusting too much in any kind of authority.
And it's also an exciting, imaginative science fiction thriller.