Tag: Julian Glover
Professor Bernard Quatermass Battles Aliens in Britain first appeared in June, 2007, but has been greatly expanded, contains spoilers and key plot devices. The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass and the Pit are offered here and can be watched before reading my comprehensive retrospective.
When the monsters are formless horrors from inner earth we may be transfixed by a seemingly unstoppable force of nature (X – The Unknown’s radioactive mud, for instance), but when sympathetic humans are transformed into monsters it is a more profound experience. It is US and not an IT.
Space travel in science fiction is rarely without suspense associated with the unknown realm beyond our atmosphere; once we travel away from the comfort and safety of earth, realities depicting humans no longer in control of their destinies become feasible and more frightening.
In the 1950s no one had ventured into space so the risks were confined to literature and the big screen.
Another benefit of science fiction films is “What if?” in which what emerges as improbable becomes plausible and the consequences more ruthless for the victims. The British made some landmark science fiction films in the 1950s and 1960s that today articulate fear of the unknown, use and misuse of atomic energy, space travel and the origin of life on earth.
One of the most prolific and best of the writers was Nigel Kneale and his fantastic sagacity produced the Quatermass series which began with BBC television teleplays before branching into the cinema with the Quatermass films which introduced Professor Bernard Quatermass into the science fiction film character lexicon.
The following films discussed each shared one commonality: alien forces intent on overtaking the planet earth:
Professor Quatermass was a scientist whose rocket ship crash lands with an alien life form-infected astronaut in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955); lost his moon project to invaders trying to acclimatize earth in Quatermass 2 (1957); learned he and most earthlings were genetically engineered Martians in Quatermass and the Pit (1967); and sacrificed his life to save the planet’s youth, who were being disintegrated by an extraterrestrial death ray, in Quatermass Conclusion (1979).
One of my favorite science fiction deviations involves how humans often return to earth with hazardous organisms from deep space. It would work quite well in Robert Wise’s filming of Michael Crichton’s best seller The Andromeda Strain, 1970. In Strain, foolish scientists send a probe into space trying to discover a biological weapon and in doing so bring back a microorganism so powerful it nearly succeeds, while in QX an unwise choice by scientist Prof. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) to send a rocketship into space inadvertently returns with an organism that nearly succeeds in its plan for invasion of the earth.
Whereas Strain postulated an accident that should have been a forewarning of the dangers of finding, and trying to contain a space-borne life form, QX returns with one of three astronauts infected with an invisible entity that intentionally wanted to invade.
The alien menace is in the form of the rapidly mutating sole survivor (Victor Caroon; essayed convincingly by actor Richard Wordsworth, in an intensely poignant role, with body and facial contortions replacing dialogue as we watch his transformation) enters the spaceship, and reasons never explained takes control of him while killing the other two astronauts.
With the application of atomic energy, the beginnings of the Cold War and space race between America and Russia, science fiction writers and production designers had the most difficult assignments. Space ships were often terribly unconvincing, with the exceptions being such films as Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth and Destination: Moon, but QX provides audiences with a sleek space ship, similar to the American V and Saturn rockets, which crash lands in rural England.
Donlevy, who was never Kneale’s choice to portray Quatermass, is frequently overexcited and spends a great deal of the film trying, and often succeeding, at intimidating anybody in his environs from Doctor Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) who insists, and finally gets Caroon admitted to a hospital, Caroon’s pretty but self-interested wife Judith (Margie Dean) and even the highly entertaining Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (Jack Warner).
Stories persevere regarding Donlevy’s drinking problems and there are enough scenes where one can infer he was probably drunk or at least high while filming but even so the story is so compelling that one is likely to ignore his imbibing. By concentrating on the somber story, which is played straight with scant humor, (more on that later), the viewer can emphasize principally with Caroon as a man who in all probability believed in his mission and in no way justified his later fate.
From QX to films like The Incredible Melting Man, Lifeforce, Species II infected humans returning from space are vilified and like the later big-budget actioners, havoc will be wreaked and in this case throw in, ostensibly an innocuous cactus plant, allow Caroon to escape from a hospital with the help of Judith, the death of an unfortunate chemist in an apothecary and zoo animals and the fuse is light for an electrifying conclusion on a scaffolding in Westminster Abbey.
Highlights of QX include: an on-board camera silently, except for some incidental music, detailing an invisible force entering the ship, killing the other two crewmen and entering Caroon, leading to the assumption life in space may travel endlessly looking for a host; the drunken Rose (Thora Hird) who collapses after learning what she thought were “gin goblins” was a real monster crawling up a wall; and in Caroon’s final human moments sparing a little girl (Jane Asher) who tried to serve him tea with her dolly.
Inspector Lomax, and the police procedural viewpoint, grounds the film in much need earthbound reality as the search for Caroon finally ends at Westminster Abbey where the competed mutation is moments from expelling millions of spores that will infect the world.
QX is tauntly directed by Val Guest and in the end it is easy to feel empathy for Caroon’s demise after becoming totally alien. Typical of American releases, the film was renamed “The Creeping Unknown;” in fact the next two were also renamed from Q2 to “Enemy from Space” and most silliest, QP would be called “Five Million Years to Earth” mainly due to a plot device about the events for long ago.
Q2, also directed by Guest, and as in the first feature cleverly employed cinema vérité techniques to add realism to the proceedings and is the first film I am aware of where a nuclear rocket is used as a weapon to save the earth, years ahead of Armageddon, from ammonia-based life forms endeavoring to acclimatize the earth as a feeding ground for massive globules of extraterrestrials. Like the first film, it follows closely, but condenses the innovative BBC television program by keeping the original stratagem intact.
Taking over a small research facility, in the fictional town of Winterton Falls, and for authenticity using a Shell Refinery, in rural England, doubling as the alien’s headquarters, swiped from an earlier Quatermass blueprint for a moon base, Q2 proves stark effectiveness as this black and white low budget film infuses claustrophobia, paranoia and Cold War menace. It often evokes a film noir esthetic and uses the Invasion of the Body Snatchers leitmotif of infected beings recognizing the unaffected humans.
The audience knows from the beginning something is amiss. Quatermass (Donlevy for the second and final time) and future director Bryan Forbes, as one of his assistants, Marsh, travel to Winterton Falls to investigate meteorites falling to earth which are actually vessels for aliens; they are part of a larger organism, not revealed until late in the film and only in totality at the climax.
Marsh finds an unbroken vessel and is promptly infected, with a characteristic Z branded on his face, while Quatermass is fortunate to be allowed to leave by zombified soldiers, all former earthmen, now under the control of the unseen alien force.
Like any superior paranoia thriller, it immediately becomes apparent the aliens have infiltrated the highest echelons of government and law enforcements and Quatermass must enlist Inspector Lomax, now played by John Longden, who is very good; a doomed member of Parliament, Vinny Broadhead (Tom Chatto), who suffers the film’s most gruesome death when he learns the true nature of the “synthetic food” being manufactured is in fact a deadly ammoniac corrosive; an alcoholic newsman Jimmy “I’ll trade you a drink for 1½ column inches before midnight” Hall (the great South African-born character actor Sidney James); and a small group of uninfected townspeople who commandeer the one portion of the facility posing the greatest threat to the aliens.
We later learn that the aliens also have control of the media as Lomax shows Quatermass, who narrowly escaped from the plant where he and Broadhead had been part of a tour with other dignitaries, a newspaper claiming the politcian was away on a trade mission. Worse, Lomax realizes the police commisioner is also infected.
The alien food samples Broadhead
At the Rocket Group laboratory we observe real time views of radio waves bounced to earth off a 200-foot asteroid circling the dark side of the earth. In what turns out to be the most fascinating twist, Quatermass leaves his other assistant Brand (William Franklyn) orders to fire the rocket towards the asteroid at midnight. Franklyn has a few scenes but makes the most of them leading to his ultimate sacrifice in Q2′s final minutes.
The climax is frenetic, gruesome and sad as the heroes use oxygen as a weapon against the ammonia and methane producing aliens, finally seen in full size which by today’s high tech standards may seem silly but still are properly menacing in 1957.
As similiar to the ending of QX, Q2 leaves open the possibilty of a sequel, although it would be 10 years before QP, when this exchange is overheard:
Lomax to Quatermass: “What worries me is how am I going to make a final report about all this?”
Quatermass replies, dryly: “What worries me is how final can it be!”
Lomax, exacerbated: “Hey!”
QP, as has already been noted, unless the reader has decided to read this retrospective before watching the feature, there is no Inspector Lomax. QP is by far the most ambitious of the four-sided series with genre expert Roy Ward Baker taking over the reigns from Guest and Donley replaced by the superior actor Andrew Keir, who is now older, bearded but even more cantankerous as his nemesis will be the military, as essayed by the brilliant Julian Glover as the inflexible Colonel Breen, and the Home Office. This was the first Q in color and capably utilizes the format, especially in the climax using full scale sets and miniatures to great effect, and in the sepia-toned “mental footage” of the grasshopper-styled Martians performing ethnic cleansing five million years ago.
The acting is far superior than the previous Qs, with James Donald top-lining as anthropologist, Dr. Rooney, assisted by Hammer Film’s perennial red headed femme, the beautiful and very well cast Barbara Shelly as Barbara Judd; a nice bit from character actor Duncan Lamont as Sladden, the civilian driller operator who opines “Where was Moses when the lights went out? In the flipping dark,” and later is revealed as one of the genetically modified 5 million year old offspring of the Martians when he describes life on the red planet and that “I knew I was one;” and Grant Taylor as the unnerved Police Sergeant Ellis who accompanies Quatermass and Barbara to an evacuated tenement across from Hobb’s End, where an underground subway excavation is halted when abnormal skeletal remains are unearthed and what is first thought to be a WW II unexploded bomb or German propaganda weapon is in reality a crashed space ship.
What makes QP even more profound is Kneale’s plotting that when Mars was dying, and they could not survive our atmosphere to colonize earth, they captured and surgically altered our cave dwelling ancestors and imbued them with telekinetic powers and the ability to discern pure humans from the Martian-by-proxy humans.
Kneale also uses well known world mythologies of gargoyles, horned demons and the Devil which are all revealed to be Martians.
When it first was released it caused some controversy over its subject matter. While it was thoughtful science fiction that did more than purport earthly existence as merely otherworldy, it was, and still today, a profound exploration of the nature of life on earth that should, if considered with an open mind, be considered not as profane or far-fetched as religious leaders in 1967 suggested.
There is clever use technology, years ahead of its time, devices to pinpoint areas of the brain and transform them into images, which adds to the verisimilitude and reveal that Barbara is a descendant, too, and who witnessed, through buried memories, ritual slaughter on Mars to preserve a “fixed society.” It is sobering and frightening in equal measures considering real world genocides that existed before and since this film’s release over forty years ago.
The climax, when it is also revealed that not only Colonel Breen, but Quatermass and most of the cast of extras, are Martians, is expertly handled and Rooney’s sacrifice using the Devil’s enemy of iron, is sad, albeit necessary.
The only film I have never seen in its entirety is QC, which casts John Mills as the professor and concerns a beam from space that is incinerating the world’s youth. The opening of the film immediately clues viewers of the previous three Qs that this final installment is not nearly as good, from the desolate and unpopulated streets complete with inferior “A Clockwork Orange” rowdies, who nearly kill the aging Quatermass, to the effects which are anything but special. The disintegrating death ray is hokey and the acting, even from such a pro as Oscar winner Mills (“Ryan’s Daughter,” 1970) is weak, as if all involved knew it was a quick paycheck and not a film that would shine on their resumes. Even the usually reliable Simon MacCorkindale as astronomer Joe Capp seems out of place in the film which was helmed by Piers Haggard, fresh off the superior “Pennies From Heaven” (1978).
It’s a shame, too, for there are gems of ideas that somehow never made it from the mine with hippie-styled Planet People traveling to Neolithic sites with the promise of being transported to better life on another world but instead bathed in bright white light and reduced to white dust.
I have viewed enough to only formulate a partial opinion, which is not fair to totally condemn the film and I have found excerpts online and even the first of the 4-part television serial which suffers in a manner that is painful to watch having seen the 1950s BBC serials, which were superior even with the limited black and white photography and simple technology, but with far more compelling stories.
Oddly, I have seen not the mid section, parts two and three, but the first and last half, where a heart-attacked Quatermass, (brought on by seeing his granddaughter, who the professor has been searching for, is among the Planet People), destroys the beam with a nuclear device and thus prevent a fifth Quatermass installment.
As a complete set of films, remakes and television serials, Quatermass is a unique character in the science fiction genre. The 1950s versions, which were originally aired live, are superior works and the ill-advised “Quatermass and the Ultimate Conspiracy” (1995), using the the professor’s memoirs, under the guise of a radio drama-documentary, was generally dismissed, especially by Kneale.
Kneale died at age 84 in 2006 and left behind an impressive body of work in the science fiction, horror and thriller genre and adapted other works from the likes of H.G. Welles, George Orwell and John Osbourne.
Next Weekend: female avant-garde film maker, Maya Deren.