Posts Tagged ‘Piers Haggard’

In the Earth Year 1979, one thing that everyone involved in commissioning films and TV series was absolutely certain of was that science fiction and fantasy had suddenly become very, very popular over the previous couple of years. As producing popular movies and shows is basically part of the job description for these people, the inevitable result was the late-seventies boom in SF and fantasy, which resulted in a vast number of frankly variable new projects hitting screens both large and small. Some of these were very good, many of them were extremely poor, and a few of them are clearly the work of people with only the vaguest ideas about what science fiction is.

Which brings us to the 1979 version of Quatermass, written (of course) by Nigel Kneale and directed by Piers Haggard (who had previously been in charge of the cult folk horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, which has a few very vague similarities to this). Also known as Quatermass IV and The Quatermass Conclusion, this had started life as a project for the BBC some years earlier, which progressed as far as some initial special effects filming before the corporation had second thoughts about the tone and expense of the undertaking. It is understandable why the commercial network ITV would want to take over a prestigious project by a celebrated screenwriter, especially given the fact that it was the late 70s and this is ostensibly an SF show, but watching the end result you can’t help but wonder if the BBC weren’t right in the first place.


The proper big movie star John Mills plays Professor Q. The story has a near-future setting which, nearly 40 years on, inevitably feels rather quaint: there are various not-very-subtle references to King Charles being on the throne, but the USSR is still a going concern. Things have not changed for the better, however – ‘in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken,’ intones the opening monologue of the story. Things seem pre-apocalyptic, if not actually apocalyptic, from the word go, with law and order breaking down in the UK, dead bodies in the streets, armed gangs on the rampage, and regular power cuts. (Some of which must have seemed very familiar to a country which had recently experienced the rise of punk rock and the Winter of Discontent.)

With the British Rocket Group apparently disbanded (there are vague allusions to the events of the previous three Quatermass serials), Quatermass has been living in seclusion in Scotland, and is shocked when he returns to London, ostensibly to appear on a live broadcast covering a joint Russian-American space mission. Practically the first thing that happens to him is an attempted mugging, from which he is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), a radio astronomer booked for the same show. Uncompromising as ever, Quatermass goes on live TV and dismisses the mission as an empty display from two diseased superpowers that is bound to end in disaster, before revealing why he’s really decided to appear: his teenaged granddaughter has disappeared and he is desperate to find her. Naturally, he is yanked off the air, but moments later something mysteriously causes the spacecraft to disintegrate in orbit, killing all the crew…

Finding his suspiciously-accurate prophecy of doom has made him a person of interest to the authorities, Quatermass takes refuge with Kapp and his wife (Barbara Kellermann) at their bodged-together radio telescope installation in the countryside. On the way he and Kapp encounter members of a mystical youth cult, the Planet People, who speak of being transported to another world by mysterious forces. Kapp is scornful of this anti-intellectualism, but Quatermass is not entirely unsympathetic and decides to visit the local stone circle which the Planet People are congregating at.

While he and the Kapps are there, however, something rather unexpected happens: a blinding column of light descends from the sky, striking the circle and the hundreds of cult members assembled there, and when it withdraws only an ashy detritus remains of them. Other Planet People believe that the worthy have been transported to another world – but Quatermass and Kapp draw a different conclusion, that the young people have been obliterated. It emerges that similar visitations have been happening around the world, the first of which coincided with the destruction of the space mission.

Quatermass slowly draws the threads together and realises what is happening: an implacable alien force which first visited Earth five thousand years previously has returned and is harvesting the youth of the human race, drawing them to assembly points (many of them marked by stone circles and the like) and then vaporising them. Quatermass speculates that this is just some kind of machine, not an actual sentience, and that it is functioning on behalf of ‘unimaginable beings’ who have a taste for human protein, and nothing on screen contradicts him, naturally. But can anything be done to stop the slaughter of the human race?

I imagine that for many modern viewers, the first thing that will strike them about Quatermass is the extent to which it clearly appears to have inspired the Torchwood mini-series Children of Earth, because both programmes have basically the same plot – alien forces return to Earth intent on devouring, one way or another, the youth of the planet. In both cases the response of the authorities leaves much to be desired, and it falls to the outspoken outsider to see what needs to be done and make the necessary terrible sacrifice. That said, while Children of Earth is a pretty bleak element of the larger franchise of which it is a part, it is still in many ways a musical comedy version of the story, compared to Quatermass – many years ago I met someone who had it on VHS, and his opinion was that it was ‘the most depressing thing you will ever see’.

He kind of had a point. Most late-seventies SF, both on TV and in the cinema, followed very much in the wake of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, which after all inaugurated the SF and fantasy boom to begin with – swashbuckling action, cute robots, and ray gun battles were very nearly de rigeur. Quatermass has no truck with this, being firmly ensconced in the ‘bloody miserable’ tradition of British SF. And it’s a very particular kind of miserabilism, too: on some level the story is about a clash between science and anti-intellectualism (Kneale seems to have had an almost superstitious dread of the latter – there are several scenes in which previously-sensible characters encounter the Planet People and somehow become ‘infected’ with their New Age beliefs, abandoning their former friends and responsibilities), but it’s also about the conflict between youth and age.

Quatermass seems to be in his seventies in this story (Mills was 71 at the time), but Kneale was only in his late fifties when it was broadcast, and considerably younger when the project was originally conceived. So it is a little disconcerting that this should feel so much like an old man’s wail of rage and despair against a changing world. This is very Daily Mail SF: everything is getting worse and worse, society is heading for collapse, football hooliganism is a blight on society, young people don’t respect their elders and have all kinds of ridiculous ideas, the telly is filled with sex and violence. We tend to think of SF as an inherently youthful and progressive genre: but this is SF in reactionary mode, the generation gap viewed from the senior side – the central metaphor being that young people seem alien to their elders because they are indeed subject to some extraterrestrial influence that older and wiser heads are immune to.

Naturally, it falls to Quatermass and a picked team of elderly boffins to resolve the crisis (young people can’t be trusted, due to their susceptibility to the alien ‘fluence) – making tea and sandwiches for everyone is Ethel from EastEnders (there are quite a few familiar faces in supporting roles here – Toyah Willcox pops up as a Planet Person, Brenda Fricker plays one of Kapp’s team, Brian Croucher appears as a cop). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong or necessarily stupid about this as a piece of storytelling, it’s just so very peculiar and at odds with how TV SF usually operates that you almost can’t help reacting negatively to it – the doomy bleakness of the whole thing doesn’t help much, either.

This is not to say the storytelling is perfect – the manner in which Kneale kills off both the leading female characters can’t help but feel rather arbitrary, while he can’t help letting his interest in Judaism (a feature of many later scripts) show, to no very obvious purpose. But on the whole this is a solid story, lavishly realised for the most part – although the model work on the spacecraft sequences is really quite poor. The writer, typically generous to his collaborators, apparently felt that Mills lacked the authority to play Quatermass, and that MacCorkindale was ‘very good at playing an idiot’, but all the performances in this series seem perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s not the acting that sticks with you after watching Quatermass, anyway, nor even much of the story: what stays are a few images and a general sense of the all-consuming mood of despair and hopelessness which suffuses the story from start to (very nearly) finish. This is well-achieved and sustained, but not particularly easy or relaxing to watch. This is SF, but not escapism; not a cautionary tale about how things could be worse in the future, but a jeremiad about how bad they are now. It’s competently made, but inevitably depressing: that’s really the point of it. It’s watchable, and occasionally impressive, but really difficult to warm to or genuinely like.

Read Full Post »

You wanna go to the Devil but you don’t like the flames/Blood on Satan’s Claw is my middle name…

Mean Machine, The Cramps

One of the many reasons why I find my local art-house cinema, the Phoenix in Jericho, to be so cherishable is its capacity to put on a genuinely surprising range of films: whether they be five-hour-long silent biographies of Napoleon, or semi-documentaries about the Afghan rap scene. Top prize for this year’s unexpected revival, however, must go to the decision to show, in the Sunday lunchtime golden oldie slot (usually home to things like West Side Story and Casablanca), as part of a season of films for Christmas, Piers Haggard’s cult favourite The Blood on Satan’s Claw, originally unleashed upon the world in 1970 (also known as Satan’s Skin in the USA).


This is the kind of film which the average person takes one look at and says ‘Hammer Horror,’ which is an understandable mistake to make. It is in fact the work of Tigon Films, a company which (along with Amicus) was one of Hammer’s main competitors in the late 60s and early 70s. Tigon’s reputation these days is mainly due to its being responsible for Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, two films which generally get lumped together with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man as part of a subgenre known as ‘folk horror’, although if you ask me the best category for these films would be called ‘Films which are difficult to categorise’ – Bertrand Russell would surely approve. (Blood on Satan’s Claw was, apparently, appearing at the Phoenix as part of a season of films ‘inspired by’ the ghost stories of Charles Dickens and M.R. James – and there is something oddly Jamesean about its preoccupation with atmosphere and insidious dread.)

Our juvenile lead for Blood on Satan’s Claw is Ralph Gower, doughty ploughman at an unnamed village somewhere in Mummerset in the 18th century. He is played by Barry Andrews, who appears to be wearing one of those permed wigs that make people look like one of Harry Enfield’s Scousers – this at least distracts from Andrews’ (previously discussed hereabouts) unsettling resemblance to a young Hugh Grant. I should mention that Andrews is far from alone in making interesting choices in the tonsorial department – there is such an extravagant festival of fake hair on display throughout that Blood on Satan’s Claw should really have been made by Wig-on, not Tigon.

Well, Ralph is busy ploughing one day when he turns up a deformed, furred skull, that of neither man nor beast (and still with an eyeball intact – the first of many grotesque flourishes). Not wanting to touch the thing, he pops off to fetch the local judge (Patrick Wymark), only to find it has disappeared when they return. The judge dismisses it as superstition to begin with, but then strange events start to sweep the village: a young woman goes mad overnight, and when she is dragged off to bedlam one of her hands is found to have been replaced by a hideous claw. Her fiance (Simon Williams) in turn hacks off one of his own hands while in the grip of a terrifying hallucination. A strange affliction begins to trouble the young people of the village, some of whom form a mysterious cult led by the comely Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). Violent death and horror ensue as the demonic force plaguing the village grows in strength…

To be perfectly honest, the plot of Blood on Satan’s Claw does not strictly speaking make a great deal of sense, in coldly logical terms anyway. Instead there is an almost impressionistic succession of scenes and images, working together to build up an almost tangible sense of unease and disquiet, punctuated by disturbing outbursts of quasi-erotica and gory violence. This film doesn’t have the cachet of either The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General, but you can detect its DNA in nearly anything made by Ben Wheatley, for instance. (Blood on Satan’s Claw also has a bit of a rep amongst Doctor Who fans, due to its containing notable big-screen performances by Anthony Ainley and Wendy Padbury, not to mention an uncredited Roberta Tovey.)

What really makes this film distinctive, when on paper it sounds rather like just another low-budget Hammer Horror clone? Well, to answer that, I will say that Hammer started off as a ‘respectable’ film company, and their early horror films in particular are almost ridiculously genteel and well-mannered. There’s an argument to be made that Hammer’s best films are all essentially classic British costume dramas with just enough horror and sex added to satiate the audience of an exploitation movie. Blood on Satan’s Claw is considerably less polite: it tackles the exploitation elements with a ghastly, full-on enthusiasm and relish. There’s little in the Hammer annals with anything like the shock value of the sequence in which Wendy Padbury’s character is lured to her eventual death.

That it is as effective as it is is mostly down to Piers Haggard’s direction, which brilliantly juxtaposes a sense of bucolic innocence with the supernatural threat – Marc Wilkinson’s dreamy, unsettling score is also a major plus. The strengths of the film are more than sufficient to offset its weaknesses – a clearly tiny budget, for one thing. The climax, too, is clearly dependent on camera effects and rousing music to try and make up for the sheer crapulousness of the monster suit involved.

The openly supernatural tone and nature of the film is one of the things that distinguishes it from the other well-known folk horror movies, and adds to the apparent similarity to more mainstream horror films. It also has a touch of Gothic about it in a way the other folk horrors don’t (ancient evil resurfaces to threaten an enlightened modern world), and also, perhaps, a bit of a subtext about the generation gap – the evil and corruption spreading like a disease seems mostly limited to the younger members of the community, while it falls to one of their wiser elders to sort everything out.

That said, there is something deeply disquieting about the judge, the character who in a Hammer film would probably be played by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee (apparently Cushing wasn’t available and Lee was too expensive). Wymark’s character is cold and ruthless – ‘You must have patience, even while people die… Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed… you must let it grow’ is his cheery message at one point, while later he promises ‘I shall use undreamed-of measures to conquer the evil!’ (The ‘undreamed-of measures’ turn out to be a damn great sword, which for some reason the judge carries around wrapped in a floral blanket until it’s time to go into action.) In short, even the good guys in this film are sort of a bit frightening and evil. For all its presumably cheerful conclusion, with evil banished, one is left profoundly disquieted by the whole thing. Which was presumably the intention.

Probably about a dozen people turned up to watch West Side Story the last time it was revived at the Phoenix – it was very gratifying to see about twenty people coming out to enjoy Blood on Satan’s Claw on the big screen. This movie has lost none of its entrancing, unsettling power – it’s as marvellously, deliriously nasty as it was when it was first released. Fingers crossed for more Golden Oldie Christmas horror at the Phoenix in future.


Read Full Post »