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Posts Tagged ‘Quatermass’

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.

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There was a time when, if you were talking about the most important and influential pieces of British SF film and TV, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series would be in the top five without any debate whatsoever. Is this still the case? Frankly, I’m not sure – the name still has a certain degree of recognition, but does anyone really care any more? Does anyone remember the details? Haven’t other, more recent programmes crowded it into the background somewhat? (Frankly, since I found out an American network had embarked on a direct remake of The Tomorrow PeopleThe Tomorrow People, I ask you! – I haven’t known quite what to think.)

Quatermass isn’t quite Year Zero when it comes to Nigel Kneale’s career as a genre writer: a recording of his adaptation of 1984 managed to avoid being wiped by the BBC, which is more than can be said for the majority of the first Quatermass TV serial. Kneale himself, whom one gathers was never a man to couch a criticism in soft words, was very dismissive of the 1955 film adaptation of the original Quatermass Experiment, which has dated rather badly in many ways. And yet, in a peculiar way, the film – retitled The Quatermass Xperiment to emphasise the now-baffling X-certificate the film received – remains a landmark in the history of British cinema.

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Directed by Val Guest, the film opens with a young couple walking home through the countryside one night, laughing inanely at each other. They proceed to begin to roll in the hay (literally), but any expectations of that X-certificate coming into play are premature (whether anything else is premature is thankfully not explored). They are disturbed by something crashing out of the sky, virtually on top of them. It turns out to be a rocket, which has come to rest (in a credulity-straining moment) embedded nose-cone first in the ground. The emergency services are soon on the scene, accompanied by boffins from the British Rocket Group, most significantly their chief, Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy in this instance).

Signs of life are detected within the rocket, which was apparently launched without official backing and went out-of-contact for over two days in deep space. The vessel is cracked open and a lone astronaut, Caroon (Richard Wordsworth) stumbles out, clearly traumatised but unable to speak. Of the other two men in the crew, there appears to be no sign – but the ship has not been penetrated nor the hatch opened while it was in space. They have seemingly vanished into thin air…

Caroon is hospitalised and his condition gives the doctors cause for concern – there are signs of a physical metamorphosis being underway. Meanwhile, Quatermass and the police (inspector Jack Warner of Dixon of Dock Green fame is handling the case) are trying to work out where the missing astronauts have gone. They come to a startling conclusion: out in space, the rocket encountered a totally alien form of life which somehow assimilated the missing men and has infected Caroon, mutating his body and possessing the power to absorb the life essence of any creature it encounters. Unfortunately this comes just as Caroon’s wife, believing her husband to be being poorly treated by his employers, springs him from the hospital. Soon the remains of Caroon are on the loose in London, rapidly mutating and threatening to reproduce on a massive scale…

The original TV broadcasts of The Quatermass Experiment ran for over three hours, so I suppose it says something about the leisurely pace of small-screen drama in those days that virtually the entire story is reproduced in a film running rather less than ninety minutes. This is a pacy little thriller, the main loss being the climax – in the TV version, Quatermass confronts the gribbly monster that Caroon has become and essentially talks him to death. Here, rather more prosaically, it’s just a question of the main characters switching on a plug in order to save the day. I can’t help thinking we’ve lost some of the poetry of the drama there; Nigel Kneale thought so, being particularly unimpressed with Donlevy as Quatermass.

Having said that, Professor Q doesn’t get a great deal to do in this movie beyond snap at people and listen to other boffins exposit at him. There are lots of things that date this movie – the very idea of a British space programme is one of them, along with the charmingly antique fire engines, and so on – but one of the main ones is the fact that it’s a horror-SF movie populated almost entirely by middle-aged men in hats and ties. The only female character of note is Mrs Caroon, who’s arguably one of the direct sources of the trouble everyone else faces. (The fact that Caroon himself is kept in a public hospital, barely guarded and hardly monitored, is one of those things that makes you roll your eyes and just treat this as a penny-dreadful melodrama.)

Of course, you could also argue that the indirect source of the trouble is Quatermass himself, for launching his rocket precipitately in the first place. The prof does not come across as a noble, heroic science-visionary like some of his successors: instead, he is a bullying main-chancer who refuses to show remorse or take the blame for any of the events he has unwittingly caused to happen. The film concludes with the current menace dealt with, just about, at which point Quatermass strides off, his only comment being the instruction to a subordinate that they’re going to start again. The film closes with a second rocket blasting off, and the effect is undeniably ominous: Quatermass (and, by extension, science itself) presents a real danger if left unchecked.

So in a sense this is a lurid and melodramatic atom-scare B-movie, and a bargain-basement one compared to some of the similar films being made contemporaneously in the States. However, the extensive use of location filming does allow it to retain a tenuous sort of grip on reality, and the contrast between the almost-Ealingesque depiction of postwar Britain and the disturbing body horror of Kneale’s story is nicely done. It’s worth noting how far ahead of the curve Nigel Kneale was in this respect: you can look at this story and see how its central concept has echoed down the years in countless other movies, comics and TV shows – it’s curious how many stories derived partly from The Quatermass Experiment also draw heavily on The Thing From Another World, when the two don’t have much in common beyond the not-exactly-unusual idea of an alien incursion of some kind. I’ve never found any evidence of Kneale acknowledging any version of The Thing as an influence, and suspect it’s the kind of film he would have dismissed out of hand (John Carpenter, on the other hand, is on record as a Kneale fan).

The simplistic way of summarising Nigel Kneale’s screenwriting career is to say that his work is all about trying to build a bridge between genuine SF and real horror – or, to put it another way, to find a way of conjuring up a real sense of primal dread without recourse to the supernatural. We will be looking at some more of Kneale’s work over the next few days, and I think we will see that this doesn’t do the breadth of his career justice. But the horror aspect does has some truth to it, particularly in connection with The Quatermass Xperiment. Appearing in the closing credits is the declaration ‘A Hammer Film’, the first time the company had tried its hand at a horror movie. But they did it well, and it did well for them. Hammer decided to make some more – and they are still making them today. As I said, a landmark film in cinema history.

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I nearly didn’t write this. I sat down and watched Quatermass and the Pit (1967) last night, but not specifically with an eye to reviewing it – this is one of those films I sit down and view simply for pleasure at least once every couple of years, and I find it always, always rewards me. But then – with the return of the Hammer brand imminent – I read yet another article discussing the Hammer movies of old, with particular reference to how kitsch and camp they are.
  

Well – maybe some of them come across that way now, and possibly some of them were made with tongue sliding into cheek, but Quatermass and the Pit isn’t amongst that number. This is a story told absolutely straight, absolutely seriously. It opens with workmen engaged upon an extension of the London tube system discovering astonishingly ancient fossil human skulls as they dig. But the scientific investigation of the site has to be suspended when the dig uncovers what everyone assumes to be an unexploded bomb from the second world war – but what no-one can explain is how the projectile and the fossil relics appear to have been buried at exactly the same time. On the scene almost by accident is rocket engineer and British SF icon Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), who is more prepared than anyone else to think the impossible. But even he is initially reluctant to accept evidence that the dig site’s history of ghost sightings and paranormal phenomena is linked to the thing in the pit…

The story unfolds lucidly and logically, managing to fuse strong SF ideas with classic horror imagery along the way. And it grows in scale, from a simple, if unsettling mystery, to a climax in which London itself is virtually laid waste and the future direction of human development is at stake. The tone throughout is defiantly naturalistic, as are the performances. Alongside Hammer stalwarts Keir and Barbara Shelley are James Donald and Julian Glover, and they pitch it perfectly, directed by the recently-departed Roy Ward Baker.

I was all set to pass over a more detailed look at Nigel Kneale’s script, on the grounds that it’s all been said before and better, but I suppose there is just a chance that someone reading this may not be familiar with his work, so here goes. It seems to me than in addition to being a visionary and a major figure in UK drama from the 50s onwards, Kneale was a misanthrope. Even on those occasions when his scripts conclude with a happy ending and calamity averted, one still gets the sense that the darker side of human nature has been thrown into unflattering focus, and the price of survival is a deeper understanding of our own essential evil.

The other major theme of Kneale’s later work is the use of classic Gothic tropes and structures to tell explicitly SF-themed stories – or, to put it another way, the use of SF rationales to ground Gothic horror stories. Quatermass and the Pit is about an eruption of ancient, demonic evil into the modern world, culminating in the malign possession of an entire city – but it’s also about the legacy of an attempt at a colonisation of prehistoric Earth by insectoid Martians. The two readings mesh seamlessly, and – tying into Kneale’s view of humanity – include a bleak metaphor and explanation for our self-destructiveness and viciousness to one another.

‘We’ve found the problem. The system had a few bugs in it.’

One thing I’ve never seen written about this movie in the past is the way it echoes the work of another very famous 20th century horror writer, H P Lovecraft. (Kneale would probably have abominated such a comparison.) But to me Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories seem motivated by a deep discomfort with the ramifications of the discoveries of modern science, with humanity little more than evolved apes in a soulless and unguided universe. There seems to be a similar disquiet about our origins in Quatermass and the Pit, and while Kneale’s Old Ones are Martian insects rather than Lovecraft’s extravagant obscenities, they have something of the same baleful aura.

Cor, this has got a bit deep and heavy, hasn’t it? I have to say that if any of the classic Hammer movies deserve it, it’s this one, not just the best SF movie the studio ever produced, but quite possibly also the best movie overall. Quite simply an essential watch.

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