Posts Tagged ‘Val Guest’

I think it makes a certain kind of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If so, then I am surprised there has not been more of an outcry about the British film industry’s enthusiasm for making syrupy-soft allegedly life-affirming comedy dramas aimed at old people, fairly insipid rom-coms, and dour costume dramas, for our record in this area is not much better than that of many other nations. No, what we should be producing more of – and I think a target of two or three a year is not unreasonable – is apocalyptic science fiction films, because there was a time when we led the world in films of this kind (well, good ones, anyway). Nowadays we barely even seem to bother: the last proper one I can think of is 28 Days Later, which is not far off being twenty years old (the boom in zombie movies it kick-started is still going, of course: see what I mean, we’re good at this stuff).

Near the top of any stack of British doomsday films is Val Guest’s 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (NB: title may be figurative). It sounds like a rather excitable B-movie made in the wake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – and there are plenty of these, such as the Italian film The Day the Sky Exploded – but, being a British film, it is made with healthy amounts of thought, restraint, and good old-fashioned phlegm.

The film’s main gimmick, inasmuch as it has one, becomes apparent from the start: in the sequences that frame the story, the black-and-white picture has been tinted ochre, representing the burning heat throughout these scenes. We find journalist Pete Stenning (Edward Judd) wandering through the streets of a near-deserted London: the Thames has virtually dried up in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Stenning goes into the offices of his newspaper and (his typewriter ink having turned to paste) proceeds to dictate the story of what has befallen the world…

In flashback, we return to more conventional times, with the men (and they are virtually all men) of the press preoccupied with a string of apparently unconnected natural disasters: floods and earthquakes, mostly. Some planes are also reporting navigational problems. Amidst all this news of the Americans and Soviets both having recently tested enormously powerful nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the globe is only a minor item. But all the news seems trivial to Stenning, who is having something of a breakdown – his marriage having ended, he is concerned for the future of his son, and is drinking too much. His job is in peril and it is only the connivance of his friend and colleague Maguire (Leo McKern) that keeps him employed.

The authorities at the air ministry and the meteorological office stonewall any attempts to find out what’s going on, and Stenning’s own enquiries only put him on the wrong side of secretary Jean Craig (Janet Munro). But strange events continue: there is an unheralded, unscheduled lunar eclipse, then a protracted heat-wave. Then a stifling heat-mist blankets much of the world, followed by savage hurricanes and typhoons. Stenning has (almost inevitably) got it together with Jean by this point, and it is from her that he learns the reality of what is really going on – the nuclear tests have toppled the world on its axis, and caused it to shift its orbit, taking it much closer to the sun…

There is a sense in which watching The Day the Earth Caught Fire is like looking back into a very different world, which has now almost vanished. These are the sixties before they really started to swing: the mood is still stolid, post-war, sensible. Most importantly, newspapers are still the dominant media, and most of the film is centred around the offices of Stenning’s rag. Normally when a film focuses on a paper, it’s a fictitious one (unless we’re talking about a based-on-fact movie like The Post); one of the possibly-startling elements of this film is that Stenning works for the Daily Express, an actual newspaper (one guesses that the Express movie critic was rather positive about this film). Even more surprising, the editor of the Express in the film is played (not especially well, it must be said) by Arthur Christiansen, who was the real-world editor of the paper for over twenty years. These days it is customary to dismiss the Daily Express as being one of the more excitably nutty organs of the right-wing media, so there is a degree of cognitive dissonance in seeing its staff portrayed so heroically; a scare story about the Earth falling into the sun would probably qualify as a quite a subdued piece by the paper’s current standards – no doubt it would turn out to be the fault of the EU, or Tony Blair. (An unintentionally funny moment, from a modern perspective, comes when Christiansen declares – even as the fall of civilisation takes a big step closer – ‘We must keep the tone of the paper optimistic!’)

The film is also very much of its time in its concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something it shares with another great British film from about ten years earlier, Seven Days to Noon – but it also seems almost prophetic in the way it depicts wide-scale climate change as a result of human foolishness. Everything is rather exaggerated for dramatic effect, naturally, but many chords are struck – the authorities initially refuse to be pinned down on the exact cause of the punishingly hot weather, and the characters seem almost overwhelmed by the immense implications of what is happening in the film. There is also something chillingly plausible about the various reactions as the situation worsens – there are mentions of black market water dealers, severe rationing, outbreaks of typhus in London, and so on.

It’s all handled in a downbeat, naturalistic style which serves to keep the story unsettlingly credible. However, the script (by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz) isn’t quite wall-to-wall doom and despair – woven in there, alongside the main plotline, is the story of Stenning and Jean’s romance, which is equally plausible and smartly written. Edward Judd gets the ‘introducing’ credit in this film; he gives a great leading man’s performance of the kind he would continue to produce in a number of other British SF and fantasy films in the 1960s. Munro inevitably has a rather more secondary role, but she is also appealing and plausible. Leo McKern is saddled with the gravitas-provision and exposition-delivery character part in this film (the kind of thing someone like Paul Giamatti does nowadays), but also manages to find some interesting stuff to work with there. For modern audiences, there’s also a nice moment when a pre-stardom Michael Caine (aged 27) has an uncredited cameo as a police officer: his face is never clearly seen, but that voice is unmistakable.

This is one of those films which is not especially celebrated nowadays, but which seems to me to cast an extremely long shadow – it certainly anticipates several of the effects-driven SF disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been regularly producing for many years now, but I can also discern something of its tone and imagery in many other pieces of British and American SF – not just films, but also TV shows and even comic books. This is a smart, serious film, even if the print in wide circulation via DVDs and so on diffuses Guest’s original, carefully ambiguous ending to create something a little more hopeful. The Day the Earth Caught Fire isn’t about hope; it’s about anger, and fear, but in that very reserved British way. Not just a great British SF film, but a great British film, full stop.

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As 2013 draws to a close I find myself inadvertantly tying up a couple of loose ends from earlier in the year: or at least making a late addition to both the series of pieces celebrating the centenary of Peter Cushing’s birth (from June this year) and that looking at the work of Nigel Kneale (from September). That it’s also a Hammer movie is a bonus too; though it predates – just! – the studio’s reinvention of itself as the world’s greatest producer of genre and horror movies.

The film in question is Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman from 1957, a rather lurid and hokey title which the film itself either fails to live up to or doesn’t deserve, depending on what your expectations are. Like the Quatermass movies, this started life as a TV play and was then reconstituted as a feature release. It’s not terribly similar to Quatermass in terms of its subject matter, but there are some familiar Kneale themes visible if you look closely for them.


Proceedings get underway with some appropriately ominous and slightly exotic music, as the credits appear over stock footage of mountain ranges. Being well versed in the ways of Hammer and their, er, limited budgets, I was expecting this to be the precursor to a film shot entirely on sound-stages, but this turned out to be not entirely the case.

Anyway, regardless of where it was filmed, the movie is set in Tibet – or possibly Nepal – where top boffin John Rollason (Peter Cushing) is engaged in a study of the local plantlife, aided by his wife and a junior boffin who’s vaguely comic-reliefy. We learn very quickly that Rollason has promised his wife he’s packed in his hobby of going on dangerous expeditions up mountains, and this lets us know that the movie is obviously going to be about him going on a dangerous expedition up a mountain. So it proves: the head lama of the monastery where Rollason is based makes various ominous comments about his motives and the place of Man in the world, and then some Americans turn up.

Chief American is Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker). Although Cushing is inarguably the star of the film and plays the lead role, the imported American star Tucker gets top billing in both the credits and on the poster: the demands of trying to sell your film in the States, I suppose. Anyway, as has been blatantly obvious since the title of the film came up, Rollason and Friend are both determined to track down – and, possibly, capture – a Yeti, and Friend has kitted out an expedition with that very end in mind.

However, the locals are not keen on this idea, and Cushing starts to have second thoughts too when he learns more of the kind of man he’s teamed up with – a chancer, an adventurer, a con man, and a mercenary, quite willing to take terrible risks or commit questionable acts if it means improving his chances of turning a profit. Things get even worse when they get up in the high valleys, where it becomes apparent the Yeti are more than simple ape-like hominids, and bring their peculiar powers to bear against the expedition…

There’s no denying that even if you discount the black-and-white photography and plummy accents of all the British characters, The Abominable Snowman is still a very mid-50s sort of movie. Looking for the Yeti was topical, back then, for one thing, with British newspapers funding expeditions to track down the beast (following Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1952 there was almost a sense that the entire region was now British territory). And for all that it has a remote setting and looks on paper like a pulp B-movie creature feature, it has much wider themes. There’s a vein of A-bomb concern and general pessimism about the state of civilisation not very deeply buried and central to the main idea of the film.

General pessimism is more or less what you expect from an original Nigel Kneale screenplay, of course. This film was based on his play The Creature (the title is less pulpy, more ambiguous, and thus much more appropriate), and he rewrote the script himself – and then, apparently, found himself rewritten again by Val Guest, who wasn’t keen on Kneale’s tendency towards speechification. As it is, the film gets its points across fairly concisely, but a sense of a clash of sensibilities persists. For much of the movie it looks like the Yeti themselves are going to remain an elusive, off-camera presence, which would probably help the film’s credentials as a serious piece of work: there’s nothing like a man on lifts in a gorilla suit to make your serious statement look risible, after all. Slightly surprisingly, this decision was apparently Guest’s rather than Kneale’s – Kneale wanted to communicate the true nature of the Yeti through their appearance on-camera during the climax. Well, perhaps this was a nice idea, but for all that the appearance of ‘live’ Yeti is fleeting, it’s still a very qualified success at best.

This is a bit of a shame as in most other departments the film stands up well, given its age and budget. The movie has pretty decent production values, and includes a fair bit of second unit footage actually shot on location up a mountain (though in the Pyrenees rather than the Himalayas). There are occasional issues where second unit stuff filmed during the day is inserted into sequences set at night, but on the whole this is well-integrated and gives the film more of a sense of scale. Any film starring Peter Cushing is never going to have very serious problems in the acting department (though Tucker, to be honest, isn’t very good), and the script holds up quite well too.

The atom-age nihilism and existential angst feel a little dated now, but the structure of the piece is textbook stuff – this may even be another case of Kneale writing the textbook, I’m not sure. Certainly many creature feature tropes are present and correct here – the hostile locals, the capture of a creature-that-isn’t-a-creature, the minor party member who falls under the spell of the quarry, and so on. The integration of more mundane perils into the storyline is neatly done too. It’s just a shame that the actual conclusion of the film feels a little rushed and ambiguous: Rollason returns to the monastery and announces he is now certain that the Yeti do not exist – but is this because he now understands the desperate importance of letting them survive in peace, and is lying to protect them? Or does he genuinely believe it, having been mentally interfered with by the Yeti themselves? As I say, it’s ambiguous, and the script doesn’t flag this up in a way that indicates it’s intentional.

But this is just about the only significant stone I can throw at an otherwise very solid little film. Like I say, it is very dated by modern standards, and the general pessimism and thoughtfulness of the script aren’t things you’re likely to find in a genre movie nowadays. If nothing else it shows that, even before they discovered luridness and Kensington Gore, Hammer were still highly accomplished when it came to making genre movies. The Abominable Snowman is well worth a look if you like brainy 50s B-movies.

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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.


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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