Olmstead’s Astro Hell

Quatermass 2

   Hammer is basically known for its lurid 19th Century re-takes of Universal monster films, but Anchor Bay has been distributing all sorts of curiosities, including the two 50’s sci fi pictures that I’ll be reviewing here.

   QUATERMASS 2, a film you may have seen on late night television as ENEMY FROM SPACE, is part of a series screenwriter Nigel Kneale spawned around Prof. Quatermass, who essentially looks on while alien shenanigans go down.

Kneale originated him for British TV. The first in the movie series, THE QUATERTMASS XPERIMENT (sic), here seen as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, also features Brian Donlevy as the good Professor, a figure who morphs considerably in the 30 years he is given life in the cinema. The third is the best, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, known here as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH. The last in the series, THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION, is a British TV movie that is little seen. All, however, are written by Nigel Kneale, though IMDb is strangely silent on just who wrote the last. Kneale is credited in the version I saw. It is mediocre enough that one wonders if Kneale asked to be forgotten. Anchor Bay has also released X-THE UNKNOWN, often confused as a Quatermass film (which it is not), and frankly I think Hammer wanted us to believe it was. It’s a Jimmy Sangster penned conceptual spin-off, a writer known for most of the major Victorian horror films that Hammer did. X-THE UNKNOWN proves in absentia how good Kneale was, and indicates the abilities of Val Guest, also not involved on X-THE UNKNOWN.

   QUATERMASS 2 involves alien body snatchers in government conspiracy, not particularly innovative in itself, but intelligently set up and crispy advanced. It’s likely the Quatermass series has some impact on Chris Carter.

   Kneale is a strong enough screenwriter to give the auteur theory a challenge, although I’ve maintained that the director’s role is ship’s captain, whether he chooses to wield his responsibility or not. Val Guest directs QUATERMASS 2 and THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, both Kneale scripts, but it is clear that Kneale is a stronger creative force, however competent and occasionally inspired Guest is.

   Brian Donlevy as Quatermass has the look of Robet Goddard, father of American rocketry, or sci fi author Robet Heinlein – middle-aged, average well-fed looks, pencil-thin mustache. This hardly seems accidental given the times. He is a sort of World War II ally hangover with brusque Yankee scientist know-how. It is amusing and at times astonishing to see Donlevy push his way around in a world of British manners (Quatermass is thoroughly British by the third and fourth installments). Donlevy has the look of excess about him and Guest reveals on the commentary that he drank his way through the picture. His overly applied pancake and toupee, along with the skinny mustache, suggest other excesses we may not wish to know. In the end, there is something strangely likeable about him, a definitely authentic personality. There is no suggestion of love interest anywhere, although a platinum blonde barmaid suddenly does a jig pulling her dress to crotch level, encased in some kind of super corset with bullet bra and wasp waist.

   This is the only hint of the Hammer we usually think of.

   The commentary on this DVD reveals that Kneale did not like Brian Donlevy on or off screen. Val Guest, however, is more than satisfied with him. “He always knew his lines, he just didn’t always know the meaning of them.” (Here I must report difficultly in separating the somewhat enfeebled voices of the British director and writer, along with an uncredited host and what sounds like a fourth party as well.) Quatermass, perhaps by actor’s default, is never a particularly strong character, not a Prof. Challenger a la Claude Rains or a Peter Cushing. He looks on and figures things out, but the stories are plot driven, not character driven. Kneale did write FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, but one wonders how much of kooky scientist Cavor’s eccentricities were related to Lionel Jeffries more than the script. MOON remains the best written of any Harryhausen film (if among the most disappointingly animated), even with an absurd revision of H.G. Wells – adding a gorgeous woman along for the ride. Sexuality does not have much of a part elsewhere in the Kneale canon. Guest’s QUATERMASS opening sequence is a pre-titles teaser, ending with a shot that eventually pans up to the sky and the titles leap out. This sky shot is held and, when the titles are finished, the camera pans to the left and finds a radar dish. We’re in a completely different spatial locale.

   The camera pans down and a cut is disguised by a brief black-out caused by the building’s roof that allows us to resume, as in ROPE, with a shot inside the radar installation. It is a pretty savvy and economical set-up.

   Elsewhere Guest uses deep focus and a tendency for unfolding action in more than one plane of a single shot, where a less intelligent director would use a cut-away. Still, these tend to be the exception. Guest, above all, is basically not tedious. We’ll forgive the later WHEN DINOSAURS RULE THE EARTH.

   Another early shot in QUATERMASS 2 is evocative of the times. Our professor pulls up his car in a nicely composed tableau of radar station and rocket ship on the horizon. This shot and similar ones in films like it influenced their way into 8_. It’s a Willy Ley era, German engineer and popularizer of space exploration whose impact was almost on the level of Alan Watts’ Zen.

   His reign was roughly the entire 50’s decade – before he fell out-of-date. But the rocket designs that illustrated his books had a far-reaching impact on everything from sci fi pulps to POPULAR MECHANICS spin-offs. Their look still has an elegance that will certainly be a source of nostalgic rediscovery in the decades to come. A book of Ley’s became the George Pal-produced CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955).

QUATERMASS 2 falls into the blob sub-genre of film sci fi (like the work of Ley’s illustrators, a coffee table book still waiting to arrive). These blobs only show at the end and are so fake and rubbery that I think of my teenage goth-girl buddy, Ariel Holden, and imagine how she’ll never know the pleasure of these creaky effects, spoiled by the super-realism of computer’d times. James Bernard, Hammer’s bargain basement answer to Bernard Hermann, provides an evocative “heaving blob” theme. Anyone familiar with his work in all the Draculas and Frankensteins of Hammer will hear most of his familiar signatures here. The print, by the way, is gorgeous, transferred from a 35mm fine grain print courtesy of the British Film Institute – with a disclaimer apologizing for the deteriorated first 2 minutes, flawed in a way I could barely recognize.

   I probably saw this picture first around age 8 in the early 60’s on L.A. TV’s “Strange Tales of Science Fiction”. It’s a pleasure to see how well it held up. In particular, a scene where the alien invaders block a pipe by tossing a human into it, causing a crack to appear from backed-up pressure and blood to drip out, is suggestive in a Val Lewton style and still impressive. It was burned into my memory.

   I understand but can’t confirm that Kneale script-doctored some of Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE. It’s easy to believe – Colin Wilson’s SPACE VAMPIRES novel lends itself to a focused Kneale-esque exposition – even pasted into a very horny 80’s Dan O’Bannon screenplay.

   I had quite a different, disappointed reaction as a kid to THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. First of all, you barely get to see the Yeti, or Abominable Snowmen, until the very end. This is of course a standard for low-budget 50’s sci fi and horror, and even true of QUATERMASS 2, though you did finally get a decent look at the blobs. Here again, as with Val Lewton’s influence on THE CAT PEOPLE, there is much more suggestion than actual appearance, which creates a cerebral and satisfying experience now, however disappointing it was then. On top of that, this is decidedly adult writing on Kneale’s part, which gave me a weird feeling as a boy. We’re not talking sex, we’re talking death and challenged codes of honor – the stuff of Patrick Myers’ K2. For after all, what better place for mirroring such matters but in the lunar climes of the Himalayas – an existential metaphor if ever there was one. I had a similar feeling as a kid at the end of ROCKETSHIP X-M, where they all die, for Christ’s sake! I was watching these movies to get away from this sort of thing, not confront it.

   Viewing this film now, I saw how much had not registered, rather than the opposite memory-branding effect of QUATERMASS 2. FORBIDDEN PLANET’s Dr. Morbius made me want to get enlightened more than SNOWMAN’S Buddhism. But here is a thoughtful science fiction story in much the manner of the better writers of that time, like Bradbury, Matheson or Theodore Sturgeon. Like these writers, the details of what make it science fiction are incidental, since the philosophical issues are what interest Kneale.

   On the other hand, though Kneale’s portrait of Tibet shows some homework, his monastary’s lama has more to do with Sam Jaffe in LOST HORIZON than anything legit. Like Jaffe, actor Arnold Marle is a white man with only a vague oriental exotica about him. David Carradine looks more Tibetan. Of course, all the other Tibetans are clearly Asian – Chinese waiters, in fact, according to Guest. The film’s ritual dance is goofy and laughable. For the real thing, see Richard Kohn’s excellent documentary LORD OF THE DANCE – DESTROYER OF ILLUSION (your video store may have this one, it used to be distributed by Mystic Fire. Kohn was a scholar who recently succumbed to cancer – he will be missed.) The SNOWMAN commentary reveals that Kneale still takes pride to this day in his research, but won’t say where he got his information, which was probably limited to explorers Alexandra David-Neel and Heirich Harrer (7 YEARS IN TIBET). The bogus and pseudonymous author “T. Lopsang Rampa,” who pillaged the same sources with a good dose of Sax Rohmer for seasoning, was surfacing around the same time as this film (THE THIRD EYE, 1956), but I’d guess Kneale’s research started at an earlier point, since this was another project first generated for British TV. I was startled to hear a traditional Tibetan prayer I knew opening the film – we’re talking 7 whole lines, not just a 6-syllabled mantra. Kneale said a local Buddhist monastery had given some advice. Elsewhere, however, the Lama tries to cover for the discovery of an Yeti tusk by referring to it as a devotional carving representing the fang of the “god” Manjushri – in truth, a bodhisattva who, like Buddha, has no fangs. Manjushri’s wrathful manifestation, Yamantaka, does have fangs, and shows up prominently on the monastery wall – Kneale may have simply misunderstood.

   It is very definitely a Tibet with no hint of impending Chinese occupation – recall that the Dalai Lama was forced into exile but two years after the release of this picture. I see another coffee table book in the making: TIBET IN FILM. Give me an advance and I’ll write it. Even by the 90’s, GOLDEN CHILD with Eddie Murphy had not evolved much further. It took 7 YEARS IN TIBET and KUNDUN to clarify anything, and a Tibetan lama friend still found 7 YEARS pretty ridiculous (“The Tibetan people – they are happy, they are dirty…”).

   The film is shot in Hammerscope, a widescreen black & white, and, as I surmised, it proved rather unwieldy for Val Guest, who does little of visual interest and seems to barely get a scene decently composed. There are a few exceptions, as when a major actor (I don’t like to give away everything) stares like a deer frozen in the headlamps when an avalanche descends on him. It was one of those ROCKETSHIP X-M moments, my dear. The print itself does not look as crisp as QUATERMASS 2.

   Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker are an interesting match, to say the least. Cushing, unlike Christopher Lee, seems equally comfortable playing good or bad – here the science-driven good-hearted thinker. Tucker, another brusque Yankee, bounces off Cushing’s reserve like a 4th of July cherry bomb. The commentary calls attention to Cushing’s precision as an actor, and his penchant for bits of improvised business involving props – nail files, tape measures, cigarettes. It is difficult not to love him.

   Tacked on is a 20 minute TV show, “The World of Hammer”, here honoring Cushing (on QUATERMASS 2, it was “sci fi”). These are pretty superficial commercials for Hammer – but to what end? The studio’s quite finished, I thought, even when these were put together. The clips that are lifted from various films look poorly duped and somewhat washed out. Oliver Reed provides the commentary, which is pleasantly delivered, but reveals nothing. Not quite worth the time.

   Hail Hammer from the depths of Astro-Hell. Signing off, the bastard son of Forrest Ackerman and Robin Wood, your ghoulish guardian of the gate.