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Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

Quatermass II (1957)

"A horrible enemy from the unknown strikes terror across the earth!"

Plot

Professor Quatermass follows a trail of meteorites that are crashing down into in a remote part of rural England. His search leads him to a destroyed village and a huge chemical plant in it's place which produces synthetic food according to his government sources. But Quatermass uncovers something far more sinister: the plant is being used as a landing point for aliens who are using the huge domes to acclimatise themselves to Earth's atmosphere. However, no one will believe him as the aliens have infiltrated every form of government and authority. He has to take action himself to see that they are stopped.

 

After proving hugely popular on television, the rights to BBC's 1953 serial The Quatermass Experiment were snapped up by then-fledgling studio Hammer Film Productions and made into an even more successful box office hit in 1955. That same year, the BBC and writer Nigel Kneale had re-teamed for a second TV serial, the aptly named Quatermass II, and having only read the scripts and without waiting for the serial to be broadcast, Hammer snapped up the rights to film the motion picture sequel. Although it was financially successful as well, the box office receipts for Quatermass II were dwarfed by that of Hammer's other big May 1957 release - The Curse of Frankenstein. Realising there was more money to be made in lavish Technicolor horror, Hammer switched focus and thus their brief foray into the world of sci-fi horrors came to an end for the time being. Though Kneale had written another Quatermass story for the BBC, Quatermass and the Pit (broadcast in 1958) was not picked up by Hammer until 1967.


Quatermass II is in my opinion by far the superior film to its predecessor in almost every single way. There's no ‘bigger and louder is better’ theory here that there is with today's sequels - this one simply has a better story, better pace, bigger scope and a lot better special effects. Sharing many similarities with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass II gives the whole alien invasion plot a very English spin. Though just to clear things up: Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released a year earlier in 1956 but the initial radio broadcast of Quatermass II on the BBC was in 1955. The similarities between the two are fairly limited, however the overwhelming sense of paranoia and a sinister creeping terror remain at the core of both - the lead characters become aware of a conspiracy that could change the world but it may be too late to stop it.


Quatermass II is a great film for its age, and it's theories about conspiracies and cover-ups are well ahead their time - these basic elements have become so familiar to us over the decades that it's difficult to think back to the time when they were fresh and exciting. Val Guest's screenplay based around Kneale's original script keeps Quatermass front and centre, slowly revealing the conspiracy to the audience and how it seems to be opening up but closing in on him at the same time, ever so gradually throughout, whilst other characters refuse to believe or are unwilling/unable to stop the direction of travel. This feeling of helplessness extends to the audience who are kept in-sync with his investigations, not finding out anything that the character doesn't know so that we share in his reactions at the advent of new information and the horror that things may already be too late. The script keeps you hooked all the way through, let down somewhat by a sub-par finale which clearly showed off the low budget that this film had. The final uncovering of the aliens is pretty weak and just like its predecessor, the make-up for the aliens are the elements that spoil the film. The giant blobs at the end look silly but this was 1957 after all - this was a truly a case where the vivid imagination of the writer was limited by finance. It is fascinating to watch as the plot uncovers though and the script writers deserve credit for working such a detailed, intelligent plot together.



Attention to detail is fantastic. There are some great little touches such as the whizzing of the meteorites as they crash to Earth, especially when you hear one single meteorite fall at the beginning of the film in the background and then contrast it towards the end of the film when hundreds of them are falling and whizzing past in the background. It's just the little things like that which happen and aren't the main focus of the current scene but can still have a profound effect on the atmosphere. The plant itself (it was actually filmed at a Shell Oil refinery) is great for notching up the tension too with its sparsely populated, almost labyrinth-like maze of pipes, tunnels and structures - very much the sinister base in which to plot an invasion. It's also surprisingly violent too with Quatermass callously running down a soldier in his car with scant regard for whatever remained of the human left in him, and a scene in which a group of workers holed up inside one of the buildings watch their plans to gas the huge domes end abruptly when the pipes become blocked with "pulped" human bodies. It's pretty disturbing stuff for the time but Hammer were never afraid to lay down the punches when it mattered.


Brian Donlevy reprises his role as Professor Quatermass and again brings the same brash, abrasive qualities as he did before. Kneale hated Donlevy's performance in the original but I liked those qualities he displayed, especially when he is supposed to be a rather arrogant scientist. His ‘me-first’ attitude serves him well because he wants the human race to achieve greatness and he's prepared to go to any lengths to see that it does. He even saves himself at one point instead of helping a poor woman whose fate we never know (but can assume is taken over by the aliens). Such an attitude would never find itself in a modern day film with the hero required to save everyone and sacrifice himself. Quatermass never read those rules. Carry On regular Sid James pops up in a small, serious role here but its unusual seeing him without his cackling laugh and leering demeanour. Loads of famous faces round off the stock characters cast including Hammer regular Michael Ripper and Percy Herbert.


And one last note before I round off the review is the score. It may be loud and ear-piercing during the title credits but James Bernard's score is just as good at setting the mood for the film as anything else. Every little shot of a construction truck moving along or a group of the zombie-like soldiers stopping and staring at the camera is turned into something unsettling and threatening.

 

Final Verdict

If you think about a lot of the other science fiction films released during the 50s, they were mainly trashy atomic monster movies. Quatermass II is an inspired, intelligent, and sometimes scary film which was leaps and bounds ahead of the genre. You'll never forget the scene where the government inspector stumbles down the steps of the white dome, covered in black substance and screaming for his life. It has lost little of its impact in over forty years. Quatermass II is highly regarded by many but unfortunately never seems to garner the mainstream credit it rightfully deserves. A classic in every sense of the word.



 

Quatermass II


Director(s): Val Guest


Writer(s): Nigel Kneale (story), Val Guest (screenplay)


Actor(s): Brian Donlevy, John Longden, Sidney James, Bryan Forbes, William Franklyn, Vera Day, Charles Lloyd Pack


Duration: 85 mins