Skip to main content

I think this is the gathering time. The human race is being harvested.

Quatermass
(1978)

At one point in the final episode of Quatermass (or The Quatermass Conclusion, as it was titled for its intended truncated cinema release), Bernard Quatermass (John Mills) looks up at particularly green-tinted sky and observes, “The Sun, it’s turned… It’s like vomit”. I wouldn’t go quite as far as comparing Quatermass to vomit, but it’s a massive step down in quality from the series’ previous form, both as a piece of writing and (strangely, given more resources were thrown at it than ever were when the property was with the BBC) a production.


One might hazard that Nigel Kneale, as was his authorial right, had been seduced by his own dismayed feelings of being out of touch with subsequent generations springing up after him, and his disenchantment with his own aging, so arranged a narrative in which the youth are fools who need saving by a bunch of pensioners. There are moments here where I was put in mind of Steptoe and Son’s lamentable The Seven Steptoerai, as Quatermass galvanises the aging codgers to aid him. Kneale referred to the “idea of the old trying to redress the balance of the young – to save the young, a nice paradoxical, ironic idea, a sort of inversion of the ‘60s, or even contemporary Hollywood”.


On paper yes, a nice idea, but in execution he comes over as a despondent Victor Meldrew, an old curmudgeon in the crudest sense. This, despite being a merely stripling in his mid-50s (and only just 50 when the script was was written).  It’s readily apparent from interviews that Kneale saw the return of his best known character as a vehicle where he could address what he felt were pressing concerns of the day. Unfortunately, he ended up doing both himself and his creation a disservice.


The better part of Kneale’s conception for Quatermass, originally referenced as taking place in 1984, is “The Great Urban Collapse”, whereby he foresees the breakdown of society following fuel and food shortages, and strained to busting social services. The police have been privatised (increasingly prescient, although their beatings-happy behaviour is most redolent of the imminent Thatcher’s Britain) Quatermass’ ire is reserved for the USA and USSR “squandering resources on a useless space project”, something more matter-of-fact than anything, given where taxes usually end up getting funnelled. Only the countryside retains any sense of order (it’s almost as if he’s taking his cues from Tolkien). Evocatively, there’s mention of Wembley as a killing ground for modern gladiatorial combat, although it’s only in passing.


Some effort is put into the scenes of urban chaos, complete with gangs of armed youth called Baaders (referencing the Baader-Meinhof), but others have done more impressive jobs on more limited budgets. Generally, this vision of a disintegrated Britain has significantly less impact than the apocalyptic vision of No Blade of Grasseight years earlier (adapting John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass). That movie might have strayed too far into the realm of exploitation picture at points, but you never felt it was play-acting. Director Piers Haggard had a feature under his belt (the cult horror Blood on Satan’s Claw) and was coming off the acclaimed Pennies from Heaven, but he seems all-at-sea here, indulging the least effective version of any aspect of Kneale’s script.


So the gangs are all colour co-ordinated, and, overtly suggestive of members of a terrorist group, while the old folk (including Ethel form EastEnders) indulge in Blitz spirit singsongs (along with nostalgic reveries; “Do you remember the good old bobbies?”) while the TV station with its porn show seems to have been grafted in from disused notes for The Year of the Sex Olympics. It’s exactly that pedestrian.


Worst though, is the thrust of the story, the nebulous alien menace Kneale grafts on to the top of his setting. Wandering about Kneale’s countryside are the Planet People, a youth movement falling prey to an external force intent on harvesting the most vulnerable (for human protein! – the latest iteration of this idea is the similarly underwhelming Jupiter Ascending), “the youngest of organisms” (leading to ridiculous scenes where, as the effects of the force spread, Baaders drop weapons and join the Planet People parade). 


Kneale imagined the Planet People as “a cross between super-punks and whirling dervishes”, as opposed to the zoned-out hippies with a flair for violent outbursts we see, but to be honest that’s still pretty anodyne sounding (“people who’d been driven mad by the gods who were to destroy them”). Kneale is partly feeding on ideas ready and present in the proto-punk A Clockwork Orange, but they’re rendered near inert.


Kneale was his own fiercest critic, though. Aside from his complaints about the production, he commented, “I don’t think it was the greatest story. I don’t think it had the pure effectiveness of the earlier Quatermass serials… there was something lacking in it which I think mattered a lot”, also noting that the idea was too ordinary. Seizing on Neolithic sites as a focal point for extra-terrestrial forces is a reasonably strong concept, except that a children’s series, Children of the Stones, did so far more creepily, effectively, and imaginatively, the year before.


By setting up a dialectic between faith and science and embodying that as the young versus old, Kneale doesn’t so much explore an idea as entrench it (“I’m dead against the loony thing of bringing on the magic”). Richard Dawkins would probably be proud of him. Haggard and the production crew went very literal by imagining the Planet People as destitute hippie types, but you can’t really blame them given what they were given. Rather than tuning in, turning on and dropping out, the Planet People are stoned on divine rays, looking forward to a Heaven’s Gate style summons that is in fact death.


Kneale extolled Quatermass’ “last ditch use of logic and dwindling technological resources against suicidal mysticism”, apparently failing to see the irony of masterful science employing the most devastating and destructive device man has conceived to resolve the plot. It isn’t just a cop out ending (a big explosion!); it undermines Kneale’s deductive, rational intent (the military usually do this kind of thing for free). Visually too, a big red detonation button isn’t the most commanding of cues.


Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it regarding the design of the piece. Apparently this was Euston film’s first art department picture – with sets built on location – and it shows. The prop megaliths only ever look like they’re made from cement (whereas the same year’s Doctor Who, The Stones of Blood manages to fashion some respectable standing stones for peanuts, at least when they aren’t moving around and glowing ominously). There’s little here in the way of atmosphere or tension (the “Huffity, Puffity, Ringstone Round” rhyme is about the extent of it, although the levitating survivor is briefly diverting), which is kind of fundamental to a good Quatermassserial. The location work looks pretty enough, but it’s a mystery where the £1.25m went. One can only think Hammer, who were late to the game but interested, would have done a more effective job.


At the end, young and old come together in a triumph for science, bridging the gap between generations as Quatermass and his granddaughter Hettie (Rebecca Saire) blow themselves up to put the alien machine off returning to Earth for a bit. Kneale didn’t think the end was pessimistic, but it’s difficult to conceive of the story lingering in a positive way.


Kneale didn’t think Mills was suitable casting, lacking the necessary authority for the professor, and its difficult not to disagree. Mind you, it doesn’t help that the character is effectively kneecapped, doddering about asking, “Have you seen my granddaughter” like he’s living in a dream world.  In the sense that he’s a silly old duffer, he kind of works in exposing the paucity of the material; exclaiming how his volunteers “must be old, the older the better” isn’t exactly grist to a dramatic mill, nor are trite realisations such as “Perhaps evil is always something else’s good”.


The rest of the cast are mixed. It’s always fun to see Brian Croucher acting up a storm (here as a bosh-mad bobby), and Margaret Tyzack is great as the can-do District Commissioner, a much needed pro-active character until she’s needlessly killed off at the end of the third episode. 


Kneale was critical of Simon MacCorkindale (“We had him in Beasts playing an idiot, and he was very good in that – not the last, rational intelligent man in the world”), although how anyone can criticise the man who was Manimal is beyond me. It is true that Kapp’s a very belligerent, splenetic scientist (“Oh, they’re violent in a different way – to human thought!”), but it’s also the case that some of Kneale’s character beats are hopelessly overwrought (Kapp’s grief, the clumsy emphasis on his Jewish faith).


Ralph Arliss (from the final Jon Pertwee Doctor Who, Planet of the Spiders) also lacks subtlety as Kickalong, which might be the point; his motivation appears to be whatever Kneale needs the character to do in a given scene (which includes machine-gunning all and sundry; these stoners are so out of it, they just go along with him – essentially Kneale’s written a motiveless faceless mob, so it’s unsurprising they’re so ineffectual).


Barbara Kellerman is incredibly wet as Kapp’s wife, so it’s a relief she only lasts half the running time. There’s also a young Brenda Fricker, a convivial Bruce Purchase in a hoodie and David Yip as research scientists, all of whom are good value when they’re actually on screen.


Even though it has the luxury of the longest running time of any of the Quatermass serials, there’s never any real feeling of a developing, deductive plot. Kneale’s construction, unlike its predecessors, is flaccid, lacking intrigue or provocative mystery. Of course, getting the viewer excited (stirring up their glandular secretions) might be too much of a young person’s thing, and so would have defeated Kneale’s purpose. His fourth outing is something of a sad end for Quatermass, an excursion too far (a similar thing befell Indiana Jones). Unless, of course, Mark Gatiss gets hold of remake rights. Then Quatermass will no doubt appear objectively quite good by comparison.



Sources: Andrew Pixley’s Quatermass Viewing Notes












Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.