aka Enemy From Space
(SPOILERS) Quatermass II or Quatermass 2? Since it says the latter on screen and the former on the poster, I’ll tip towards the latter. Nigel Kneale penned this adaptation himself, so he’s responsible for eliminating vast chunks of the – superior, natch – TV version, most notably the trip to an alien planet and ninety percent of the doppelganger intrigue/paranoia. Nevertheless, this is still a very engaging picture. Once again, that’s in spite of the presence of gangster-style Brian Donlevy in the title role. Perhaps tailoring the character to the actor, or just throwing up his hands in defeat and forsaking all semblance of the original, Kneale – or director Val Guest, reworking his material – even has Quatermass machine gun a squad of possessed goons at one point. In the back!
Quatermass 2’s premise, of society being taken over by alien impostors, is remarkably close to the previous year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except that these are actually the same people but carrying the mark of the alien parasite that has possessed them. And, of course, Kneale got in there first, since Quatermass II was shown by the BBC in 1955. It also offered a more positive ending, with a glimmer of trepidation (“What concerns me, is how final it can be?”). This contrasts to Don Siegel’s intended all-out despair, which isn’t fully relinquished in the more upbeat, studio-bookended release.
That movie, of course, has been linked to Red-terror, commies-among-us paranoia (takes have been levelled as Body Snatchers being both pro- and anti-McCarthyite, although Siegel stressed the latter intent, along with highlighting the impulse to abdicate responsibility to an authority figure. Yes, that one’s an evergreen). Kim Newman and his magnificent whiskers claimed Quatermass 2/II was a direct attack on Anthony Eden’s Conservative government (whilst also acknowledging themes of Cold War paranoia and bureaucratic quagmires). While period-specific commentary is entirely relevant – some would mistakenly say only – the broader themes of both takes on dehumanisation are the ones that have ensured these stories remain potent.
Quatermass: Secret? You put a label like that on anything and law and order go out the window, is that it?
Indeed, the idea that one cannot trust one’s leaders, who are in some way compromised and so will switch to an ulterior agenda at the drop of a hat or directive from their actual controllers, is very clearly germane to a world where every country – give or take, dissenting leaders duly dispatched – has rapidly moved in line with the need for a reset in response to a fabricated threat. Instead of a scar on the hand, you may need to look out for a tell-tale black eye. And the townsfolk of Winnerden Flats, standing by and doing nothing – fearful even to ask any probing questions – about the threat on their doorstep as long as livelihoods are maintained is absolutely the situation of conformity in the face of totalitarianism poised to overwhelm us now. At Winnerden Flats, those in charge simply need to claim theirs is a government project (and with “allies” on the inside, justifiably) and any opposition, including police intervention, wilts on the vine.
There are other noteworthy elements here. The aliens, based in an industrial complex – which, in something of a red herring, resembles Quatermass’ plans for a Moon colony – purport to be producing a synthetic food stuff. This product – like all synthetic food stuffs, just ask Bill Gates – turns out to be highly toxic and not a food stuff at all; it’s a “corrosive compound of ammonia” (oxygen is poisonous to them). We ultimately learn each dome is a breeding tank – or one for coalescing a gestalt entity, at any rate – for various towering alien sludge monsters. Ones that singularly fail to deliver the most unnerving sight you ever did see by some distance.
Genuinely unnerving though, is the close encounter MP Vincent Broadhead (Tom Chatto) has with this compound; we see him, staggering uncomprehendingly down a set of steel stairs, covered head to foot in black tar, before expiring. It’s at least as disconcerting – if much briefer – than Carroon’s transformation in The Quatermass Xperiment.
Quatermass’ inability to get anywhere within the corridors of power precedes later political paranoia thrillers, from The Parallax View to Defence of the Realm; when Inspector Lomax goes to report to his superior, he realises this man too has the mark of the beast on his hand (John Longden replaces Jack Warner as Lomax, and Kneale’s right; he’s better. Certainly, for material predicated on a response to a pervasive menace).
Generally, Val Guest’s work is much more proficient than we’d see in his later career (although, the same year’s The Abominable Snowmen sees him surpass Quatermass 2 in all respects). There’s significant day-for-night filming, which isn’t great, but Gerald Gibbs cinematography is generally a positive. Also on the debit side, naturally, is Donlevy. Kneale reports the lead actor was blotto on set, out of his gourd, and required idiot boards to get through a scene. Guest denied this, saying he was merely well lubricated. So that’s alright, then.
Also problematic is the way in which, having built up so much unease and paranoia, the final twenty minutes devolve into shooting stuff and blowing things up. Complete with a tranche of idiot villagers, led my McLeod (John Rae) listening to the aliens’ assurances they have nothing untoward growing in their domes. On the plus side, this leads to the extraordinarily gross explanation that the aliens have prevented Quatermass from sending oxygen into the domes – to poison the aliens – by stuffing the pipes full of human pulp (namely, McLeod and his pals)! Nice!
Commissioner: To date, you’ve spent a lot of money on a rocket that isn’t even safe to launch.
There’s also a lot of reliance from Kneale – necessarily, as Quatermass is head of British Rocket Group. I mean, British and American Rocket Group – on fantasy rocket tech. Winningly, however, there are constant references to how it doesn’t work and can’t be relied upon. It sounds an awful lot like NASA before they quite miraculously got everything right and landed on the Moon (but didn’t then build any bases). When Brand (William Franklyn) sends the rocket to destroy the alien asteroid – with a nuclear explosion; yes Quatermass’ rockets are nuclear powered – it’s hit and miss that it will even get off the launchpad (disarmingly, Brand also uses a detonator-type plunger… before being very bloodily riddled with bullets).
Franklyn’s very good, commendably so for having to get through scenes with Donlevy. Sid James appears as a soused journalist who shockingly – I mean, it’s Sid James – is machine gunned to death behind the bar, mid phoning in his crucial report. There are no female parts of significance, perhaps a relief after The Quatermass Xperiment; Vera Day is there to do a brief dance and then get possessed through being very silly.
Quatermass 2 did well, but not as well as The Curse of Frankenstein for Hammer (they also had the aforementioned superior adaptation of Kneale’s The Abominable Snowmen in 1957). That paved the way for the following year’s Dracula and the profitable path of the next two decades’ output. Quatermass would be on big screen hiatus for another decade, but at least, when he returned, he’d be British again. And likeable.