Home Video Hovel: Quatermass 2, by West Anthony
The Quatermass trilogy is a real treat for fans of classic sci-fi horror stories in which mankind is threatened by a fun bunch of guys from outer space. Based on a trio of British television serials written by Nigel Kneale, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Quatermass 2 (1957) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) are also shining examples of the legendary Hammer Films’ forays into science fiction, which get short shrift compared with their gothic horror pictures. Val Guest, who directed the first Quatermass film, returned for this one and it’s the best of the bunch.
American film noir tough guy Brian Donlevy also returned to play Professor Bernard Quatermass, and it’s the only element of these pictures I have any ambivalence about but later for that. Quatermass 2 picks up not long after the first one left off, with the professor getting sidetracked from his pursuit of rocket travel and space exploration by mysterious shenanigans involving meteorites that prove to be the harbinger of sinister forces from beyond Earth. Before long, Quatermass is up to his neck in conspiracy and suspicion and villagers who have been taken over by aliens, sort of like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers the year before this film; the crucial difference is that in Don Siegel’s sci-fi classic, humans become the aliens while in Quatermass 2 humans are only pawns in their game. An element that makes Quatermass 2 more harrowing than Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the way the villagers vigorously–and somewhat obliviously–defend the very creatures who are working to bring about the destruction of humanity; perhaps if the same thing weren’t happening here and now, it wouldn’t be quite so worthy of comment. (“I think we’re on the verge of something so… so ugly,” Quatermass says; oh, what I wouldn’t give for those days when we were only on the verge.)
Guest, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nigel Kneale, surrounds Donlevy with a cast of engaging British actors including John Longden as Inspector Lomax (taking over for Jack Warner who played him in The Quatermass Xperiment); character actor Sid James (formerly from film noirs like No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Hell Drivers, later from the broadly comic Carry On series) as a skeptical and occasionally soused reporter; and Bryan Forbes, who went on to direct of another sci-fi horror classic himself (The Stepford Wives), as Quatermass’ hapless assistant who falls prey to the aliens’ fiendish plans. The wild card in the picture, as in the first film in the trilogy, is Donlevy as the professor: it’s not a bad performance–he simply seems less like a professor and more like a pushy, blustering loudmouth with access to rocketships, rather like a pile of Arby’s roast beef sandwiches that’s been put in charge of saving the world; there’s almost nothing thoughtful or analytical about him. My willingness to let it slide is entirely because the classic cinema era is so distant from our own and its transparent unreality so enjoyable (apart from its many instances of racism and misogyny) that if I’m okay with Rock Hudson as a brain surgeon in Magnificent Obsession or Mamie Van Doren as a college professor in Sex Kittens Go to College or Hugh Marlowe as an interesting person in anything, why not cut Donlevy the same slack?
The new Shout! Factory Blu-ray (on its Scream Factory imprint) is loaded with special features, not the least of which is the film itself: it looks and sounds superb, which might not be such a big deal were it not for the fact that, according to the back cover, it was created from a 2K scan of the ONLY SURVIVING FILM PRINT. As a staunch advocate of film preservation I’m disappointed that Shout Factory didn’t make more of this–a brief video about how the film came to be in such a state of near-extinction would have sufficed. But as it is there’s plenty to plow through, including three commentary tracks, an old video interview with Guest, and an episode of a British television series about Hammer Films narrated by Oliver Reed in a manner that borders on lasciviousness. It’s Oliver Reed, everyone–he could make ordering french fries sound smutty.
Guest’s real science fiction masterpiece is 1961’s The Day The Earth Caught Fire (for which his screenplay won a BAFTA award), a far more serious and environmentally-minded effort with an unambiguous anti-nuke message; while Quatermass 2 has a much more breathless tone–as well as more pulpy and gooey subject matter–its underlying themes of paranoia, brainwashing and misplaced loyalty are equally important and delivered with greater subtlety. As Professor Quatermass learns the hard way, it’s not enough to watch the skies–sometimes the folks down the road can be just as dangerous.