Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Quatermass 2

Hammer's decision to film The Quatermass Experiment had paid off handsomely for the studio, and producer Tony Hinds wasted little time securing the rights to the second teleplay. Now that he was free to work on projects beyond his contract with the BBC, Nigel Kneale came on board for the second film and oversaw a remarkably faithful adaptation of the serial for the big screen. A British answer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the second Quatermass film, made in the summer of 1956 expands on the original film with the alien menace no longer confined to an astronaut returning from space, but an entire invasion force falling to earth as innocuous meteorites, setting up shop in a huge, highly sophisticated industrial installation, and all of it overseen by the government itself. The apocalypse had arrived and nobody was watching...

Kneale's mistrust of institutions was evident from his 1954 television adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and his view was even more caustic in Quatermass 2. The cold war years had brought fear, paranoia and a climate of secrecy to the shores of Britain. This was the age of the Space Race, East/West espionage and the ballistic missile. Photographed by Gerald Gibbs in cold hard monochrome, Quatermass 2 continued with the veritae style of the first film, and shooting in the immense Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex gave the film a sense of space and grandeur. Val Guest, a director with a fine sense of composition makes terrific use of the location and the visuals remain striking today, with the plant's ominous looming towers and the nebulous web of pipes and conduits, a brilliant visual metaphor for the bureaucratic coverup.

The screenplay Nigel Kneale delivered to Hammer was further worked on by director Val Guest who pared it down for feature length, but packing most of the 3-hour serial into a tight, coherent 80-odd minutes. The original ending of the serial was revised for the film version, and instead of Quatermass piloting a rocket to destroy the alien asteroid, the film version climaxes with the aliens revealed in all their sticky shapeless glory. Also, a sequence in the television version where a picniking family are brutally gunned down by the plant's security force, is absent from the film version. The BBFC had objected to this sequence outright when they read the screenplay in May, but interestingly this sequence might well have been shot but removed in post production - if you look fast during the sequence where Quatermass drives out the gate of the plant, you can just glimpse a truck arriving at the gate towing a car, perhaps a leftover from the cut sequence.

Despite the BBFC's protestations, the film was strong stuff for it's day and has a number of grisly details - like the open wound left by the alien infection, and a memorable sequence where a snooping government minister is covered in a thick corrosive tar after straying too close the alien dome. In another astonishingly gruesome moment, a supply pipe is seen dripping blood after one of the rebel plant workers is wedged inside to thwart Quatermass' plan to flood the alien chamber with poisonous oxygen. Despite Nigel Kneale's misgivings about Brian Donlevy in the title role of the first film, the American actor returned for the sequel, and this time plays the Professor with a little more restraint, less of a barking dog, but still his presence in the film is problematic. One wonders if Hammer had chosen to film 1967's Quatermass and the Pit in close succession would Donlevy have returned for the third outing ? Also noteworthy in the cast is Sidney James, the veteran English comedy actor who can be difficult to separate from his 19 Carry On films (and that trademark dirty laugh) but he's in fine form here as a boozy journalist.

Icon's transfer of Quatermass 2 is very much like The Quatermass Xperiment, a good but underwhelming fullscreen picture. The previous UK edition from DDVideo is superior but that disc commands a tidy sum these days. In the US, the Anchor Bay disc which included a commentary by Kneale and Guest and an episode of World of Hammer ("Sci-fi") is officially out of print, but Amazon are offering a DVD-R of the film which looks like the Anchor Bay edition and while it's missing the extras, features a fine crisp transfer of the film.

Quatermass fans should head over to Stephen Reed's extremely impressive and thoroughly exhaustive Quatermass website.


  1. I haven't seen this one, Wes, but I vividly remember the comic adaptation in House Of Hammer.

    Do you prefer the BBC or Hammer versions of the Quatermass stories?

  2. It's well worth seeing Jon, the double-bill Icon disc is less than stellar but if you can pick it up cheap, it's well worth it. I'd love to see these films getting the Criterion treatment - not so much a stretch considering the label already put out The Blob and Fiend Without A Face. If I'm honest, I think I prefer the BBC versions - that's not a put down of the Hammer films, but I think Kneale's ideas and themes are better suited to a long-form work. And while I think Brian Donlevy gives a good performance in the first two films, the Quatermass persona of the television serials work so much better. Thankfully Hammer correct this for Quatermass & the Pit