Monday, 30 January 2012

Quatermass at the BBC (1953-1959)

Hammer's trilogy of Quatermass films are so revered in the annals of British Cinema, it's easy to forget that all three pictures were preceded by much longer (and some might say, better) television serials made by the BBC between 1953 and 1959. By the fifties, science fiction was firmly the domain of children's television with the likes of poverty row adventure series Captain Video and His Video Rangers ('49-'55) and the short lived space opera Buck Rogers ('50-'51), but a talented young writer rising through the ranks of the BBC named Nigel Kneale was about to change the science fiction landscape forever when in 1953 he began work on a teleplay entitled Bring Something Back! later to become known as The Quatermass Experiment...

With its stirring theme music taken from Gustav Holst's orchestral suite, The Planets, and it's sinister smokey title card, The Quatermass Experiment was an entirely new kind of television serial. An adult science fiction thriller spread over six episodes between July and August of 1953, the series introduced the mysteriously named Professor Bernard Quatermass, a brilliant rocket scientist who's latest project, a manned test flight into space appears to be in jeopardy when the rocket goes astray. Eventually the rocket returns to Earth, but something has gone wrong, and the traumatised sole surviving member of the three man crew begins transforming into something not of this Earth...

Reginald Tate - the first Quatermass

Unfortunately, only a fragment of The Quatermass Experiment has survived today. The BBC had intended to record the complete six part series, but the recording process was deemed so poor, the plan was abandoned after the recording of episodes 1 and 2, which were preserved in the BBC's archive. Produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, the series was filmed live, as was the convention of television drama of the day, and was something of a high wire act for the cast who had to deliver Kneale's scientific dialogue and a technical crew who had to perform elaborate creature effects. Aside from a rare fluffed line or a miscued camera move, the series maintained a high quality throughout, although the production wasn't immune to some unexpected technical gremlins, most notably in the final few minutes of the series climax when one of the boom microphones in the main studio failed forcing the show to take an agonizing 5 minute break while BBC technicians frantically engineered a fix. It mattered little to the public who were gripped by The Quatermass Experiment, and two days after the final transmission, Hammer Films made inquires about the rights to make a feature film adaptation.

Following the success of The Quatermass Experiment, Kneale and Cartier made a series of important television works, including their now legendary adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954 (starring Peter Cushing) and The Creature in 1955, (later remade by Hammer in 1957 as The Abominable Snowman). In March 1955, Kneale began work on a new Quatermass serial, simply titled Quatermass II which expanded on the original series both in scope and production. While investigating a strange meteor shower, Professor Quatermass discovers a large industrial facility in the British countryside is being used as a base for an alien civilisation. Quatermass learns that a large meteor about to pass near the Earth's atmosphere is carrying more alien invaders, and forms a plan a destroy the meteor using a dangerously volatile new test rocket...

John Robinson - the second Quatermass

Like its predecessor, Quatermass II was filmed live during October and November of 1955, and as a mark of its importance, director Rudolph Cartier augmented the series with sequences that had been pre-filmed, like the scenes inside the Shell oil refinery which stood in for the alien base, lending Quatermass II a distinct cinematic touch. Some weeks before filming began, the original Professor, Reginald Tate died unexpectedly, and stage and television actor John Robinson was recruited to become the second Quatermass. Robinson apparently had difficulty with some of Kneale's technical dialogue but he equips himself marvellously, as does Robinson's co-star veteran Welsh actor Hugh Griffith playing Quatermass' disheveled assistant. Kneale's teleplay was itself a wellspring of brilliant ideas, like the alien's infiltration of government ministries, or the industrial complex recreating the poisonous primordial atmosphere for the aliens to live in on Earth. Occasionally, the special effects creak somewhat especially in the final episode when the action switches to the rugged surface of the meteor, but overall Quatermass II remains a gripping 3 hours of television.

In 1955 ITV was launched in Britain and ushered in the era of commercial television. The BBC was now locked in a war with ITV for ratings, with the corporation routinely emerging bruised and battered from the encounter. The BBC were fighting back - with the popularity of the Quatermass character (Hammer's film adaptation of second serial was released in April 1957), the BBC commissioned Nigel Kneale for a third serial, which became known as Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale's most ambitious work to date, a dazzling inventive mix of science fiction and horror which questioned the origins of mankind itself and its propensity for destruction. In this latest saga, Professor Quatermass is asked by an archaeologist friend to advise on some skeletal findings uncovered during some routine building work. The remains point to the existence of a unique species of ape man, but later the dig uncovers a large elaborate vessel, initially believed to be an exploded German missile, but is in fact an alien spaceship which holds disturbing clues to mankind's ancient past, as well as a Pandora's Box of paranormal forces...

André Morell - the third Quatermass

Quatermass and the Pit continued the tradition of the live broadcast, with the first of six episodes going out on December 22nd 1958. In the previous month Cartier and his crew had begun work on the extensive pre-filmed sequences and thanks to the improvement in camera technology at the BBC, as well as the corporation's new studio, large enough to accommodate the elaborate pit set, the new serial would not only better the previous serials, but rival Hammer's own Quatermass outings in terms of scope and scale. As well as the conventional score, the newly opened BBC Radiophonic Workshop supplied strange and disturbing alien soundscapes to enhance the eerie atmosphere. André Morell who had worked with Kneale and Cartier on Nineteen Eighty-Four (and was briefly considered as the original Quatermass), was chosen to play the Professor, an inspired choice as Morell is arguably the greatest Quatermass, caring, commited and with the unmistakable air of aristocracy leavened with humour and kindness.

If the production was on an epic scale, so too was Kneale's writing which quite brilliantly examined the alien within, when Quatermass discovers that mankind's evolutionary leap foward from the primate was in fact carefully engineered by Martians to colonise the alien world of Earth. Kneale had been deeply affected by the racial violence that erupted on the streets of Britain in the summer of '58, and factored it into the serial with Quatermass unlocking a dormant residual memory of Martians killing each other in a ritual culling of its species, a trait that was passed on to mankind. Kneale even suggests the fascinating idea that these buried memories were the inspiration for images of devils and demons which appeared in ancient cultures throughout the world, based on the locust-like appearance of the Martian forefathers, with horns standing in for antennae. Seen today Quatermass and the Pit still seems utterly fresh and original and remains an extraordinary ambitious three and a half hours of television.

Quatermass creators - left Rudolph Cartier; right - Nigel Kneale

The Quatermass series was a triumph for the BBC. Although the series finale of Quatermass and the Pit had failed to trump ITV in the viewing figures, the series set a new benchmark in television drama, which would resonate for years to come. In 1967 Hammer adapted the third series for a major cinematic production, and in 1979 Kneale took the Professor out of retirement for a new 4-part adventure (this time for ITV), simply entitled Quatermass (or in a version trimmed for theatrical screenings, The Quatermass Conclusion), starring John Mills. Quatermass returned to the BBC in 2005 for the live 90-min remake The Quatermass Experiment, with Mark Gatiss, David Tennant and Jason Flemyng as the Professor. The Hammer Quatermass films had done much to influence Sci-fi Cinema in the years that followed with many of Kneale's ideas turning up in Alien (an ancient derelict spaceship containing a deadly cargo) or 1977's The Incredible Melting Man which remade The Quatermass Xperiment in all but name. As for the BBC series, it paved the way for the likes of Doctor Who and Blake's 7 (which always seemed to be set in a very Quatermass II style industrial plant), and one wonders if Stanley Kubrick was a fan - a shot of someone helplessly adrift in space (from the second serial) turns up in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more significantly, the set of lunar excavated monolith looks remarkably like the set of the pit in the third serial. Even relativly recent sci-fi fare like Armageddon was riffing on Quatermass, during the climax where a nuclear device is detonated on an asteroid, much like the finale of Quatermass II.

The Quatermass Collection, a 3-DVD set from 2005 collects the three original Quatermass serials as well as some worthwhile extras, including an excellent 47-page booklet which covers the Quatermass saga in exhaustive detail. The b/w image quality of the three serials is variable but should be judged on its own merits. The surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment look the worst, the picture often blurry and tends to flare around the edges of the frame. Given the technical limitations of the day it's fortunate these episodes still survive, and while the image is rough, once you acclimatize yourself, it's very watchable. (Worth noting that during the second episode a small bug can be seen wandering around the monitor from which the recording was taken from, although this seems strangely appropriate.) Quatermass II is on much better form although the image tends to look a little blown out and while detail is often very good, the disc itself has at times a heavy digital appearance. Fortunately, Quatermass and the Pit looks tremendous with a gorgeous sharp image and excellent contrast. Audio for a three serials is fine, a little hissy in parts but dialogue never lacks definition. (According to the liner notes, much restoration work was done on the audio to remove a lot of extraneous noise that came with the original broadcasts like coughs and various studio clamour.)

For the extras, first up is the excellent 40-min BBC4 documentary The Kneale Tapes from 2003 in which the 81 year old Nigel Kneale looks back on some of his most famous works including Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) The Stone Tape (1972) and the 1979 Quatermass serial. Kneale is interviewed again along with Rudolph Cartier for the 11-min Cartier and Kneale in Conversation, while the 7-min Making Demons interviews two of the founders of the BBC's Special Effects Unit who worked on the 2nd and 3rd Quatermass serials. The original shooting scripts of the four lost episodes of The Quatermass Experiment are included as pdf files, plus there's a two minute credit wrapper for the omnibus edition of Quatermass and the Pit, as well as an on-set stills gallery, which is worth seeing as it shows what The Quatermass Experiment could have looked like has the technology been better. So, a fine set for a landmark television series, this is simply unmissable.

Nigel Kneale catches up with an old friend in The Kneale Tapes

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Frankenstein Created Woman

In 1967 Terence Fisher made a welcome return to the Frankenstein saga with Frankenstein Created Woman a film that restored the series to good health after the the curious misfire that was The Evil of Frankenstein. But in many respects, this fourth episode is one of the most polarizing films of the series, scaling back the traditional horror elements to something more akin to metaphysical science fiction resulting in an ambitious, if not entirely successful film...

Continuing with his obsessive quest to unravel the mysteries of life, the Baron's work is now focused on the soul, and its transference to another body after death. By a strange turn of events, the Baron has transferred the soul of his recently executed assistant Hans into the body of Hans' lover Christina, a tormented disfigured and deformed young woman who in her grief at Hans' death, has drowned herself. The Baron brings Christina back from the edge of life, reborn with a new identity, and miraculously her beauty restored, but driven by Hans' soul to seek revenge against his (or is it her?) enemies...

If the plot synopsis sounds rather tortuous, Tony Hinds' screenplay is even more so. On one hand, it's an ambitious piece of writing - rather than retreading another monster movie, Frankenstein Created Woman mines for something far more fascinating, exploring big ideas like consciousness, identity, even sexuality. Ultimately though Hinds' screenplay is perhaps too ambitious and the story is often muddled, incoherent, even illogical, like the Baron eradicating Christina's physical ailments with a spot of brain surgery, transforming the twisted and scarred young woman into an beautiful blonde 19th century Playmate. Seeing the film for the first time might leave you a little confused so a second or third screening might be required to tease out the whys and wherefores of the plot. Incidentally writer Brian Clemens imported a few similar ideas into his superior screenplay for 1971's Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

A lesser director might have rendered Frankenstein Created Woman a mess, but in the hands of Terence Fisher the film takes its place among Hammer classics. Eight years into the series, Peter Cushing appears a little weathered looking, but is all the better for the character, his chiseled, angular face a perfect expression for the the Baron's cruelty, treating Christina with all the cold detachment of a laboratory animal. Susan Denberg as Christina is impressive too, and despite her thick Austrian accent dubbed into extinction, her performance remains the emotional core of the film - look out for a wonderful moment where she seduces one of her tormentors and her face shows a momentary flash of pain when he mocks the presumed dead Christina's deformity. One suspects Hammer were grooming Denberg to be the next Bardot, but this film proved to be her last appearance on screen, which would later fuel the rumour that Denberg's wild hedonistic lifestyle had led to her premature death - in fact she's very much alive today.

Optimum's DVD of Frankenstein Created Woman is mostly very good, with a solid 1.66 anamorphic transfer. For the most part colors are strong and detail is decent, although the outdoor shots in the film are little more washed out looking. Worth noting that a few seconds of footage (around the 75min mark), is sourced from a noticeably inferior print. Audio is fine with clear dialogue and little hiss. Like the previous Warners UK DVD, the Optimum edition is devoid of extras, not even the theatrical trailer, unlike the Anchor Bay edition from 2000, which contained trailers, TV spots and another episode of the World of Hammer series focusing on the studio's Frankenstein series.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Image (David Bowie, 1967)

In September 1967, David Bowie made his acting debut in a 14-min b/w short entitled The Image, written and directed by future Mark of the Devil director Michael Armstrong. In the film an artist is visited by the ghost of a young man appearing in one of the artist's painting. Disturbed by this apparition, the artist kills the young man again and again, before finally destroying the painting and banishing his unwelcome visitor. In the final shot of the film the young man is seen in a photograph belonging to the artist...

When Bowie spoke about the short film in the early 80's, he was less than kind, describing the film as "awful". Perhaps Bowie was remembering the arduous shoot which had him standing around for hours soaked to the skin while the film makers doused him with a hose to simulate rain. In fact The Image is far more deserving and is quite an accomplished little film. Much of it feels inspired by Repulsion, the film set in a sprawling, dilapidated London house but the film has a strong sinister atmosphere with Michael Armstrong scoring some nice visual touches using shadowy lighting and surreal camera angles, while Bowie delivers a strange and eerie performance putting the mime acting he was studying under the tutelage of Lindsay Kemp to very good effect. The film itself is dialogue free, but there's an impressive experimental soundtrack culled from De Wolfe library tracks. The film is surprisingly violent as well, with a scene where the artist stabs the young man with a knife, which causes the bleeding spectre to assume the pose of the young man in the painting. Unusually for a short, it earned an X rating from the BBFC.

The Image was given a brief theatrical run in 1969 accompanying a revival of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, and then seemingly vanished for a few years returning briefly in the 70's and 80's when Bowie was a the height of his fame. Today, the short can be found easily online, but has yet to surface on an official DVD. Whatever about to Bowie's disdain for the film it's interesting to note that David Mallet's video for 1979's Look Back In Anger, includes some thematic parallels with The Image. In the video Bowie appears as an artist painting a self-portrait and has disturbing visions of his face becoming increasingly disfigured. As the artist's psychosis increases, the editing becomes more fractured and frenzied, much like the later sequences in The Image.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Evil of Frankenstein

"They always destroy everything" declares the Baron in the opening sequence of 1964's Evil of Frankenstein, enraged when another one of his experiments is ruined by the ignorance of his fellow man. In fact his words could easily apply to Hammer's ill-conceived re-imagining of the Frankenstein series, the break in continuity especially baffling considering Jimmy Sangster had devised a clever escape plan for the Baron in the finale of The Revenge of Frankenstein...

After 10 years of exile from his home town of Karlstad, Frankenstein returns to seek funds for his experiments, but once again is driven away by fearful locals. Seeking refuge in a cave, the Baron chances upon his original creation, a monstrous being made from body parts, which became trapped and preserved in a glacier. When the creature fails to respond to the Baron's commands, drastic measures are called upon... For Hammer's third film of the Frankenstein series, Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster, the creative force responsible for the success of the first two films were replaced by director Freddie Francis, with writing duties handled by producer Tony Hinds. The tonal shift from the previous films was dramatic. Francis had little of the Gothic touch that Fisher had brought to the series, while Hinds' screenplay steered the film away from Hammer's idiosyncratic direction and re-connected with the Universal style, with the studio's full blessing and generous co-financing.

Perhaps it was the stitching together of two distinct house styles which resulted in The Evil of Frankenstein ending up as something of an oddity. The central section of the film where the Baron re-awakens the monster from his slumber plays the best with a frenzied Baron commandeering a mass of electrical switches (which discharge themselves in a swarm of sparks and plumes of smoke), but then the plot takes an idiotic turn when a charlatan hypnotist is engaged with stimulating the monster's brain. With a certain whiff of desperation coupled with Francis' variable direction, (and some lousy back projection), the film feels closer to the ragged efforts of later period Hammer. The monster itself is more prominent here than in previous films but to lesser effect. Universal had lifted the embargo on Jack Pierce's classic make-up job, but Roy Ashton's design for the creature falls well short, and most likely would have been better if he hadn't been encouraged to riff on the familiar flat top and the clunky lead boots.

With Fisher and Sangster gone this episode of the series struggles, but remains entirely watchable - at least it's well paced and more importantly, Peter Cushing faithfully returned to play Frankenstein - at this point the series was simply unimaginable without him. Hinds' screenplay saw a modulation of the character somewhat with the Baron gaining a little of the common touch, but Cushing remains magnificent, and delivers one of his most physical performances of the series, as he tackles the monster in the rousing climax. The screenplay offers Cushing's co-stars little to do - the village girl who befriends the monster is a mute for heaven's sake, but Peter Woodthorpe as Zoltan the hypnotist is fabulously sleazy, while the actor playing the monster is notable if nothing else for his name, Kiwi Kingston, not a Jamaican reggae singer but in fact a professional wrestler from New Zealand.

The Evil of Frankenstein is available as a R2 disc in the UK courtesy of Slam Dunk Media. This 2007 disc is a disappointment as it presents the film fullframe, cropping the original 1.66 aspect ratio (a similar fate befell The Brides of Dracula on the same label). I don't quite see this as a deal breaker, considering the disc can be picked up very cheap these days, but certainly the film loses some of it's elegance when presented fullframe. Other than that, the picture is relatively nice (and superior to the screenshots above), and the audio is good if unremarkable. The sole extra is the film's trailer. The film is also available in the US as part of Universal's Hammer Horror Series boxset, which collect 8 films on 2 flipper discs - not the most ideal programming, but the film looks very good and is in its OAR. Finally, a German disc from 2007 (FrankensteinsUngeheuer) may well be the best option, with excellent picture quality, and the original English audio track (and no fixed subtitles).

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Revenge of Frankenstein

1957 had been a huge year for Hammer. The studio's gamble on Curse of Frankenstein had paid off handsomely when Warners picked the film up for distribution and scored an international hit. As 1958 dawned Hammer hit the ground running, the crew at Bray busied themselves with two major productions - an adaptation of Bram Stoker's most famous novel, and the sequel Revenge of Frankenstein. Jimmy Sangster was once again engaged to write the Frankenstein film and immediately faced a problem - in the final scene of Curse of Frankenstein the Baron was heading to the gallows and certain death...

Sentenced to death for his crimes, Baron Frankenstein escapes the guillotine with the help of one of his jailers, Karl a deformed man with a whithered arm. In return the Baron agrees to transplant Karl's brain into a healthy body. The Baron flees Switzerland for Germany where after 3 years of experimentation fulfills his side of the bargain and performs the brain transplant. But after suffering an injury during his recovery, Karl develops a unforeseen side affect - a craving for human flesh... Brilliant as it is, Curse of Frankenstein feels almost like a dress rehearsal for the sequel which emerges as a more confident and stylish picture. Simply put, this is a quintessential Hammer masterwork. The garish color of the original film is more controlled and balanced here, and the film has a stronger visual sensibility thanks to Terence Fisher's inventive direction - one would hardly recognise the atmospheric cavernous sets were being shared with the Dracula production, with much credit due to the genius of Bernard Robinson and his art department.

Once again Peter Cushing takes center stage as the Baron, delivering another triumphant performance mixing impeccably style and manners with cold-blooded malevolence. The monster figures even less here than the original film with Karl's marauding flesh-eater more like a drooling Mr. Hyde type character than a re-animated corpse, but Sangster wrote two of the film's most powerful scenes around Frankenstein's pitiful experiment - when Karl burns his lifeless deformed body in a crematorium, and the scene where Karl literally gatecrashes a society ball and reveals the true identity of "Dr. Stein". The film has little in the way of show stopping gory moments, but Revenge has some disturbing undercurrents, like the cannibalism element (some 15 years before another British production explored the taboo in Frightmare), or the idea of the Baron callously experimenting on the poor and sick at the hospital like a Nazi concentration camp doctor.

A quick shot of one of the Baron's creations, made in his likeness, which explains the twist ending
Columbia's 2002 DVD comes without any significant extras and packaged in a rather dull and uninspired sleeve, but thankfully the anamorphic widescreen transfer framed around 1.66 is quite nice and faithfully reproduces the film's subdued Eastman color. The film itself looks great for its age, and the DVD offers a sharp detailed image. No problems either with the mono audio. What extras there are on the disc amount to a routine photo gallery and the film's trailer in which Peter Cushing brings the audience up to speed on his exploits. (The disc also contains a trailer for Earth vs the Flying Saucers)