Friday, 22 November 2013

Quatermass 2 (1957)




Although they have their place as influential science fiction, ground breaking television, and a vital part of the Hammer Film Studio story, to me the Quatermass stories are also a kind of 20th century English mythology, an attempt to examine and explore the post-World War Two English identity, politically and socially. The first, the Quatermass Experiment showed a country trying to maintain its status as a world superpower through space exploration. The third, Quatermass and the Pit, looked at issues of race and identity. Sandwiched between those is Quatermass 2, a paranoid tale of Government cover-ups, colonisation, attitudes to authority, and mob mentality. The end result is tense, fast paced, and even more thought provoking than the original.
Professor Quatermass and his team of scientists have been tracing mysterious objects that have been falling to earth from outer space. Tracking them to their landing place, Quatermass finds a town that has been almost completely destroyed, some rocks filled with a mysterious, ammonia-based gas that infects his assistant, and a shadowy refinery that bears a striking resemblance to his rejected plans for a Moon colony. Officially, it is producing a new synthetic food, but it actually harbours a terrifying secret with deadly implications for the future of humanity.

Like the other two Quatermass films made by the Hammer Studios, this started life as a six part BBC TV serial, which was condensed into a 85 minute film, and as with the other two, the original story stays largely the same, but moves along at a much quicker pace. The only significant change is in the climax, where instead of Quatermass piloting his experimental rocket to destroy the invaders, an unmanned craft is sent up instead.

Director Val Guest had a long and varied career, and although he never settled on a particular style or genre, when faced with subject matter of a fantastic nature, such as here or The Day the Earth Caught Fire, he would often mix this with a low key, more realistic filming style. Events are presented in a matter of fact style, and many of the scenes set in everyday locations, such as pubs, or out in the countryside. In addition, Guest employed cinema verite techniques, such as hand-held cameras, to give something of a documentary feel and by having the dialogue delivered at a rapid pace, sometimes overlapping, he stops it feeling too staged and stilted

A standard practise in British films at the time was to cast an American actor (usually one whose services could be obtained cheaply) in order to maximise box office potential in the US. Hence, Brian Donlevy reprises his role as Professor Quatermass from the first film, and, as before, he is both a liability and an asset.  The character was originally conceived as a thoughtful, somewhat reserved scientist, a world away from Buck Rogers-style action heroes, and Donlevy rarely seems convincing when having to play that role. However, plenty of fictional characters, from Hamlet to Dr Who, have been played in plenty of different ways, so why not Quatermass? His real strength comes when events call for, if not aggressive, then at least assertive action, as this Quatermass is no shrinking violet.

As a film, although not overly gory, Quatermass 2 manages to be gruesome and quite shockingly violent at times. The brainwashed refinery guards cold-bloodedly gun down their fellow citizens, who respond in kind when they get chance, while at one point the aliens use pulped human corpses to block pipes pumping out deadly (to them) oxygen. There are also more subtle nods to the horror genre, particularly the sight of the townsfolk forming themselves into that classic horror archetype, the lynch mob, to attack the refinery.

It is fascinating to consider some of the historical context in which Quatermass 2 would have been seen originally, and the picture of 1950s Britain that it presents. Identity is one of the key themes of the film, both national and personal, and the big influence on both would undoubtedly have been World War 2. With Britain under threat of invasion, whether fighting overseas or keeping the home fires burning, it was something that everyone was involved with and affected by, and something that they would still be reminded of some years after, in the landscape of bombed out buildings and craters, in the continued rationing of food, and in the dead and injured soldiers and civilians.

The Britain shown on screen is not a "green and pleasant land" but a grey, frightened, paranoid country, coming back down to earth from the giddy euphoria of victory over Hitler, to face the harsh and potentially apocalyptic realities of the Cold War. Writer Nigel Kneale cleverly combines this with drawing on contemporary fears and events such as the Chemical Warfare plant at Porton Down, and the (nowadays, largely forgotten) state of emergency that the British Government declared in 1955, and these are reflected in some of the images and situations in the film.
 
Yet there is still possible to see something relevant to modern life in Quatermass 2. The idea of aliens infiltrating the government predates the X-Files by several decades, along with the general air of paranoia, and cover-ups. That infiltration could also be read as commentary on creeping corporate influence on government, while fears over loss of identity, both national and personal, are perennial.
Ultimately, what I love about the Quatermass stories, and Quatermass 2 in particular is how it almost sums up my love/hate relationship with both England and being English. It has elements and themes that are everything I dislike about this country: New towns, deference to authority (at one point, we see a sign behind a bar saying, "Secrets mean sealed lips"), small-minded pettiness, Government secrecy, and the lynch mob mentality.
However, Quatermass 2 also represent plenty of things I like about England: It is a Hammer film; the script is full of a thoroughly English dry satirical wit and a streak of paranoia, and understatement; and, in a sign of the obvious influence on that other English sci-fi icon Dr Who, the calm logic of science and the decency and heroism of the individual cools the raging heat of the mob and saves the day.