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June, 2009 : Feature:

The Greatest Terror Lurks Just Outside Our Door

How Quatermass Saved England, Hammer Films and British SF Cinema

The other is always out there. It lurks in orbit, in the English countryside, in the deepest, most alien recesses of our psyche. Or at least that's the way it was in the England of the 1950s, when Bernard Quatermass ran the British Experimental Rocketry Group.

To most American lovers of SF and horror films, Quatermass is at best a footnote—a name, perhaps, that suggests some vague late-night memories, or an entry in a reference book. But the brief career of Britain's first TV hero (as the BBC once called him) deserves far more attention. Quatermass (and his imitators) formed a unique strand in the history of SF film; they inspired several generations of British SF filmmakers; and, more than this, the Quatermass serials and their progeny represented the only real challenge to the dominant American archetypes of 1950s SF.

And yet Quatermass' birth back in 1953 was little more than a fluke: the BBC had a little extra money left in their program budget. They asked a young staff scriptwriter named Nigel Kneale to create a six-part serial to run live on Saturday nights. So he wrote The Quatermass Experiment. The series proved an extravagant success, drawing in huge audiences. Nothing like it had been seen on British television before: shortly after the launch of their first manned rocket, Professor Quatermass and his team at the British Experimental Rocket Group lose contact with its three-man crew. The rocket crash-lands near London. When they open it, they find two of the crew missing and the third, Victor Caroon, in some sort of catatonic state. Week after week, the audience witnessed Caroon's slow, horrible takeover by whatever the rocket had encountered in space. Caroon's arm mutates after it absorbs a cactus: he then escapes into the city, engulfing every living thing—both plant and animal—he encounters, his body growing into a huge, jellyfish-like blob.

Part of the serial's success undoubtedly came from its horror elements. At the time, any horror film—even those we would consider quite innocuous today, such as the classic Universal Horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein—received the equivalent of our "R" rating, the "X certificate." Thus, for much of the audience, this was something they had never experienced.

But it was the quality of the writing that kept them coming back: the interesting characters, the building suspense, the methodical scientific attempt to understand what had happened.

The first serial proved so successful that Hammer Films quickly turned out a film version, 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment (a change made to emphasize the film's "X" certificate). Hammer cast American star Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, much to Kneale's indignation. Donlevy's Quatermass was a driven, obsessed man who cared only about his work, and lacked the human warmth of the original. Most British fans hate Donlevy but, without the shadow of the original hanging over him, his portrayal is undeniably interesting: brash, arrogant and undeterred by his failures. The Quatermass Xperiment made more money than any film Hammer had made before: so much that they realized that they could make a lot of money with horror films. It was The Quatermass Xperiment's success that persuaded them to risk making their first color horror films (although their SF films remained black and white until they made their final Quatermass film in 1967).

Hammer had been so certain of the film's success that they hired Jimmy Sangster to write a script for a sequel. When Kneale refused to give them the rights, they changed the name of their scientific hero and released it as X The Unknownthe first of many film copies of Quatermass. It is also one of the best, with excellent production values, a strong (if slightly familiar) script, and a decidedly original threat—one that comes not from space but from beneath the earth.

Meanwhile Kneale wrote his own sequel, Quatermass II, which aired live right around the same time that Hammer's film version of the original debuted. Once again his scientific hero faced an alien threat, but this time he chose a far grander menace. Quatermass, still smarting from his failure to gain government support for his moon base project, investigates the curious behavior of a series of meteorites. They've come down nearly intact in a deserted area and look like some sort of a projectile. Something escapes from one of them and infects his assistant. Even worse, Quatermass finds that someone has built a complex not far from where they landed that is nearly identical to his planned moonbase.

Again, Hammer bought the film rights, releasing their version in 1958, with Donlevy back in the lead. It is one of the forgotten classics of 1950s SF; taut, absorbing, with a growing sense of paranoia and an alien menace unlike any that had ever appeared on film before. Unfortunately, some modern viewers will trash it because of the primitive if enthusiastic effects used during the climactic battle with the creatures. They'll just have to wait for the terrible CGI remake.

Quatermass returned to the BBC again in 1958 to battle an apocalyptic new threat in a serial that many consider the best of the three. In Quatermass And the Pit, workers building a new Underground station discover a strange buried cylinder. Believing it to be an exotic unexploded Nazi weapon, the authorities call in Professor Quatermass. He discovers that it is an alien spaceship which crashed on Earth millions of years before: a living spaceship, ready to unleash its dreadful powers on London.

Nigel Kneale did not like what he saw in American SF films, and he set out to create something quite different. His hero is no brash young soldier trying to blast the alien menace, but a middle-aged scientist methodically working to understand it. He chose a more sober, more realistic tone, bringing his terrors into places his audience knew well. Kneale mixed horror with his science fiction—and in his third serial boldly strayed into the occult, identifying its alien presence with the devil.

It would be nine years before Hammer filmed their version, a higher-budgeted color adaptation starring Scottish actor Andrew Keir instead of the detested Brian Donlevy. In the US it became Five Million Years To Earthand the marketing campaign made no attempt to connect it to the earlier films. It is one of the true classics of SF film, although—despite its regular appearances on American television for many years—it has fallen into obscurity here (curiously, the US DVD release reverted to its original British title).

Others soon copied the Quatermass serials, using many of these same elements. One of the first was the independent ITV network's 1956 serial, The Trollenberg Terror (which, like Quatermass, ran on Saturday night). This, too, became a movie in 1958, with Forest Tucker as the requisite American character actor in the lead. In the US, it is known as The Crawling Eye. While it has long been mocked for its so-so special effects, it is a nicely tense and atmospheric little film, nearly as good as the Quatermass films if you can overlook its underwhelming miniatures.

Another ITV television serial, The Strange World Of Planet X, also appeared in 1956, followed by a movie version (once again with Forest Tucker) in 1958. It involves scientists accidentally burning a hole through the ionosphere, giant insects and an alien in flying saucer over London. It is also very hard to find in the US, where it is known as either The Cosmic Monsters or The Cosmic Monster, depending on whether you look at the posters or the film's credits. Some reviewers consider it to be seriously inferior.

A further ITV production with strong Quatermass influences, 1960's TV play, The Night Of The Big Heat, reached the big screen in 1967, directed by Hammer's Terrence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. In the US we know it as The Island Of The Burning Damned (or sometimes "Doomed").

In addition to X The Unknown, Hammer films' 1957 productions included The Snow Creature (in the US, it's The Abominable Snowman), which, while it falls further from the Quatermass pattern than the copies, has a script by Kneale and was based on his 1955 live BBC television play, The Creature. It also gives the legend of the snowman an unexpected and typically Kneale-ian SF twist. It is a marvelous little film, quite scary in parts, with a fine performance by Peter Cushing and yet another appearance by (if you hadn't guessed it already) Forest Tucker.

While it masqueraded as an American movie (and was set in Canada), Eros films' The Fiend Without A Face (1958) has a lot in common with Quatermass, particularly in its slow build up, its growing horror, and its wild ending with soldiers battling hopping brain creatures. It is very American in its choice of yet another wisecracking soldier hero, but it does give the scientific investigation of the menace more emphasis than most American films of the era did.

A year later its producer, Robert Gordon, followed The Fiend Without A Face with First Man Into Space, which might almost be an unofficial remake of The Quatermass Experiment. When an American Air Force pilot disobeys orders and takes a new rocket plane, the Y-13, to the edge of space, something goes very wrong and the plane crashes. Only his body is not in the wreckage. And then a mysterious creature goes on a murderous rampage, devouring its victims' blood. Once again, we have a soldier hero—but one who's carrying out a careful scientific investigation (although it would seem that the Air Force's research bases do not have more than one scientist on staff!). As in the first Quatermass serial (but not Hammer's movie version), the film does not end with the army destroying the creature, but with a climax more emotional than explosive.

Watching the British SF films of the next decade, Quatermass never seems very far away. Some, like the excellent Night Caller From Outer Space (1965) or Terrence Fisher's Island Of Terror (1966) and Night Of The Big Heat (1967) might almost have been lesser entries into the Quatermass series. Even Amicus' They Came From Beyond Space (1967) manages to maintain a sober, tense and mostly scientific tone—until its inevitable American star, Robert Hutton, breaks into the aliens' lair and finds them wearing what looks like Flash Gordon's hand-me-downs.

Others may seem further away at first glance but still contain familiar elements. MGM's Village Of The Damned (1960) might have been filmed in England to avoid trouble with the Legion of Decency, but it still comes across as a very British film. Its dark tone and underplayed horror both evoke Quatermass. The opening scenes, with the authorities methodically probing the edges of the strange influence which has settled over Midwich seem particularly close. Nor does its more-or-less sequel, The Children Of The Damned seem that far away.

The extravagant SF notion of space travel by thought and an alien menace from somewhere far too close to home, dominate another SF horror film of the era, 1963's Unearthly Stranger. One might try to connect it to The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers but, like Village Of The Damned, it seems to have taken Quatermass' themes and made them far more personal.

Hammer's answer to Village Of The Damned, (These Are) The Damned (directed by blacklisted American director Joseph Losey in 1963) goes a step further and turns Quatermass upside down. Here it is the villain (deftly underplayed by Alexander Knox) who is struggling to use science to save mankind from its impending doom. The studied inhumanity of his experiment seems somehow less shocking than his obviously sincere statement that he loves the children locked in his scientific prison—or his bland belief in the imminent destruction of mankind by nuclear war. One of the film's ironies is the subtle hint that the project may have been headed for failure even before outsiders strayed into it. However, the film's black and white cinematography is far too poetic for Quatermass.

Terrence Fisher's Earth Dies Screaming (1965) could almost be a British remake of Target Earth! (1954). Yet the British film has a far stronger sense of horror—and its characters actively seek an explanation for what is happening around them and how to stop it. Bernard Quatermass would probably have approved, even if he never dealt with an alien menace that could be subdued so easily.

Others, like Alan Bridges' unjustly forgotten minor classic, Invasion, clearly have some relationship to Quatermass, but it would be hard to pin down what it is. Perhaps in this case it is the clever science fictional concept (courtesy of legendary Doctor Who scriptwriter, Robert Holmes) of a hospital that slowly heats up because the aliens have thrown an energy bubble around it, trapping any heat produced inside it—or it could be the growing suspense as the people trapped inside try to find some way to save the patients—without turning over the injured alien under their care.

And, if we throw all caution aside like a petrified Martian carcass, could there perhaps be some connection between Bernard Quatermass and some outright horror films—like the classic Hammer horror film, The Devil Rides Out (The Devil's Bride), with its scientific approach to the occult? or the Spanish/British co-production, Horror Express (1972), with its prehistoric apeman turned body-hopping alien?

Unfortunately the age of Quatermass did not last very long in the movies. During the 60s, American influence on British film grew much stronger and it gradually lost most of its individuality. It would be hard to find anything in, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, that clearly identifies it as a British film.

While the Quatermass films ran in the US, they never had the impact that the serials had in Britain. Whether or not they influenced any of the growing number of American films that combined horror and science fiction is debatable (although the opening sequence of The Angry Red Planet does seem very familiar). Some American viewers may even have thought that Enemy From Space (Quatermass 2) had borrowed wholesale from The Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, little realizing that its original predated the American film.

To get an idea of how drastically things had changed, consider another SF television serial that ran on the BBC in 1961. A For Andromeda commanded a huge audience, had a plot by scientist and SF writer Sir Fred Hoyle, featured a delirious mix of real, bleeding-edge science with some truly wild-eyed ideas—and proved so popular that a sequel—The Andromeda Breakthroughappeared in 1962. And yet—despite a certain amount of interest from a few studios (including Hammer)—there was no film version (unless you count 1995's Species which by some amazing and uncredited coincidence has one of A For Andromeda's most bizarre notions at its center). The BBC, of course, junked all their copies of the original serial, although the sequel still exists. While far more eccentric than anything the good Professor had to deal with, one still detects a certain amount of Quatermass' influence in the existing descriptions.

But, even if no longer felt by the motion picture industry, Quatermass lived on in British television—particularly in Doctor Who.

The Jon Pertwee episode, "Spearhead from Space" actually started with a shot-for-shot remake of Quatermass II and repeated much of its plot. Few other episodes went so far, but one could make quite a list of Quatermass inspired episodes, from Pertwee's many earthbound adventures ("The Terror Of The Autons", "Inferno", "Ambassadors From Space", "The Invasion Of The Dinosaurs", etc.), to a few early episodes featuring William Hartnell ("The War Machines") and Patrick Troughton ("The Web Of Fear"), and several Tom Baker episodes ("Robot", "The Zygons", "The Android Invasion", "The Hand Of Fear"). One of the most common Quatermass themes used in Doctor Who was the "the devil is an alien" combination of occultism and science. "The Daemons" offers a kinder, gentler take on this notion, while "The Image Of The Fendahl" carries it to heights of cthonic horror that Kneale would never have attempted.

Perhaps the most interesting example, however, is the classic Tom Baker story "Seeds Of Doom" (written by Robert Holmes): it borrows almost as much from The Quatermass Experiment as it does from its obvious inspiration, The Thing. There is a curiously pleasing symmetry about this as Kneale despised Howard Hawks's film—so much that it almost seems to have been his anti-inspiration for Quatermass. The two represent very different visions of what SF film should be, yet someone like Holmes could pay homage to both at once—albeit in a story that boldly marks out its own new territory.

In 1979, Quatermass returned for one final bow.

Hammer films had wanted to make a fourth Quatermass film with an original Kneale script after the success of Quatermass And The Pit back in '68, but nothing came of it. In 1972, the BBC hired Kneale to create a new serial, but that effort failed as well. Ultimately he took his idea to ITV. They produced a lavish (and expensive) four-hour version meant to be shown in four parts. They also built a series of supposedly removable segments into it, that, once eliminated, would convert it into a 100 minute movie.

Named simply Quatermass, the serial is at once familiar and strikingly different. Set somewhere vaguely in the future (unlike the original serials which took place in the familiar, everyday world of the present), Quatermass is now retired and searching for his missing granddaughter. Society has fallen apart while he's been away. London is wracked by gangs, and wandering bands of "planet people" roam the countryside. Following the mysterious destruction of a joint Russian/American space venture, Quatermass takes shelter with a radio astronomer. Here he witnesses a horrific event at Ringstone Round—a paleolithic circle—and realizes that some alien intelligence has dreadful plans for mankind.

The series is at once a meditation on aging, a decidedly black and satiric dystopian view of modern England (one sequence featuring a "family" tv show, a giant topless female statue and an eight foot banana is priceless) and a return to the SF ideas he'd used in Quatermass And The Pit.

Quatermass' death in this story hardly seemed surprising, as both Quatermass II and Quatermass And The Pit ended with one of Bernard's colleagues sacrificing himself to save mankind. One wonders whether Kneale felt the same way about Quatermass as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had about Holmes—and had merely lacked the nerve to do him in when he'd had an earlier chance.

The movie version, The Quatermass Conclusion, had little success getting into the theaters. It was dreadfully bad and made little sense. For years it was the only version available to American audiences. Now we can see it on DVD, the complete serial proves to be quite good; humane, tragic—and yet not without hope.

Unfortunately, its impact proved quite limited.

There have been sporadic attempts to revive Quatermass—and a few hints that some filmmakers still remember him.

In 1985, Director Tobe Hooper bankrupted Golan and Globus' Cannon Films with a very strange space vampire movie entitled Lifeforce (mostly remembered for its naked female vampire). He has identified it as his attempt to make a Quatermass film: its final scenes, in which rampaging vampires devastate London, deliberately recall Quatermass And The Pit.

In 1983, John Carpenter hired Nigel Kneale to write the script for the third Halloween film, a collaboration that did not work out particularly well as Carpenter was more interested in gore than in Kneale's complex scripting. However, four years later Carpenter made his own homage to Quatermass in Prince Of Darkness, whose script he wrote under the pseudonym "Martin Quatermass"—identified in the press material as Bernard's brother. The film carries the "the devil is an alien" notion to new heights of blasphemy and tries to anchor its supernatural menace in the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Unfortunately, this proves to be little more than a metaphysical fig leaf on some very routine occult horror.

In 1993, Dan O'Bannon wrote a script for a potential remake of The Quatermass Experiment. It was one of several attempted revivals around that time—including Kneale's own efforts to sell the BBC a prequel serial, featuring Bernard's adventures inside Nazi Germany during World War II (including an encounter with Dr. Werner Von Braun). Unfortunately none of these revivals ever made it to the screen.

Quatermass still has a little life left in him—although once again there's a fearful symmetry to his latest appearance that seems to bring his story full circle.

Inspired by the success of the new Doctor Who, BBC4 produced a live remake of The Quatermass Experiment in 2005. It featured Jason Flemyng as Professor Quatermass—a much younger version of the character—and the cast included a pre-Who David Tennant. While originally slated to run two hours, it actually ran about an hour and a half because the cast got caught up in the urgency of the story and performed it faster than expected (at one point, a character nearly falls because he is moving so fast).

While Kneale—now retired—approved of the new version, he did not write the script. He would die the next year.

After all its years of shameless homage, Doctor Who had finally repaid its debt—even if Kneale himself didn't think much of the show and had in fact turned down an offer to write for it in its early years. The remake proved so popular that BBC4 followed it with a new version of A For Andromeda (in 2006)—and the new Quatermass Experiment got a DVD release.

For the fiftieth anniversary of the original, the BBC put together a remarkable DVD set containing newly remastered and restored versions of the original BBC serials Quatermass II, Quatermass And The Pit and the two surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment. It included a dense, 48 page booklet, the scripts of the lost episodes (in pdf. format), and a swarm of extras.

Unfortunately, these DVDs have not been released in the US and it seems unlikely that they ever will. No one—not even BBC America or the Sci Fi Channel (who've had a tremendous success with the new Doctor Who and its Sarah Jane Smith Adventures spin-off)—has picked up the 2005 BBC4 version.

Perhaps if enough American fans demanded these DVDs the BBC might relent. But it seems unlikely when they haven't even offered us an American release of a BBC SF show which still has a loyal cult following in this country: Blake's 7 (Kneale didn't think much of it, either).

However, a determined viewer can still see most of Quatermass. The DVDs of the 3 Hammer films are still available in the US. A&E released a DVD of the fourth serial (which includes a bonus copy of the butchered feature version). If you don't have a multi-region DVD player (and a fair amount of money) for the BBC's Quatermass Collection, you can find the original serials in gray market versions from specialty dealers like Sinister Cinema (although these do not match the quality of British set. Even worse, most of these derive from the first official video releases of the serials which inexplicably featured a heavily cropped image). Most of the original episodes are available on the internet for download. You can even see the BBC4 remake (if you hurry) on Youtube.

And as for the future of Quatermass? Somehow, Fritz Lang's Metropolis comes to mind: it remained unseen and nearly forgotten for years—until a new generation of filmmakers rediscovered it during the eighties. Now it would be hard to even begin to list all the films which have taken some inspiration from it. Perhaps it gives us reason to hope that the current Quatermass revival will not be the end of the Quatermass saga.

Nigel Kneale's greatest accomplishment in these stories was not so much the striking originality of his ideas but his use of mood, realism and character to make his stories interesting. This is something that far too many SF films lack these days. It has become far too easy to dazzle the audience with a little CGI—to "sting (them) with the theremin"—and hope they won't notice that there isn't much there.

In our age of remakes, some have suggested that the industry forget its slate of eighties slasher films and produce new versions of the Quatermass films instead. One has the uncomfortable feeling that they would quickly become just another set of action/adventure films full of the sort of snappy dialog Kneale loathed, with hardly a scientific idea in sight.

But maybe—just maybe—in the hands of some eccentric British director, one who respected the original source material, a Danny Boyle, perhaps, or a Neil Marshall....

Well, you never know.

Perhaps the greatest hope is the new generation of fans who can now encounter the original series—and their Hammer remakes—on DVD. In our flashy age of computer generated images, perhaps stories that had to survive without the help of anything but the most rudimentary effects might strike a chord with some of the young SF fans out there. Certainly, some of those working on the new Doctor Wholike Mark Gatiss—are not afraid to acknowledge their debt to another Doctor (although one does at time wish they owed him a lot more!). Perhaps British SF film might once again find its distinctive voice, not as a mere retread of the original stories, but (as in many of those classic British SF films of the sixties) in movies that are themselves unique and yet have been touched with something Nigel Keale's dark genius.

We can only hope.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Cole. All Rights Reserved.

About Mark Cole

Mark Cole writes from Warren, Pa.

You can read his short story, "Reverse Engineering" at Flash Fiction Online.


Jun 4, 02:38 by IROSF
Comment below!
Jun 4, 06:34 by Daniel M. Kimmel
A fascinating history lesson. That certainly filled in some gaps in my knowledge. Well done!
Jun 4, 14:33 by Justin Howe
Nice to see the Quatermass films getting some attention. I still get chills from the end of Quatermass & the Pit.
Jun 4, 14:38 by Paul Jessup
You do know that the Village of the Damned is based on the British book, The Midwich Cuckoos, right? Could explain the Britishness you felt- since, it was, after all, British.
Jun 4, 16:27 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I have to say that while most of the British films I have seen lately are not specifically Science Fiction, the UK is turning out some damn fine movies; Layer Cake, 28 Days Later, Straightheads etc. Given the recent trend in Hollywood of remakes, reboots and vastly inferior sequels, British film makers have an excellent opportunity to recapture some of their past glory. Of course, being a Canadian, I feel that my country's culture is far closer to that of Britain and has a much closer appreciation of British themes and storytelling. I have stated in the past (frequently) that British S/F literature is on average of much higher quality than the current crop of American S/F. Perhaps British S/F film is not far behind. Certainly the new Doctor Who is superior to any American TV S/F since Babylon 5.
Jun 5, 00:38 by 0
Nice article, Mark. Was watching the BBC version Quatermass II the other day on DVD, and agree with you how good it is, not to mention how different it is to the movie version. Some of the actions in the film version seem rather extreme, not to mention happen surprisingly quickly. Given more space in the TV series, it is less dramatic but more effective.

Nov 25, 21:28 by
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