Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Quatermass 2 (1957)


Enemy from Space

Nigel Kneale’s second adventure to feature the gifted British scientist Professor Quatermass, imaginatively titled Quatermass II, was broadcast on the BBC over six weeks in the Autumn of 1955. A change of lead actor saw John Robinson take on the role after the untimely death of Reginald Tate. No such fate befell Hammer Film Productions when they came to produce their own film treatment in 1957. Despite the protestations of Nigel Kneale who co-wrote the films screenplay, imported American actor Brian Donlevy was once again invited too assume the lead role. However the most important creative talent to return was writer/director Val Guest. Guest’s stylistic strategy and dynamic direction was arguably the decisive factor in the success of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and his inclusion for the sequel was essential. Guest in fact manages to create a breathless pace which makes the first film seem sedentary and laboured. When this is coupled with a far more heroic turn for the Quatermass character, an intelligent and highly developed political and social dimension, and capable support from Bryan Forbes, John Longden, Sid James, and William Franklyn you have a film which marginally improves on the original.

One of the major successes of the first film was the location work. The first film made excellent use of the Berkshire countryside, Chessington Zoo, and Westminster Abbey, but Quatermass 2 manages to up the ante further when it comes to interesting typography. The eerie Buckinghamshire countryside doubles for the desolate ruined village of Winnerden Flats. A suitably bleak and barren locale which finds itself at the epicentre of a suspected meteor shower. An investigation by Quatermass and his assistant Marsh (Bryan Forbes) reveals the space debris to be sleek areodynamic containment units for an ammonia based gas. When Marsh gets a face full of it and a platoon of well drilled monosyllabic soldiers appear to rough up Quatermass and abduct Marsh, the brash scientist begins an investigation of the nearby synthetic food factory he has been taken too. The Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex doubles as the plant and is a wonderfully evocative space. The filmmakers utilise the complex network of pipes, cooling towers, and labyrinthine tunnels too eerie effect. No sequence is more effective than when troublemaking MP Broadhead (Tom Chatto) emerges from one of the towers covered in the poisonous corrosive substance that is being produced there. It is food, but not for anything on this planet!

Quatermass 2 is the closest British cinema got to replicating the paranoid anti-communist films that formed one strand of America’s science-fiction boom of the 1950’s. But in a typically British twist political ideology is secondary too a general cynicism about those in positions of power. Kneale’s screenplay is particularly pessimistic about those who govern our green and pleasant land. The film conjures up a duplicitous atmosphere of secrecy and confidentiality. A world in which the highest echelons of British power have been accessed by alien interlopers. In the first film Quatermass ran roughshod over the pen pushers at Whitehall, but here he comes up against a wall of silence. Quatermass is severely under the cosh in this film. In addition to having his investigation thwarted, his prized moon colony project has had its funding cut. This wouldn’t be so bad if the synthetic food plant wasn’t an exact replica of it! As a result we get to see a weary and brow beaten Quatermass; the character possesses a humanity that was all too lacking in the first film. Suddenly Quatermass has become a champion of liberty and freedom of speech, a one man crusade against propoganda and lies. And once again I have to say Brian Donlevy fits this character arc very well.

Quatermass isn’t quite on his own though. He has the assistance of Inspector Lomax (John Longden) and journalist Jimmy Hall (Sid James in an all too rare straight role) and they are of particular value when dealing with the community of workers. Here the film develops a subplot dealing with issues of employment and the working class. Pride in employment and monetary gain are used as tools of social oppression. Threats of unemployment are enough to keep the workers mouths shut in an age of post-war austerity. The working class are a malleable and easily manipulated mass, and they are also disposable. But three of them do provide the villains with a novel use when they are crushed into a pipe to stop the flow of deadly oxygen. With such heavy themes as the dangers of conformity, loss of individuality, social subjugation and governmental conspiracies Quatermass 2 emerges as a very thoughtful and sober statement. But it also works extremely well as an entertainment; the body count is high (even Quatermass gets to run a soldier over and shoot three more) and the film moves along at an incredible clip. The alien creatures are a natural disappointment, but this is a minor complaint. Quatermass 2 is cerebral science-fiction and one of Hammer’s finest achievements.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I really think that Sid James steals the film here, in a brief, but totally convincing performance. Great, very British Sci Fi, with a healthy dose of pessimism.

  2. His death at the machine gun fire of the zombie soldiers is a very disturbing and unsettling moment. A great performance, in a film full of them. Thanks for the comment Rich!

  3. I`d rather watch "Quatermass 2" than "The Inbetweeners Movie" anyday.

  4. I saw this at the show when it came out. I was 8 years old and it scared the living hell out of me. I'll never forget the guy coming down the stairs covered in the black goo. Great movie.


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