Quatermass 2 (1957)

(aka Enemy from Space)

This is one of the lost treasures of the Fifties SF boom.

I suppose it doesn’t help that the original Quatermass serials never played in the United States, or that the most successful and highly regarded film in the series, Quatermass and the Pit (renamed Five Million Years to Earth in the US), ran here without the slightest mention the Professor’s name in any of the advertising (my dad, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of old horror films didn’t even realize Five Million Years to Earth was a Quatermass film!).  Nor does it help that it is hidden behind a particularly bland American title, one which also avoids referencing the first Quatermass film (which for that matter is also known here under the alternative title, The Creeping Unknown!).  And I suppose it doesn’t help much that an American film that appeared after the original serial version of this story has a similar storyline.

Whatever the case, it rarely gets much attention in SF or Horror movie histories (particularly not those written in the last decade or so:  they tend to put far too much focus on recent films as the typical young reviewer today simply hasn’t seen that many older films) and is often dismissed as a lesser effort than the other two.  Which is a shame as Quatermass 2 is one of the best SF films of the era — and easily better than The Quatermass Xperiment, which reduced Nigel Kneale’s unique original to a more or less routine monster movie.

For those not familiar with Professor Quatermass, he started his career in a Saturday evening BBC serial written by Kneale to fill a hole in their schedule.  This led to two further serials and a series of movie adaptations by Hammer films.  Unlike the typical American soldier hero of the SF films of the day, he was a middle-aged scientist whose efforts to stop alien menaces were more intellectual than physical.

Kneale wasn’t happy with Hammer’s version of his first serial or its script by Val Guest, so this time around Val once again directs, but Kneale co-wrote the script.  It is interesting to compare it to the original:  the serial had several sequences — most notably one involving a picnicking family — which were there because it was a live broadcast and they had to have scenes to cover the time gap of getting the cast to the next location.  These have, naturally, vanished but there have been several other major cuts:  this is a leaner, meaner version of the story and it works reasonably well.

One curious omission, though is that Quatermass’ daughter mysteriously vanishes from the story.  Apparently, Kneale detested the girl playing her so much that he actually wrote her out of the movie just to make sure she wouldn’t return to the role!

The major change comes at the end when the two final sequences of the original — the lengthy battle at the alien factory, and the launch of Quatermass’ rocket — have been combined into one.  This mostly works, as the destruction of the dome in the original ends up feeling a bit anticlimactic when there is still another episode left to go.  But I have to confess that it might have been interesting to see a trip into space on a somewhat higher budget than what Kneale had at his disposal.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Brian Donlevy’s performance as Quatermass. As the character was played by three separate actors on TV, it shouldn’t be such a shock that Hammer would recast the role, and I’ve always felt his performance was quite good.  But British fans — and Kneale himself — hated him, and having seen the originals I can understand the feeling.  After all, his version of the character is harsher, more driven and lacks much of the human warmth the original actors had.  But he is somewhat less harsh this time around, and even apologizes for his abruptness early on.  Supposedly Donlevy was drunk much of the time during the shoot, but except for a line or two where he hesitated a little I can’t see much sign of it.

What will turn off many modern viewers are the enthusiastic but somewhat primitive effects used when the creatures are finally revealed.  They’re no worse than the giant monsters in the early Toho films, but that isn’t saying much.  However, the scene itself is beautifully staged, and comes to a shocking and memorable end.  And I am more than willing to accept a man in an obvious suit if the build up were done half as well.

In the end, it is the ideas and characters and the solid writing that make this one shine (not to mention an all too brief appearance by one of my favorite British comic actors, Sydney James).  Few SF films of the Fifties are anywhere near as good, regardless of which side of the Atlantic they were made.

So if you haven’t seen this one before, it’s time you did.

And if you have, it wouldn’t hurt you to watch it again.

(For more on Quatermass, see these three essays.)

Buy from Amazon:

The original serials are available on this excellent Region 2 set:

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