Quatermass 2

DVD REVIEW BY GARY JOHNSON

Before discovering that the route to greatest profits was paved with blood and sex, Hammer Film Productions produced several thoughtful, sober science fiction movies, such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and X the Unknown (1956). These thrillers gave few indications of the gothic inflections that would soon envelope Hammer movies (e.g., Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and Dracula in 1958). Quatermass 2 (aka Enemy From Space) is arguably the best British science fiction movie in this realistic mold. Based on the Nigel Kneale-scripted BBC television series of the same name, Quatermass 2 starts at a full gallop yet somehow manages to continue picking up speed. Before the opening titles have even rolled past, Professor Quatermass has had a near collision with a swerving auto on a country road. After his car comes to rest on the road's shoulder, he jumps out and runs at the other car like a bull charging a matador, but he discovers the man in the passenger seat has an ugly lesion on his cheek--caused by gas from a meteorite. The man's wife talks about the meteorite and complains about strange objects falling from the sky near Wynnerton Flats. Quatermass doesn't know what this all means, but soon he's up to his neck in strange goings-on that threaten the safety of the entire planet.

Quatermass 2 (1957) comes perilously close to the same terrain mined by Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). However, screenwriter Kneale isn't especially concerned with questions of friend or foe. His main interest is in creating an overwhelming sense of despair as some of the highest levels of British government become infected with an alien contagion. So while both Quatermass 2 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers give us stories where our friends may no longer be our friends, Quatermass 2 never feels like it's simply reworking sci-fi themes. It effectively mines '50s-era British uneasiness about pre-planned communities and suggests how decent people can become self-deluded when promised economic security in return for tight lips: "Our people are working on this project, mister," says a local constable when Professor Quatermass' questions probe too far. "They're ... getting good money. In return we're asked to keep our mouths shut." But in return, they also put their brains on auto-pilot and refuse to question some of the suspicious goings-on at Wynnerton Flats.

Much of the thrill of watching Quatermass 2 comes from the ominous sense of momentum created by director Val Guest. From the movie's first moments, he pushes us into a scenario that we hardly understand, but as the movie unfolds, an alien threat quickly begins to take form. The story involves hollow meteorites from outer space, an asteroid in a perpetual state of eclipse on the dark side of the earth, a rocket ship that Quatermass fears will explode on the launching pad, a corrosive ammonia compound that is poisonous to all earthly forms of life, and a wonderfully atmospheric scientific facility (actually a Shell oil refinery) with huge steel pressure domes where "synthetic food" is supposedly prepared (although everyone knows that ain't so).

In his second go round with the Professor Quatermass character (after 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment), American actor Brian Donlevy does a great impression of a bulldog. He glowers, sneers, and barks out commands in a disappointingly gruff characterization. Screenwriter Kneale says Donlevy "hammered his way through" the role without any sense of the "thoughtful, inventive, sensitive" character that Kneale had envisioned. Andrew Keir would fare much better in the third installment of the Quatermass saga, Quatermass and the Pit, when he took over for Donlevy and actually injected the character with some welcome doses of humanity. (In contrast, director Val Guest actually likes Donlevy's performance: "He's not an airy-fairy professor," he says on the audio commentary track of this new DVD release from Anchor Bay Entertainment.)

The movie tends to breakdown somewhat in the second half, with characters all too willing to believe in the alien threat. We even get a marauding army of angry workers storming the scientific facility's front gate like villagers from Frankenstein. In addition, Quatermass becomes completely remorseless about the loss of life. At one point after he accidentally drives over a soldier, he hardly glances down before continuing on his way. Part of the problem is simply the short running time. At just 85 minutes, Quatermass 2 rushes through many of its big scenes. The screenplay sets up the situations admirably, but once the story nears its climax, the parts start to fly apart.

Even with its limitations, Quatermass 2 is a powerful, nerve-wrenching movie. For audiences enamored with the digital effects of recent years, the movie's climactic scenes might come as a disappointment, but the ideas that propel the movie are imminently plausible. This is the kind of stuff that has fueled The X-Files for the past several years. Quatermass 2 is a near classic.
 


Quatermass 2 (aka Enemy From Space) is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The DVD features an excellent alternate audio track with commentary by director Val Guest and screenwriter Nigel Kneale. While the audio commentary for Anchor Bay's release of Quatermass and the Pit was a disappointment, the commentary for Quatermass 2 is thoroughly fascinating. (It was apparently culled from separate recording sessions for Kneale and Guest, with the best bits having been edited into a cohesive audio track.)

The DVD also contains an episode called "Sci-Fi" from the World of Hammer television series. The movie is digitally mastered in a full-frame presentation (1.37:1). Approximate running time: 85 minutes. Suggested retail price: $24.95.

Quatermass 2 is also available on VHS from Anchor Bay Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $14.95.

For more information about these releases, check out the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.