Scream Factory lovingly restores “Quatermass 2”, Hammer’s ode to a sci-fi icon — the genesis of many future horror and science fiction classics.
“Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
With this simple plea, Howard Hawks’s The Thing From Another World defined an era. In the nuclear ashes of World War II, when the worst horrors of man dangled from every corner newsstand, weary eyes turned to the stars. The poets wondered what we might find out there. The pessimists wondered what might find us. Somewhere in between, the Atomic Age of science fiction took hold of our collective imagination.
Renegade robots. Sky-scraping beasts made of our own technological hubris. A gorilla with its head stuck in a fishbowl. Occasionally the threat was just a popcorn paintjob on post-war confusion. You can find solid cases for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers coloring Joseph McCarthy as a hero or villain depending on the cut, despite almost everyone involved denying either intention.
But as Sigmund Freud once said, sometimes a crab monster is just a crab monster.
It was in a montage of such crab monsters that I saw an image that’s stuck with me for at least a decade. Not a spoon-shaped alien or studio-stock laboratory where monochrome fluids bubble in implied Day-Glo. It was a man in a trenchcoat running for his life across a chrome labyrinth of industrial hell as gas-masked stormtroopers unloaded from the catwalks above with Thompson submachine guns.
There was nothing fanciful about it, no creatures fit for Famous Monsters of Filmland, no bad rubber to keep it safely out of contemporary nightmares. This was real. A ready-made nightmare without expiration date.
That’s the first time I saw Quatermass 2 and the first time I heard the name Bernard Quatermass.
It possessed me, that simple sequence, and I dug into as much as I could find on Nigel Kneale’s seminal sci-fi hero. Thanks to the early BBC’s infamously lax archives, finding the original six-part serials in complete form and non-Vaseline quality is just shy of a holy crusade. The Hammer movies, which halved the three-hour serials into brisk feature length, are similarly hard to find in the wild.
Enter Scream Factory with definitive 2K restorations of Quatermass 2 and Quatermass and the Pit. I haven’t had the chance to watch the latter, but I can confirm that long-ingrained scene from the former is still as unsettling as it ever was.
Bernard Quatermass is a rocket scientist, kind of. The serials make it explicit — that’s ProfessorBernard Quatermass to you — but nobody bothers with titles in Quatermass 2. In one of the newly recorded commentaries for this release, film historian Ted Newsom thinks that’s deliberate. While Kneale’s character is a more traditionally high-minded academic in the serials, the Hammer version has little time for theory.
As the head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, he’s more manager than teacher, like the kind of former military men that Walt Disney enlisted to oversee believed-impossible construction projects. When old friend Inspector Lomax (John Longden) phones a government contact on Quatermass’s behalf, he joylessly repeats their question: “Are you dependable?” Quatermass grunts an insulted, “What?,” and Lomax confirms. Yes of course; Quatermass is always dependable.
And that has more than a little to do with the furrowed-brow, resiliently squinty performance of Brian Donlevy.
When Hammer approached the BBC about adapting the first serial, The Quatermass Experiment, the studio insisted on casting an American in the lead for the sake of international distribution. When he was cast in 1955, Donlevy was most famous for being a bad guy, both on and off-screen depending on who you ask. Nigel Kneale eagerly agreed and said as much whenever given half a chance.
A sizable chunk of his combo commentary track with director Val Guest is dedicated to the star’s allegedly perpetual drunkenness. Guest, in turn, spends a sizable chunk of his own time defending Donlevy. The truth or what’s left of it seems to be that the actor did have problems with alcohol and drank more than he should’ve on Quatermass 2, but even knowing that, you won’t notice.
Whether because or despite this, his Quatermass is believably surly when the situation calls for it. Holding bureaucratic feet to the fire? No problem. Demanding answers from a firing squad of silent soldiers? Sure thing. Donning a dead man’s uniform to sneak amongst them? With almost alarmingly little hesitation.
You can draw a line from this Quatermass to Dr. Loomis, another doctor in a trenchcoat that may or may not be hiding a gun. John Carpenter is a professed fan; he used the penname “Martin Quatermass” for PRINCE OF DARKNESS, another hard-to-find classic available from Scream Factory. Kneale did not appreciate the homage.
The serial version of Quatermass had six, 30-minute episodes to piece the whole conspiracy together and save the day.
The movie version has 84 minutes. Of course he’s a little more reckless.
While Kneale was left out of the Experiment adaptation process, Hammer invited the creator to write his own script for the sequel. Returning director Guest then shaped it to better fit the format. The duet commentary between film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr covers most of the differences, with the long-and-short being that Guest streamlined it for chills, spills, and thrills. In what you might notice is a pattern, Nigel Kneale did not enjoy the changes.
While I can’t speak to the pace of the serial, it’s hard to fault Guest when the result moves like one of our hero’s legendary rockets.
Technically Quatermass 2 is the first-ever numbered sequel, and it also technically isn’t.
Yes, it’s the second Quatermass movie, but that’s also the name of his latest prototype rocket. His first, the prequel’s titular Experiment, successfully launched the first men into space (1953, remember). Three went up. One came down. Then that one turned into a plant monster containing the ethereal consciousnesses of the other two. Undeterred, Quatermass builds a new-and-improved rocket, but sets his sights on the long game: lunar colonies.
The model itself is a work of art, like a class project Tomorrowland built entirely out of bowls and drinking straws. But the space-age impracticality is a lot less funny when Quatermass finds it already built to scale in the middle of the countryside.
This is the mechanical hellscape I couldn’t forget from my ten-second glimpse.
Towering concrete cauldrons sprout from the earth like radioactive abscesses. Smokestacks billow with conveniently marked poisons. Pipes snake the ground and entangle every structure, right-angle arteries for an inhuman heart. In reality, it was just the Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex. On screen, it’s completely alien.
Val Guest talks at length, in his commentary and the supplementary interview, about shooting his Quatermass movies like newsreel documentaries. The intention was dead-on; this story must feel absolutely real otherwise it’s Saturday morning fantasy. But by my count, the handheld camerawork he credits only shows up maybe twice. The wiser move was finding a million-to-one location and letting cinematographer Gerald Gibbs shoot it to pieces.
Every frame at the plant places our hero in a different geometric trap. Cut to ribbons by prison-bar pillars. Cornered by industrial sprawl. Running a maze of chrome and cold steel against a colorless sky.
Some scenes in Quatermass 2 bely the vintage and the price tag — most sets are conveniently missing a fourth wall — but getting out of the studio lends everything an uncanny verisimilitude. Bustling London looks just as lifelike as the framable matte-shot outside Quatermass’s office, with his rocket catching the last hints of sunset in the distance.
All the better for a silent invasion story.
Why didn’t anyone tell him about the base? Why are black-suited goons with machine guns guarding it? Why won’t the police investigate? Could aliens be annoying the same rocket scientist twice?
The answers may not shock you, but the execution, even some 62 years later, just might. There are no googly-eyed Martians to point and laugh at. Nary a raygun fired nor theremin goosed. The violence here is unvarnished, in terms already hard-wired into our unconscious. The stormtroopers gun down innocents with unthinking abandon. When a doomed soul pokes their head into one of those massive cauldrons, they return as something barely human, covered head-to-toe in black crude and steaming. They stumble, stagger, drag their gory handprint down the concrete walls.
The lovingly overblown poster for Quatermass 2 distorts this poor soul into a more traditionally sellable monster, but it remains the most disturbingly human death in the entire movie. There’s still a much more disturbing implied death, when a two-inch pipe drips blood and Quatermass recognizes the unseen clog as his missing comrades. All it takes to earn a gag is a little Hershey syrup and Donlevy’s curt diagnosis: “Human pulp.” Not for nothing did this movie and its prequel earn X-ratings on first release.
In color, it might’ve played a lot tamer. The blood too red. The shapeless alien blob too bright. The matte lines too obvious. In black-and-white, everything is sealed in the same grainy time capsule, just as believable and just as striking as the day it terrified a generation of budding sci-fi fans.
The special features on the disc provide welcome context for that very generation and the science fiction that spawned them.
The archival interview with Val Guest covers not only Quatermass 2, but the whole of his directing career at Hammer. To the presumed irritation of Nigel Kneale, Guest would adapt one more of his works, The Abominable Snowman, in 1957. It’s worth watching for the anecdote about Donlevy’s hairpiece getting blown off by a wind machine. So aerodynamic, the story goes, the crew had to knock it out of the air with thrown cutlery.
It’s understandably difficult finding anyone with fond or firm memories from the set of a 62-year-old B-movie, but the other archival interviews, with special effects artist Brian Johnson and assistant director Hugh Harlow, are brief and best left to the obsessed. The trailer for its American release is delicious drive-in junkfood. It was given a new title that, like all great Atomic Age science fiction, begs to be shouted in an empty gymnasium for maximum effect — Enemy From Space.
The most interesting feature, though, is an episode of the 1994 documentary series, The World of Hammer. Narrated by the (in)famous Oliver Reed, some episodes were dedicated to the studio’s brightest stars, others its hottest genres. The episode included is “Sci-Fi,” Hammer’s second-fiddle.
Anyone curious about the other Quatermass movies should take heed — the trilogy comprises almost half of the included movies, plus the attempted sequel they reworked into X the Unknown. Intended or otherwise, the program makes a case for Quatermass as a loose inspiration for Hammer’s eventual take on Dr. Frankenstein. An implication made direct comparison in one of the three commentary tracks.
The most promising is a cobbling of separate discussions with Val Guest and Nigel Kneale.
They aren’t in the same room, not that they could stand it anyway, so each talks in different directions. It’s worth a listen considering they’re the two biggest stewards the Quatermass franchise ever had. But there are more gaps as it goes, Guest tends to repeat the same tidbits from his interview, and Kneale sounds like he’s been inspired to participate at gunpoint. The two newly recorded commentaries, though, are essential.
Haberman and Nasr really ground the movie historically — Quatermass was fending off stormtroopers on British soil only 12 years after the Battle of the Bulge — and debate its place in the pod-people pantheon; a prescient inversion of the Hawks Thing mold and grimmer scale than Body Snatchers because the government is unquestionably compromised.
Ted Newsom focuses more on the movie itself, like Guest’s dubious ode to cinema verité and the star’s alleged alcoholism. Playing his commentary is watching Quatermass 2 with that friend who just had to show you this great movie they know you’ll love.
Like the other commenters, he defends Donlevy’s Americanized Quatermass.
“Whenever he leaves a scene, he leaves a Donlevy-sized hole.” He’s right. The performance, the character is indelible from the moment his name flashes across the screen and the stringy terror of James Bernard’s score squeals in excitement.
You can find hints of Quatermass in shows like Doctor Who and The X-Files, movies like Lifeforce and Prince of Darkness, even characters like Carl Kolchak and Indiana Jones. And yet the Good Professor himself hasn’t been seen since a BBC remake of The Quatermass Experiment in 2003.
When he left pop culture, he left a Quatermass-sized hole in science fiction. You can find plenty of imitators, knockoffs, and loving homages. But now, thanks to Scream Factory, you can enjoy the genuine article and pay proper tribute to one of the first heroes to ever watch the skies.
Quartermass 2 was released by Shout!/Scream Factory on July 30, 2019, in the US and Canada. Click here to purchase.
- NEW 2K Scan Of A Pristine Archival Film Print
- NEW Audio Commentary With Filmmaker/Film Historian Ted Newsom
- NEW Audio Commentary With Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman And Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr
- NEW Interview With Academy Award-Winning Special Effects Artist Brian Johnson (Alien)
- NEW Interview With Assistant Director Hugh Harlow
- Vintage Interview With Director Val Guest
- Audio Commentary With Director Val Guest And Writer Nigel Kneale
- World Of Hammer – Sci-Fi
- U.S. Theatrical Trailer – ENEMY OF SPACE
- Still Gallery