Quatermass II (1957)

When it’s on: Saturday, 6 June (1.05 am, Sunday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I’ve mentioned before on these pages that the scheduling of late night classic horror on BBC2 comes as a very welcome thing, potentially introducing a new generation of viewers to golden age thrills and chills. The likes of Quatermass II (released as Enemy from Space in the USA) might be a minor footnote in the genre, surpassed at the time by the technicolor macabre treats of The Curse of Frankenstein, but as a piece of formative horror/science fiction cinema it has its place as an influential piece of work, its mixture of science, paranoia and subtle criticism leaking into the make-up of later productions. It was unavailable for many years. But, restored now, its place within the evolution of British cinema stands out, and it’s impossible to watch Doctor Who, for one celebrated example, without seeing the roots here.

Brian Donlevy – who last appeared on the site, in a younger and more villainous guise, in 1939’s Destry Rides Again – returned to the role of Quatermass, having played him previously in the highly profitable The Quatermass Xperiment. Both films were adaptations of the BBC serial, scripted by Nigel Kneale, who had a much bigger influence on this film. The name of the title character might have come almost randomly via a search through the London telephone directory, but he was very deliberately shaped as a credible man of science, an intellectual authority who possessed the imagination to take on new concepts in a rational way, such as the threat of alien invasion, which broadly covers the plot of both films. Donlevy’s Quatermass was, however, a departure from the television version, playing the character as little more than a superior bully who treats those around him like subordinates because he’s always one step ahead, seeing threats long before anybody else can fathom their existence. Kneale didn’t like this portrayal as it took its toll on Quatermass’s humanity and his appeal as a hero, but it did add gravitas to the character, making him more believable as a brilliant scientist who inspires others through sheer authority. That said, stories were rife of Donlevy acting via a constant supply of black coffee to fend off his considerable alcohol intake, rumours that each cup was laced with something stronger.

At the beginning of the film, Quatermass is in charge of a project that plans to send a rocket to the moon, carrying people who will colonise it. There’s even a rocketship on his base; absent, however, is the government funding. Quatermass soon finds out where the money is going, on a plant that looks identical to his own, based at Winnerden Flats. The area is of interest due to a prolonged meteor shower that has occurred there, and when Quatermass investigates he discovers they’re very far from rocks hurtling randomly to the earth’s surface. A colleague is unlucky enough to be holding one of the meteorites when it explodes in his face, releasing a gas that leaves him with a v-shaped mark on his face. Soldiers arrive and take the man away, ordering Quatermass to leave. A visit to Inspector Lomax (John Longden) sends him to Whitehall, from where he inveigles himself onto a guided tour of the mysterious facility. On the surface, it seems benign enough, but the tour guide is intent on nobody straying from the group, and Quatermass learns to his horror that unless he does he’ll never leave the place with his life.

They key to it all is a nearby town (in reality, Hemel Hempstead) built for the construction workers, which Quatermass visits and from where he recruits a boozy reporter (Sidney James) to get the word out about what’s really happening at Winnerden Flats. There’s an air of complacency about the community that Quatermass shatters with his arrival, but what’s really interesting about it is that it’s at the heart of the conspiracy he’s uncovering. The people are oblivious about what’s happening at the plant, and everything’s fine as long as they remain so, led by the community centre, which wants absolutely nothing to do with Quatermass’s concerns. The stink about the government driven imposed silence only grows as the people realise what is actually happening, leading to a posse of angry townspeople converging on the plant, a group containing Michael Ripper in one of his early, celebrated Hammer cameos. A barmaid (Vera Day) is injured when a meteor crashes inside the pub, and this turns the community’s mood to one of retribution, building to the climactic attack against the plant. Terrifyingly, people who have been ‘infected’ by coming into contact with the meteors all have scars on their skin, a visible sign that they aren’t what they used to be.

Despite the modest budget and special effects that are clearly dated, it’s a riveting picture, a British take on the paranoia-fuelled science fiction movies that America was putting out during the 1950s. Where the USA film industry played on people’s Cold War fears of a communist invasion through stories of hostile alien visitors (on this subject, I’m hoping to cover The Thing from Another World in a couple of days), Quatermass II concerns itself with a government riddled with secrecy that takes part in allowing the otherworldly villains to set themselves up in the country and build from there. Donlevy is great as the hero, not very likeable yet still effective in leading the fightback from ordinary people. The Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex doubled as the alien plant, with matte paintings also used for the more ‘alien’ areas.

Quatermass II is a little gem of a picture, much cleverer than it appears to be both as an exercise in mounting fear and a barometer of contemporary moods. It’s highly recommended.

Quatermass II: ****

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

When it’s on: Friday, 20 February (1.20 am, Saturday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Like many fans of classic horror, I first got into old monster movies via the BBC’s nighttime screenings back in the early 1980s. Typically shown as a double bill, it was possible to get a pair of ancient Universal frighteners like Dracula and Frankenstein, or a couple of hoary Hammer offerings, which by this point already looked like something from a bygone age. Needless to say, I loved them, talking mine parents into setting up the Betamax to record so I could get up in the morning and experience a blast of the sort of thrills that had little place amidst the more lurid, contemporary likes of Halloween and Poltergeist. These double bills are of course the stuff of aching nostalgia now. Whilst a minority of viewers would love nothing more than to see their return, they belong in a distant past, though one has to wonder, given those dead hours in the middle of the night, would it be so difficult to bring them back and, you never know, introduce a whole new generation to the joys of antiquated horror?

The Abominable Snowman is not being shown as part of a late night monster double, but its late, late place in the schedules teases at a return to this sort of caper; alas a tease is all it is as normal service resumes the following Friday. All the same, it’s a thing of joy to see this semi-forgotten entry from the Hammer archives given a rare outing. It’s a title I watch often, and unashamedly so. At the time, the studio was beginning to flex its creative muscles. The success of The Quatermass Xperiment, adapted for the big screen from Nigel Kneale’s BBC drama, had brought Hammer to the attention of major American players. Further horrors were commissioned. Hammer took the money, stretched the modest budgets it received and started a production line of sensational, melodramatic fright flicks that have since become the stuff of legend. In the same year as The Abominable Snowman came The Curse of Frankenstein, filmed in colour to give audiences the terrifying sight of blood that dripped often and starkly red. They never looked back.

The first Hammer Frankenstein adventure set the studio on a course of further scary treats, taking advantage of colour, special effects, glorious costumes, make-up and set design, and an increase in heaving bosoms, all of which left The Abominable Snowman looking dated nearly as soon as it was released. It’s only more recently that opinions about it have revised and it’s since been held up as a great entry in the canon, a surprisingly low key outing for the maligned Yeti, which only turns up late in the film and is cast in a wholly sympathetic light. Like Quatermass, the film was adapted from a television drama, The Creature, again written by Kneale who returned to write the screenplay. Reliable studio hand, Val Guest, was behind the camera as director. Peter Cushing, who was on the cusp of becoming the its major star thanks to his starring role as Baron Frankenstein, reprised his role from the small screen as Dr Henry Rollason, whereas the part that had been played on television by Stanley Baker went to American actor, Forrest Tucker, as part of Hammer’s deal to have a US star in exchange for funding.

The story is set in the Himalayas, where in reality the sight of enormous footprints in the mountains’ snowy passes (identified by no less a figure than Sir Edmund Hillary on his way to conquering Everest several years earlier) had turned the mythical Yeti into a bona fide monster mystery. Rollason heads a botanical expedition that is staying in a Tibetan monastery. A second group of ‘scientists’ arrives, led by Dr Tom Friend (Tucker), which claims to be researching the possible existence of the Yeti, and Rollason is persuaded to join them, even at the objections of his wife (Maureen Connell) and the temple’s Lama. As the expedition reaches ever higher points in the mountain ranges, following possible Yeti tracks and finding itself pursued by unknown assailants, presumably those wishing to protect the creatures’ secrecy, it emerges that Friend wants nothing less than to achieve fame by capturing a live beast and returning with it to America. Tensions rise between the two men, the avaricious Friend and Rollason, motivated by nobler instincts. Other members of the company start dying, the creatures close in, and the potential that they could be cut off, stuck in some high, desolate place far away from civilisation, becomes a terrifying possibility.

The film is given an air of authenticity as those mountain passes look real enough, though as Cushing explained in his memoirs, a back lot at Bray Studios in Berkshire was covered in tonnes of salt to represent snow, whilst the production designer, Bernard Robinson, constructed an authentic Tibetan village even with the limited financial resources he could call upon. Later, the same lot would become a Transylvanian village for Dracula, Baron Frankenstein’s home village of Karlsbad, Dartmoor for Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, even India when The Stranglers of Bombay was being filmed there, an impressive recycling of props and sets for the seemingly never ending line of productions. Additional filming, the long shots of explorers traversing the mountain routes that required none of the principal actors, took place high in the Pyrenees.

Best of all is the treatment of the Yeti itself. In an era when many of Hammer’s films presented their monsters as purely evil, there’s nothing abominable about this film’s snowmen. Rather, in witnessing the follies of mankind and awaiting the human race’s capacity to destroy itself, it becomes clear the Yeti have opted for living in secrecy until this moment, and the wise likes of the Lama recognises and supports their wishes. Rollason comes across the same truth, setting up his climactic clash of ideals with Friend, and his ultimate decision to deny the expedition came across anything when he’s eventually rescued. Considering the demand for gaudy thrills, the film’s sympathetic treatment of the Yeti comes across as a nice humanist touch, though upon its release it was clear this did not chime with what the public wanted and ensured The Abominable Snowman, unlike The Curse of Frankenstein, made little impact with audiences. A shame, considering the largely successful effort to create an atmosphere of paranoid claustrophobia into which the Yeti need to make little impact.

The Abominable Snowman: ****

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

When it’s on: Sunday, 10 June (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Flushed with the success of One Million Years B.C, Hammer ploughed its prehistoric furrow several more times, with varying results. The interior sets and costumes were either recycled for the bargain basement camp classic Prehistoric Women, or a straightforward repeat was attempted. Such is When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, made in 1969 but not released until a year later due to the extensive post production work by Jim Darnforth and Roger Dicken in developing the film’s stop motion creatures. Mario Nascimbene was once again called on for the score, whilst the shoot enjoyed a stay in Fuerteventura to recreate the prehistoric landscape. The film’s credibility was further enhanced by having a treatment put together by then science fiction writer, J.G. Ballard (who would later declare his pride in having his first film credit be for such errant nonsense). Val Guest, one of Hammer’s best known directors and responsible for early classics like The Quatermass Xperiment and The Abominable Snowman, was behind the camera.

The result is an uneven picture. The ‘science’ is as rubbish as anything served up in One Million Years B.C. and even has the cheek to contrive an origin story for the moon that slaps the face of any known facts, though frankly there’s little point in criticising it on those grounds. Darnforth and Dicken’s effects are rather good, clearly a step up from those produced by Ray Harryhausen for the earlier film. Whilst there remains a sense of the plot doing nothing more than string together the appearances by creatures that time forgot, the interactions with dinosaurs have more point than to show cavepeople endlessly running away from animated models. The pair were Oscar nominated for their trouble (losing to the visual effects from Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and may very well be responsible for the best looking dinosaurs in the pre-CGI era.

Elsewhere, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth exhibits all the signs of the time in which it was made. With restrictions dropping over the amount of skin that could be shown on screen, the costumes are tinier than ever before. Men happily skip about in loincloths; caveladies favour micro-bikinis. Raquel Welch would no doubt be appalled by the next to nothing worn by this film’s star, Victoria Vetri, who looks like she’s stepped straight out of a lurid Frank Frazetta concoction. Cast in the Hammer tradition for offering movie roles to Playboy Playmates, Vetri gives a game performance as Sanna, the bottle blonde whose yellow hair is seen as responsible for the worrying fluctuations of the sun. On the run from her tribe, she comes across kindly fisherman Tara (Robin Hawson), who takes her back to his seaside village. It’s love at first sight, but Sanna’s presence causes consternation among the people, none more so than Tara’s discarded squeeze, Imogen Hassall. The ‘Countess of Cleavage’ inspires further hate for Sanna and the lovers are forced to flee for their lives.

Cue dinosaurs, including a pissed off Triceratops that gores anyone stupid enough to try stepping into its cave, and a matronly creature that believes Sanna is its offspring after she falls asleep inside the shell of its egg. Pterodactyls swoop in for a cameo, and there’s a sea monster that emerges from the waves to save Tara.

Where this film disappoints following One Million Years B.C. is that the earlier entry put some effort into creating a prehistoric environment. Daft science aside, there was a grizzled rawness to the way the people looked, whilst the landscape had a harsh, forbidding feel about it, helped along by the sulphur bombs that suggested volcanic activity was ever imminent. Any serious attempts at authenticity are largely absent here. The one thing retained is the unintelligible ‘cave language’, dreamed up for the film by Guest and including a vocabulary of between twenty and thirty words – ‘Akita’ seems to cover most bases. Otherwise, these are the most scrubbed up of cavepeople, whilst the location looks exactly like the sun-kissed resort it was becoming in the late 1960s. According to an interview with Vetri, the cast and crew spent their spare time ‘screwing around’ and having fun, making for a pleasant shoot that wasn’t taken seriously for one moment. Apparently, so much sleeping around took place that sheepish faces and broken relationships were rife upon the production’s return to the UK.

This writer remembers seeing When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth as a child, astonished by the scenes in which a naked Sanna capers about with Tara. Even then, seeing this sort of thing in an early afternoon screening was unusual and presumably a mistake on the broadcaster’s part. It’s unlikely to be repeated today. Looking at the 95-minute slot given to the film, it’s almost certain we will be getting the slightly shorter version, the one released in America, which excises all nudity. To their embarrassment and the delight of viewers, Warner Brothers released a DVD of the film in the States several years ago (double billed with Moon Zero Two) that carried a ‘G’ rating yet retained the uncut content. Hubba hubba!

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth: **