Quatermass II (1957)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-07-16 04:34

Quatermass II (1957)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: July 25th, 2019

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

The prevailing narrative for Hammer Films is that the stalwart British studio didn’t truly become Hammer Films as we know it until it struck gold with new adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, paving the way for scores of gothic-tinged hits. However, the studio’s first horror breakthrough was of another, much more contemporary sort in The Quatermass Xperiment, an adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s popular TV serial. Treading in both Cold War and UFO hysteria, Val Guest’s take was a boilerplate 50s monster movie that felt right at home on theater screens alongside its American counterparts. It’s a far cry from the aesthetic typically associated with Hammer horror, a low-key little black-and-white effort that strives for gritty realism in a way many later Hammer productions don’t. But like those later films, its success immediately inspired production for a sequel, Quatermass II, which would continue the exploits of Brian Donlevy’s take on the the Brit sci-fi icon.

His second outing is just as effective as the first, as Part II is one of the great paranoiac body snatcher films of the era. It finds Quatermass struggling with the truly monolithic horror of government bureaucracy. Despite having very much established himself in the field of space exploration, he struggles to gain monetary support for a moon base project, which has been dismissed as impractical and expensive. However, a distraction arrives in the form of a young, distressed couple who frantically report a meteorite sighting that’s left the husband bearing a bizarre scar. This encounter coincides with Quatermass’s own team detecting numerous meteors landing in nearby Winnerdan Flats. Naturally curious, Quatermass sets out to investigate the sleepy town, only to discover a massive complex featuring an exact replica of his own moon base project. Furthermore, both the locals and the security detail at the complex are cagey; quite frankly, the entire scene is just a little too eerily quaint.

While this story has only grown more familiar since its release (more on that in a bit), Quatermass II is nonetheless a terrific dispatch from this era. It’s urged on by Kneale’s sharp script, which takes the original film’s body snatching conceit and imagines it infiltrating an entire town. Winnerdan Flats—and the mystery surrounding its citizens—provides most of the intrigue here, as Quatermass’s investigation turns up increasingly strange discoveries. The town—which has no cops—begins to resemble an unsettling hive mind, almost as if everyone is closely guarding a secret. Even attempts at transparency, such as when Quatermass and an associate are allowed to tour the facility, feel calculated and sinister.

Like its predecessor, Quatermass II thrives on its low-budget naturalism, as Guest relies on the suggestion of a creeping terror that would have felt particularly potent during the 50s. Guest’s ground-level vision deftly contrasts the natural with the unnatural, increasing the terror with each bizarre revelation. He reserves a true shocker for the middle of the film, when Quatermass’s associate becomes a little too curious to see the ingredients in the food that’s supposedly manufactured in the factory. His curiosity literally blows up in his face, giving the audience a disturbing, gory jolt that anticipated Hammer’s willingness to dwell on violence when necessary. Even now, 60+ years and scores of blood-soaked films later, this moment unnerves because of the sheer helplessness on display, something that must have especially appealed to contemporary audiences.

However, there’s something timeless about it, too, that stretches across time and classic aesthetics. Most of it is bottled up in Donlevy’s frantic turn as the title character, which actually wasn’t particularly well-received by either Kneale or much of the viewing public. I find it to be crucial to the film’s effectiveness, though, especially the way his vibrant personality that contrasts nicely with the hivemind slowly forming around him that works. His quiet desperation is similarly vital to the film’s propulsion: as the situation becomes more dire, it’s reflected in Donlevy’s anxious attempt to convince his superiors of the truth.

Quatermass II is a fine example of how to script a paranoiac thriller: the audience is in lock-step with its protagonist, gradually discovering the truth alongside him, with the dramatic irony slowly lurking in the distance as the other characters refuse to confront reality. Even moments where the low budget betrays the scope (like when Quatermass launches a rocket at an off-screen asteroid base, or when a trio of giant creatures rises from the factory) work in the film’s favor by keeping the action intimately pitched on the characters instead of spectacle.

Of course, this is all very much old hat now; even by 1957, Quatermass II would have felt a little bit too familiar, and generations of horror films thereafter have witnessed various riffs on it ever since. One that immediately springs to mind is Halloween III, which comes as no surprise since both John Carpenter (who once adopted “Martin Quatermass” as a pseudonym) and Tommy Lee Wallace have never been shy about admitting Kneale’s influence on their film, going so far as to actually hire him to write the original script.

Actually seeing Quatermass II in action makes for a bizarre sense of déjà vu because the skeletal framework of both films are so similar, with the facility tour in particular being most familiar, right down to the memorably gory outburst towards the climax. Also, Wallace may have named his Santa Mira after the town in Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it feels more specifically modelled after Winnerdan Flats. Just as Silver Shamrock loomed over a small Irish town, so does the mysterious facility here, which hoards vaguely sinister secrets much like Conal Cochran’s toy factory. You can’t help but see the St. Patrick’s Day party here as confirmation that Wallace definitely had Quatermass II on his brain while hatching Season of the Witch, and it’s beyond cool to finally see as much after all these years.

Not even taking into account that specific intrigue, Quatermass II is still an eminently interesting production that proves Hammer was more than just a one-trick, Gothic pony. Like the best body snatcher films of this time, it’s easily read as an allegory for unseen forces lurking in our midst. Specifically, it’s about how those in power wield conformity as a form of control and insist on keeping appearances rather than actually doing anything. It’s worth noting that Quatermass’s first conflict in the film is with those who bristle at the thought of making progressive advancement, and it’s no coincidence these figureheads are among the first to be subsumed by the extraterrestrial forces at work. Perhaps most unnerving is the film’s final exchange, when Quatermass’s colleague mentions the need for a final report, only for the title character to wonder just how “final” it might be, a line that captures the subtle pessimism often lurking beneath these supposedly jaunty monster movies.

The disc:

Unfortunately, the studio’s success with the likes of Horror of Dracula—which arrived just year later—signaled a change in audience tastes and put Quatermass on the back-burner. Hammer wouldn’t revisit the character for another decade as it repurposed some of its paranoiac vibes for sinister tales of unseen cults waiting in plain sight. Even more unfortunate, Quatermass II and that later film, Quatermass and the Pit, have been difficult to come by ever since Anchor Bay’s DVD releases went out of print over a decade ago, leaving a pretty sizeable gap in some fans’ Hammer collections. Scream Factory has come to the rescue once again, though, with a pair of nice Blu-ray upgrades for each title.

Something important to note right off the bat: Quatermass II does indeed feature its original 1.75:1 aspect ratio despite the packaging’s claim of an altered 1.37:1 presentation. Outside of a handful of darker scenes, it’s a nice presentation as well; the opening sequence may give you pause because it’s a bit soft and features little shadow detail, but the rest of the film is well done, especially given its age and the fact that Scream Factory had to hunt down workable elements in the first place.

For special features, Scream has ported over the original feature commentary with Kneale and Guest from the previous DVD release, plus a pair of new tracks featuring film historians Ted Newsom, Steve Haberman, and Constatine Nasr. Also included is an archival interview with Guest conducted several years ago wherein he recounts his time at Hammer Films with some scattershot recollections. His Quatermass entries are more like a footnote in the interview, which touches on everything from the studio’s rise, its eventual decline, and even the nearby catering joint. Two newly-produced interviews with effects artist Brian Johnson and third assistant director Hugh Harlow are quite short but informative bits pertaining specifically to Quatermass II. The film’s U.S. trailer and a sci-fi edition of World of Hammer complete a disc that’s been a long time coming; thankfully, it’s also been very much worth the wait, as this is arguably the crown jewel of Scream Factory’s Hammer collection thus far.
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