One of the smartest, most suspenseful SF franchises to emerge from the 1950’s was Britain’s Quatermass series. Created by Nigel Kneale, the series first saw light as superlative television shows, which were subsequently adapted for the big screen by Hammer. While the shorter running time necessitated certain compromises, all three films were excellent, among the best offerings of British SF. These movies were The Quatermass Experiment (1955, released in the States as The Creeping Unknown), Quatermass…2 (1957) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967, AKA Five Million Years to Earth).
Val Guest, who was also responsible for the superb The Day the Earth Caught Fire directed the first two. The first film, which introduced Brian Donlevy as the irascible, bull-headed Professor Quatermass, remains unavailable on DVD, as far as I’ve been able to determine. This is positively criminal. The film, about an astronaut who survives the disastrous returning crash of his spaceship only to slowly transform into a carnivorous, Lovecraftian blob/tentacle monster, is bleak, suspenseful and terrifically atmospheric. Donlevy’s Quatermass is a rather troubling good guy, since he refuses to countenance any delay before launching yet another spaceship. If you can find the VHS, see this film, and in the meantime, let’s hope its DVD release isn’t too long in coming.As if in compensation, the other two films were released by Anchor Bay as a double feature DVD. Brian Donlevy returns to the role in Quatermass 2. He’s still pretty irritable, but he’s much more straightforwardly sympathetic. I mentioned this film before in my tribute to Michael Ripper, but to reiterate, it is very much in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here, though, the takeover by aliens is already well advanced, with important members of the government not what they appear to be (a conceit revisited in last year’s Doctor Who revival). The climactic battle at the industrial plant that is the heart of the alien invasion is pretty explosive, and the monsters on display are impressive despite the limited FX budget.Quatermass and the Pit has Roy Ward Baker directing instead of Guest, and Andrew Keir taking over as Quatermass (meaning the hero is no longer inexplicably American). Both men do their predecessors proud. The only entry to be shot in colour, it makes good use of same, as there is plenty of (for the time) icky ooze and blood on display. Construction of a new subway line unearths a spaceship. The grasshopper-like corpses on board turn out to be Martians, and it seems they were responsible for the colonization of the earth. Our images of demons are the race memory of our previous overlords. The spaceship is far from being inert, however, and a terrible psychic horror descends on London. The climax is a horrific orgy of destruction, imitated (badly) by Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. The premise, like that of the other films, is, of course, preposterous, but it is delivered with such conviction by all involved that it winds up making perfect sense, at least for the running time of the film.While the special effects of all three films have been, of course, outclassed by advancing technology, the intelligence of the scripts is something that most current SF films can only envy. Track these down. They’ll reward your effort.