Fond memories of Hammer Horror generally involve the ever-old Peter Cushing desperately tilting against every Christopher Lee shaped windmill to spring from the pages of supernatural literature. Indeed, their characterisations of Van Helsing and Dracula have left such an impression on the respective mythology that only the glittery tween appeal of Twilight has managed to challenge it. Having more strings to its bow than classic horror however, Hammer has had many successful stints into the world of sci-fi, with few more so than Quatermass 2.
Pioneering a business model subsequently adopted for all Hammer films, it pre-sold its distribution rights in the US to secure a modest budget of £92,000, making the most of every penny through intelligent production to assemble a classic of British sci-fi cinema.
The opening scene of Quatermass 2 sets the pace for this energetic sci-fi thriller, with Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) avoiding a car crash with an apparently reckless driver near a place called Winneden Flats. Stopping to offer an irate berating, Quatermass quickly learns that a lady is driving her injured boyfriend to hospital; explaining he suffered a curious burn from pieces of stone that fell from the sky. Quatermass is literally a rocket scientist and therefore takes the pieces to his lab.
Building on the introduction’s early momentum the bombastic Quatermass imposes the fragments on his associate Marsh (Bryan Forbes) for testing, before beginning to rant on a range of topics laden with foreshadowing and background. Fantastically crafted the dialogue provides a strong foundation on which the narrative can build, rapidly blending vital story elements without ever seeming contrived. From this we learn that his Moonbase project has been canned and his prototype rocket is so unstable its atomic reactor is likely to explode upon re-entry. Similarly we are introduced to a short précis of Quatermass’s character giving us enough clever glimpses into his bullish personality for us to quickly understand his nature without simplifying him to a clichéd caricature.
Upon Marsh’s return with a plaster model of the fallen meteor, we learn that the objects are in fact symmetrical with stabilising fins and a hollow interior. This sends Quatermass and Marsh to Winneden Flats to investigate, where low and behold there appears to be an enormous industrial plant uncannily similar to Quatermass’s Moonbase! Searching the area, Marsh then comes across an un-shattered meteor. Examining the object; it breaks with a hiss of ammonia gas. Marsh falls to the ground with a V shaped burn on his face with Quartermass adamant he saw a ‘black blob’ attack him. Before he can help his assistant however, armed guards from the plant arrive, all scared with the same jagged V, to drag off the delirious Marsh.
Heading off to the nearby town, that is actually the half built Hertfordshire town of Hemel Hampstead, Quatermass discovers it is full of paranoia and devoid of any police. Feeling wholly unwelcome, especially when his probing questions raise the ire of the fearful populace, Quatermass departs to begin some ‘tooing and froing’ with London.
Upon first visiting the capital he meets Inspector Lomax (John Longdon), promoted and much more serious since The Quatermass Experiment. Lomax sets his old friend up with a visit to the plant, accompanying an incredulous MP called Broadhead (Tom Chatto) who’s long been railing against spending on the Winneden Flats ‘synthetic food processing plant’. This visit is but one of many, with all previous government guests suspiciously returning satisfied with the plant’s operation. The visit however goes awry, with their smoothly sinister guide leading the visitors into a trap that Quatermass escapes from. While fleeing from the plant he encounters Broadhead again who had previously sneaked away from the group and is now certainly worst for wear. With a terrifying scream the MP clambers down a stairway from a large vat, covered in steaming black goo after falling in, stating the obvious fact that it’s ‘not synthetic food’ before it burns him to death.
An amusing point of note here is that Tom Chatto then proceeded to go to dinner in the canteen after the final take, eating his meal covered in goo while remarking “remind me to talk to my wife about this later”; his spouse of course being the casting director.
Returning to London again, Quatermass convinces Lomax to visit the Chief Inspector. The visit however doesn’t last long; with Lomax returning after seeing a V shaped burn on his superior’s hand. Realising the extreme to which the conspiracy stretches, Quatermass and Lomax grab the drunken reporter Jimmy Hall (Syd James), who in contrast to Lomax hasn’t received a promotion since The Quatermass Experiment and is actually far more jovial. Now rolling three deep and with the tension mounting; Quatermass and his posse head back to Winneden Flats, intent on verifying their theories on an invasion of body possessing aliens.
Arriving in the town they let Jimmy do his thing. Thankfully the drive from London has given the hack time to sober up as he proceeds to investigate his story. It’s not long however until the head of the town council clocks Quatermass and suspicion is aroused. Just as a baying mob starts forming around the beleaguered scientist a meteor crashes through the roof and infects the town sweetheart and barmaid Sheila (Vera Day). Sliding away from the scene just as the guards arrive, Quatermass and Lomax are separated from Jimmy who makes a last ditch call to get the story to his editor. The guards however catch him in the act and gun the reporter down in cold blood before picking up Sheila and leaving. With the baying mob’s attention now focused entirely on the plant Quatermass and Lomax head there themselves.
It seems Quatermass is in no position to berate anyone on poor driving, as en route to the plant the professor mows down an oblivious guard who appears to be happily ambling along the road. Taking his uniform he sneaks into the plant, sending Lomax back to London in case he should fail in stopping the aliens. Ironically Lomax fails in his comparatively simple task, bumping into a town lynch mob that appear to have wandered straight from the set of Hammer’s other release that year, Curse of Frankenstein.
Shots are fired, some people die and before you know it Quatermass and Lomax are reunited in some sort of pressure control room, along with pretty much any town member that has here-to-fore had a speaking part. Having realised that the large domes are being used to house aliens unable to find a host and that oxygen is being sent there to acclimatise them, the professor concludes that shutting off their ammonia should kill them. He does this, but with a chilling scream a pipe cracks and blood starts to drip out; bodies of townsfolk being used to block the oxygen from entering the domes.
The suffocation however seemed to have done the trick, as bursting from the domes comes four gigantic coagulated alien entities whose death-throes destroy the base. Rubbing salt in the wound, Quatermass orders his rocket to launch at the origin of the alien meteors on the dark side of the planet. With possessed guards now rampaging through Quatermass’s base, his mortally wounded assistant Brand (William Franklyn) launches the rocket in his final breath, the atomic reactor destroying the alien vessel and consequently saving the world.
If this summary seems action packed, it’s because Quatermass 2 maintains an exceptionally dynamic tempo from start to finish. Superbly directed by Val Guest, it employs an admirable script by Nigel Keane with brilliant pacing an energetic score and solid performances throughout. With no contrived plot twists or overly complex narrative it is an exemplar to film making basics, age old principles that can be as appreciated now as they were in 1959. While the cinematography experiments with a range of techniques, it is executed well and complements the movie beautifully.
Due to excelling in its core elements, Quatermass 2 has aged exceptionally well. The acting, while stilted, is indicative of its time and curiously compliments the underlying sense of urgency, with Donlevy’s staccato delivery actually hastening the frenetic plot. Likewise the excellent use of implied horror doesn’t rely on the sort of effects that would traditionally date such a film. Only the finale exhibits any sort of overt fantasy and even this is handled flatteringly, distance and darkness mitigating the scene as if the director was aware of his limitations and conscious that time would frown on anything too explicit.
While not venerated as highly as classics like Metropolis or The Day the Earth Stood Still, Quatermass 2 is an important film none-the-less, not so much recognised as an outstanding movie in itself but more through its outstanding contribution to the genre. Ask any fan to name a science fiction story in which parasitic aliens strive to conquer the Earth through conspiratorial manipulation of governments and odds are good they’ll say X-Files. This however is indicative of Quatermass 2′s legacy (and indeed the possession theme of the franchise in general); inspiring mimicry rather than defying it.
Released around the same time as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass likewise contains elements of MacCarthyist hysteria, focusing however less on neighbourly and personal paranoia and more on governmental and corporate conspiracy. While both films clearly demonise communist sensibilities of collectivism by embodying them in their alien assailants, Quatermass 2’s gestalt entity appears to take a back seat to the Government for the position of primary antagonist. Indeed, this sets it apart from its American compatriot, offering a further layer of criticism that hints at oppressive dystopian sentiments, creating a fear and incredulity of bureaucracy and authority that could be construed as condemning the MacCarthy witch hunts themselves.
While not an action movie in the white vest sense of the word, Quatermass 2 is as energetic a film as you’ll find from the 1950s. The rapidly moving storyline offers no hint of boredom, escalating onward and upward to it’s eventually climax through a conspiratorial plot that engenders terrifying feelings of isolation in the viewer.