A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Quatermass Film Trilogy

Reviewed by David Longhorn
Posted June 12, 2005

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[Editor's Note: Since David originally submitted this review the DVD sets I had linked to have gone out of production, others have been produced, as well as the fact that at least two of the original BBC television serials are available in new DVD editions. Please take this link to amazon.com for a full list of the titles available either new or used. A purchase of even a used copy through that link may earn us a commission. In my personal opinion, the first and third of the films are well worth owning, and I would like to see the original TV versions for comparison. - Galen]

Bernard Quatermass is a distinguished physicist, and director of a British-based Experimental Rocket Group. But, life being what it is, he spends most his time saving the world from aliens rather than getting people into orbit. Nigel Kneale’s three Quatermass stories were originally screened by the BBC in the 1950s. They were made on small budgets and broadcast live, but despite these drawbacks they proved immensely popular. To this day Quatermass is cited as one of the BBC’s enduring triumphs. Kneale created a horror saga with the trappings of the dawning space age. Oh, and in case you were wondering, he got the name Quatermass from the phone book.

Hammer Productions made three feature films based on Kneale’s original scripts, and these - as much as the Dracula and Frankenstein movies - established Hammer as Britain’s one successful film company in a Hollywood-dominated world. While the films are sadly dated in some ways, each remains well worth watching for the serious disciple of science fiction cinema. And you can always laugh at the really cheesy bits.

The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown) - 1955
Directed by Val Guest, script by Richard H. Landau from an original story by Nigel Neale
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Richard Wordsworth, Gordon Jackson

In The Quatermass Xperiment, the first manned spacecraft (remember, this is pre-Gagarin) takes three astronauts into orbit, but contact with ground control is lost and the rocket (a big silver job with tailfins) crashes in rural England. This is bad enough, but when the air lock is opened there’s only one man inside. What has happened to the other two? And why is the survivor, Carroon, behaving so strangely? How can his fingerprints, his musculature, and even his bone structure have altered so radically? Oh dearie me, Something is Very Wrong.

Sure enough, Carroon escapes from the hospital and lurks around London, gradually turning into a thing that can climb vertical walls and leaves a slimy trail. In the process he encounters a nice little girl, who survives, and an inquisitive pharmacist, who does not. The monster that was once a man finds some sustenance at London Zoo before a final showdown in Westminster Abbey.

All of this is achieved not with basic effects, but with virtually none at all. The notable exception is a scene where film from the rocket’s on-board camera is salvaged and played. This - thanks to advice from the British Interplanetary Society - works well, and we see the moment when the alien force invades the ship and begins its work on the crew.

The film is successful thanks largely to two performances. Jack Warner plays a Scotland Yard detective with the unenviable task of investigating the disappearance of two men in a locked, airtight room several thousand miles above the earth. Richard Wordsworth (who resembles Richard E. Grant) gives a truly excellent performance as the survivor, Victor Carroon. The horror of his situation, conveyed by Wordsworth’s anguished expression, makes up for the leisurely action.

Sad to say, in the title role Donlevy is distinctly below par. He rattles through his lines in an abrasive fashion that makes Quatermass seem not merely driven, but callous and at times blinkered. It may have made commercial sense to put an American actor in the leading role, but they should have picked a better one. Never mind - The Quatermass Xperiment remains an unusually compelling monster movie, not least because it is much more intelligent than most of the genre. All credit to Val Guest for sound direction and a sympathetic approach to the original story.

Quatermass 2 (aka Enemy from Space) - 1957
Directed by Val Guest, script by Nigel Kneale
Starring; Brian Donleavy, William Franklyn, Brian Forbes, Sidney James

This sequel suffers from a plot that has become familiar from over-use. However, there are enough good ideas here to keep a receptive viewer happy. The story starts when Quatermass is nearly killed in a road accident. The cause is a young man whose face has been burned by a mysterious meteorite. A little investigation reveals that more meteorites are landing near a secret government research centre, which seems to be a huge chemical plant. Quatermass is miffed, to say the least, to note its resemblance to his own design for a lunar colony - a proposal that has just been shelved by the government.

The chemical plant’s guards are an Orwellian lot, which is not surprising when you consider that Nigel Kneale also wrote a TV adaptation of 1984. It seems that, if a ‘meteorite’ cracks open, anyone who happens to be nearby is infected by a strange bubble of gaseous material. However, most of this strange stuff is extracted by the guards and taken to the plant in pressurised cylinders. Not surprisingly, Quatermass is unconvinced when he’s told that the plant is designed to manufacture synthetic food. And why do the officials behind this global effort all seem to have scars like those caused by the meteorites? Yes, it’s a big scary conspiracy.

At first, Quatermass tries the establishment way, joining a group of politicians who are offered a tour of the site. In a truly horrific scene, one VIP falls into a vat of ‘synthetic’ food and is horribly burned. The food, we realise, is not for human consumption. The other politicians, like many distinguished visitors before them, are lured into one of the mysterious pressurised domes, and Quatermass barely escapes.

Our acerbic hero, realising that he can’t rely on official channels, tries to persuade a journalist (a fine cameo by Sid James, better known for the bawdy Carry On films) to expose the whole business. Unfortunately, the hack is shot by the guards as a massive shower of meteorites begins. Amid general mayhem, Quatermass infiltrates the plant and finally sees what is inside the domes. The aliens are vast collective organisms formed by the joining of millions of tiny sub-units sent to earth in the meteorites. The alien ‘ship,’ spotted on radar by the Rocket Group, is an artificial asteroid lurking in the earth’s shadow. (There’s a suggestion that, with their need for an ammonia and methane atmosphere, these weird entities might inhabit ‘some moon of Saturn.’ Titan, in fact - a good guess for the time.)

The scene is set for the big showdown, featuring a workers’ revolt, some anti-tank rockets and a British spaceship with a faulty atomic reactor. Suffice to say that, despite the limited effects available, the ending is satisfactory. The last line of dialogue is a variant on what was to become a familiar idea by the end of the Fifties - ‘keep watching the skies.’

The film has some nice touches, although it is messy at times. The scenes set at the new town occupied by the plant’s construction workers recall both World War 2 and the Cold War that followed it. The plant organisation has a fascistic symbol and the community hall is decked with posters that suggest paranoia - slogans include ‘Talk About Your Job - Lose It’ and ‘Secrets Mean Sealed Lips.’ The idea of truly inhuman aliens building a colony on earth is also well-handled.

All in all, the film is a qualified success. However, Nigel Kneale was so annoyed at the casting of Donlevy and Val Guest’s tinkering with his script that he blocked a third Quatermass film for ten years. But, when the last one finally arrived, it proved to be a classic.

Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) - 1967
Directed by Roy Ward Baker, script by Nigel Kneale
Starring: Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, James Donald, Julian Glover

Nigel Kneale summed up his original three Quatermass TV serials in these terms: ‘We go to them,’ ‘They come to us’ and ‘They’ve always been here.’ The third notion owes a lot to Charles Fort, and eventually made Erich von Daniken a very rich man. It is also the most intellectually challenging idea of the three. The way in which Quatermass and the Pit deals with daring ideas gives it a strong claim to be the best British science fiction movie so far, despite its old-fashioned look.

The opening scenes are mundane enough: a policeman on his beat; a cat in a pub doorway; a sign at a London Underground station apologising for inconvenience due to vital work. Hobbs End (a fictional Tube station) is full of activity as workers hack and drill through what appears to be warm toffee. A skull is discovered, to general amusement. Then a skeleton is found, and work stops to allow scientists to take a look. Soon it emerges that not only are there fossil remains dating back millions of years, but there is also a mysterious streamlined object.

Is the strange cylindrical object a Nazi bomb? If so, why is it made of a mysterious non-magnetic material? Why do soldiers who touch it develop a sort of frostbite? Why can’t the best modern drill open the sealed forward compartment? And - most crucially of all - how did a five million year old skull get inside something supposedly created in the 1940s?

Soon battle lines are drawn between the military, led by Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) and the scientists, led by Quatermass (Andrew Keir) and the anthropologist, Roney (James Donald). The capsule’s forward compartment suddenly opens of its own accord, revealing a group of dead and rapidly decaying creatures. Quatermass thinks that they are Martians, but Breen insists it’s just a German wartime hoax. Meanwhile Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) uncovers some odd facts about the district of Hobbs End. For a start, it used to be Hob’s End - Hob being another name for the Devil. Down the centuries, strange incidents have given the neighbourhood the reputation of being ‘a troubled place.’ When a man working alone in the capsule seems to become possessed and seeks refuge with a priest, things become very weird indeed.

Quatermass theorises that the now-extinct Martians intervened in human evolution and tried to give us some of their abilities - among them telepathy and telekinesis. However, the experiment failed, which was just as well. The insectoid Martians had a ruthless, collectivist society and brutally purged non-conformists. Quatermass warns that the capsule is a living machine that can focus psychic energy, and could revive our ‘Martian’ nature. Breen scoffs and organises a press conference to announce that the crisis is over. A careless TV technician has a mishap with an electrical cable, the capsule is revived, and big trouble ensues.

What makes Quatermass and the Pit so remarkable is the way Kneale weaves together such disparate concepts - alien intervention in human history, the widespread belief in psychic powers, and bigotry against outsiders. This takes us from the way out to the profoundly serious. The film is also very prescient on the subject of genetic engineering - a term that Kneale couldn’t use because it had yet to be invented, but he comes close with ‘atomic surgery.’ The film is also unusual in that it’s the cool and collected Roney, not the fiery Quatermass, who is the central heroic figure.

And now, a warning: I adore this film, but you may not be so impressed. Despite the high concept ideas and good dialogue, some scenes are quite laughable, notably when scientists concoct a device to tap into Barbara’s subconscious and project Martian race-memories onto a screen. The resulting display of toy grasshoppers and cheap fireworks is far from convincing, and makes you long for a bit of flashy CGI. However, the climactic scene when Roney confronts the Martian ‘Devil’ high above London is pretty good.

The film’s ending is also notable because nobody has anything to say. ‘Keep watching the skies!’ hardly passes muster. It seems we’ll just have to live with our Martian nature - the evil is within us, always waiting to emerge. Rather downbeat, but it’s still an amazing story. All credit to Roy Ward Baker for bringing it to life on the big screen, despite his limited resources.


Related Links:
BBC Cult Classic TV Page
The Wikipedia Quatermass Entry


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Nigel Neale

BBC Broadcast Dates
Quatermass Xperiment-1953
Quatermass 2-1955
Quatermass & the Pit-1958/9

Film Releases
Quatermass Xperiment-1955
Quatermass 2-1957 Quatermass & the Pit-1967

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A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.