Last year we re-watched The Quatermass Xperiment, a superb thriller that was the prototype for a particular sub-genre of monster movies. And this year I find myself re-watching its sequel, once more adapted from a Nigel Kneale TV serial, and finding it both more and less than its progenitor.
Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), the American head of the British Rocket Group, has problems, and oddly, they aren’t because his last launch brought a monster back from outer space. His current model rocket has a nuclear engine, and it is so faulty that it can’t be safely launched, putting his whole Moon Base project in peril. Adding to this bad day is the near-accident that opens the movie, as a woman trying to get her injured and seemingly delirious boyfriend to a hospital, nearly runs him off the road. This boyfriend was burned by an apparent meteorite that broke open in his hands.
Speaking of meteorites, the radar at the Group’s rocket base has been picking up strange swarms of small objects, except they’re moving too slowly to actually be meteorites – and they’re all falling at the same remote village where the man was injured. Quatermass takes a road trip there, ignoring various KEEP OUT signs, only to find a ruined village and… his Moon Base.
Much skullduggery and digging up details follows, as Quatermass eventually determines this facility – supposedly a top secret project developing “artificial food” – actually is a Moon Base of sorts – the pressure domes housing not astronauts, but the creatures traveling in the fake meteorites, which cannot exist in Earth’s atmosphere unless they invade and infect human beings. It’s a quiet invasion that’s been going on for several years, compromising even the higher reaches of government, and it’s up to Quatermass – and our old pal from the first movie, Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (John Longden, this time) to put a stop to it.
So the breadth of the story this time does not have the same lean, mean quality of Xperiment, and that is perfectly all right – that is what a sequel is supposed to be, and so rarely is – an expansion on the first movie, with new challenges for its heroes. The back-and-forth nature of the plot’s unfolding works against, it, though, and it’s going to take Quatermass three trips into the danger zone to find out what is going on. That’s likely more due to the compression of the original serial, which ran to six half-hour episodes, than any actual fault with the filmmakers.
Nigel Kneale and director Val Guest share screenwriting credit here; Kneale had renegotiated his contract to have more power, but he couldn’t override Donlevy’s return as the title character. Kneale hated Donlevy’s brusque, barking version of Quatermass, and claimed his alcoholism ruined everything (Guest vigorously denied this). Guest trimmed down Kneale’s philosophizing and tried, once more, to produce a movie as close to cinema verite as possible, rendering the fantastic real. There is at least one cast member carried over from the TV version: the Shell refinery at Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, doubling for the ersatz moon base, a tremendous amount of production value, right there, providing the sort of sets that the fledgling Hammer Films would not have been able to afford.
Oh, yes, it’s a Hammer Film. The Quatermass Xperiment was such a financial success for them, they had optioned Quatermass II (note the fancier Roman numeral) before the first page of script had passed through a typewriter. Hammer had, in fact, tried to make another Quatermass movie in the meantime, only to be stymied by Kneale’s refusal to license his character; the result was 1956’s X the Unknown, which is actually a pretty effective horror movie, even if it is faux Quatermass. Their anxiety over continuing this fruitful line of production would be forgotten later in 1957 when they released another little movie, Curse of Frankenstein.
Quatermass 2 is generally regarded as the least of the Quatermass movies, but look what it’s up against! Xperiment and Quatermass and the Pit are both superior horror/science-fiction, and dismissing the middle child here is doing it a disservice. It is a darned good tale, and if you want to dig a little deeper, you can even say it is an allegory for corruption in high places, or government being suborned by corporations. It shouldn’t be passed over, because it is, at the end of the day, good entertainment, even if it does feel langorous in pace and yet, somehow at the same time, somewhat rushed.
Of course we yanks wouldn’t go to some movie with a sissy name like Quatermass! We need a more manly title!
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