Q: The Quatermass Conclusion (1979)

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I said I was going to ride this Quatermass train as long as I could, and seeing as how this one is called The Quatermass Conclusion, it’s looks like I may have to actually put some effort into finding an entry for Q next year.

In the intervening years since Quatermass and the Pit, the British Rocket Program has shut down, and Bernard Quatermass (John Mills, this time) has retired. He journeys from his home in Scotland to London on a twofold mission: to appear as a guest on a talk show, and to look for his granddaughter, who ran away from Scotland in a fit of rebellious boredom. London, Quatermass finds, has gone right downhill; street gangs have turned the city into a combination of Mad Max and Clockwork Orange. He’s only saved from a savage beating by the arrival of radio astronomer Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale) in his armored vehicle, complete with guard dog.

The TV show is celebrating the linking of American and Soviet spacecraft in a precursor to the International Space Station. Quatermass’ bitter dismissal of it is rather undercut by the station’s sudden destruction, though. Quatermass accompanies Kapp to his home/radio telescope base to find some answers, only to discover another bit of weirdness in play: lines of young people trooping across the countryside, following leaders with plumb bobs and apparently walking along Ley Lines to rings of standing stones. These are “the Planet People”, claiming they are going to be taken to another world. One such gathering is obliterated by a colossal beam of energy from the sky. Quatermass and Kapp find a girl that was on the very edge of the blast area, burned and delirious. They carry her away to treat her wounds, much over the violent protestations of the Planet People who didn’t get reduced to ash (or “transported”, as they insist).

A visit from the local commissioner (Margaret Tyzack) causes Kapp to use his radio telescopes to bounce off some satellites to receive a video call from America, because there have been more energy beams, killing thousands, and they need to get Quatermass’ opinion (I do love the fact that, no matter how much crap Quatermass has been through, if something weird comes from space, he’s the go-to guy). Quatermass and the Commissioner manage to get the girl (who looks eerily like Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord) to a hospital; her burned tissues are turning into crystal. Well, they are until she levitates and explodes, anyway.

Quatermass theorizes that something ahead of the energy beams – some advance waves, or similar – has been feeding into the youthful members of society, causing the upset of gang warfare, and the mass migrations to the ancient sites, standing stones erected by bygone societies as a warning. As the beams continue to rain down, he recruits a group of literally senior scientists, immune from the alien influence, to attempt to forge a solution before mankind is virtually exterminated.

Writer Nigel Kneale was approaching 60 at this time, and I’m amused that his cause for youthful sullenness and rebellion is alien intervention. It is no coincidence that Kneale fan John Carpenter took a similar tack in They Live: the only possible explanation for the callousness and cruelty of the Reagan Revolution was an alien invasion, right? People wouldn’t do that normally, right? Right?

The budget on Conclusion is quite low, and the story somewhat drawn out at times – as traditional, this was a TV series first. Kneale wrote a separate script for the feature film version, but the seams are still somewhat apparent. Director Piers Haggard moves it all along quite amiably and well. The Quatermass Conclusion – simply Quatermass in its native land – is the most lo-fi of the Quatermass stories. There’s no giant monster shambling around, no conspiracies; the enemy and its motive is, as Quatermass concludes, ultimately unknowable, and the best humanity can manage is to bite them so hard they don’t come back – but at a terrible price. There’s a quite good BBC series called Invasion: Earth that owes a lot to Quatermass. That’s worth seeking out, too, if you haven’t had enough bleak science fiction pitting man against unimaginable forces.

Iconoclash!

100In the pattern we’ve established, about every six weeks I go over to Rick’s and we just sit and watch movies on his finely-calibrated plasma set (this time I got to drive through a monsoon, which is about as much fun as you’d expect). We’re both cinematic omnivores, but Rick’s a better omnivore than me, by which I mean he’s more open to new experiences, which I sometimes approach with a sense of dread.

51MNM0KJHVLThis time, we had lucked upon a theme for our choices: Cinematic icons at war with each other (that two of the movies were on my 100 list for this year was certainly a bonus). To set the groundwork for this, we began with Werner Herzog’s sublime documentary on his fractious relationship with Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend.

Kinski’s on-set tantrums were the stuff of legend, and Herzog was frequently the focus of those screaming fits; somehow they still managed to make five movies together that stand as classics of modern cinema. Herzog reveals that he met Kinski while the director was still a child; they both lived for a time in a boarding house, and found Kinski  absolutely terrifying (but admittedly memorable). He then leads us through their movies and times together, revisiting locations and interviewing people years after the fact. Eva Mattes, his co-star in Woyzeck, and Claudia Cardinale, ditto for Fitzcarraldo, seem to be the only people who have nice things to say about Kinski. Apparently this is the sort of thing that happens when one fires a rifle into a hut full of extras.

cobra-verde-1987-007-werner-herzog-and-klaus-kinski-hug-on-location-1000x750Herzog, I think, has the proper range to gauge the truth about Kinski – a self-aggrandizing egomaniac who used his rages to make sure he was the center of attention at all times. Even then, Herzog continues, once his rage was spent, Kinski was capable of genius, and his hair-trigger temper kept everyone very professional, lest they trigger another outburst. Other footage, at festivals and behind the scenes, confirm Mattes and Cardinale’s tales that he was capable of great charm and warmth. My Best Fiend is an amazing odyssey, and if nothing else, it makes you want to watch these movies all over again.

Uh, about that "Tobe Hooper"...

Uh, about that “Tobe Hooper”…

The thing is, this was actually homework. Rick had been doing one of those falling-down-the-wikipedia rabbit hole affairs, checking for details on his new favorite actor, Oliver Reed, when he discovered that Reed had made a movie with Kinski in 1981 – Venom – and the idea of trying to keep those two in control during production led to us seeking it out. At the very least, I thought, Reed would eventually drink himself into unconsciousness…

Venom is one of those movies where you suspect the making would have made a better movie than what wound up onscreen. Based on a fairly successful suspense novel by South African writer Alan Scholefield, it was originally going to be directed by Tobe Hooper, who left over “creative differences” (by some reports, a nervous breakdown). Kinski apparently later crowed at a premiere party that he and the other actors ganged up on the Texan to make him quit. Director Piers Haggard replaced him (best known in these parts for Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Quatermass Conclusion), who later opined that the nicest person on the set was the black mamba snake.

venom6The story concerns the kidnapping of a motel magnate’s son which goes rapidly south when one of the conspirators, the family’s chauffeur (Reed), panics and shoots a police officer, killing him. The officer was there to alert the family that the son – who has quite the menagerie in his room – accidentally picked up the black mamba from the pet store instead of a harmless African house snake. Now the snake is loose in the house, which is surrounded by the Police, and it’s in a nastier mood than the kidnappers.

0_109542_bf120f53_origKinski plays Jaclen, the mastermind behind the crime. Susan George is his girlfriend, who’s worked in the household for eight weeks as a maid. Sterling Hayden, in his penultimate role, looks incredibly out-of-place as the boy’s grandfather, a retired big game hunter. Sarah Miles is a herpetologist whose major jobs are to A) tell us how deadly black mambas are, and how they can do everything except teleport through walls (and the jury is out on that one) and B) get taken hostage by Jaclen. All good actors (each with their own varying reputations for being difficult) that put in acceptable jobs, but the one I enjoyed was Nicol Williamson as the Police Inspector who gets saddled with this mess.

But Rick and I were there to watch the fireworks between Kinski and Reed. There aren’t many visible, which is remarkable considering that Reed basically spent the entire shoot annoying Kinski to make him blow. What shows up in the movie belies that, with Reed playing an increasingly desperate everyman who is in way, way over his head, and Kinski playing the calmest man in the house. There is one scene, when Reed makes one of his many trips to the liquor cabinet, and Kinski grabs his hand, stopping him – there is a true flash of hatred, and it looks like the split second before a massive bar brawl starts.

"You are about to lose that f*cking Nazi hand."

“You are about to lose that f*cking Nazi hand.”

“Acceptable” is a fair adjective to use on Venom. You won’t begrudge its 90 minutes, but you probably won’t care to revisit it, either. The best illustration for its problems is the scene where Kinski forces Hayden to search a room for the snake (since he has experience with the nasty things), and as constructed, it should be very suspenseful – or it would be if it hadn’t been established in the previous scene that the snake has already slithered into the ventilating system. We know it’s not in that room. Still, Haggard should be commended for producing a movie that’s at least watchable, given that he had absolutely no prep time, a script that was already locked down, and a cast that wanted to murder each other on the good days.

Poster - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane_01All this was mere preparation, though, for the main event. A movie which Rick and I had managed to get through our entire lives without seeing, setting two screens icons against each other: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

If, like Rick, you’re familiar with the title but have no idea what the movie’s about: Baby Jane is a vaudeville singing sensation whose ignored sister Blanche becomes a beloved movie star in the 30s while Jane’s movies are… struggling. One night, there is an auto accident involving the two, resulting in Blanche confined to a wheelchair. Fast forward to the 60s, where Jane and Blanche have aged into Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Jane is taking care of Blanche, but is becoming increasingly unstable and abusive. Emphasis on the abusive, as during the course of the picture, Jane will cut Blanche off from the outside world and proceed to torment her.

b050cf939aca4acd88a502737100efa2Movies like this – psychological horror/hostage dramas -have never been my cup of tea, which is why I’ve avoided the movie all this time, but now I’ve seen it. And I can say I’ve seen it. It is a well-made movie, and it broke box office records at the time. Director Robert Aldrich (who has quite the varied and interesting filmography) uses the open enmity between Davis and Crawford for all its worth, but this isn’t just a carnival gladiator match, like Reed and Kinski; there is some real depth and acting here using all that hate.

bette-baby-janeCrawford does a marvelous job – audience sympathy obviously goes out to her, but she never quite makes Blanche likable, a choice that pays off on repeat viewings – but there is never any doubt that Davis owns this picture. She takes possession of the character of Jane and positively nails every single frame she is in to a wall. Davis had a great degree of leeway from Aldrich in designing Jane’s appearance, reasoning, among other things, that Jane never washed her face, just applied more makeup. Roger Ebert once wrote that the canniest career move Bette Davis ever made was growing older. He was talking about All About Eve, but the same reasoning holds here, The incredible grotesquerie that Davis breathes life and malevolence into is not to be missed (even if this type of movie is not your cup of tea). This is what total commitment looks like. Davis was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but it went to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker.

whatever-aldrich-directingIf more motivation to watch is needed, you can also toss in Victor Buono’s debut role as an unemployed musician desperate for the gig playing for Baby Jane’s fantasy comeback; their first scene together is like a miniature acting school, sidewise glances that tell us everything we need to know about what is going on in the characters’ minds.

This rather marks a high point for both actresses at this stage in their careers; the shelf life for Hollywood actresses is depressingly, frustratingly short, and for them the future held more of the same, but lesser. Davis in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (which I prefer quite a bit over Jane) and The Nanny, Crawford in Straitjacket and Trog. This was a high point, as sad as that might seem.