Friday, June 05, 2009

How Quatermass Saved England, Hammer Films and British SF Cinema

For many of us over fifty-five the first two Quartermass films (especially the first one for me) brought a darkness and realism I'd never seen in science fiction movies before. The scenes with the infected escapee are vivid in my mind fifty years later. I'd never seen suffering and panic portrayed so violently. None of the Quartermass films can be reviewed without the obligatory dissing of Brian Donlevy, something I've never understood. Donlevy was a solid actor and did a good job as a bully-boy American. For the whole article on the Internet Review of Science Fiction site go here:

The Greatest Terror Lurks Just Outside Our Door
How Quatermass Saved England, Hammer Films and British SF Cinema

by Mark Cole

The other is always out there. It lurks in orbit, in the English countryside, in the deepest, most alien recesses of our psyche. Or at least that's the way it was in the England of the 1950s, when Bernard Quatermass ran the British Experimental Rocketry Group.

To most American lovers of SF and horror films, Quatermass is at best a footnote—a name, perhaps, that suggests some vague late-night memories, or an entry in a reference book. But the brief career of Britain's first TV hero (as the BBC once called him) deserves far more attention. Quatermass (and his imitators) formed a unique strand in the history of SF film; they inspired several generations of British SF filmmakers; and, more than this, the Quatermass serials and their progeny represented the only real challenge to the dominant American archetypes of 1950s SF.


Part of the serial's success undoubtedly came from its horror elements. At the time, any horror film—even those we would consider quite innocuous today, such as the classic Universal Horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein—received the equivalent of our "R" rating, the "X certificate." Thus, for much of the audience, this was something they had never experienced.

But it was the quality of the writing that kept them coming back: the interesting characters, the building suspense, the methodical scientific attempt to understand what had happened.

The first serial proved so successful that Hammer Films quickly turned out a film version, 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment (a change made to emphasize the film's "X" certificate). Hammer cast American star Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, much to Kneale's indignation. Donlevy's Quatermass was a driven, obsessed man who cared only about his work, and lacked the human warmth of the original. Most British fans hate Donlevy but, without the shadow of the original hanging over him, his portrayal is undeniably interesting: brash, arrogant and undeterred by his failures. The Quatermass Xperiment made more money than any film Hammer had made before: so much that they realized that they could make a lot of money with horror films. It was The Quatermass Xperiment's success that persuaded them to risk making their first color horror films (although their SF films remained black and white until they made their final Quatermass film in 1967).


Graham Powell said...

I remember catching "Quartermass And The Pit" on late-night TV when I was a lad of only 12 or 13 and thinking, "What the heck?" (I didn't swear much then). It was so totally different from any sci-fi I'd seen before.

Todd Mason said...

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, aka 50,000 YEARS TO EARTH in the US (with an insulting ad campaign), made a permanent impression on 6yo me.