Collins’ Crypt: Have You Met Bernard Quatermass?

The popular British character finally gets his due in the US.

It certainly feels like nearly a decade has passed since, but it was a mere six months ago that I wrote a Crypt that was basically a wishlist of Hammer titles that I was hoping the good folks at Scream Factory could release in the near future. At the time they had only recently started putting out movies produced by the venerable British house of horror, and thankfully they have continued to expand their library in that department (while still pumping out the American '80s stuff that has proven to be their bread and butter) and show no signs of stopping. In fact there were a couple of announcements in their big Comic Con presentation, noting things like The Abominable Snowman (Peter Cushing's first Hammer film) alongside the more jaw-dropping titles like My Bloody Valentine and the '79 Dracula - viva la Hammer!

But hitting stores today is Quatermass and The Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth), which was the third feature film featuring the character and - more importantly, to me - the second movie on that aforementioned wishlist. It took six months of my wishing it existed for it to be playing on my Blu-ray player - that's some service! As a bonus, they're also putting out the second film, Quatermass 2 (released theatrically in the US as Enemy From Space), and both are so jam-packed with commentaries and other supplements that you'll be a qualified expert on the series if you take the time to go through them all. And that's kind of impressive when you consider these two films only make up a small chunk of the character's on-screen legacy; since his debut in 1953 the character has been played by seven actors across film and television, in a filmography that is comprised of three BBC serials, three feature films, a mini-series (which was later edited into a feature), and a live broadcast. Oh and a radio show, for good measure.

Since the films have been unavailable more often than not in the US, it's possible that some of you are totally unfamiliar with the character beyond the times he's been referenced by John Carpenter*, so let me give you a quick recap. Professor Bernard Quatermass was created by Nigel Kneale in 1953, for a BBC serial titled The Quatermass Experiment where he was played by actor Reginald Tate, who unfortunately passed away just prior to the production of the second series (titled Quatermass II) in 1955. Rather than delay, they quickly cast John Robinson as a replacement, which might be confusing enough for some audiences but to make matters worse, at this point the first feature film had already been released. Slightly retitled to The Quatermass Xperiment (released in the US as The Creeping Unknown), the film was a retelling of the first BBC serial starring Tate, albeit much more streamlined and with a different ending that angered Kneale, who was not involved much with the production. But his biggest concern was the casting of Brian Donlevy as his character - not only was he an American actor, he played the professor as a grumpy man as opposed to the warmer version played by Tate (and most subsequent actors), and complained about it for decades even though the film was quite successful.

So it's kind of amusing that Donlevy ended up being the only one to play the guy twice on-screen, as he returned for 1957's Quatermass 2. Again a compressed retelling of the BBC serial (the one starring Robinson), this one at least had far more of Kneale's involvement, as he adapted his own script this time, though returning director Val Guest rewrote some of it. As with the first film, the story was much condensed from the original serial, but apart from a jarring opening where we join the story already in progress (someone's already contaminated by the threat, and Quatermass has just been denied funding for a project - these things were covered in more detail in the serial's premiere episode), it doesn't feel particularly rushed. If anything it has some slower spots, particularly in the middle where it seems like the movie is stuck in an endless loop of the professor barging into offices and demanding to speak to other people or know what's going on. But the plot is a fun use of the common "aliens take over humans" plot of the 1950s such as The Body Snatchers or The Puppet Masters, with our "zombie" antagonists becoming marked after contact with mysterious meteorites and behaving in a drone-like manner as they work to turn more over to their side.

I won't spoil the particulars, but basically what it comes down to is "Quatermass fights back with science", just as he did in the first film (and their respective serials), and does again in Quatermass and the Pit, which for my money is the best of the trio (hence why I wished for it over the others) and looks spectacular on SF's Blu-ray. Andrew Keir made his debut as the professor here (since ten years had passed since Quatermass 2, no one minded replacing Donlevy) and does a fine job - though he's actually only the second lead in the film. The primary hero is actually James Donald as Roney, a paleontologist who is brought in when some workers find what appear to be human/ape skulls while digging out a tunnel for a subway expansion. But as initial testing on the fossils proves inconclusive, and other things are found in the same area (including what appears to be an unexploded bomb, albeit one that isn't made from any known metal), some military jerks start poking their noses in - as does Quatermass, who just coincidentally happened to be meeting with one of the military jerks on an unrelated matter. 

Keir's version of Quatermass is friendlier than Donlevy's, and he makes fast friends with Roney as well as Roney's assistant Barbara (Barbara Shelley), whereas Donlevy would have just yelled at everyone until he was left to his own devices to figure things out. The trio keep testing and hypothesizing while trying to keep the military guys from taking over, as pressure mounts from the city to finish up down there so that they could continue working on the subway. Ultimately the find proves to be "not of this earth" yet again, and as with Quatermass 2, it becomes something similar to a zombie movie as the underground matter infects the residents (including our heroes). So you get more of a range for Quatermass, even if he's occasionally sidelined in favor of Roney, who actually gets to do the biggest hero thing in the climax. But that's fine - Roney is another scientist after all, and it's exciting to watch a genre film where the heroes aren't concerned with traditional weapons and use their considerable expertise to figure out a way to stop a monster that can't be taken down with bombs and cannons. 

Alas, the film - despite being the best of the lot - did not perform well enough at the box office to immediately continue on with any further adventures, and it wouldn't be until 1979 that the character would return, once again on television. Simply titled Quatermass, this time it was a traditional mini-series as opposed to a serial, and it was once again recast - actor John Mills took over and, to no one's surprise I'm sure, Kneale didn't care much for his performance, though his usual grouchiness extended to the other actors and even his own screenplay, saying that "the central idea was too ordinary" (per Andy Murray's biography on the writer titled Into The Unknown). We can assume, then, he thought even less of The Quatermass Conclusion, which was a theatrically released re-cut of the miniseries that ran 100 minutes down from its original nearly four hour presentation (a harsher ratio than the same year's Salem's Lot, which lost about an hour of its original three when it too was re-released as a theatrical feature). Apart from a radio show in 1995 (with Keir returning) the character didn't surface again until 2005, when Jason Flemyng played him in a live BBC 4 remake of the first series. 

Kneale passed away the following year, so any future productions can be free of the bitter complaints (some justified, to be fair!) he made regarding just about every previous incarnation. The revived Hammer has said on more than one occasion that they plan to bring the character back; in fact, right around the time I posted my aforementioned article, Legendary and Hammer announced that writer David Farr (of The Night Manager and Hanna fame) had been tapped to write a new take on the hero. I put little stock in such announcements because nine out of every ten such articles I read end up being the last I hear of said project, but I really hope this one takes, as the time couldn't be better for his return. Not only does the horror genre need more variety to break up the endless haunting movies, but in the real world, science keeps getting shot down by the kind of idiots who look directly at the sun during an eclipse - a modern Quatermass reminding everyone that science can save the world could be refreshing, possibly even beneficial to our future.

And for once, it could be an ongoing series without the constant recasting, as there's plenty of things to draw from and keep them both relevant and busy. The effects of climate change alone could yield a couple of films (with aliens constantly trying to populate Earth in the earlier films, they can have some fun with the notion that as our planet becomes less inhabitable for us, it becomes more suitable for them), and the recent Dead Don't Die's one good idea was that so much fracking has caused the Earth to shift off its axis - maybe they could crib that concept and make a good movie out of it. Then you have small-scale but nonetheless intriguing events like mysterious purple water coming out of the sink that could be used as a launching point for whatever secret government project involving aliens Quatermass could find himself dealing with next. The great thing about these movies is that they leaned far more heavily into the science fiction part of the sci-fi/horror blend they're known for, so by design they'd have a good excuse to keep things grounded in legitimate concerns instead of having the professor battling CGI monsters, which would help set them apart from the more traditional ghosts and demons haunting our modern multiplexes. 

I hope I can track down the serials and miniseries someday (the first serial with Tate is lost to time, though all of the others have been preserved as far as I can tell); while I enjoy the movies their plot points do get slightly muddled at times due to being based on narratives that ran much longer. Plus it'll be fun to see the other incarnations of the character - as a fan of Morrell's and Flemyng's from their other performances I am quite curious about seeing how they interpret this unusual hero. But that constant recasting means that the folks behind any attempt at a revival have free reign when it comes to choosing a new actor for the role, as there's no "definitive" version that all future ones can be judged against the way every Bond has to live up to Connery (and again, the first guy to play him is the one whose performance has been largely lost anyway). Let's cross fingers that the revival happens and that our only disappointment will be that Kneale isn't around anymore to offer his candid take on how it turns out.

*Carpenter used "Martin Quatermass" as his writer pseudonym for Prince of Darkness, and the town name of Hobb's End in In The Mouth of Madness was taken from Quatermass and the Pit.