Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Terrors Below and Above

X THE UNKNOWN (1956)
QUATERMASS 2 (1957)

Fuelled on the then-current fears of radioactivity,
X THE UNKNOWN is Quatermass without the nuances.

IN the wake of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT's success, Hammer approached the mentor of their breakthrough picture - Nigel Kneale - for permission to use the Quatermass character in a sequel. When Kneale refused ("I said 'No, you can't - it's mine' - they were funny people"), the company progressed with the Leslie Norman-directed X THE UNKNOWN, from an original screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. The film begins with a sudden appearance of what seems to be a volcanic fissure in military manoeuvre grounds. When a soldier, then a young boy, die of first-degree radiation burns, Dr Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) - a scientist working on a radio signal capable of neutralising bombs  - investigates. Collaborating with McGill (Leo McKern), a representative for Atomic Security, Royston surmises that the opening has unleashed a mass of energy from the centre of the Earth, a sentient being that has fed off natural radiation for millions of years.

X THE UNKNOWN is a sombre slice of 50's Hammer, which uses its premise of internal horrors primarily for budgetary reasons - at least the studio wouldn't have to build expensive sets and spaceships. Royston is no Quatermass, and the sloppish movement of the titular creature (which, when finally glimpsed, looks like chocolate mousse) mimics the film's lack of thrills. Impervious to "Machine gun bullets! Dynamite! Flame Throwers!," this combination of radiation and molten crust is often mentioned in the same breath as the more famous BLOB which followed a year later, yet the latter was an extraterrestrial mineral, and X, in fact, shares more in common with particle masses CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER and THE H-MAN, which both surfaced in 1959. Where X THE UNKNOWN does deliver is with its special effects; the disintegrating radiographer - where Phil Leakey placed a heating element in a plastic skull housing a wax mask of actor Neil Hallett - is still a show-stopper.

A stylish French poster for QUATERMASS 2 makes the paramilitary zombie guards centre stage.

When Hammer did return with Quatermass at the helm a year later, the result - in contrast - was one of the finest science fiction films produced by a British studio. Val Guest's QUATERMASS 2 sees metallic meteorites rain down on Winnerden Flats, a town near a highly guarded chemical plant. Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is startled to discover that contact with the shells causes deadly infection, and that the facilities - supposedly producing synthetic food - appear to be modelled on his own aborted moonbase design. Quatermass uncovers a sinister conspiracy that extends to Government level, and has to battle zombie-like guards who will stop at nothing to protect the top secret complex. With the aid of old friend Inspector Lomax (John Longden), the Professor discovers that the plant is in fact housing an alien invasion, and that gestalt creatures have been arriving inside the meteorites.

Britain's answer to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, QUATERMASS 2 drips with postwar paranoia. Scripted by Kneale (from his 1955 BBC teleplay) and Guest, the film is as urgently paced as the alien takeover (the actors even indulge in "cue biting"). Kneale was always critical of Donlevy's brutish approach to the beloved scientist, but the actor's forcefulness here actually works with the rapidly unfolding horrors and realisations, especially when the Professor commandeers a guard uniform to infiltrate the plant. This insurrection culminates in a memorable pressure control room scene, where oxygen is being pumped to kill the alien manifestation in the plant domes. When workers venture out to talk to their "superiors," they are murdered and their body parts stuffed into the pipes to impede the oxygen flow, an action, as Jonathan Rigby states in his book English Gothic, is "as grotesque an image of capitalist exploitation as can be imagined."