Things so easily could have been different…
1957 was something of a pivotal year for Hammer Films thanks to the success of The Quatermass Xperiment a year earlier which had marked a departure from their usual output of pulpy thrillers and hand wringing dramas. The sci-fi chiller – adapted from Nigel Keane’s BBC series of the same name – was a hit and the sequel – also based on a series scripted by Keane – dutifully followed the next year, but while the continuing adventures of science fiction’s most belligerent hero similarly drew healthy box office, a seismic event was about to dictate the path Hammer would follow until its temporary demise in the mid-seventies: Frankenstein.
While Quatermass II competently told the black and white tale of an alien invasion, The Curse Of Frankenstein gave classic, gothic horror a bold new face with its eye searing use of colour and its updated use of sexuality, meaning that a sour-puss scientist and his struggles with an extraterrestrial conspiracy were somewhat overshadowed as the studio discarded a genre full of spaceships and otherworldly creatures in favour of atmospheric castles and misty graveyards.
We rejoin the entitled, short tempered Quatermass still obsessed by working out ways of colonizing the moon, but the closest he’s gotten so far is building a massively unstable rocket that, if launched, could just as easily become a nuclear disaster as it could transport people off-world. His self obsessed ranting is cut short, however, when one night while out driving he’s nearly involved in an accident when two teens nearly ram into him while veering wildly all over the road. It seems that a girl is desperately trying to drive her delirious boyfriend to the hospital after his face was burnt by an exploding meteorite fragment they went and found and Quatermass is shocked by the V shaped scar the scorch mark has left on the boy’s cheek.
His attention finally diverted from slapping mankind onto the moon, Quatermass discovers that radar has been picking up similar instances of rocks dropping out of the sky in the vicinity of Winnerden Flats, but when investigating, the scientist is horrified that not only has the town been replaced with an approximate copy of his own lunar colony but his assistant is also possessed by the strange gas that emerges from those “meteorites” once they burst.
The arrival of gas masked guards confirms the worst: that these stone containers are how a strange alien race has been getting to earth and gradually and silently been taking over people for over a year. The claim that this installation is actually a secret project that’s trying to invent synthetic food is actually as inaccurate as a bank statement from Bernie Madoff as this alien invasion proves to be something noticably more sinister.
The first thing that strikes you when you watch Quatermass II (apparently the first ever movie to signify its sequel status with a number), is how uncomfortably similar to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers the movie is – both see alien invaders sneakily possessing minds and bodies in a takeover bid that’s travels creepily under the radar and both sees a lone, panicked man try and alert the powers that be. However untangling any sense of a ripoff proves to be an exercise in futility as even though Quatermass II came out in ’57 and Body Snatchers in ’56, Keane’s series debuted in ’55, the same year Jack Finney’s story, The Body Snatchers, was serialized.
Anyway, now that we’ve gotten that cleared up, Quatermass II proves to be a worthy, if slightly chaotic follow up to its predecessor that gives the titular grump a whole new menace to try and eradicate by impatiently yelling at everyone who’ll listen. However, while the other Quatermass movies Hammer made detailed enjoyably off-beat versions of alien takeovers (astronaut morphing into a gelatinous blob in ’56 and madness inducing visions caused by the ancient corpses of a insectoid race in ’67), the sequel gives us the series’ most “normal” antagonists to date. However, due to Keane’s writing and a returning Val Lewis’ direction, the film intriguingly drip feeds its plot gradually, revealing more and more about its central conspiracy as Quatermass stumbles upon it. While these gas afflicted slaves may have arguably taken a page from the book of Body Snatcher, their actual plan is far more layered with suspicious members of parliament, an acidic ammonia-like substance, a town of workers unwittingly working for the aliens of their own free will and silos filled with huge blob monsters all unravelling as the story goes on.
Brian Donlevy second turn as the abrasive boffin gives him more to do this time than just order people about like God died and left him in charge and the moody fucker even gets to dash about a bit and even disguise himself as a noticably portly version of one of the villainous troops. Elsewhere, we also get a welcome return of the befuddled Inspector Lomax (John Longden taking over from Jack Warner) who’s passive nature still compliments Quatermass’ bulldog-style tenacity despite the actor change. However, most bizarrely of all is a prominent role for a pre-Carry On Sid James as a sozzled reporter and watching the man responsible for cinema’s filthiest chuckle take a fullisade of machine gun fire as he desperately tries to phone out the story is one of the more surreal experiences the movie has to offer.
The movie is nicely tense and comes equipped with a silo full of memorable images (Tom Chatto’s brusque MP staggering down a flight of stairs after being coated in smoking, acidic black goo is a cracker), but it doesn’t stop the film coming off the rails somewhat by the end. After convincing the workers in the neighbouring town that an alien intelligence has been playing them for mugs, the movie devolves into a mess of people running, shooting and shouting that frequently trips over it’s own feet in all the hullabaloo.
I guess we’ll never know what alternate future may have existed if Quatermass II has been the one to capture the public’s imagination in the way Curse Of Frankenstien did – maybe England would have been the go-to country for 50’s sci-fi movies – but as it stands the Quatermass movies still earn their place as valuable bricks and mortar as Hammer began to build its house of horror.