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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Quatermass Films (originally published 8/98)

It's a highly imaginative fantasy-based television series with a legion of devoted fans. Its particular specialty is stories that combine science fiction with the traditional imagery and tropes of the horror genre. Typically its stories include a strong suggestion of conspiracy in high places. Inevitably, it eventually made the transition from the tube to the big screen.

I'm not talking about "The X-Files," by the way. The series I'm describing originated on British television back in the fifties. It wasn't a series in the usual American sense, but rather a collection of what we would call mini-series. Written by British dramatist Nigel Kneale, the programs centered around a scientist named Professor Bernard Quatermass. More precisely, Quatermass is a member of the profession that has become the yardstick by which superior intellect is measured in colloquial cliches: he's a rocket scientist. If you're a fan of "The X-Files" and have never seen a Quatermass film, I can't urge you strongly enough to seek them out. Here are the titles to look for at the video store.

"The Quatermass Xperiment" (1956). When a rocket ship mysteriously crash lands in a peaceful rural area, Professor Quatermass quickly arrives on the scene to notify the authorities that the rocket is part of his space exploration program. Played by American actor Brian Donlevy, Quatermass is a gruff, imposing figure. Far from being a traditionally sympathetic protagonist, he's actually not even particularly likable. Upon opening the spacecraft's hatch, Quatermass makes a startling discovery. Of the three crew members who manned the rocket, only one remains. Victor Carroon, the lone survivor of the voyage, is able only to whisper the word "help" before collapsing. Carroon is placed under observation while Quatermass and his team try to figure out what happened to his missing companions on the voyage. Then, slowly at first, Carroon begins to undergo alarming changes. By the time he escapes from the hospital and begins roaming the city, it is clear that his cell structure has been infiltrated with something he encountered in outer space - something extremely nasty.

"Quatermass II" (1957). How's this for an "X-Files" plot: Quatermass (Donlevy again) returns to his lab in frustration, having been told by government bureaucrats in London that funding for his proposed moon base will be curtailed. Then, while driving in the English countryside, he encounters an exact full-scale replica of his lunar base, complete with huge domed enclosures. When he quizzes the locals about it, they all clam up, refusing to discuss it. Subsequently he learns that government funds have been diverted into this mysterious project from the highest levels, although no one seems to be able to explain what it is for. When he pushes his investigation too far, Quatermass learns the hard way that this replica of his project conceals a threat not of this Earth.

"Quatermass and the Pit" (1967). When a new subway excavation in London strikes something hard and metallic, the military is called in under the assumption that it must be an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. Instead it proves to be a startling archeological discovery: a spacecraft, with bug-like creatures perfectly preserved inside, that has been buried there some five million years. As he investigates the find, Quatermass begins to wonder: can this be the explanation for reports of "supernatural" occurrences on this spot dating back centuries? This is Kneale's best script yet in the series, simultaneously creepy and thought-provoking. British actor Andrew Keir takes over the role of Quatermass, portraying a more sedate version of the character than the edgy Donlevy. Director Roy Ward Baker's approach is a bit lackluster compared to the earlier Quatermass films, but fortunately the material is strong enough to carry itself.

If you find that you can't get enough of Quatermass, there's also a fourth British television program, also scripted by Kneale, called "The Quatermass Conclusion" (1980), that has been re-edited for video and released in the United States. I won't go into a long plot summary, but if you see it I think you'll detect an uncomfortable parallel with the "Heaven's Gate" suicides that happened in Southern California over a decade later. It's even possible to track down a video version of the original British television broadcast of "Quatermass and the Pit" from 1958. It isn't easy to find, but take it from me, the tapes are out there.

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