X: The Unknown

xbOld films, never seen before, but containing familiar shades, faces from some other films or television shows. Dim recollection, sometimes breeding dull irritation, like an itch- I’ve seen this face before, what was it, when was it? Sometimes, a sudden flash of insight- Eureka!

Dean Jagger- an unlikely lead, really, for any film, which is only doubly refreshing, surely, but his appearance in Hammer’s X: The Unknown troubled me for most of the picture; only late on did I place him as the Army major general  in White Christmas, shot just a few years earlier. More a successful character actor than an actual movie star (although I later discovered to my surprise that he’d actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1949 for Twelve O’Clock High) I recognised him mostly from his late career appearing in many tv shows in the 1960s and 1970s in guest star roles – Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Bonanza, Columbo, Kung Fu– as they eventually appeared on UK networks during my childhood.

X: The Unknown, meanwhile, was an early Hammer fantasy, released in 1956, and it proves to be a surprisingly effective sci-fi horror. It has a very modern feel, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really, because most of the appeal of Hammers subsequent, bigger successes -the 1957 Curse of Frankenstein and particularly its 1958 Dracula– was that they treated the subjects with very modern sensibilities, indeed so ‘modern’ that they largely hold up very well today. X: The Unknown is really no exception, and even though in details it may have dated somewhat, on the whole it feels very modern indeed. It dates from the Cold War era when the world was acutely afraid of the Atomic Bomb and all things radioactive (a common staple for 1950’s sci-fi b-movies). Set in the Scottish Highlands near a British Army base, some routine training drills uncover a blob-like creature that has risen out of the Earths crust and feeds on radiation, terrorising locals and growing larger, ultimately threatening the city of Inverness. Its really quite dark and while most of the horror is suggested, leaving stuff to audience imagination proves a major benefit, and indeed the glimpses of graphic horror when revealed prove both something of a surprise and very effective indeed with some gruesome make-up effects. The death count proves something of a shocker, too.

xaThe cast is pretty damn fine, considering Hammer’s limitations, really raising the film. Jagger, playing atomic scientist Dr Adam Royston (a rewritten Prof Bernard Quatermass from when the film was originally an intended sequel to the 1955 Hammer hit The Quatermass Xperiment) is an unlikely hero -middle-aged, bald, and minus any love interest- which proves very welcome, oddly enough (leads these days are much younger and muscle-bound and successful with the ladies). Alongside Jagger we have Leo McKern (most famous here in the UK for his long-running Rumpole of the Bailey television series) who is really fine indeed, and Edward Chapman (Norman Wisdom’s frequent comic foil Mr Grimsdale), a routine appearance of Hammer regular Michael Ripper, and even an early role for Frazer Hines (Dr Who, Emmerdale).

I found the film thoroughly entertaining and another reminder of why Hammer had such success over the years. Its a really well-crafted film, with a taut script, great performances and fine production qualities, and proves quite original, too, predating the similar (albeit more more popular) The Blob by a few years and taking itself much more seriously. Its a great horror-thriller and really impressive, and I’d love to see Indicator give it the treatment it deserves on a Blu-ray release someday.

X: The Unknown is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

 

The War of the Worlds (2019 BBC Mini-series)

rwar1The Good: I quite liked the title sequence. It had the flavour of the old Quatermass or Dr Who shows, rather dark and foreboding – I thought the period movie-reel footage was a nice scene-setter and helped establish the time-frame of the show, which in itself was a welcome decision returning to the source novel rather than re-imagining it for contemporary time frames the same way that the George Pal and Steven Spielberg versions did. I think I quite liked the title font (hey, I’m trying to find the positives about this turd, its tricky).

I liked the conceit of continuing the story beyond after the Martians themselves perished (where the story usually ends), instead showing us the world after the war, and those trying to survive and reestablish civilisation- it seemed to offer something a little new. That being said, it infuriatingly made no sense whatsoever as from what I remember in the novel the red weed perished alongside the Martians, killed by the same micro-organisms and bugs of Terran nature that saved humanity. The suggestion that the Martians were infact killed from eating contaminated humans (themselves infected by a typhoid outbreak) and that the red weed (and the Martian Terra-forming) would continue unabated until scientists (well, okay, Amy, our heroine) dumbly figured out that we needed to battle the red weed with the same Typhoid disease etc. was just an incredibly stupid way of doing it.

Er… that’s about it for the Good.

The Bad: Pretty much everything else. The silliness and reliance and poor CGI spectacle was infuriating. I hate nonsensical production design, like the Martians themselves- three-legged monsters that looked like rejects from Pitch Black or any other creature design in the tired-out style of Patrick Tatopoulos, which had fiendish-looking claws etc. but no way (I assume) of actually piloting or even building the War Machines they used to attack the Earth or indeed build the Spaceships to invade it. They didn’t even have opposable thumbs (a requisite of using tools, writing etc) or mouths to communicate with (instead some silly proboscis to eat with).  Sure, they looked creepy, but as a scheming intelligent inter-planetary life form able to build huge war machines and space ships, it made no sense whatsoever. It seems to be where we are now; silly writing, silly design, nothing thought-out.

war1

war2Likewise those spaceships/canisters- hardly large enough to contain a Martian, never-mind the Tripod War Machines that they use to wage war on humanity. I think Spielberg’s movie, as I recall, had some ridiculous conceit that the machines have been buried under the earth for millennia waiting for the invasion to commence- this BBC edition, per its general intelligence level, didn’t feel the need to even bother explaining it. We’ve got some silly spinning levitating sphere that burns people with a heat ray and then the Tripods show up from nowhere.

The flash-forwards to the Red Earth were jarring and managed no real purpose. I assume it was a decision in the editing stage, an attempt to establish some sense of mystery or foreboding but it just irritated me personally, taking me out of one situation into another, and as I have mentioned earlier, typically for this show that Red Earth sequence when it came ‘proper’ in the final episode never really made any logical sense anyway.

The Ugly: Well I feel like I’ve devoted to much of my time and effort on this show already, but  lets see- the cast felt wrong, the pacing was all wrong, the effects were sub-par (which I don’t usually mind, as I can manage my sense of disbelief regards visual effects as long as the narrative is interesting enough, but this one wasn’t). The oddest thing was the period setting, and what it offered visually and narratively (simply not having the narrative bogged down with excuses why they couldn’t use their mobile phones or the Internet etc) was completely wasted. There was no real sense of tension nor terror. It wasn’t so much a War of the Worlds as a skirmish with a few villagers and dumb scientists when all is said and done. The leads of the show,  George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), share absolutely zero chemistry. We are supposed to believe that charisma-less drip George is married to another woman who cruelly refuses to grant him a divorce and that Amy is pregnant with his child. We are supposed to believe that this frustrated love affair between these two lovers is the soul and heart of the entire drama. Instead its this hopeless void, ensuring we simply don’t care about either of them. Considering everyone seems to be starving and dying in the Red Earth five years after the War, Amy not only doesn’t seem to lose any weight, its alluded to that she may have been one of the very last women to have given birth, and its up to Amy and her scientist buddy to finally figure everything out and save the world from the red weed.  Its such a good thing that Amy is around to save us. There’s some very 21st Century anti-Colonial message shoved down our throats towards the end that’s as hackneyed as anything else across the turgid three hours but I won’t comment on it, its just one last example of the kind of thing that ruins modern Dr Who too.

No wonder it took the BBC so long to finally air the thing, it was obviously so bad they were wondering where to dump it in the schedules, so they went ahead and spoiled Christmas.

Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

Hammer’s 1967 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit has always been one of my favourite films, simply because it scared the hell out of me when I was a kid-  it’s always impossible to shake that connection you have with a film that has such a key effect on you like that, you’ll see better films, sure, but you’ll always hold those early film experiences dear. Thankfully the film still holds up pretty strong today and the blu-ray I have of it is a prized part of my film collection on disc, but I never saw the original BBC serial from 1958 upon which the film was based, until now.

q1The tv serial Quatermass and the Pit dates from a far-different era to what we know now, as far away from today’s big-budget Netflix extravaganzas as one could imagine. The serial was aired over six episodes, broadcast on Monday evenings at 8 pm from 22nd December 1958 to 26th January 1959. Incredibly, each episode was mostly live, broadcast from BBC studios in Hammersmith, London, with some sequences previously shot on film (due to technical issues such as location shooting or reliance on physical special effects etc) inserted during the performance. It lends the whole something of the atmosphere of a play, with a genuine feeling of vitality and excitement, and edginess from the feeling that, well, anything might happen. Any mistakes can’t be fixed by an editor! Fortunately everyone seems to have been well prepared- rehearsals took place between the Tuesday and Saturday prior to each Monday transmission (camera rehearsals taking place on the day of transmission), but there’s clearly that tension of live performance, slight timing issues that might have been edited on film but had to be accepted here. There’s a lovely moment when Bernard Quatermass walks into an office and the door doesn’t close behind him as intended, and he turns during his line and closes it in passing before putting his hat and coat away. Its nothing at all, really, but it feels like a ‘real’ moment that the actor has to nonchalantly react to, as if he were in a theatre. Sometimes it’s the little things that give something its reality, moments that are edited out or corrected in subsequent retakes. The tension and edginess of being a live performance translates well into the subject matter and tactile horrors of the story.

q3Workmen on a construction/demolition site in Hobbs Lane, London discover a pre-human skull which excites the attention of Dr Matthew Roney (Cec Linder) a paleontologist who is baffled and thrilled by the skulls large brain volume that suggests a primitive man hitherto unknown to science. Subsequent excavations discover further bones and skulls and finally what appears to be the outer surface of a missile or bomb, which halts Roney’s work as the military are brought in and the site closed off.

Frustrated, Roney calls his friend Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andre Morell) in an effort to stop the military ruining his valuable archeological find. Quatermass and Colonel Breen (Anthony Bushell), who has recently been appointed to lead the British rocket Group against the professors objections, arrive at the site; more fossils are found as the strange metallic object is uncovered. Roney dates the fossils to some five million years, suggesting that the object has been buried all that time, a finding Colonel Breen considers ridiculous, instead hypothesizing that the object is an experimental german bomb that failed to explode during the Blitz.  Whatever it is, it is large and hollow, the interior apparently empty but for etchings on one of the interior walls that suggest an occult pentacle.

Most everyone feels a strange, foreboding atmosphere around the object, a sensation of unease. Intrigued, Quatermass makes enquiries about the history of the area; Hobbs Lane was formerly Hob’s Lane, Hob being an antiquated name for the Devil, and there are tales of ghosts and poltergeists told by locals and in press articles over decades. The military attempts to drill into an interior wall of the object into what appears to be a concealed chamber, the resulting vibrations cause some distress to those there and one soldier has an hysterical attack, screaming that he saw a dwarf-like creature walk out of the wall, a description Quatermass remarks matches a 1927 newspaper story of a ghost seen in Hobbs Lane.

Further drilling causes a hole to open up and Quatermass and the soldiers find inside the remains of insect-like creatures, evidently aliens that resemble some kind of locust with horn-like antennae.  Examining the remains, Quatermass and Roney postulate that the creatures may be Martians that arrived on Earth five million years ago. Colonel Breen still believes it the work of Germans, evidently an elaborate hoax to instil panic in wartime England. Quatermass, however, feels that the object is yet dangerous, in some way affecting those near it with horrific visions and causing poltergeist-like activity, and evidenced thus in the historical record as far back as he can investigate in records centuries old. What Quatermass does  not realise is that the object, or alien vessel, is itself alive and is becoming activated by the human activity around it, and will soon result in a transmission that will affect the public nationwide in a night of violence and terror…

q2.jpgHaving seen the Hammer film several times before, I was naturally familiar with the general plot, and it is evident the film was faithful to the serial. But naturally the longer running time (each episode was allocated about 35 minutes incase the live performance over-ran beyond the usual 30-minute runtime) over six episodes allowed more detail, background and character moments than the film was afforded over its own 97 minutes. Aired in black and white it feels much like a Twilight Zone episode, the monochrome aiding the mood with its stark lights and shadows, and of course it feels naturally authentic in its 1950s period setting, today almost lending it a kind of strange, alien-world vibe with its antiquated technology and scientific knowledge.

I’ve become familiar with Andre Morell through his work with Hammer, over the past few years seeing him in Hammer’s The Camp on Blood Island, Cash on Demand, The Plague of the Zombies, The Mummy’s Shroud and The Hound of the Baskervilles. He was an actor with a commanding presence and powerful voice, and his Quatermass here is generally considered the definitive one, as it was played by other actors in the earlier BBC serials and ensuing Quatermass films/projects. I was surprised to discover that he declined the role in Hammer’s own feature-film adaptation. Andrew Keir played Quatermass in Hammers version of Quatermass and the Pit and, being the performance I became familiar with he’s always seemed my Quatermass, but I have to admit Morell is brilliant here and it’s such a pity he didn’t reprise his performance in the film.

The rest of the cast is universally fine; Bushell suitably infuriates as his characters closed-thinking hampers the efforts of Quatermass to raise the alarm, and Canadian actor Cec Linder is very good as the scientist friend of Quatermass- notable among the minor cast roles is Michael Ripper as one of the military worksquad. The acting of all the cast is pretty impressive considering a great deal of it was performed live.

q4The scale of the production is obviously limited by its age and budget, but I think this works in its favour. In its live performance it has the feel of a play and stagecraft, and it also works in similar fashion to a radio production, larger-scale events often occuring offscreen and being described by characters (looking through doorways or windows for instance, or watching tv transmissions)  and thus benefiting from the viewers imagination. Its a technique that works brilliantly on radio and it’s the same here. As the scale of the horror escalates out of Quatermass’ control, thus it becomes increasingly handed over to the audience’s imagination. Of course a modern adaptation would be more literal and show more (as did the Hammer film version, albeit itself limited by budget naturally) but I don’t think a contemporary version would necessarily improve on this thrilling original. That said, the film is obviously Nigel Kneale examining racism and using his tale to explain it as a genetic modification of apes by ancient Martians in their attempt to colonise the Earth- in the grand tradition of the later Star Trek, Kneale’s tale is an allegory of racial tensions of his time (1950s Britain being plagued by race troubles culminating in some attacks and riots) but obviously it’s all quite timely for us today in our own era of Political fragmentation, Brexit and immigration issues.

The grand twist of both serial and film is that while it is a tale of alien invasion, it’s one that occured five million years ago, and by some accounts the aliens won, as we are the descendants of their genetic manipulation (the original Earth-Apes being wiped out). While they themselves perished (the Martians destroyed themselves in Wild Hunts on the Red Planet, in which Martians of different groups ultimately slaughtered each other), their legacy of bigotry and racism continues through us. At the conclusion, Quatermass delivers a stark warning directly to camera: “If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their (the Martians’) second dead planet!” he snarls. In the Atomic Age of 1959 and on the eve of the next decade of manned spaceflight, it must have been a foreboding and chilling ending. It rather worked that magic on me, in 2019.

This was quite excellent and yes, superior even to the Hammer film that I have loved all these years since a kid. I watched the serial on iplayer, but it has also been released on Blu-ray, which includes some considerably intriguing special features so I’ll no doubt be ordering a copy someday. As its free on iplayer, it’s surely a no-brainer for genre fans unfamiliar with it to give it ago. Its somewhat dated, but endearingly so- this has the feel of something to treasure. This is science fiction of ideas and grand concepts and its rather disturbing too- quite refreshing compared to the big on spectacle, empty-headed nonsense that passes for science fiction so much of the time these days.

And maybe a remake/reboot of this would indeed be quite timely and pertinent to the times we live in. Blame the Martians.