Thought it was about time to tackle Nigel Kneale‘s singular scientist, the good Professor Bernard Quatermass who, in four novels, four TV series and four films, has exerted an enormous influence on directors as diverse as Quentin Tarantino, John Carpenter (In the Mouth of Madness (1995)), Steven Spielberg and Lars von Trier and whose (frequently terrifying) adventures have been a direct inspiration for writers such as Stephen King (particularly his novel The Tommyknockers). Perversely (but of course), I am starting at the end, with Quatermass (1979), directed by Piers Haggard (Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)), which was scripted by Kneale himself as both a four-part ITV series (all three previous Quatermass stories had been filmed by the BBC) and a 100-minute film called The Quatermass Conclusion, which was destined for international release.
The three series preceeding Quatermass were all considered as seminal, and the films likewise, but the casting of the robotic American actor Brian Donlevy in both The Quatermass Xperiment (1953) and Quatermass II (1955) rankled enormously with Kneale, who loathed his ruthless, automaton-like take on the character. Things improved enormously for the writer with the arrival of Andrew Keir for Quatermass and the Pit (1967), whom he felt was far nearer to the driven, focused but benevolent man of science at the centre of his original novels – many (including this reviewer) consider this third installment to have been the best of the original movies but (somewhat contrary to its original critical reception), I feel that Quatermass tops the lot.
Distinguished actor Sir John Mills was called on to play Quatermass this time around, and he is a man with a mission – living in retirement in Scotland, he is disgusted and appalled by the state of the world, which is descending for seemingly no apparent purpose into anarchy, and he simply wants to find his grandaughter, Hettie Carlson (Rebecca Saire), who has gone missing. Quatermass is fascinated by the ‘Planet People’, youngsters whom he follows to a megalithic stone circle, Ringstone Round. The youngsters inside the circle are struck by a dazzling light out of the sky and disappear, leaving only ashes. Those left behind, led by the Planet People’s violent and ruthless leader, Kickalong (Ralph Arliss), are convinced that their comrades have been ‘transported’, as promised, but Quatermass knows that they have been vaporized, consumed by whatever alien force (which is never named) is now afflicting the Earth. The human race is being harvested, and it may die…
Kneale was a simply marvellous horror/sci-fi writer, one who understood that suggestion and subtlety were often far more effective in generating unease and dread. And so it is with his adaptation of his own novel here – playing on the sense of mystery that ancient stone circles still hold for humanity, he posits the striking notion that ancient men may have constructed such circles to mark places that had become terrible to them, where they had been ‘visited’. Quatermass, by slow degrees, comes to the conclusion, as the visitations escalate and millions of young people around the world die, that he is dealing essentially with a ‘machine’ that represents alien beings beyond imagining, which has returned to ‘harvest’ the Earth’s young.
“But we must be able to convince them we are civilised now, that we want to make contact,” a Russian diplomat says to Quatermass at one point. “I don’t think ‘it’ would see it like that,” is the professor’s response. “The ripe crop cannot appeal to the reaper.”
Made at a time when quality drama was still common even on commercial channels, Quatermass is a profoundly disturbing (and ultimately moving) denoument for the character, which manages to transcend the ’70s future’ feel that the series does seem to have when viewed today.
Enjoy it for yourself here.
204 mins (TV series), 100 mins (film).