Archive for Quatermass

“People melting, indeed!”

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2015 by dcairns

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The above scornful remark by a Scottish policeman in X: THE UNKNOWN (1956) recalls the words of the burgomaster in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “Monster , indeed!” And screenwriter Jimmy Sangster probably knew his Universal horrors, as he was about to write CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The perils of a little knowledge: IMDb attributes the film to Leslie Norman, the credited director, and Joseph Losey, and I thought I could see traces of Losey’s trademark snaky tracking shots, but reading more I learn that Losey was removed before production began. as star Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted commie. A shame. Losey had made a short film for Hammer (the turgid A MAN ON THE BEACH) and would eventually shoot THE DAMNED for the studio, but he wasn’t too sorry to be removed from this hokum. Hammer had wanted a Quatermass sequel, I believe, but author Nigel Kneale had refused to allow his creation into the hands of another writer. A shame, in some ways, since the character played by token yank Jagger is closer to Kneale’s conception than the bellowing lout played by Brian Donlevy in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

I had tried to watch this with Fiona once, but we got bored of the muddy quarry setting, which seemed to go on forever. The grumbling squaddies played by the likes of Anthony Newley and Kenneth Cope got sick of it and their lack of enthusiasm was infectious. Seeing it properly, I can’t understand this, as the movie is OK and for heaven’s sake, it’s a quasi-Quatermass set in Scotland. We should have been all over that shit.

My friend Alex, with whom I’ve been writing a Quatermass-inspired project, said he remembered this one improving as it went on. But later, when we discussed it, it turned out that he’d mentally grafted the last half of QUATERMASS II onto the front half of X, so naturally it improved. And somehow the bits went together quite well.

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If the film were in colour you’d be able to see that hapless young Kenneth Cope, centre, is wearing a red shirt. Yes, that’s a Star Trek joke.

The monster in the Scottish Quatermass turns out to be mud, which seems kind of apt given the weather. Radioactive mud from the earth’s core, explained by a shambolic bit of Sangster pseudo-science. But, as often with Sangster’s all-thumbs scripting, apparent mistakes or clumsy inconsistencies can be oddly evocative. On the surface, the film has little of the anti-militarism of Kneale’s writing, although the army try to dynamite the monster and then cement over the fissure it oozes from, so they’re idiots. But the best bit is the Geiger counter test — a group of soldiers are training in the use of Geiger counters when they happen to stumble upon the exact spot where the radioactive monster is going to emerge. It’s a fairly global coincidence, but that isn’t the best bit. The inevitable Michael Ripper tells his men that in a real radiation situation, they would be required to mark the spot and get out fast, as radiation can be very nasty. When, seconds later, the pale and trembling young Kenneth Cope does indeed find real radiation, he is ordered to stand on the spot so everyone can see where it is. He dies horribly.

This cheered me up no end, and made me feel the movie would be worth watching as soon as we could get out of the muddy quarry. And we do, to a couple of nuclear labs and a few simpler sets. The nearby village, Lochmouth, is scene of a great bit once the blob gets properly oozing — forced perspectives allow a very small blob to pretend to be a very big blob. For most of the film, the blob is absent, like Godot, though Leslie Norman does grant us a couple of blob’s-eye-view attacks. Before there was Michael Myer, there was X: THE UNKNOWN. X is also an unusual character in that he gets to physically embody his own main title, a gloopy X of rippling oily matter. Even Marlon Brando never got to embody a title, though clearly such an approach could have greatly enhanced his later work.

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Red-hating Dean Jagger is, appropriately, on the right, whereas Leo McKern is, like, whatevs.

Then Leo McKern turns up. Like chocolate, Leo McKern makes everything a bit better. I think even chocolate-coated rabies would be a bit better than the normal kind. But I’m unsure if a chocolate-coated Leo McKern would sort of cancel himself out. Anyway, I suspect he was Losey’s idea — his next film would be TIME WITHOUT PITY for that director. I was a little disappointed that McKern’s policeman character wasn’t given more to do — Sangster has crowded the film with largely benign authority figures who get on much too well together — and he accepts with complete credulity the theory that the radiation slayings plaguing this rural locale are the work of some mud. A scene of Leo angrily rejecting such a supposition could easily have been the best scene in the picture.

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Priest rescues little girl from blob, which is trickling listlessly through gap in dry-stone wall in front of a painting of Scottish scenery — and the little girl wins the movie’s best acting award by laughing her head off throughout. Nobody, it seems, had the heart (or energy?) to dub on screams.

Instead, the best bit is when makeup guru/top splodger Phil Leakey and effects wiz Les Bowie make a doctor melt. The doc has arranged a romantic tryst with a sexy nurse in the hospital’s “radiation room.” Because what woman can resist a proposition like that? The amorous medico’s disintegration is served up with two shots, a swelling finger closeup which suggests a Tom & Jerry hammer-to-the-thumb gag, while also looking forward to that staple of seventies and eighties horror, the bladder effect. Then there’s a LOST ARK type flesh-melt,all the most striking for its brevity. Lucio Fulci would have gotten a full minute out of that bit, but HE WOULD HAVE BEEN WRONG.

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Ha! The sign omits to mention that it’s the SEXY Radiation Room. OF DEATH.

So now commie-hating Dean Jagger has to kill the mud with special science. I liked the fact that the film’s ending hinges upon the need to zap the mud before it decides to rampage through Inverness. The film is a product of a gentler age, in which our empathy for Inverness was presumed to be strong enough to motivate a film’s climax. And I like the fact that Jagger is persuaded to use an experimental technique which, if it fails, is going to cause a gigantic explosion much more devastating than the mud monster.

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And then I *really* like the bizarre ending, when the mud-monster is blown up, and there follows a mysterious second explosion from the bowels of the earth. Dean Jagger is deeply perturbed. It shouldn’t have happened. Every one else is, like, whatevs, we blew up the mud didn’t we? But Jagger remains perturbed. And then the film abruptly ENDS, a colossal fuck-you to the curious. It’s not enough to constitute a typical horror movie closeup-of-a-bee sequel promise. It’s not pointed enough, specific enough. It’s just bloody weird, like Sangster started to write a final twist and then couldn’t be bothered, and then couldn’t be bothered XXX-ing out the bit he’d started.

Maybe they used up all their Xs in the title.

When Lands the Saucer

Posted in Comics, FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2008 by dcairns

Warm up the probulator!

I’m indebted to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the title of this post. I think it comes from an old copy of The Demon, and it stuck in my mind because I thought it was amusing. (Apparently I’m wrong about the provenance — see comments section.) Any title that seeks grandeur by shuffling the words around (THE RIVER WILD) makes me think of that Dorothy Parker line about “The Play Terrible.”

Let’s be clear — DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS is a B-picture. The opening credit, “Spartan Productions” is hilariously apt.

But D.G.F.M. doesn’t actually fit the “so-bad-it’s-good” paradigm, which is fortunate, because that’s become rather a boring formulation. In fact, bits of the film are genuinely excellent: there’s a really beautiful flying saucer, complete with spinning bit; a smashing robot; a sexy space girl in slinky dominatrix uniform; two more human women of interest to genre fans; and John Laurie, primarily known in Britain for his role in the sitcom Dad’s Army, but familiar to American cineastes for his appearnaces in THE EDGE OF THE WORLD and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP.

Indeed, considering it’s a sci-fi thriller, there’s more than a whiff of situation comedy about DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS. More on this aspect later.

The bad bits of the film — the lethargic, stay-at-home plot, the indecisive villainess who should be driving the story but keeps dithering, leading man Hugh McDermott’s hideous face — are pretty bad, and sometimes annoying. The combination of good and bad elements is sort of enjoyable and exciting. You never know whether you’re going to be tickled or stabbed, entertainmentwise. It’s like a night out in Glasgow.

The “action” unfolds at a guest house in the Scottish highlands, host to more drama than is typically the case with such establishments, in my experience. A glamorous London fashion model fleeing a doomed relationship is already in residence — this is Hazel Court in her second fantasy film (she’d already done THE GHOST SHIP for Vernon Sewell two years earlier). Then a convicted wife-murderer, escaped from prison, arrives and is sheltered by barmaid Adrienne Corri (another horror/sci-fi regular, best known for being denuded by droogs in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, an Edinburgh-born Scots-Italian beauty who also worked for Preminger, Lean, Renoir…). Challenged to explain why this traveller has no money, she improvises a tale about him bending over to try and catch a salmon, then straightening up to find his wallet gone. The old “fish thief” story — very convincing.

Already we have the tea-obsessed housekeeper and her drunkard husband (John Laurie, natch) and a young nephew from London. Soon, a car-sharing Irish astrophycisist and American journalist turn up. It’s quite a houseful even before the alien invasion begins.

Prof. Hennessey tries to warm his hands on a spaceship.

The American is actually another Edinburgh-born actor, Hugh McDermott, but his accent seems to have taken a transatlantic turn. I have the same trouble myself, actually. Too many Marvel comics as a kid.

Then the saucer lands. And this is the off-season!

Our space vixen informs the residents that she’s come to pilfer our men, replacing the ones who were nuked in the Big Martian Sex War. She does this while ceaselessly, pointlessly walking up and down, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, which is mildly freaky and kind of effective. Then she tells them they’re surrounded by an invisible barrier and can’t escape — the scientist tries and comes back with a gashed forehead, having walked into it. “I believe what my brain tells me to believe,” he cries, on more than one occasion. He should stop listening, his brain is a fool.

The humes act up, so Mars-Gal shows them her robot, and it’s a beauty. It wantonly discomouferates things, like Gort from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, three years earlier. One of those coincidences, I expect. Fiona and I were delighted by the robots design, pure Japanese tin toy. And his impressive HEFT. “That terrible robot!” cries Corri. “He’s not, he’s smashing!” shouted Fiona back at her.

The Martian, Nyah, is Patricia Laffan, who played Poppaea in QUO VADIS?, so this may have seemed a bit of a come-down, but she throws herself into it with more sneering superiority than anybody’s ever seen. This is the role she’ll be remembered for. Did she have an inkling of this as she slunk around the tiny set in her erotic space-wear? She’s first seen evaporating a balding wee man, a stereotypical “little worm”, in fact, the image of the masochistic bank manager of suburban sexual legend. She’s also reminiscent of another space-domme, the legendary Supreme Commander Servalan from the B.B.C.’s fondly-remembered but slightly crap Blake’s Seven. Interestingly, Servalan was played by another ex-Hammer glamour queen, the unconventionally beautiful Jacqueline Pearce (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE REPTILE). Pearce is still unconventionally beautiful and still acts, while also working in a monkey sanctuary.

Anyway, returning to the monkey sanctuary that is DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS: I felt that Nyah’s power is considerably diminished by her inability to make up her mind. It may be a Martian’s prerogative, but it doesn’t help the dramatic arc…

Prof. Hennessey tries to warm his hands on a spaceship. Again.

Basically, the dramatic part of the story all unfolds while the saucer is being repaired by “Charlie” the robot. (Not a very Martian name, I’d have thought, although maybe it’s actually spelled “Chaghrrl-A” or something.) During the course of this little pit-stop, Nyah first freezes Corri, then un-freezes her, hypnotises the murderer and makes him go all murderous (doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, but still), abducts the small boy, then releases him, takes the scientist aboard her ship for a little tour, allowing him to gather intelligence to use against them, then announces that she will take one of the men as a guide to help her find her way around London. This conjures amusing images of her quietly landing in Camden Town and wandering the streets in her space garb, unnoticed by the general populace.

The film then allows the characters time to furiously debate who should make the supreme sacrifice by going with Nyah and attempting to sabotage her saucer in mid-flight. But this is a pointless scene, since Nyah has just told them SHE will be making the choice. It’s downright weird, this.

Predictably, Bobby Murderer gets selected so he can redeem himself and the Earth is saved and the landlady gets the kettle on. Suddenly I got the feeling I’d been watching A Very Special Episode of Father Ted. The scientist looks a bit like an older Ted. There’s the dissolute drunkard. And the tea-obsessed housekeeper. Admittedly, there are more babes and spacecraft than usual…

“Now I think we all REALLY need a cup of tea!”

The film is also a fine entry in the gather-in-the-pub-as-the-world-ends school of science fiction, a substrain unique to Britain. See also SHAUN OF THE DEAD, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, and several of the QUATERMASS films. See them before you see this, actually. But see this anyway.

Shadowplay would like to thank Huckleberry Hound for the word “discomouferate”.

Things I Read Off the Screen #498

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2008 by dcairns

Last night Fiona and I watched THE FIRST MAN INTO SPACE, a cheesy B sci-fi yarn directed by Robert “Corridors of Blood” Day and we couldn’t stop laughing at the titular astronaut’s “awed” expression as he goes beyond the infinite:

First fathead into space

I don’t think Spielberg would hire him.

The film was not so much interesting for what happened in it (Quatermass rip-off with and incredibly protracted opening set-up, half the film, it felt like — reminds me of late period Hammer films when the producers started writing them, and sure enough, turns out this was written by producers*) as for what you could read.

Maychew

Opening credits. Edited by Peter Mayhew? THIS Peter Mayhew? I guess that might explain why it’s on the primitive side. Wookiee’s aren’t known for their mastery of Russian montage.

I was psyched to read that there would be Electronic Effects, and I was NOT disappointed. It’s my opinion that most movies could be greatly improved by the addition of Electronic Effects. Even LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS could be gussied up by a Moog.

The Delgados

Roger Delgado was The Master in Dr Who — here he plays the Mexican consul, in an entirely unnecessary scene which might be intended as comic relief but they forgot to make it funny.

Sheree Winton was Dale Winton’s mother. For those of you outside the UK, Dale Winton appears as a game show host in a hallucination in TRAINSPOTTING — the role he was born to play. In real life, he IS a hallucinatory game show host.

Space Positioning?

Space Positioning!

Bloooood...

Just beautiful. Lumbering shadow shuffles across blood bank signage, a great B-monster moment.

Space Medicine?

Space Medicine?

Mr Potato Head

The fathead from the top ends up like this (cosmic rays — maybe Stan Lee or Jack Kirby saw this flick?), and it’s actually quite moving.

“Doctor? I’ve been searching for you… Everything seems strange and dark… I couldn’t find you! … Under this stuff, I feel like I’m suffering from some terrible disease… like I got no blood in my veins… I have no memory… Only an instinct to stay alive…until I found you… I’ve been groping my way through a maze of fear and doubt…”

With the dialogue delivered in agonized gasps, through an inflexible rubber mask, the scene attains a kind of cheap poetry, to use Orson Welles’ expression (describing stage magic at its best).

*Producers are just as likely to be good writers as directors, perhaps even more so. Unfortunately, they’re also in a position to hire themselves as writers, even when nobody else would ever consider them capable of writing ANYTHING. I don’t have a solution to this, beyond the utopian dream that people should be honest with themselves about their own abilities, or maybe seek a second opinion.

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