Archive for Quatermass

Sham Rock

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, They Live with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona’s been researching the works of legendary TV/movie screenwriter Nigel Kneale, so she got me to run HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, which I believe I saw at my school film society when it was about a year old, and which I dismissed as tosh at the time. I learned at some point that Kneale had been involved — he wrote a draft but then took his name off the film — and sympathised with him. John Carpenter, apparently, is a big Quatermass fan, but the film got compromised, by Dino De Laurentiis and others, and director Tommy Lee Wallace, who reckoned that “60%” of Kneale’s script remained, ended up with sole writing credit (which seems a bit shifty of him, though if the sometimes irascible Kneale was unwilling to even touch the film with a nom de plume, what else could they do?).

Well, I was definitely right about the film back in 1983 or so. The lead roles are colossally underwritten — surely the unconvincing way they fall into bed together is part of Wallace’s 40% — in a film featuring robots, it’s even more of a problem than it normally would be when your main characters behave like automata programmed with a pianola roll of clichéd genre behaviour. The villain’s plan is completely absurd and worse, not scary. The only actor having fun is Dan “Nice shootin’ son” O’Herlihy, but his eccentric monologuing seems to have been cut to the bare bones, which is tragic since it robs us of additional lipsmacking and leaves the motivation for his elaborate scheme largely unexplained.

Of course, Kneale’s raison d’être as a fantasy writer was his ability to invest absolute conviction in potentially absurd ideas, but something is way off here. Fiona learned that the bit of stolen Stonehenge used as MacGuffin was not part of Kneale’s putative 60% contribution, but an addition by the production, who felt it was in the spirit of Kneale’s work since he had just used stone circles in the final Quatermass series. In the movie, Irish novelty mask manufacturer O’Herlihy (see also the unpleasant but offscreen Irish industrialist in Kneale’s The Stone Tape) is planning to reestablish the pagan roots of Halloween by implanting microchips with bits of henge silica, fit them to rubber masks, and send out some kind of subliminal signal in his TV commercials which will cause the wearers’ heads to erupt with cockroaches and snakes. Well, if Kneale was responsible for 60% of that guff, I can only assume we’re talking about a percentage of the letters of the alphabet, suitably rearranged.

Indeed, this site informs me helpfully that Kneale was thriftily repurposing an old TV script of his, The Big, Big Giggle, in which a TV signal causes teen suicides, rejected by a BBC in fear of imitative behaviour issues (not altogether unreasonably, though holding television responsible for the actions of people with mental health issues is always slippery and unsafe). Already it looks like Kneale’s idea is more disturbing, shorn of the ridiculous bug-head stuff, and convincing enough to cause TV execs to actually worry that it might, in a way, come true. It’s still voodoo television, and the henge-chips don’t really make it sillier, so I’d even allow that aspect of it, but the bugs are a step too far.

Kneale also apparently wrote the automata henchmen (or hengemen, if you will), which somehow fail to be creepy at all in the finished film, and are pretty damn implausible given the state of 1980s cybernetics, or even contemporary cybernetics. In the movie these guys are mainly used to add gory and unnecessary (in plot terms) deaths, which Kneale hated. But the movie was never going to go into production without a bunch of set-piece killings. Film history was not on Kneale’s side, even if the history of Samhain was.

But OK. Dull as the human interactions are, rote as the conspiracy investigation is, ludicrous as the conspiracy itself turns out to be, and entirely empty of meaning as the film itself is, it does have a few pleasures. The attractive widescreen is one of the few connections with Carpenter’s original film (glimpsed on TV sets — also we hear Jamie Lee Curtis’ echoing voice from factory tannoys). There’s one good BOO! moment early on, repeated to lessening effect. Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s electronic drones are lovely: somehow the crudeness forced on Carpenter by early synths enhances his music rather than detracting from it; somehow the marriage of 35mm anamorphic widescreen and pulsing electronic tonalities is just wonderfully RIGHT.

Carpenter, who as co-producer must share some of the blame as well as credit, admires Kneale but has never been very comfortable in the domain of IDEAS, which are what Kneale is all about. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a beautifully-photographed rendition of what a Kneale concept would be like if it didn’t have a concept. The big exception, of course, is THEY LIVE, a rather wonderful genre mash-up which blends Phildickian paranoia with the establishment dread of Kneale’ Quatermass II. Joe Dante, originally touted to direct, who seems to have suggested Kneale in the first place, thrives on eccentric ideas, the more the better, and often involving TV, the media, toys. Indeed, the conspiracy at the heart of LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION carries an echo of Kneale’s Big, Big Giggle. But even Dante may have struggled to keep Kneale on board — now there was a man used to getting his own way. Or, if he didn’t always get it, he could certainly point to the fact that when he did, the results were usually sensationally effective and successful. And when he didn’t, you got a head full of cockroaches.


Extraordinary Mass Delusions

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , on September 8, 2015 by dcairns


Our viewing of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT tied in nicely with my reading of Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The author’s interest in the phenomenon of public shaming, which seems to have migrated from the medieval stocks to Twitter, leads him to explore ideas about deinviduation, and the behaviour of crowds. He traces many of our assumptions about mobs and riots to The Crowd, a book by Gustave Le Bon, who wrote at the time of Napoleon III and first propagated the idea that mobs have a kind of group madness, are in fact possessed by a force which does not dwell in any one of them but infects them all.

Unfortunately, Ronson discovers that Le Bon was a racist, a misogynist and a colossal snob, even by the standards of the times, and his beliefs did not really result from scientific research, so much as prejudice and a desire to ingratiate himself with the powerful. If the mob is motivated by a kind of mental illness, then any grievances they are protesting can be ignored as irrelevant.

Ronson never gets as far as a complete theory of what is happening in mob actions — he suspects that the London rioters never reached his house because he lives up a steep hill, and each riot participant made a sane and reasonable decision not to riot uphill. This is an interesting way to consider it, with interesting implications, but it’s too far off-topic in Ronson’s book for him to pursue much further.

It seems to me that a riot or a vicious public shaming creates a kind of anomie, where participants see others misbehaving and being popular for it, and their worst instincts are given a license to run riot. It seems that we mostly don’t live by a moral code, but by a sense of what we’re told is OK from moment to moment, and what we think we’ll get away with. In this sense, perhaps the Stanford Prison Experiment, which Ronson explores in detail (and complicates nicely), is less relevant here than Milgram’s obedience experiments.


QUATERMASS AND THE PIT climaxes with mob violence on the streets of London — author Nigel Kneale received some criticism for this at the time of the TV version, since the Notting Hill Race riots were of recent memory. Kneale’s vision of an ethnic purge was inspired by the attacks on black Londoners by racist gangs. His intentions were misunderstood, rather wilfully I think. But he has been seduced by Le Bon’s popular notion of riots as a manifestation of primitive impulse, a plague of savagery that sweeps through a population. Since the Martian madness of the series and film is tied to race memories buried in the human unconscious, it could easily be connected with the xenophobe’s view of the Notting Hill riots as an eruption of primitive instincts, a reversion to type.


I think the scene where a vaguely Jewish-looking man is stoned by the possessed mob shows clearly the kind of savagery Kneale is concerned with.

By the time of the final Quatermass TV series of 1979, Kneale is perhaps a little more conservative. As with his channelling of Le Bon’s ideas in Quatermass and the Pit, here he ties real sociological happenings to a science fiction explanation, connecting youth protest and his own, violent extrapolation of the hippy movement, to an alien force manipulating our minds. On the other hand, the young person’s perennial argument, that the old have got it wrong and made a mess of the world, is shown to be entirely justified. Kneale, like Quatermass, positions himself between the rebels and the authorities, a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

“People melting, indeed!”

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.