Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on May 6, 2012
Quatermass creator and screenwriter Nigel Kneale (1922 – 2006) has his roots in the Isle of Man, a small patch of over 200 square miles in size that is located between Great Britain and Ireland. Megalithic monuments that heralded a new development in human technology began to appear on the Isle of Man during the Neolithic Age. At present, the island is the center for various competing private space travel companies that are vying for a thirty million dollar Google Lunar X Prize, organized by the X Prize Foundation. “X” marks the spot, and in this case it’s where reality and space travel intersect, bringing us back to Nigel Kneale and The Quatermass Xperiment (U.S. title: The Creeping Unknown), which was the first feature film to introduce his beloved alien-battling character of Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group.
Here in the U.S., we still think of anything that is “X-rated” as being pornographic, but the singular letter which is evocative of crossed bones on a pirate flag or poison label was originally meant to designate a non-trademarked rating for anything violent, controversial, or sexual that was not fit for children’s eyes. The M.P.A.A. could slap an official “X” onto anything officially submitted to them (i.e. Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, The Evil Dead, etc.), but since the X was non-trademarked it was also quickly embraced and exaggerated by pornographers as a badge of honor, which gave rise to the use of multiple X’s.
In contrast to the M.P.A.A., which began its film rating system in 1968, The British Board of Film Censors issued an “X certificate” between the years of 1951 and 1982. It was meant as a replacement for the “H certificate” – a classification used for horror films – when the BBFC was looking for a broader classification to accommodate a growing number of adult-oriented films that had nothing to do with horror. During its first stage (1951 – 1970) the X certificate was defined as any film that was “suitable for those aged 16 and over.” During its last stage (1970 – 1982) it was defined as “suitable for those aged 18 and over.” In 1982 it was replaced with the “18 certificate” because, let’s face it, “X” rhymes with “sex,” as any wanker here in the U.S. quickly figured out back in the sixties.
I had originally thought that The Quatermass Xperiment ballyhooed its X as a way to differentiate itself from the popular BBC Television drama by Kneale which had preceded the feature films and was launched in July of 1953. Broadcast in weekly half-hour episodes, The Quatermass Experiment gripped the nation for its full six-week run. Alas, since it was transmitted live, only the first two episodes which happened to have been telerecorded survive now in the BBC archives. Quatermass’ popularity ensured an extended run of the TV series that came with Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958 – 1959), those two being available on DVD thanks to a heightened awareness that something so popular might best be saved for posterity.
The Quatermass Xperiment was indeed an experiment. It was Hammer Film Productions‘ first significant experiment with horror as well as an experiment to cash in on the hype around the B.B.F.C.‘s new X certificate. (I’m stunned to find out, as I type this, that no pornographers have – as of yet – used The Quakingass XXXperiment as a lewd title premise for interplanetary sexual shenanigans.)
Scriptwriting duties for The Quatermass Xperiment fell to director/writer Val Guest (1911 – 2006) and Richard Landau (1914 – 1993), both working off of Kneale’s television play. (Kneale was kept from writing the script for The Quatermass Xperiment due to a BBC staff contract.) The Quatermass Xperiment was a big success, and ended up being the first Hammer film to attract a major U.S. distributor (United Artists). With all systems go, Hammer decided to pursue its sequel for the big screen, giving rise to Quatermass 2 (U.S. title: Enemy From Space) in 1957. Although The Godfather Part II (1974) is often touted as the first “major motion picture” to numerically designate chronological placement. If you put aside matters of budget, Quatermass 2 beats The Godfather Part II by a country mile.
Hammer didn’t just base the film on Kneale’s BBC TV serial of Quatermass II, they hired him to write his first feature film screenplay. This was possible because Kneale’s contract with the BBC expired in 1956 and, after five years with that company, he’d had enough. From that point on, Kneale would only write for the BBC as a freelancer. Guest was brought back to direct and also made some revisions to Kneale’s first draft but, overall, the finished product was relatively faithful to the original television serial. Quatermass 2 had twice the budget of The Quatermass Xperiment, and was another financial success for Hammer that also earned the distinction of being the first film that Hammer was able to pre-sell the distribution rights for in the U.S.
An American writer took note. Stephen King gives the Quatermass films glowing reviews in his book Danse Macabre. If you ever wondered where he got the idea for the scene in The Shining where Wendy Torrance stumbles across the many pages of her husband’s typed pages that reveal variations of the same sentence repeated ad nauseum, look no further than this chilling scene from Quatermass 2 that gives us a visual hint that something is not quite right with the local commissioner. Below the mark of alien infection on his hand he has typed out “Now is the time for all good men to” some 25 x over. Now is the time for all good men to get the hell outta there.
Others who have paid homage to Quatermass include John Carpenter (who wrote Prince of Darkness under the name of Martin Quatermass), Dan O’Bannon (Alien includes multiple reference points), the creators of Dr. Who, and even Stanley Kubrick – especially in regards to the third installation.
The same year that Quatermass 2 was released, Kneale accepted a freelance contract to write a third Quatermass serial for the BBC which he titled Quatermass and the Pit. It was transmitted over six weeks from December 1958 – January 1959 and it included a daring subtext partially inspired by the racial tensions of its time. It captivated over 11 million viewers and was lauded by the BBC on their own home page as “the finest thing the BBC ever made.”
At this point you’d think the next logical progression of events would be for Hammer to go hog-wild with a big-screen adaptation of Quatermass and the Pitt. But while Hammer was quite pleased with the results from Quatermass 2, they were far more euphoric over the enormous box-office rewards they reaped from Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, released that same year – the first Frankenstein film to be shot in color. The Curse of Frankenstein ended up being the most profitable film ever produced in England and held that title for several more years (bragging rights that now belong to The King’s Speech).
Hammer embraced the public’s thirsty call for more Gothic horror infused with bright Eastmancolour blood, rich atmosphere, and great actors, building a legacy on that for which they are still known. This was not the sole reason that they put Quatermass in the backseat, for Kneale delivered a film script to Hammer for Quatermass and the Pit in 1961 that was originally meant to bring back Val Guest, as director, and Brian Donlevy in the starring role. But between 1957 and 1964, Hammer was in bed with Columbia Pictures, and Columbia buried the project deeper than the Martian missile found in the muddy earth below Hobbs End (but not quite as deep as the monolith Kubrick buries in the moon on 2001: A Space Odyssey). It took a new distribution deal with other distributors to end the blockade.
Quatermass and the Pit finally came to light in 1967 (U.S. title: Five Million Years to Earth), with Roy Ward Baker (1916 – 2010) taking the helm since Val Guest was otherwise busy filming Casino Royale, and with Andrew Keir replacing Donlevy, who Kneale had always felt was miscast for the role. 10 long years after Quatermass 2, the stars had finally aligned once again over Kneale’s very own Megalithic monument of sorts, one peppered with science and rockets and a creative endeavor favoring rationality over superstition.
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