This was one of the first of its kind; a subtlety scary vision of a secret alien takeover. X-FILES may owe a debt to this low-budget, but nevertheless effective film of the powers-that-be who are conspiring with the invaders, and one lone, determined scientist who accidentally uncovers the sinister plot.
QUATERMASS II (U.S. title: ENEMY FROM SPACE) was produced before INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, the film it is often compared to, due to their thematic similarities (loss of identity, social oppression, dangers of conformity, and blind allegiance to a greatly questionable, authoritarian power). However, it was released in the U.S. shortly after BODY SNATCHERS, probably making it look like a copycat to some.
Superb writer Nigel Kneale (excellent script, highly original for its time, derived from the earlier BBC serial) was known to strongly despise Brian Donleavy’s gruff performance as the lead character. Kneale did not like the fact that Donleavy presented the character as a cold, methodical misanthrope who treats his colleagues like expendable underlings. He will probably want to boil me in oil for saying this, but I felt that presenting the lead character as morally ambivalent and ethically questionable jettisoned the standard 50’s scientist/hero sterotype (for once he is not nice and charming). It also added a further degree of tension to the well-plotted story. In many ways, his alienated character is somewhat alien; perhaps that’s the only true way to resist social pressures and conditioning. The allegory here is strong.
As the story opens, Quatermass is driving one night on a remote country road. He is furious that the stodgy Whitehall bureaucrats rejected his funding request for a proposed moon colonization project. A speeding car nearly hits him head-on as it runs off the road. The shaken passengers are a frightened woman and her boyfriend, who is in a crazed state, and has a strange black mark on his face.
Quatermass returns to his isolated lab, where radar reveals to his assistants that many small meteor particles (at least that’s what they assume they are) have descended over a rural village known as Wynerton Flats.
Going out there with his colleague, Marsh, they first discover his moon project, fully constructed, and some small, mysterious rocks. As Marsh examines one, it emits an eerie gas and pops in his face, leaving the weird black mark. Strange soldiers arrive, behaving like aloof zombies, abduct Marsh, strong-arm Quatermass in the typical fascist tradition, and order him to leave. (There may be one flaw here: Why didn’t the “soldiers” either abduct or kill Quatermass, instead of letting him go, so he can inform?)
Naturally the authorities all have tight lips about the secret activities at Wynerton Flats, but Quatermass manages to convince a few officials to go out there with him. A government aid (with that strange black mark on his wrist) conducts a formal tour of the plant, where everything seems to be normal. Not so. The small group is indoctrinated by the zombies (who resemble Nazis), but Quatermass manages to escape.
(This scene truly exposes Donleavy’s ruthless side: He and a woman are taken into a large dome, but Quatermass flees, leaving the woman behind, without any concern for her fate. Hell, he doesn’t even abide by the old fifties hero tradition by risking his life to save the distressed damsel. In many ways Quatermass was an ahead-of-his-time anti-hero. I always felt that this added a disquieting strength to the drama and the severity of the dire situation, but I guess that Kneale will still vehemently disagree).
I’ll stop here, but don’t worry, the worse is still to come. The sense of growing unease and mounting terror (strong qualities of your finer British Science Fiction at that time) escalates. Be patient, for it does carefully build into a total state of alarm, as Quatermass and the local angered citizens challenge the invaders (who have taken over most of the government and military officials) to a brutal showdown. There is something highly menacing in those domes.
This impressive film is true Science Fiction at its best. It thrills without pandering and is thoughtful to the point of disturbing. You can’t trust anyone. Its social and political implications are definitely troubling. This is not for your Lucas and Spielberg crowd, for we’re not talking about commercial catering to eight-year-olds. Val Guest directs in a cold, cynical Kubrickian manner, accentuating the high degree of paranoia, and the picture’s black & white photography conveys a bleak, creepy mood. (Sorry, no pretty pictures here). The intriguing story takes on true nightmarish proportions.
The few effects won’t win any CGI awards (don’t forget, computers weren’t around then) but the briefly glimpsed monster (in the gothic Lovecraft tradition) is quite sickening. After all, it can manipulate man’s dirty politics, you can’t get more reprehensible than that.