Thursday, October 19, 2006


This is the first of a series of SF films featuring the character of Prof. Quatermass, the head of a secret group of British scientists who are conducting experiments in outer space. The film opens with a young rural couple whose outdoor make-out session is interrupted by a huge crash-landing missile. Quatermass (Brian Donleavy, playing him as an mean and arrogant man who is used to getting his way) and his group arrive on the scene and we find out that they have sent up the rocket with three men on board without any kind of official approval. Only one of the men survives; the other two appear to have been reduced to small blobs of jelly. The survivor (Richard Wordsworth), who never speaks, experiences some weird skin and bone changes, is cold to the touch, and doesn't seem to be able to react to people. His wife smuggles him out of the hospital without realizing that he has essentially been taken over by an alien life force, and is able to drain the life out of plants, animals, and people. He escapes and winds up on the loose as he transforms into a gigantic jelly blob. The climax takes place in Westminster Abbey where the blob is perched, like a faceless Jabba the Hutt, on some scaffolding not far from where a TV news crew is broadcasting a special on the Abbey. I suspect that this film was a bit ahead of its time, with its theme of alien organisms infecting and changing human beings (the influential INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS came out the same year). Its dank, bare bones, black-and-white look keeps the film admirably low-key. Quatermass is unlikable and unsympathetic, which was most likely intended by the filmmakers (at one point, he says, "There's no room for personal feelings in science") though Donleavy's gruff, one-note performance certainly adds to that. Jack Warner plays a mostly sympathetic police inspector, Margia Dean is the astronaut's wife, 10-year-old Jane Asher appears as a young girl menaced by the alien, and Gordon Jackson (later the beloved butler Hudson on "Upstairs, Downstairs") has a small role in the climax as a BBC-TV producer. I liked the tension between the restraints of society and the law, and the unbridled impulses of the scientists, and I also liked the ending, in which, despite the "meddling in God's domain" message of the narrative, Quatermass vows to keep exploring the great unknown. [TCM]

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