Last week I looked at The Quatermass Xperiment, the first of the Hammer Films big screen remakes of the hugely successful 1950s BBC TV Quatermass serials. If you missed that post, click here. This week it is the turn of the first cinema sequel, Quatermass II (released in the US as Enemy From Space), recently shown on BBC TV in a beautifully restored HD transfer.
When we last saw Professor Bernard Quatermass, he had no sooner saved the world then he was back doing the very thing that had caused the problem in the first place: Launching a rocket into space. When this follow-up film—incidentally the first film sequel to identify itself by adding a number to its title—begins, Quatermass has much more ambitious plans. He hopes to persuade the British government to fund a program of 50 spaceships, at least some of which are atomic, to carry payloads to the moon, where a large permanent base will be constructed. This was in 1957, when Britain was still struggling to rebuild the country and shake off the austerity of the World War II.
Quatermass is again played by American actor Brian Donlevy and directed by Val Guest, but this time the screenplay is by original Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, who brings the character a little more in line with his TV incarnation. On TV, the Professor had been played by John Robinson, replacing Reginald Tate, who brought the scientist to life in the first TV serial but had since died. In this second outing, Donlevy plays Quatermass as a more humane and empathic character. Not entirely obsessed with his own interests, this time he expresses some care and consideration for other people, and makes for a much more likeable and convincing movie hero as a result.
On a trip to London, Quatermass finds that the government committee responsible for funding his moon project is not willing to approve the budget. Meanwhile, mysterious radar traces and a near fatal car accident lead Quatermass to a top secret government installation where his colleague, Marsh, played by Bryan Forbes (who would later direct the 1970s version of The Stepford Wives and produce and co-write The Man Who Haunted Himself), is abducted. It appears the government is developing a new synthetic food. But why do the guards all wear air tanks and breathing masks, and why do they appear so robotic?
The mystery deepens when Quatermass realizes the new government plant is closely based on his moonbase designs. One MP is suspicious, and Quatermass manages to attach himself to an official parliamentary visit to the controversial site. He also teams up with Inspector Lomax again, the character returning from the first film but now played by John Longden (rather than Jack Warden) as rather more focused and businesslike. Gone are the domestic scenes with his wife and any references to his Christian faith.
With a few longuers along the way, Quatermass II develops into an exciting thriller as the Professor discovers just what is going on and how high the stakes are. The film just might be considered Britain’s answer to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though if the first Quatermass were considered SF horror, Quatermass II would be an SF war action movie—think of the difference between Alien and Aliens.
Just like Quatermass himself, this sequel is much more ambitious. The budget was clearly greatly increased, and it shows on screen. The cast is much larger and there is far more action, a lot of which is based in and around the secret government installation—actually filmed at the Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex, shot in a way that lends an air of vast, brooding, alien menace. Made just 12 years after the end of WWII, the conflict plays out very much like a British war film of the time, with a lot of submachine gun based combat, a realistically high body count on both sides (though not much blood), and a tense, siege-based finale. There is even subtext considering the merits of collaboration with the enemy. The influence on much British TV of the following decades, not the least of which is Doctor Who, is easy enough to spot.
Make the necessary allowances for the now inevitably primitive looking effects and you’ll find a tense SF action thriller that remains resonant today. Left or right alike can find a variety of interpretations and messages here, such a blank canvas do the aliens present.
Quatermass II is a rare sequel that is an improvement over the original in every respect. Well worth tracking down, it has recently been released on a UK Blu-ray (unfortunately locked to region B) as an extra, along with another Hammer SF thriller, X: The Unknown (1956), both supporting the original Quatermass Xperiment on a triple-bill disc. In fact, those Blu-ray HD transfers are presumably the same used for the recent BBC screenings, particularly given that the BBC also showed X:The Unknown.