Enemy from Space/Quatermass II (1957) ***
After The Creeping Unknown/The Quatermass Xperiment got the ball rolling in a major way for big-screen horror and sci-fi in Britain, a sequel was just about inevitable. It was Hammer Film Productions’ good luck that Nigel Kneale had already written just such a thing in the form of “Quatermass II,” which aired on British television the same year The Creeping Unknown hit the theaters. Again Hammer snatched up the movie rights, but by that time, the success of Kneale’s teleplays (and of the first Quatermass film as well) had given him enough clout that he was able make sure the theatrical version of Quatermass II (which played the US under the rather snappier title Enemy from Space) would hew a little more closely to his original vision than had its predecessor. Val Guest was to direct once more, and to contribute to the screenplay, but Kneale got to write the first draft, and his influence shows in a slightly less prickly characterization for Bernard Quatermass.
Quatermass (played once more by Brian Donlevy) is on his way to work when he narrowly avoids a serious auto wreck. He just barely swerves out of the way before a young couple in a convertible come speeding across the road from an unmarked track intersecting it, not stopping until their car embeds itself in the soft, earthen embankment on the opposite shoulder. The woman at the wheel is unhurt, but her boyfriend (whose delirious attempt to seize control of the vehicle led to the crash) is either sick or hurt or both. According to the driver, he had picked up a strange stone from the ground near the village of Winterdon Flats, and something inside it shot out, burned his face, and sent him into some kind of shock. Quatermass helps the woman get her car back on the road, and continues on to his destination, taking with him the pieces of the mysterious stone for analysis.
Meanwhile, back at the lab where the professor works, his colleagues, Brand (William Franklyn, from The Satanic Rites of Dracula) and Marsh (Satellite in the Sky’s Bryan Forbes), have picked up something very strange on their radar scanner. The faint blips resemble a meteor shower when seen on the viewer, but the objects are traveling much too slowly through the atmosphere to be normal meteorites. The two scientists have just determined that the objects’ trajectory ought to have them landing in an arc-shaped area about 90 miles away when their boss arrives, not in the best of moods. Quatermass has just come from London, where he was futilely pleading with Parliament for the continued funding of his project, the design and construction of a prototype lunar colony complex, and the fleet of rockets necessary to carry it up to the moon. So far, all Quatermass and his team have to show for the millions of pounds they have spent is a single atomic rocket which is patently unsuitable for any manned mission, and the government wants the bulk of the project suspended until the scientists can come up with a rocket that is safe for human occupancy. Quatermass has too much on his mind to be interested in the funny blips Brand and Marsh got on their radar screens, at least until Brand mentions where they seem to have landed— somewhere in the countryside around Winterdon Flats. That gets Quatermass thinking that perhaps the hollow stone the driver of the convertible gave him was one of Brand’s odd meteors. Giving his colleague the stone, he asks Brand to try to determine what the thing’s form would have been before the heat of reentry hit it, and then summons Marsh to accompany him on a road trip out to Winterdon Flats.
Whatever Quatermass was expecting to find at the village, it certainly wasn’t an exact duplicate of the colony complex that Parliament just got through telling him he wasn’t allowed to build. But that’s exactly what confronts the two scientists when they follow a detour off the closed main road to Winterdon Flats. They also find dozens of hollow stones like the one Brand is currently busy analyzing, in conditions ranging from practically pulverized to more or less intact. Marsh picks up the best-preserved example that he can find, but no sooner has he done so than the thing splits open, sprays his face with hot ammonia vapor, and shoots some strange sharp object into his right cheek. The attack leaves Marsh incapacitated in exactly the same way as was the motorist’s boyfriend the night before. More ominous still is what happens immediately thereafter. A platoon of men armed with Thompson submachine guns surrounds Quatermass, seizes Marsh, and then sends the professor packing at gunpoint without a word of explanation.
Those of you who’ve seen The Creeping Unknown will remember that Bernard Quatermass is not the sort of man to meekly accept such treatment. When the local authorities in the village refuse to help him (they’ve been told that what goes on at the plant outside of town is top secret, and that’s entirely good enough for them), Quatermass determines to bring his case to a higher authority. Driving into London, the professor seeks out Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (played this time around by John Longden, from The Phantom Strikes and Frozen Alive), who had assisted him with his space monster troubles a couple years back. Lomax knows about the facilities at Winterdon Flats, but can tell Quatermass only that the plant is part of some secret government project to produce synthetic food. So secret is it, in fact, that even Parliament is in the dark about what really goes on there. Lomax puts Quatermass in touch with MP Vinnie Broadhead (Tom Chatto, of It! and The Frozen Dead), a member of the House of Commons who is determined to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding Winterdon Flats, and bring the agency running it to account for all the government money they’ve been gobbling up during the last two years. Quatermass picked the right time to come see Broadhead, too, because the MP has just received his pass from the security service authorizing him to visit the mysterious plant, and he arranges for Quatermass to accompany him when he goes for his tour of the place.
You’ll know these guys are up to no good the moment you lay eyes on the public relations officer (John Van Eyssen, from The Four-Sided Triangle and Horror of Dracula) they send to conduct the tour. This guy is so suspicious in his zombie-like smarm that you won’t even need to see the telltale scar on his wrist to discern that he’s in cahoots with the titular Enemy from Space. And for a tour guide, he’s awfully reluctant to answer anybody’s questions about what goes on in the various parts of the plant. Quatermass and Broadhead swiftly tire of having smoke blown up their asses by their host, and sneak away from the tour group to have a look around. A trip to the infirmary— where one would expect to find Marsh, given the shape he was in when the guards arrested him— turns up nothing but a bunch of unoccupied hospital beds, but Broadhead finds something more telling behind an access panel in one of the storage vats supposedly devoted to partially processed synthetic food. Opening the hatch, he is overcome by ammonia fumes and falls inside, where he lands in a deep pool of corrosive sludge. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be too keen on eating anything made out of that. Broadhead’s little swim proves fatal, and the factory guards’ efforts to apprehend Quatermass very nearly do as well. Looks like he and Lomax are going to have a lot to talk about back in London.
So here’s a question for you: How the hell can there be an operation like Winterdon Flats underway without anybody but one cantankerous MP catching on to it? Simple— whoever is running Winterdon Flats has some friends in very high places. The day after Broadhead’s disastrous trip to the plant, the major London newspapers all run a story claiming that the dead MP has left the country on diplomatic business. Not only that, when Lomax goes to see his superintendent about Quatermass’s allegations, he notices that the boss has a scar on his hand just like those the scientist claims to have seen on all those who have been taken over by the controllers of the mysterious factory. In that case, there’s nothing for it but for Lomax to accompany Quatermass back to Winterdon Flats with reporter Jimmy Hall (Sidney James) in tow, in the hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery and then using the power of the press to spread word of the conspiracy. A bit of sleuthing uncovers hints that the plant might really be producing food after all— just not food for any earthly organism. It is Quatermass’s hypothesis that the hollow meteorites that have been falling in the vicinity of the plant (which Brand’s reconstruction reveals to have been the unquestionable products of intelligent design) are really landing craft for tiny creatures from outer space— creatures which are incapable of living unaided in Earth’s atmosphere. The four huge domes that dominate the plant must each house billions of these invaders, which depend for their sustenance upon human beings whom the aliens use as a kind of living space suit. If Quatermass is right, the inability of the aliens to breathe our air offers no impediment at all to their invasion; as long as they can use their status as a government project to keep bringing in dignitaries for “conversion,” they'll be able to gradually infiltrate all of British society from the top down.
It’s natural to look at Enemy from Space as a kind of British answer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but to do so would not be quite accurate. For one thing, director Val Guest claims not to have yet seen the American film when he began work on this movie. More importantly, though, the TV miniseries from which Enemy from Space derives aired fully a year before Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that approximately the same currents of unease inform both films— with one major, telling difference. In Don Siegel’s movie, the alien interlopers are (at least for the moment) confined to a small town in Southern California. There are thus no pod people with any more pull in society than a village mayor or sheriff. Kneale and Guest, on the other hand, offer us a scenario in which the aliens are already well established by the time their secret gets out, at which point they’re bidding fair to bring the entire government of a major world power under their control. Not only that, it’s worth pointing out that at least half of the trouble Quatermass has in thwarting the invasion comes not from the aliens themselves, or even their human slaves, but from ordinary men and women who have uncritically accepted the word of the alien agents who have told them that their secrets are a matter of “national security.” Everyone from the head alderman of Winterdon Flats to the construction workers who built the aliens’ hideout gives Quatermass a hard time while he’s trying to save their asses, any curiosity they might have had regarding the sinister goings-on at the plant having been put to rest by that magical incantation. Kneale himself has said that this angle on the story was of particular importance to him; by including it in the screenplay, he was attempting to criticize what he felt was a major failing in the political sensibility of the British populace. It’s certainly a far cry from what you see in contemporary American movies on the same theme (the heroes of It Came from Outer Space, Invaders from Mars, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers never faced similar hassles from those they were out to protect), and it has much to do with why Enemy from Space has such a strong independent personality despite its slightly tired subject matter.