Quatermass

Here’s the lecture I gave on The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957) during the British Horror Film course, for which I also dealt with Tod Slaughter and Scream and Scream Again (1970).

quatermass-xperiment

First an axiom: movies themselves interpret other movies fully as much as their respective audience members do. That is to say, films themselves participate in the process of determining what other films might mean, if they meant something. This becomes more or less clear depending on the degree to which a given film forces upon you the recognition that what you’re watching is in fact a movie that has itself seen other movies, some of which you, the present-day viewer, may or may not be familiar with. Now obviously such a forcing and such a recognition can be achieved in any number of ways, and it’s part of the function of our lectures to model for you a variety of approaches that you yourselves can make use of in putting this recognition of intertextuality or of allusiveness to work both in your own essays for this course and in your own thinking about the encounters you have outside the classroom and off campus with other visual texts, of which no doubt your daily lives are filled to overflowing.

There’s a particular urgency in confronting this issue of genre interpretation head-on because as of last week we are now in that part of the course in which issues of seriality are starting to exert pressures and demands on our attentions. That is to say, with the two Quatermass films last week and the first two Hammer Frankenstein films tonight and the first of the Hammer Dracula films next Tuesday night, we ought to be increasingly sensitized to the ways in which seriality constitutes as much an exercise in interpretation as it does in repetition. Another way of putting this would be to say that if you’ve been harboring doubts as to the utility of your undertaking something like genre analysis, then the various and supernumerary sequels to The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and Dracula (1958) unavoidably confront you with the necessity of accepting and working through the fact that movies have seen, see, and will have always seen other movies. At the very least, you have to concede that Quatermass 2 (1957) has gotten around to seeing The Quatermass Xperiment; you have to admit that The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) must have watched The Curse of Frankenstein at some point; and you cannot help but cop to the fact that Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) has spent some time viewing Dracula just as Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) has in its turn certainly watched Dracula: Prince of Darkness, otherwise the titular significance of Dracula’s having risen from the grave becomes opaque (How did Dracula get in the grave, after all, if Dracula: Prince of Darkness didn’t end by putting him there? we might otherwise be forced to ask).

For next Tuesday you’re being asked to read Sven Lütticken’s essay, “The Planet of the Remakes,” which very cogently (if nevertheless contentiously) lays out both the impasses and possibilities that get opened up by this Hollywood-enthralled cultural logic of repetition and difference, so I don’t want to anticipate too much of what you’re going to read there. What I am about to say about these two Quatermass films is in the interest of laying the groundwork for issues and concerns that we’re all going to start talking about together in earnest these next few weeks. Therefore, rather than try to have your wrap your heads around a bold speculative claim or two regarding these films, I want instead to do something a bit simpler but no less important, which is to say I want to slow things down and do something like a comparative analysis of the first two Quatermass movies. That is to say, I want us to close read what The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 mean in light of their differences from and similarities to each other, and I want to try to do this by just examining the respective ways they begin, for it is in their openings that these two films perhaps most affectedly overlap in ways that perhaps prove more generative than you might otherwise have expected.

Let’s start with The Quatermass Xperiment and, in particular, with a scene that you’re all probably sick to death of by now, but you’re going to have to tough it out at least one more time. Here goes:

[PAUSE AT KISS] You’ll have noticed (either now or previously) that the diegetic noise of Quatermass’ falling rocket doesn’t kick in until this roll in the hay starts to become a real roll in the hay. The idiotic and mutual laughing fits of these two game rustic mates in the film’s first three shots start to take on all the quasi-ethnographic force of a bucolic mating ritual, in which the game or the task at hand is to see how much each partner can get away with and for how long (note that the laughing young woman lets the laughing young man stop her at the fence and then lets him start to move in for an embrace before she leads him on a hysterically abbreviated chase into the haystack, putting that embrace into brief parenthesis until she lets the young man push her into the hay).

This has the effect of making sex (or simply just its prospect) subject to a negotiatable set of scripted behaviors or comportments. That is to say, getting someone to be willing to roll around in the hay with you isn’t something you need verbal language to accomplish, or at least that’s what the opening shots of the film suggest; instead, all you need is someone who’s up for laughing when you laugh, for running when you run, and for falling in a haystack when you fall in a haystack.

So until the sound of the rocket intrudes upon their lives and on the film itself, the young rustic couple looks an awful lot like Victor Carroon, insofar as the pair up to this point share (even revel) in the sort of pantomime-performance that goes a long way into the making up of Carroon’s harried existence in this film. Reduced to a set of groans and grunts, shambling lurches and slime-trailing crawls, Carroon fitfully subsists throughout The Quatermass Xperiment by ostentatiously expressing himself through his non-verbal behavior, even though that behavior doesn’t seem to be conveying much to anyone else—it is as if Carroon never quite manages to escape the silent movie that Quatermass develops and then watches of the events that unfolded on the rocket in space after it lost touch with the ground crew on Earth.

Unlike the courting couple, therefore, Carroon’s pantomime performance doesn’t appear to be subject to the norms of communicative action or behavior that seem to be at work in the opening scene up to this point, and in fact the absence of such norms makes him the victim of the explanations and projects of all sorts of people who mean him no good and who all ultimately leave unexplained just what it is Carroon wants and just what it is he is becoming exactly. Into this silent world of seduction, however, Quatermass’ rocket (with the suffering Carroon in it) descends, abruptly cutting off the pantomime and brusquely inserting our courting couple back into a world where verbal language and speedy communication prove exigent, especially when something unknown threatens to impale you and your partner in the haystack in which you happen to be rolling around. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT TRACKING SHOT] Here we have a pretty interesting instance of repetition, insofar as the amorous courtship chase into the haystack gets repeated here as a frightened flight away from the haystack and toward the distant farmhouse. The camera even repeats an earlier set of movements that it used in the haystack chase. In the third shot of the film, you’ll remember that the camera followed the young lovers in a pan shot that focused on the young man first before the camera started to track in pursuit of both the man and the woman as they landed into the haystack in the midst of one of their giggling fits. In the fearful chase, the camera again reproduces a pan shot, but this time the pan starts by following Maggie before the young man begins to catch up with her, at which point the camera again starts to track in pursuit of both the fleeing lovers.

There’s probably a lot to be said about this doubling of pans and tracking shots, but all I want to point out here is that heteronormative courtship and mortal fright are made to look an awful lot like each other here, at least in terms of how the film is representing those two things for you. Another way to put this would be to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is already interpreting itself for its viewers, insofar as these two strikingly similar shots show that the film is itself interested in something like recursive or self-referential development. Alternatively, if you don’t buy this recursive reading because it treats these scenes in too-abstract a fashion, then you could productively note instead that there is something very Victor Carroon-like in the film’s repetitious deployment of pans and tracking shots in these opening scenes. The film here seems to be reproducing out of itself that which it happens to come across. Extrapolating from this observation a bit more, we could note further that a reading like this would probably see in the film’s use of cinematic devices the formal expression of particular bits of its monstrous content. These early doppelgänger shots appear to preemptively translate Carroon’s cactus hand and his octopoidally undulating mess of a body at the end of the film into the structure of the film itself from the very beginning. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT FATHER] Quick question:  how long do you suppose that man has been watching Maggie and her suitor out there in the field? [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT COLLAPSED ROOF] As was pointed out Thursday, Quatermass’ rocket not only interrupts a romantic encounter in a field but also lays waste to hearth and home as well, which would have had all sorts of obvious (if nevertheless still potent for all that) resonances for British post-war audiences who had either experienced the Blitz or (in the ten years since the end of the war) become accustomed to seeing all sorts of representations of it in British cinema and on the telly. The strange thing here is that German planes and V-2 rockets tended to target more militaristic locations (like RAF airfields, airplane factories, and sites essential to ground infrastructure) as well as more urban settings (like London), a point that the 1953 BBC series version of The Quatermass Experiment more obviously picked up on because in that series the rocket is shown to have crash-landed into a tenement flat in Wimbledon, London, and not a field somewhere in rural England. In this view, then, Quatermass’ supposedly failed rocket experiment looks more like a successful extension into the British countryside of the Nazis’ terror rocket attacks. The symbolic resonance of Quatermass’ failed rocket experiment, therefore, makes him look a lot like Wernher Von Braun, chief rocket engineer to the Nazis and (after the war) to NASA in the United States (so this linkage is far from spurious). To repeat another of Marsh’s observations on Thursday, sixty seconds into The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass already looks an awful lot like one of those science fiction film allies who also happens to be an aggressive dominator. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT DOOR] It’s worth noting that this is probably the first and last time in the movie that a Brit is going to feel capable enough to try and face-off alone against the threat that Quatermass either poses or makes possible. That is to say, the fantasy that all you need in order to successfully master the danger presented by whatever it is that landed in your field is a shotgun and a working phone gets blown up pretty quickly. Take a look: [RESUME AND CONCLUDE CLIP]

We finally get the reverse shot here that we perhaps rightfully expected a good deal earlier in the haystack scene when the two rustic mates began pointing fearfully at the thing coming out of the sky. Instead, of getting the expected reverse shot then, however, we’ve had to wait until the rocket has firmly rooted itself in the earth before the film gives us what we’ve waited to see all along, though what we get here is perhaps a good deal more obscene, phallic, and pronged than anything we might have foreseen or envisioned.

The punctual explosions accompanying this big reveal mark the climax of the film’s opening and should cause us to pause for a moment and consider the degrees to which much of what happens from here on out simply repeats the narrative of this opening. That is to say, in these opening scenes, Quatermass quite literally interrupts the prospects of the sort of activity that can lead to human reproduction. As we well know from how the rest of the movie plays out, Quatermass never quite gives up this role of interrupter either. Instead, he seems hell-bent on convincing everyone throughout the movie that the real danger posed by Victor Carroon is that of Carroon’s dangerous self-reproductive efficiency and abilities (abilities that I have linked to the formal structure of the film’s opening scene above, you’ll remember). In this view, then, the climax of The Quatermass Xperiment would appear to repeat the climax of its opening scenes, insofar as what Quatermass thinks he is doing at Westminster Abbey is violently interrupting a scene of reproduction (or, more exactly put, of its prospect), which is something we have already seen him doing (albeit inadvertently and from a much greater distance) in the opening part of the movie. At the very least, the tacit linkages I rehearsed earlier regarding the pantomiming lovers and the pantomiming Carroon seem to be borne out by these overlaps between beginning and ending. Moreover, Quatermass’ dictatorial refusal to allow Judith to visit Carroon in the hospital also starts to resonate with all this, we might be tempted to notice as well.

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s turn to the first shots of Quatermass 2, which eschew opening credits in order to dive right into the action, which ought to come down to you now in a haze of familiarity.

[PAUSE AT “The burn—we’ll get it fixed”] When you first watched this scene last Tuesday night, you might have wondered what Judith and Victor Carroon were doing in the sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment. At the very least, these shots of a woman driving her silent, brooding, and (as we find out later) alien-possessed lover (Chris) away from a threat somewhere behind them carry a resonance we can’t really ignore. In other words, Quatermass 2 shows from the very beginning that it is going to pick up on the sex and relationship stuff that was so recursively developed in the first Quatermass film.

Moreover, this continuation of concerns from the earlier film does not seem to consist of the cynical recycling of content but rather of the reworking of that content. Stuff that was a problem in the first film remains a problem in this film but (and this is the key point) without remaining a problem in the same way necessarily. The second Quatermass is not caught up in a Walter Craig-like nightmare of eternal return because (unlike Dead of Night [1945]) the same stuff returns but in a different set of relationships, associations, and combinations. That is to say, something like history or change is intervening here, and the opening of Quatermass 2 represents this for us in a particularly nifty way because instead of having our game rustic mates and/or Judith and Victor Carroon running way from that which Quatermass has wrought, Quatermass 2 gives them the chance to do to Quatermass what Quatermass seemed hell-bent on doing to them in the first film. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AFTER NEAR MISS] Instead of nearly getting impaled by Quatermass’ rocket, our fleeing lovers nearly t-bone Quatermass’ car. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT “They burned him, mister”] In many respects, a lot of what’s happening here is by its very nature simply just an efficiently paced example of up-front exposition, of an info-dump meant to bring you, the audience, up to speed without too much fuss or time wasted. Interestingly, however, this is an info-dump that immediately puts Quatermass in a position to which he is not accustomed, at least not based on our viewing of his actions in The Quatermass Xperiment, for in that film it is in fact he who imperiously hurls speculative exposition like bricks at other characters, not the other way round. Not only do the young picnicking lovers get a chance to (almost) run over Quatermass, but also they get to put him in a position to which he is not much used to, which is quite simply that of us, the audience members, who badly need to be brought up to speed and quickly.

Alternatively, we could note that if Quatermass got to ride roughshod over the local authorities in the field at the beginning of The Quatermass Xperiment because he was the authority figure most responsible for that rocket being firmly rooted there, then here he has to play the role of just another civilian interrogatively gawking at the fall-out from someone (or, rather, something) else’s rocket launch. Leaping ahead from here to later sections of the film, we realize that technocratic authority and the implacable impersonality of those holding such positions of authority remains very much a problem in Quatermass 2, but it’s no longer a problem that Quatermass symbolizes or is symptomatic of all on his lonesome. The problems that come with the expression of such technocratic control over civilian populations have become vertically integrated and thoroughly bureaucratized to such a degree that all this cult of personality stuff surrounding Quatermass’ bad behavior starts to look so downright quaint that we might start to nostalgically long for its return in light of the impasses thrown up by the structural nature of the enemy authority in Quatermass 2.

That is to say, how do you successfully overcome a life-threatening encounter with alien life-forms when those very same alien-forms have infiltrated and are in fact in command of the institutions of your recently socialized country? (To be sure, the solution thrown up by the film’s narrative seems to be simply that of nuking the aliens’ Quatermass, who is presumably up there in the alien spaceship on the dark side of the earth, but the problem—which again is a structural one—doesn’t go away for all that because removing the head of a bureaucracy doesn’t make that bureaucracy go away.) I would also note in passing here that if the crux of the matter in The Quatermass Xperiment seemed to be sexual reproduction, here in Quatermass 2 the problems seem to be circumscribed more fully by the problems of mass production—that is to say, with a change in the figure of technocratic authority, we get a correlative change in the object whose significance characters will spend most of the movie struggling to specify the meaning of.

Obviously, there is more to be said on this point, but I will leave it for the Q&A for us to get back round to saying what that more is or what it might be said to consist of. For now, let it suffice for us to notice that immediately (and without Quatermass having to tell us about the talking down he got in London following a recent rocket launch that turned into a nuclear explosion) Quatermass 2 gives us a Quatermass who is no longer occupying the position of authority. As always, he’s put out by the behavior of those around him (and as always, he reveals himself to be something of an unreconstructed misogynist—“Go organize me some coffee”), but as this opening encounter demonstrates those around him can no longer be said to be under him or entirely under his control, which is something that the woman here very tacitly (if nevertheless categorically) demonstrates in her refusal to accept Quatermass’ offer of a ride, as if she always already knew that he means bad news to young courting couples and (in particular) to young women ever and always. [RESUME AND CONCLUDE CLIP]

I want to wrap things up by comparing this final pan up to the seemingly empty night sky to the reverse shot of the downed rocket in The Quatermass Xperiment because ostensibly both shots give us the apparent cause of all the fuss that happens at the beginning of each film. If in The Quatermass Xperiment, this cause is flamboyantly visible (and few things in this series are as flamboyant as that there steaming rocket), then in Quatermass 2 the cause with which we are presented in this final pan upward is a good deal more subtle for it is presented to us between the lines as it were. In fact, we could be forgiven for not thinking to look for a cause in this final pan because what it shows us doesn’t seem to be very much at all. In other words, the hypervisibility of Quatermass’ rocket gets responded to in this sequel with the invisible shot of the aliens’ spacecraft, which is presumably somewhere up there above the dark side of the earth, making it a perhaps not unfitting emblem or symbol for the film’s “real” threat, which seems to be that of the faceless violence perpetrated against putatively helpless civilian populations by the bureaucratic institutions of a recently socialized state.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the staggered, wavy overlay of the film’s title-card (Quatermass 2) onto this image of the unseen malevolent alien force somewhere up there in the night sky ought perhaps to have us laughing like the lovers at the beginning of The Quatermass Xperiment because the filling of that alien absence with Quatermass’ name and with that sequential numeral is perhaps meant to console us (if only momentarily) with the proposition that this film is just going to give British audiences another dose of ugly Americanism.

If only it were that simple.

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