DVD Review: Quatermass II, Part 5

Episode 5: The Frenzy

Professor Quatermass stands stunned by the ammonia-breathing alien he saw at the very end of Part 4, when one of the guards finally notices him and demands to know why he opened the “investigation window.” When he doesn’t answer immediately, other guards with guns drawn converge upon him… but before they surround the professor and shoot him down on the spot, they are abruptly called away. There’s an emergency situation at the entrance gate.

Villagers storming the factory.

Remember the men from the pub in the pre-fab village, who were at last convinced that they’d been duped into assisting the aliens? Well, they’re out there now.

They don’t have pitchforks, and the only torches they carry are the kind that Americans would call flashlights, but they’re angry and determined. They want some answers about what’s really going on at the plant. The union shop steward, the elderly man who was celebrating his 25th anniversary, wants to see the manager. The others want to know what the projectiles they call “overshots” actually are and if the things are dangerous.

When the guards try to clear the gate and force them back, a fight ensues. Men on both sides are killed, but the workmen get hold of a couple of guns and make their way into the central control room for the plant.
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DVD Review: Quatermass II, Part 4

BBC Logo Before this episode begins, the BBC warns us that what we’re about to see may not be “suitable for children or those of you with a nervous disposition.”

So brace yourselves!

Episode 4: The Coming

The story picks up where it left off at the end of Part 3, with Dr. Leo Pugh locating the asteroid in its hidden orbit; it’s coming closer to Earth and will be at its nearest point in about 3 hours. Everybody expects that more of those fake meteorites containing ammonia-breathing entities will be launched then.

Quatermass expounds further on his theories about the “colonial minds” of these creatures and what they’ve been up. The UFO scare/meteorite shower a year ago tells him that this invasion has been going on for at least that long. The first “showers” to hit Earth were more-or-less at random, but the creatures in the little projectiles took over enough of the local population in places like Winnerden Flats to get themselves organized. Their plans are moving into the final phase now.

He tells Fowler that the secrecy surrounding Winnerden Flats must end and the danger it presents be made known to the public. Fowler heads back to the Ministry to do what he can.

Paula has also been speculating about the asteroid that’s on its way toward Earth. It’s too small to hold any kind of atmosphere, so it can’t be natural. Her dad has also figured that much out. The Quatermasses agree that the source of the asteroid and the creatures on it must be one of the outer planets; the professor favors Saturn’s moons.
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DVD Review: Quatermass II, Part 3

Episode 3: The Food

At the end of Part 2, one of the men on the Winnerden Flats synthetic food project committee was revealed to have been marked by exposure to the so-called “meteorites” that have been falling in the vicinity of the top-secret factory. It’s assumed by Quatermass and the viewer that the other committee members are also under the influence of whatever’s inside those objects, even though the marks on them aren’t in such obviously visible places.

Member of Parliament Vincent Broadhead, who’s called this committee meeting, mentions the objects and calls them “missiles.” He’s afraid that these things are an attempt to sabotage the delicate food cultures at the plant by some means of infection.

The marked man Quatermass takes the plastic model of a “meteorite” out of his briefcase and shows it to them. The reaction is dead silence. He shoves it toward the man with a mark on his face and asks him if he’s ever seen anything like it before.

The marked man seems to struggle with himself and tries to answer. “If I could tell you–” he begins, but he’s shouted down by one of the others, who insists there is no infection and the project will go forward. These questions must not continue.

Quatermass is asked to leave the room.

He returns to Fowler’s office, where he declares that he felt real menace from the men around that table in the last few minutes he was there.

Fowler finds this incredible. “Menace? In the Ministry?” About 20 minutes have passed since Quatermass left the meeting, and he and Fowler return to the conference room to see what’s going on.

The room is now empty, except for Broadhead, who sits slumped over in his seat at the end of the table. There is a faint, lingering smell of ammonia in the air.

Broadhead is at first woozy and disoriented, but as he recovers he tells them, “Inquiry’s over. Nothing to find out. Everything’s in order.” He also has the beginning of a double-circle mark on the side of his neck.

A doctor arrives, and doesn’t answer Fowler’s question about who sent for him. The doctor has that same stilted speaking voice that the security guards and committee members displayed, so he’s obviously One of Them.

While the doctor tends to Broadhead, Quatermass and Fowler quietly confer on the other side of the room. Quatermass whispers that he must get inside that top-security facility and see what’s going on.

They meet up a little later in an espresso bar with a cheerfully vacuous young man named Rupert Ward. Rupert’s job is Public Relations, and one of the things he does is escort important people to see the Winnerden Flats factory. Politicians, mostly, and members of the press. He only takes them there; he assumes someone else brings them back.

For the first time, Rupert seems to think this odd. But nothing’s happened to anyone he’s taken to the plant, he assures Quatermass. “They all turned up again. You see their names in the papers.”

At this point, you might be thinking that this story is similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers–but that film didn’t come out until the following year.

Rupert still has his security pass, so he agrees to escort Quatermass and Fowler to Winnerden Flats for an official tour.

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DVD Review: Quatermass II, Part 2

Episode 2: The Mark

At the end of Part 1, Quatermass’s prospective son-in-law Capt. John Dillon got a face full of whatever’s inside those meteorites. Quatermass said there was something on Dillon’s face, but as this episode begins, it’s already disappearing.

Examining his companion’s face, Quatermass observes that’s there still some discoloration near the hairline, but Dillon is behaving weirdly. Like the old farmer, he’s woozy and disoriented, and he’s hostile to Quatermass touching him.

Guards from the super-secret research facility arrive then and take Dillon away. They tell Quatermass that he must leave—now. Dillon will be looked after. They speak in oddly stilted and atonal voices and I don’t think it’s just bad acting. Quatermass wants to come with them to be sure his friend is all right, but they all–Dillon included–refuse this request. Dillon snarls that Quatermass mustn’t follow. The guards put him into their truck and return to the facility.

Quatermass stands alone–no, wait, not alone. A homeless man who’s been hiding himself in the ruins of a cottage emerges now that the guards are gone (Wilfrid Brambell, not to be confused with Wilfrid Brimley; this guy would later star in the British comedy Steptoe & Son and play Paul McCartney’s “clean” grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night.) Wilfrid Brambell

The old man, who isn’t very clean at the moment, tells Quatermass that he used to travel this way regularly on his vagabond rounds and didn’t believe the whole village could be wiped out so completely since his last visit about a year ago. He was informed of the village’s destruction by the inhabitants of the new, pre-fab town a few miles down the coast on the other side of the secret facility; the workmen for the place and their families live there.

As Quatermass looks over the bulldozed rubble of the former village, he notices something more disturbing. Among the ruins are many, many broken fragments of meteorites similar to the one that just landed, only these are crumbled and weathered, having been exposed to the elements for some months.
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DVD Review: Quatermass II, Part 1

This is the second of the three Quatermass stories that aired on the BBC. After the great success of the The Quatermass Experiment in 1953, this sequel followed the further adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass and his Experimental Rocket Group in 6 episodes in the autumn of 1955.

Episode 1: The Bolts

Before we catch up with the professor’s activities, the first episode opens at a military radar station somewhere out in the English countryside. They are picking up a weak signal–something too small, too low, and too slow-moving to be an airplane.

“Another one of them,” says the sergeant watching the radar screen, and tells the officer in charge, Captain John Dillon, about it.

They continue to track this mysterious object until it comes down about 2500 yards from the radar station.

An elderly farmer is out riding a tractor across his field nearby, when a meteorite lands in front of him. He gets off the tractor to go and have a closer look.

A Farmer out sitting in his fieldPeople in science fiction stories should already know instinctively: Don’t put your face near that thing!

John Hurt could tell him why this is unwise. But put his face near it he does.

Unaware of the farmer’s discovery, Dillon and the sergeant have gone out in a jeep to try and find the object themselves. As they drive along, their conversation informs us that this is the third such object they’ve tracked since they set up their radar base, though they weren’t able to find the other two. There was also some sort of UFO scare about a year ago, perhaps explained by a large meteorite shower in the area. Since then, the army has orders not to discuss any UFO-type sightings with the general public to avoid further panics.

The farmer’s anxious wife is standing at the roadside ahead of them; she flags down the jeep, asks for their help with her husband, and takes them to where he’s still sitting in the field. On the ground beside him are the broken remains of the meteorite. At least, there’s no sign that a crustacean-like, alien face-hugger or similar creature was inside it, but whatever was has caused him to become woozy and disoriented.

When asked, the farmer reports that the meteorite broke apart after it hit the ground, and that there was a funny smell. “Like old stables.”

He seems well enough not to need medical help. Dillon gathers up the broken meteorite fragments. He and the sergeant feel as if they ought to contact some about them. But who?

“There’s a man I know named Quatermass,” Dillon tells the sergeant.

The sergeant knows just who he means. “The Rocket Man?”
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DVD Review: Number 13

This is the last of the M.R. James-based Ghost Stories for Christmas in my DVD set; it aired on the BBC in 2006.

It’s the story of a haunted inn. During the day, rooms Number 12 and 14 sit next to each other, spacious with 3 windows overlooking the street. At night, in the dark, the rooms appear somewhat smaller and it takes the occupant a little time to observe that one of their windows is missing. If he happens to go down the corridor during the night, he may also notice that there is a door marked 13 halfway between 12 and 14, and the occupant of 13 seems to exhibit some very strange behaviors.

You can find the story on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX06.htm.

It’s one of my favorite M.R. James stories, amusing as well as interesting for the spacial dynamics of its haunted place. Even though it’s the last one I’m reviewing from the DVD set, it was the first one I watched when the package arrived.

The most obvious, immediate difference between the written and television versions is that the setting has been altered. James’s story is set in the Jutland town of Viborg, in Denmark. The BBC version has been relocated to an unspecified cathedral town supposedly in East Anglia (although I think the cathedral shown is actually Winchester; Old Stumpy is fairly recognizable, as cathedrals go).

The Golden Lion inn

Wherever it is, the old inn looks charming as our protagonist arrives in a horse-drawn carriage.

The gentleman’s name is Professor Anderson (Greg Wise), and the first thing we perceive about his character is that he’s a supercilious jerk, snubbing the innkeeper (David Burke, last seen in A View from a Hill) almost as soon as he’s in the front door. After the porter drags his large and heavy portmanteau up two flights of stairs, Anderson declares that it’s too high up. Can’t he have a room on the lower floor? The innkeeper is happy to oblige, so thump, thump, thump, the heavy baggage gets dragged back downstairs. The porter looks as if he already knows this guy isn’t going to give him a decent tip.

Anderson looks into a couple of rooms and decides on 12 as the one that will best suit his needs. He doesn’t care about a view of the cathedral; he just wants a quiet place to sleep and work.

It’s a lovely room, with old-fashioned oak paneling, a bow window on either side of a large fireplace, and a comfortably sized bed with white curtains.

The Garden of Earthly Delights--just the thing for your hotel room! The one odd thing about the room is the painting hanging on the far wall next to the bed. Would a late-Victorian hotel in a provincial town really put up a copy of the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights?

The porter doesn’t get any tip; the innkeeper Mr Gunton sends him away as soon as the portmanteau is disposed of on a luggage rack against the same wall and delicately asks Anderson if he wouldn’t mind paying in advance. Some previous occupants of this room, apparently respectable people, have left without settling their bills. Mr Gunton particularly mentions a university man, just like the professor, named Entwistle who disappeared one night.

Anderson grumbles, but he pays.

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DVD Review: A View from a Hill

The BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series had petered out by the end of the 1970s. They ceased to use the works of M.R. James as a basis for their story adaptations, instead turning to other classic authors such as Dickens or new and independent works, with varying degrees of success. Some of these are in the DVD set I purchased this spring and I may or may not deal with them later.

After a long lapse, the BBC returned to M.R. James this past decade. In 2005, their first new adaptation was based on a short story titled A View from a Hill. This is a story of James’s that I’d never read before seeing this television version. It’s not in the anthology under my pillow, nor on the Gaslight site. I have found it online in a couple of places and read it since then; for example, it’s on the Thin Ghost site at
http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/162.

Basically, it’s the story of a pair of binoculars that allow the person looking through them to see things such as old buildings that were there long ago in the past. But the way the binoculars were constructed means that there is a price to pay for this vision.

The BBC version begins with a young man (an actor I don’t know named Mark Letheren) standing on the platform of a tiny rural railway stop on a lovely autumn afternoon, and looking impatient. It’s not a delayed train he’s waiting for, but the person who was supposed to come and pick him up.

After awhile, he gives up. Fortunately, he has his bicycle with him; unfortunately, his bag falls off the back onto the road and he has to retrieve it.

When he arrives at the house where he thinks he’s expected, it’s a large and grand old place but looks neglected and perhaps even empty. No–there are two people living here: the last Squire, Mr. Richards, and his elderly family retainer, Patten (Pip Torrens and David Burke respectively, two actors I know fairly well).

Mr. Richards is astonished to see the young man, who introduces himself as “Fanshawe. I’m here about the collection.”

Fanshaw tries on a skull“That’s next week,” says the squire.

“This week. I’m here.”

“So I see.”

Both Richards and his manservant are a hoot in their different ways. Neither seems entirely in touch with reality, but Richards has more funny lines.

Fanshawe is shown to his room. While unpacking and meticulously putting his belongings away, he discovers that his binoculars have been broken.
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DVD Review: Ghostwatch

On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC aired this program as a live, reality show (although it was actually neither). Banks of telephones were at the ready to receive calls from the general public to hear about their own brushes with the supernatural.  Viewers were promised an evening in the most haunted house in England–not some ancient gothic-style edifice with towers and secret passages and a long history of beheadings and nuns walled up when the place was an abbey, but an ordinary looking council house in a post-war suburban development in a place called Fox Hill in Norfolk.

Mike Smith at the Ghostwatch phones What gave the show not only a sense of being real, but a certain air of respectability, was the presence of some of the BBC’s prominent personalities of the day. The host was journalist Michael Parkinson–a face very familiar to the British viewing public since the 1970s; the closest American equivalent would be someone like Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw. Also appearing were Mike Smith and his wife, Blue Peter’s Sarah Greene. But the person I’m most familiar with among the group is Craig Charles, who was Lister in Red Dwarf, and who provides the comic relief until things get too gruesome for comedy.

After a brief introduction by Michael Parkinson, we are shown a piece of videotape recorded by psychic researchers inside the house at Fox Hill, in a bedroom where two little girls are just going to sleep. A time code in the lower right corner shows that it’s nearly 4 am when thumping sounds are heard coming from the walls. Things start to fly around the darkened room. Both girls are screaming and their mother comes in.

Dr. Pascoe and Michael ParkisonMr. Parkinson is seated in the studio with a parapsychologist, Dr. Lin Pascoe, who’s been involved with the Fox Hill haunting.

Mike Smith mans the phones like it’s a PBS telethon except that the Beeb isn’t asking for money and they aren’t giving away canvas shopping bags. (Although I do like the black T-shirts with the Ghostwatch logo that Sarah Greene and some of the television crew are wearing.)

Sarah, along with a cameraman named Chris and a sound guy also named Mike, will be spending the night in the house with the family, whose name is Early. Remote cameras have been placed in all the rooms and can be viewed at the studio and from the monitors in the equipment vans parked outside, where Craig is stationed.

Although the DVD runs a straight 90 minutes, dialog here and there indicates that the scenes that follow were shown at intervals between other programs throughout that Halloween night.
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DVD Review: Classic Ghost Stories

This was an extra DVD in the M.R. James Ghost Stories set. I’d mentioned that a couple of the other disks had an extra short feature in which Christopher Lee took the role of M.R. James, presenting one of his stories to a group of enthralled students. These are similar short features, done in 1986. Each is about 10 minutes long.

The actor telling the stories is Robert Powell, wearing spectacles and a pinstriped suit with a high Edwardian shirt collar and the black robe of a Cambridge don. The setting for the room he is in likewise suggests that of a scholar at Cambridge, with a desk and shelves full of books on one side, a comfy armchair before a fireplace with a high fender on the other, and a pointed-top Gothic door.

The Mezzotint
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX04.htm.

This is one of James’s most memorable stories, a good, creepy tale of a museum curator who purchases a mezzotint (a kind of engraving) of an old house:

It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn. The legend “A.W.F. sculpsit” was engraved on the narrow margin; and there was no further inscription. The whole thing gave the impression that it was the work of an amateur.

But this scene changes and becomes more disturbing each time anyone looks at it.
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DVD Review: The Quatermass Experiment

This is the very first of the Quatermass stories. It aired on the BBC in July and August of 1953 and introduces us to Professor Quatermass and the adventures of his Experimental Rocket Group.

Unfortunately, only the first two episodes of the original series survive. The DVD features a copy of the script so you can see how this version of Nigel Kneale’s story turned out, but I’ve also watched the Hammer film version that was made a couple of years later.

First, the two television episodes.

Episode 1: Contact Has Been Established

The episode begins with a voice-over announcer informing the viewers that the first manned rocket into space was launched from Australia one morning. The crew consisted of three men, whom we’ll hear more about later on. Contact with the rocket was suddenly lost and there’s been nothing but silence for more than 50 hours.

We then go to the control room for the British Experimental Rocket Group in the UK, as they discuss the problem with their Australian base. Everyone looks anxious, but one woman on the team seems more upset than the others. The group’s leader–Bernard Quatermass (played by Reginald Tate), although we won’t get his name for awhile yet–speaks comfortingly to her; their conversation establishes that she is Judith Carroon (Isabel Dean), married to one of the crewmen aboard the rocket, and a valued mathematician on the team. Judith is worried that one her calculations could have caused this malfunction. Judith Carroon and Prof. Quatermass

Then, to everyone’s relief, they pick up a signal. They aren’t able to contact the crew, but the rocket is heading back towards Earth. Judith does some calculations to project where it’s going… and track where it’s been. The rocket should have gone into orbit, but broke away and apparently took up some long, elliptical path. It’s been much farther from Earth than it should’ve been–halfway to the Moon if Judith’s math is correct. Quatermass regains remote control of the rocket to start its descent. It comes down in the London suburbs, about 10 miles from their headquarters.

There follows a long interval with a black screen and suspenseful music, and the next scene opens within the ruins of what was an old lady’s home near Wimbledom Common with a great big rocket sticking up through it. The couple next door have come to investigate; the wife seems to think that they’re faced with a nuclear warhead and wants to get away as fast as they can, although if she were right I don’t think they could get far enough quickly enough for safety.

The old lady and her cat The old lady (Katie Johnson from the Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers) is all right, although she’s trapped on what remains of the upper floor with a yowling cat in a wicker carrier. She’s understandably bewildered and believes the Blitz is recurring (“Have they started again?”) A Bobby arrives to rescue both old lady and cat with a tall ladder. Other emergency services people soon gather, as well as the neighbors and reporters eager to interview anybody they can get to talk to them. Among the latter is James Fullalove from the Gazette, who takes this exciting event as a welcome relief from his usual work on things like the Chelsea Flower Show.

By the time the members of the Rocket Group arrive on the scene, the place has taken on an atmosphere of carnival. One of the team, a man named Marsh, sets up radio equipment as close to the rocket as the heat from the exterior will allow and tries once again to contact the men inside. Judith shushes the crowd; she hears someone tapping. “They’re alive!”
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