A great deal pro and con has been written about Hammer Films' adaptations of the three Quatermass TV serials, written by Manx-born Thomas Nigel Kneale. The BBC's equivalent of John Wyndham, with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft for flavor, Kneale always damned with faint praise anything good about the first two feature versions, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 aka Enemy from Space. Yet each is held as a fine example of 1950s science fiction, with taut stories culled from the BBC's original four hours' worth of TV scripts, intelligent dialogue, brisk action, atmospheric music and eerie photography.
Weirdly, no one ever comments that Enemy from Space was originally shot in color.
"Nobody ever asked," chuckled Val Guest in retirement in Palm Springs. Director of both films, Guest was feted at festivals around the world for his body of work, but incredibly, no one ever broached the topic. Guest died in 2006 at 94, but I had interviewed him on videotape in 1993 for my documentary Flesh & Blood, the Hammer Heritage of Horror, as well as spoke with him often by phone. Val and I also recorded the audio commentary track for the film's DVD release -- and I admit my error in not bringing up the subject of color.
"I suppose it's just something people don't want to think about," he mused, "like when O.J. Simpson beat the hell out of his first wife while we were shooting Killer Force in South Africa. He was humping Maud Adams, you see, and his wife showed up unexpectedly. That was his first wife, not the one he murdered, the other one, who he just beat up. I wonder, could you tell me why the gardener hasn't been round? I looked for him Tuesday, but he wasn't here. Oh, that's right, you're in Los Angeles, aren't you? Right. Never mind."
The fact that Quatermass 2 has been praised for its atmospheric black and white imagery is amusing since the unique "look" was entirely accidental. "It's England, and it's overcast a great deal," mused Guest. "You just shoot the weather you're given." The "moody" look is predominantly the result of AnscoColor being processed as colorless. At the time, color release prints were three times more expensive as black and white. Producers often saw their color productions tossed away as black and white second-features, a major exploitable element eliminated, with predictably less financial return. Alex Gordon's The Underwater City got the cheapo treatment by Columbia, as did The Vulture, Dr. Blood's Coffin, and Hammer's remake of The Old Dark House, directed by William Castle. But the strange Q2 saga involved more than simple distributor cheapness.
I was privileged to
interview, and in some cases befriend, some of the participants in the unbelievable saga of this "accidental black and white classic," including
Guest, Nigel Kneale, Hammer's executive producer Michael Carreras, and composer James Bernard. Now, with the surviving color negative of
Quatermass 2 digitally transferred to tape for the first time and frame captures available, the entire unbelievably
story can be told.
* * *
It is no secret "Tom" Kneale objected to the casting of Brian Donlevy as Bernard Quatermass in the first adaptation, claiming the actor "...was on the skids and didn't care what he was doing. He took very little interest in the making of the films or in playing the part. It was a case of take the money and run. Or in the case of Mr. Donlevy, waddle." Kneale also objected to Guest and veteran American scenarist Richard Landau truncating the four hour-long scripts down to an 80 minute feature, seethed at receiving none of the minor money Hammer paid the BBC for the rights, disliked actor Jack Warner's playing of the police inspector, detested Hammer altering the TV version's blob of mossy plant tendrils into to a slime-covered mass of tentacled animal tissue, and despised the film's electrocution climax, preferring his original, in which Quatermass filibusters the mutant monster into suicide with a long philosophical monologue.
Though the BBC serial made the name Quatermass (chosen at random from a London phone book by Kneale) known throughout England, it meant nothing to the rest of the world, so distributors came up with alternate titles. In its successful US release, United Artists called it The Creeping Unknown (which, astonishingly, Nigel Kneale hated with a passion.) .
"In Germany, it
was called Shock," Guest adds, "Quite a good title, actually." Its success there prompted the
Agfa photographic company to instigate a partnership with Hammer. Perennially dead-last in the photographic field, Agfa controlled the patent of Ansco color,
and had tried desperately to broaden their market into feature films, with little success.
Agfa had tried to play catch-up to its competitors just before the war, pushed by Josef Goebbles, who saw propaganda value in color films made with German technology. Unfortunately the film stock was quirky. The first Agfa-color feature, a light-hearted comedy called Frauen Sind Doch Bessere Diplomaten(Women Are Better Diplomats),resulted in outdoor shots with green lawns shifting in hue from yellow, to brown, to blue. Goebbels' response was "Brennst diese Scheiße!" ["Burn this shit."] When the Soviet Army entered Berlin, they confiscated a huge amount of the raw stock, renaming it Sovcolor. Likewise, MGM toyed with Ansco under the name Metrocolor on films like Kiss Me, Kate(1953), Brigadoon(1954) and Lust for Life(1956) before abandoning it.
"These German chaps came to us in Wardour Street, Homburgs in hand," recalled Michael Carreras, the film's executive producer, "whining that Hitler spent all their money, the Americans wouldn't go away, the Russians stole all their film stock, that it was all the fault of the French anyway, that sort of tosh. They wanted Agfa to become as big as Technicolor, which wasn't going to happen for a start. And they're coming to Hammer to make them famous? We must have been about 50th in line after MGM, Rank and everybody else had all given them the shoe. At any rate, Jimmy [Carreras, Michael's father] listened patiently, then went into high gear, and they ended up practically giving us the film stock, and promised they'd make all the prints for nearly nothing in Argentina. I think screwing the Germans was the main reason my father was given his knighthood."