Sunday, July 31, 2011

Quatermass Special: TV to Film

Alan and I have been watching the Quatermass TV serials, followed by the films. So I'm going to do something a little unusual for this blog, and review the films, but in light of how they compare to the original serials.

The Quatermass Xperiment: A slicker product than the serial and, despite series creator Nigel Kneale's (understandable, given that he'd been cut out of the project) reservations about it, improves on the TV serial in a number of ways. The dialogue is cleaned up (to be fair, the TV script was essentially a first draft), and some of the problematic aspects have been dealt with through rewriting (e.g., rather than having the wrecked spaceship guarded by a couple of policemen and the wounded astronaut taken off to a cottage hospital, the army are called in and the injured man is isolated in a lab). And no, I don't mind Brian Donlevy as Quatermass; he's unsympathetic, but the character's a bit of a jerk in all his incarnations. Where the film is not so good is that it misses the message of the serial: the fact that the returning astronaut is a gestalt of the other astronauts is largely glossed over (which means we also lose a lot of the emotional content of the story, as the grief and astonishment of the other characters as they figure it out is now gone), and the ending takes an original and subversive idea of Quatermass talking the alien out of its takeover plans, and instead substitutes a stereotypical kill-the-alien resolution.

Quatermass 2: The TV serial is considerably more polished this time, with a few more drafts having been written and the BBC having developed a special effects team in the intervening years. Brian Donlevy comes across as considerably more sympathetic both than the TV version and his previous outing, probably because the character is on the back foot fighting authority rather than imposing it. The movie again benefits from a larger budget (e.g. we actually get to see the despised prefab houses of Winnerden Flats), but again loses out on the emotional front, as the chilling deaths of a picnicking family are edited out and the sequence where journalist Conrad (played in the original by Roger Delgado and in the film by Sid James) tries to call in his story while being taken over by an alien becomes a more conventional shooting, plus the plant labourers come across as a slightly cute collection of regional types rather than the rather scary oppositional force they were in the TV serial.

Quatermass and the Pit: In colour! And with an expanded role for Barbara Judd as she takes over most of James Fullalove's part from the TV series, which is generally a good thing (not that the TV version is problematic, but she does get sidelined a bit sometimes). Where the TV Colonel Bream is a scared, blustery, ignorant man dragged into the discovery of the prehistoric alien capsule by Quatermass, the film version is much more in-control and sympathetic (if no brighter), and is instead the one who drags Quatermass into the situation-- indeed, their relationship seems to presage the Doctor and the Brigadier in 1970s Doctor Who. Although the alien spacecraft is more beautiful and there are some wonderful claustrophobic scenes of panic, here I think the film's production actually lets it down vis-a-vis the series: the TV serial's archaeological dig was much more like a real dig site of the time, and the aliens much more convincing. Plus it's a shame the film version of Prof Roney couldn't have been a Canadian like the TV version.

The Quatermass Conclusion: Doing this one for completism, though one can't make much of a comparison as the film version is literally the TV version cut down to 100 minutes and topped and tailed by film-style credits. This is actually my favourite of the Quatermass stories; I like the poignancy of having Quatermass as an old man who's just trying to find his missing granddaughter in a world which largely doesn't care, and the backdrop of a Britain in a state of social collapse through privatisation and capitalist overexploitation has a lot more resonance now than in 1979. It also, weirdly, anticipates furries.

Movie count for 2011: 93

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Aladdin: Early Eisner-era cartoon, and a good example of that period's key traits: postmodernism (between the heavy borrowing from The Thief of Baghdad and Robin Williams' potrayal of the Genie as a 1990s standup comic) and casual multiculturalism. Arabian mythology is given the same playful treatment as classic Disney gave European mythology-- and as such, I would argue that the film tacitly acknowledges that Muslim identity has as much place in American culture as any other. Critics have argued that the fact that the central couple have conventional Western good looks while the supporting characters are paunchy, big-nosed caricatures is racist, though I think that is a slightly problematic claim as the pretty-leads-caricatured-supporting-cast is a staple of all Disney fairytale movies (q.v. the near-contemporary Beauty and the Beast); however, context is everything, and it does have to be said that some of the descriptions of the fictional Arabic kingdom as being barbaric, and the guards' gleeful focus on corporal punishment, are not exactly striking a blow for tolerance and understanding. The sad thing is that, flawed or not, I can't see them making a cartoon even this sympathetic to Islamic cultures now-- however, the good thing is that it's out there, and maybe they'll do a better one someday.

Movie count for 2011: 89

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Adventure Movies

Leon: Brutal but charming Luc Besson tragicomic thriller about an assassin who finds himself, through a strange chain of events, the custodian of a twelve-year-old girl out for revenge on her parents' killers. The whole story is strangely credible, with Natalie Portman having IMO thus far never bettered her performance as the girl in question.

Les Aventures D'Adele Blanc-Sec: Besson in considerably more playful mode, a slightly silly steampunk comedy about an Edwardian adventuress on a quest to find and revive the Egyptian mummy who she believes can save her sister's life, complicated by the intervention of the police, a pterodactyl and Rameses III. Gets a bit annoyingly slapstick at times, but it is saved by a rather biting sense of humour and the fact that the heroine is rather obviously a sociopath.

The Hidden Fortress: Kurosawa/Mifune classic, featuring a bearded general's attempt to get a rebel warrior princess to safety in enemy territory, as witnessed by two foot soldiers (George Lucas, in the intro to this DVD, tries very hard to downplay how influential all this was on the Star Wars franchise). While Mifune is great as the general, the plot is gripping, and the themes touching on the meaning of loyalty and honour, the brilliant touch really lies with the foot soldiers; cowardly, venal, greedy, stupid, cunning, loyal and affectionate by turns, and always utterly believable.

Life Force: Faintly misguided mid-eighties attempt to revive the British horror-SF genre, ripping off Quatermass, Blake's 7: Killer, various episodes of Doctor Who and arguably The Satanic Rites of Dracula by turns. Which should have been a lot better, but the problem is that it's a) humourless and b) pointless (as in, it's not actually about anything bar looking cool). Still, there's some very good animatronics.

Black Sheep: Not the New Zealand horror(bad?)flick, but a low-budget Russian drama about a group of criminals who escape during WWII and find themselves in a tiny peasant village, fighting off the German army on the one side and the Russian army on the other. With a setup like that it could have been a pointed satire, a tragic drama and/or a witty black comedy, but unfortunately it's just a bit unengaging.

Movie count for 2011: 88, and still haven't got onto the Tati boxset yet.