Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dual/Duel Review: British 1950s Sci Fi FiX

Dual/Duel reviews are an online smackdown between two books, movies, games, podcasts, etc. etc. that I think are interesting to compare, contrast, and comment on. For a list of other dual/duel reviews, go here.

One of the benefits of living in England is access to the BBC television broadcasts. We don't watch things as they are broadcast but often watch shows and movies on the iPlayer, which is available on computers and on game consoles (if you live in the UK). They've shown a couple of classic British science fiction films from the 1950s and I'd like to comment on them here.

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) directed by Val Guest
Yes that is the right spelling of the title! There's no first "r" in Quatermass! I was always misspelling "quarter" that way when I was young.

Professor Quatermass's rocket has crashed in the English countryside. Two of the astronauts have disappeared. The third is barely alive and taken to a hospital. Turns out he is possessed by an alien life force that is changing his body and getting ready to take over the world! Quatermass helps the local authorities track the man-creature through London, ending spectacularly at Westminster Abbey.

Prof. Bernard Quatermass was a character from some BBC TV serials who made the jump to the big screen in this Hammer Films production (the studio that had a tremendous run of horror films featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, among others). I haven't seen any of the earlier Quatermass offerings and I found the character in this story rather bland. Sure he's good at his science and his ego is a little too big. But there is no flamboyance or larger-than-life traits (his ego doesn't seem that big) that often go along with such characters (such as the scientist in the original The Thing or Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes) and makes him stand out. The rest of the cast is okay but I just wasn't impressed.

The science is interesting and the pursuit is thrilling, so the movie is not unenjoyable, just not as thrilling as I thought it could be.

On the other hand (and with better spelling)...

X: The Unknown (1953) directed by Leslie Norman

This is also a Hammer Films production. The movie starts with an army exercise--soldiers practice using Geiger counters on the moor. The last soldier testing his skill discovers an unexpected radiation source in the field. Soon a minor earthquake opens up a small fissure that belches flames and radiation, burning two of the soldiers. The army calls on some local scientists to investigate.

The local science research station has (among other scientists) Dr. Adam Royston. He is studying radiation and hoping to discover ways to neutralize it. He comes to the moor and realizes there's a lot more than just a radiation release going on. He speculates that there might be creatures within the earth's crust that feed off energy and have been forced to the surface to seek new sources, like radioactive materials stored at the scientific facility.

The story is interesting, especially the use of science to fight the threat rather than brute force. At one point, the army decides to torch and bomb the fissure, followed with a thick layer of cement to keep it shut. This doesn't work out as the creature just breaks through the concrete in search of more sustenance. The science is a little dated but interesting enough and plausible enough to keep the story going.

Royston is an interesting character--smart but also concerned about others. His son works at the station and often does menial tasks, though he does step up when he needs to. Other cast members are nicely drawn and make the drama more compelling. The monster isn't so scary once we finally see it but it isn't terrible either.

X: The Unknown

The Quatermass Xperiment

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