Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Zombies From Beyond Space!!!

Before George A. Romero rewrote the book on low-budget horror and zombie films they were mostly pretty dreadful. Unless a truly gifted auteur was behind the camera, zombie movies from 1936-1966 were largely boring and xenophobic, in fact many of them were simply thinly veiled excuses to have ham-fisted leads espousing the virtue of government-sponsered hatred. Whether it was communism or simply being black, the targets of zombie films were mostly the territory of Poverty Row production houses looking to curry favor with the American public (not to mention skirting things like thoughtfully written screenplays, decent acting and creative production design) by just having white guys standing in for fatuous and cowardly politicians. Not everybody fell victim to these trappings, but in the states it was more or less the norm. Let's look at two films made before Night of the Living Dead that have nearly identical plots made within months of each other done up two vastly different ways.

It Conquered The World
by Roger Corman
Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef trying hard as ever not to suck as much as the movie he's in) is an entertainer of every half-baked trend in psuedo-science. He's the sort of person you meet at craft fairs who believes in UFOs. He and his wife Claire live in peace in a cabin in the woods and their only contact with the outside world is an eye-rolling scientific community and their friends the Nelsons, Paul and Joan. Paul (Peter Graves who is just as rotten as ever) is in charge of the sciency half of the people involved with the launching of a military satellite. Tom gets in touch with them and tries to explain what a horrible idea that is, stating that this like an earlier satellite launched as a test, will be shot out of the sky. That satellite was burnt up, but it seemed natural enough, so Anderson is given the boot and things go as planned.

A little later on, Tom brings Paul and Joan over for dinner because he's got something he's just dying to share with anyone other than his long-suffering wife. After dinner (and presumably before cigars) Tom shows Paul his latest "crazy fucker of the year" trophy; it's a radio and Tom seems to think he can communicate with something on the planet Venus with it. Instead of backing out of the room quietly like I would have done, he gets in a few words before a phone call disrupts their soon-to-be-very-awkward conversation. Apparently that satellite that Tom said was gonna get destroyed is gone and has very probably been destroyed. When our new Venusian overlords show up a few days later, they send out frisbees that Roger Corman would like us to believe are alien scouts. They latch onto people and start controlling their brains, forcing them into the service of the big malevolent monster from Venus. Looks like Dr. Lunatic will be having that proverbial last laugh. Will Paul be able to stop communism in time to save the world?

I don't like television, I think it's been systematically lowering the attention span of each new generation and desensitizes us to violence against women and champions a criminally negative attitude toward intelligence. That said, I occasionally like to find a show after its made its way to DVD and revel in some rather good writing. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was my first love as clever TV shows go because it subverted the format of the half-hour comedy show and also offered an education to those willing to pay attention and receive it. You might not learn about Joseph Losey or Raintree County, but you could see how the underbelly of cinema operated; the factory filmmaking system that produced such fascinatingly clueless figures as Ray Dennis Steckler, Coleman Francis, Bill Rebane, Phil Tucker and Ed Wood. On top of being screamingly funny, MST3K ventured into my second favorite subject, that of bad films, and uncovered little gems that were for better or worse historically important. They also introduced me to Roger Corman, first in his terrible western The Gunslinger which also stars Beverly Garland. When I rediscovered the series through the magic of the internet a few years ago, I was given the rundown on the finer points of Roger Corman's directorial credits from The Viking Women And The Sea Serpent on down to Swamp Diamonds. When the MST3K guys did It Conquered The World, they basically captured the feeling of the film by simply replaying Peter Graves' ending monologue three or four times over while they listened to every word that seeps from his mouth.

Roger Corman was never really in touch with popular trends so much as he was nominally aware of what was pulling in money at any given time, which explains why It Conquered The World in no way measures up to the films it was copying, like The Thing From Another World, Creature With The Atom Brain or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He thought that really poorly written and stodgily delivered dialogue could make up for the fact that his movie was a cheap attempt at cashing in on a subject he didn't understand (in fact he most probably didn't believe half the shit that comes out of Paul Nelson's mouth). There's no drama because the allegory isn't so much an allegory as it is just a lame stand-in. He didn't develop his characters so it means nothing when Paul Nelson has to kill his wife and watch his friends die. That's why Romero's film was so important because it was able to utilize the kind of expert writing that went into red-scare horror films in a totally understated way and support civil rights and distrusting authority, which even in 1968 was still kind of radical and subversive. I don't think Romero expected the counter-culture to pick up on his little film, but it did, proving that the open-minded if slightly pessimistic attitude of the left will almost always find an audience over the 'values' purported by the right. And Corman's gauche method of trying to fix a bad film with a political message is all too clear in that impenetrable monologue at the film's end that the Mystery Science guys play over and over again without so much as a snicker.

And I found it hard especially hard to believe that Corman actually believed his anti-commie nonsense when the military shows up. Pay attention if you care to and you'll see Corman regular Dick Miller in his third ever screen performance as one of the soldiers. Anyway these guys are fucking pathetic, both in the acting and in the writing. They do all but get high as they stumble around the woods looking for some aliens to shoot and then practically fall into the claws of the alien. I also find it hard to believe that the army couldn't destroy the damned thing but Peter Graves and a blow-torch could.
Moving right along. I like British horror films (even some of the very worst) and find the remove from their culture just enough to make some ordinary plots interesting. I like watching films of a certain vintage and seeing them blessedly devoid of so many Americanisms, not to mention they almost always make better use of locations. There's a documentary called Of Time And The City by Terence Davies that I can't recommend enough; one of the things I love about it is that it serves as a reminder that post-war Europe really did look like the beautiful bombed out place it appears to be in Carol Reed films. The look of England as it tried to heal itself is one of the most beautiful things to watch. When you look at Quatermass 2, a film with a story nearly interchangeable with that of It Conquered The World, you can see just how much more cinematic and innovative cheap British films were than their American cousins and why a film that took advantage of its English setting succeeds where others fail.

Quatermass 2
by Val Guest
Professor Bernard Quatermass (more on whom in a minute) is an American scientist working in London who's seen his fair share of the fantastic. He and his team of researchers find themselves entrenched in intergalactic intrigue following a rather dreadful picnic. A woman drives her catatonic boyfriend back from their spot in the countryside with some horrid black mold on his face. Quatermass, who happens to be driving the same road, helps the girl deliver her boyfriend to medical professionals, but funny thing, he disappears shortly after. I shouldn't say disappears, he's disappeared by some frightening looking chaps in full hazmat suits and gas masks carrying guns. We meet these fellows when Quatermass takes Marsh, one of his researchers, out to the field the boy was supposed to have picked up his rash. Marsh touches a strange looking rock and it secretes that same black mold on him. Quatermass barely has time to ask what's wrong before a siren goes off and the men with guns arrive and cart Marsh off some place. Unluckily for those fellows the professor's not going to take this lying down.

The first thing he does is try to get inside the big spooky factory that the men with guns are centralized. The local government has kept inspectors at arm's length and the town it's situated in is full of shut-ins who could care less about what doesn't immediately effect them. As he tries to arrange a tour of the facility, he meets a building inspector by the name of Broadhead whom he knows and they agree to double team the operation; Broadhead is just as curious why they won't let him in as Quatermass is. The tour goes about as well as a bear attack. Quatermass embarrasses the tour guide in front of the two or three people who don't think this is a vast conspiracy with a lot of uncomfortable questions and Broadhead actually sneaks off when the man has his back turned. Broadhead's disappearance puts the facility on lockdown and only Quatermass gets away from the men with guns. Before he leaves, he finds Broadhead coated in the black stuff apparently melting.

Quatermass runs to his connection in the police a man called Lomax. Lomax takes in the unbelievable story and is about to tell it all to his chief, but then he notices a blemish on the man's hand like the one Marsh and the vanished boyfriend had and backs quietly out of the room (see, this is what normal people do). He and Quatermass decide to take matters into their own hands and go rounding up local support. When a reporter called Jimmy Hall is killed reporting to the home office about an abduction (a bar maiden played by Vera Day, who did this sort of thing fairly regularly in the 50s, gets a touch of the black stuff on her and the men with guns show up) in a full tavern, the locals finally decide to come out of their shells and grab some torches and Frankenstein that wretched facility. Quatermass and Lomax use the riot as an excuse to figure out just what that black stuff is and what all of this adds up to.

Quatermass was a character dreamt up by British radio personality Nigel Kneale in 1953. He was effectively the perfect British super hero using science and logic instead of invisibility or flight and favoring a flowing raincoat over a cape. The character had many incarnations including TV and finally film in the 1956 film The Quatermass Xperiment also directed by Val Guest (so called for its X rating, the film is fairly gruesome given its release date). I don't really care for that film because it ruins its hard exterior by facing off against a big puppet squid in the final act. Nigel Kneale didn't like it either; he hated Brian Donlevy as the professor and so do I. Quatermass 2 is another matter entirely. Nigel Kneale came aboard to help write the sequel and all the things wrong with the first film vanished; unsurprisingly the first thing to get the old heave-ho was Donlevy's scenery chewing. Kneale wrote Quatermass as concerned and overwhelmed, making him fit nicely into the story rather than standing out with his ugly American behavior; when you're harder to digest than a big space squid, something's definitely gone wrong. Instead of the hardboiled, serial mentality of The Quatermass Xperiment with its overblown anti-American sentiment the sequel was an extraordinarily understated film which makes all of its reveals much the better. Instead of running roughshod over the law like some kind of monomaniacal villain, Quatermass has to go through local government and the constabulary to get anything done, and even then he is faced with the logical inconsistencies in his story as pointed out to him by Jimmy Hall. In other words, Kneale forced the ridiculousness of the story to face real-world scrutiny and then prevail.

Kneale's involvement also meant that the English setting was much more of a character. Val Guest makes incredibly effective use of the scenery capturing the natural beauty in the same way Terence Davies does in Of Time And The City, especially of the facility when Quatermass races across its grounds both times. The superior pacing also helps us admire the production design and the intricate details of the story. Kneale's contributions, I suspect, are the reason this feels like one of the more realistic and dark science-fiction films I've ever encountered. Its story being so devoid of finger-pointing makes it work as a much better allegory than It Conquered The World or even the first Quatermass film. The film is so concerned with getting to the bottom of the mystery it doesn't spare anytime to talk about what's 'really going on here'. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure there is much of a political message to be found here. England had undergone a pretty huge influx of immigrants in the 1950s but I just don't think that's anything Kneale was concerned about. Let's not forget that the plot to Quatermass 2 was dreamt up as part of a weekly serial, which meant that it was probably thought up at midnight over coffee and a lot of cigarettes in Kneale's office along with the half-dozen other plots due that week, I'm guessing he was more concerned with making a mystery than telling the people what to actually be frightened of. Kneale and Guest wanted simply to spin a convincing yarn that was devoid of scenery-chewing and so made Quatermass 2 one of the best horror sci-fi films of its time.

Oh, I completely forgot about the zombies. The film pulls kind of the same trick by letting you know at the last minute that you've been staring at zombies the whole film, but the idea behind the zombies is pretty much the same as in It Conquered The World, those black stones replacing alien frisbees. In fact the climax is full of a lot of sucker-punch reveals ending with one of the best 50s monster moments not involving a giant insect. In short it all works....as opposed to It Conquered The World where nothing works; America needed George A. Romero, Britain did not but that's not to say they didn't benefit from his art. Everyone wins when the zombies are good; it's a shame that Quatermass 2 is so hard to find.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

I got my first electronic cigarette kit from VaporFi, and I think its the best kit.