Monday, May 15, 2006

Val Guest, 1911-2006

The writer-director of several of the most important science fiction films to emerge prior to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), Val Guest died last week on May 10 at the age of 94. As any cinematic Anglophile will tell you, Guest was also a bit more than just that, having written more than 80 different pictures and directed a somewhat lesser number of well-tuned, high-toned thrillers, adventures, comedies, dramas, and musicals. But those of us who were reared on fantasy films in the 1950s remember him as the fellow who was inspired by such American films as THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) to evolve a genre mostly about rayguns and spaceships into a realm of exciting, speculative, yet often sobering ideas. Crackling with theory and argument, and also conscious of human frailty, his films had a steely intelligence and an air of pregnant possibility which the genre often promised but had seldom known.

A director since 1943, Guest's first step into the fantastic was a film I've still never seen, 1951's MR. DRAKE'S DUCK, which the IMDb describes as a British, science fiction variation on GREEN ACRES. (I obviously have to see it.) But his name began to mean something to devotées of the genre with the arrival of Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955, initially known in America as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN). Based on the BBC teleplay by Nigel Kneale. Guest's script compressed the six-part serial into a tight 82 minutes and made the most of a low budget by having Brian Donlevy (as Professor Bernard Quatermass) and a crew of supportive British talent fire speculative dialogue back and forth at one another. Here Guest also guided actor Richard Wordsworth through a memorable performance as Victor Caroon, a returning experimental space pilot who physically absorbs his fellow crewmen, along with part of a cactus, attacks a pre-teen Jane Asher, and morphs into a gelid nightmare that hides out inside Westminster Abbey. Wordsworth's performance is truly eerie and poignant, on a level that few actors achieved in the genre after the heydays of Karloff and Lugosi.

Guest was subsequently retained by Hammer to adapt and direct QUATERMASS 2 (1957, aka ENEMY FROM SPACE), which upped the ante of quality and speculation despite having a less explicit monster to show. It was the first British science fiction film to use the genre to venture criticism of government and, thus, became a sort of English parallel to Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Guest effectively kept the "monsters" almost entirely offscreen in THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS (also '57), starring Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker, based on Kneale's teleplay "The Creature." In 1958, Hammer hired Guest to film THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, a gritty Japanese Prisoner of War drama that proved successful enough to launch its own short-lived franchise.

In 1961, working with another talented writer (Wolf Mankowitz, of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED), Guest co-wrote and directed THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, a still-powerful account of the global nervous breakdown that occurs after nuclear tests of two global powers knocks the planet off its orbit and hurtling toward the sun. As with Guest's earlier films, urgent dialogue led to potent performances -- in this case from Leo McKern, Edward Judd, and Janet Munro -- and an adult complexity all too rare at the time to fantasy cinema. Guest would work with Mankowitz again on 1965's WHERE THE SPIES ARE, starring David Niven and Françoise Dorleac, one of the best of the early Bond knock-offs.

Guest's work with Niven aided his selection as one of the five directors (and, it's said, ultimately the principal one) of 1967's gonzophrenic Bond-for-all CASINO ROYALE, also co-scripted by Wolf Mankowitz. After decades of being critically maligned, the uneven film has started to evolve into less of a guilty pleasure in recent years, which may say something about its post-modern qualities, its jam-packed MAD Magazine-spoof patina, or simply how far we have fallen. Guest followed it with another, more serious spy effort, ASSIGNMENT K (1968, starring Stephen Boyd, which reunited Guest and Leo McKern), and a wholly original project, a sci-fi musical called TOOMORROW (1970), starring Olivia Newton-John and featuring Harrison Marks model Margaret Nolan.

After directing WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970), which received one of Hammer's few Oscar nominations (for Jim Danforth's stop-motion animation effects), Guest suffered some of the slings and arrows of a backsliding British film industry, succumbing to campy skinflick comedies (AU PAIR GIRLS, CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER) and television assignments. Guest directed his last film, THE BOYS IN BLUE, in 1982. Since then, he and his wife of more than 50 years, Yolande Donlan (an actress who appeared in several of his films), have personally endeared themselves to film fans by lending their charm and wit to numerous retrospectives, festivals and conventions.

Any career in which the likes of HELL IS A CITY, EXPRESSO BONGO and THE FULL TREATMENT (aka STOP ME BEFORE I KILL!) are reduced to also-rans must be counted an extraordinary success. But as long as science fiction remains a cinema of ideas, conscience and consequence, the spirit of Val Guest will always occupy an honored place at the table.

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