Friday, July 03, 2015

The QUATERMASS Rejuvenation

As with all frame grabs, click to enlarge.

On July 27, Network Distributing in the UK will release Nigel Kneale's 1979 mini-series QUATERMASS as well as its condensed theatrical version THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION on DVD and Blu-ray, priced at £19.99. Both versions of the story (one three-and-a-half hours, the other 106m 14s) were directed by Piers Haggard, who had previously directed one of the best horror films of the 1970s - the Knealean THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, which made similar use of the English countryside - and who had also won the BAFTA Award for directing Dennis Potter's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN for television.

One could be forgiven for looking at previous DVD and VHS releases and imagining that the QUATERMASS projects had been lensed in 16mm, or perhaps shot on video and converted to 16mm, because they have always looked stale and sounded dreadful on home video. However, for this new Network release,  the original 35mm camera negatives were accessed to produce incredible-looking, high-definition masters that completely revitalize the films, enriching their sense of landscape and bringing us more into the direct presence of their performances, by the likes of Sir John Mills, Simon MacCorkindale, Margaret Tyzack, Barbara Kellerman and Toyah Willcox. Also, for the first time ever on home video, QUATERMASS has been remixed in 5.1 audio from the original triple-track audio elements, while THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION is presented in what we assume to be its intended original aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

In this story, set in an unspecified near future when Britain is overrun with wars between street gangs, Professor Bernard Quatermass is lured out of his retirement in Scotland in search of his missing granddaughter, and invited to comment on an allied space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union ("the symbolic marriage of a corrupt democracy to a monstrous tyrrany," he says). To his horror, the mission is fatally disrupted by an unknown force, a random beam from space that is soon found to be leading young people by the thousands to megalith sites, to pulverize and harvest some important chemical element found only in the young, and vomiting the rest into an increasingly discolored atmosphere.   
 
Here is a series of grabs from QUATERMASS:
 

The next two sets of grabs illustrate the differences in framing between the miniseries version and the 1.78:1 theatrical version. As you can see, the TV version exposes slightly more information at top and bottom, while the widescreen theatrical framing adds more to the sides while focusing the information on the whole.


 Additional grabs from THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION:


I must admit that, on the basis of the presentations previously available, I have always feltt unkindly toward THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION. However, on the basis of more recent screenings, I've changed my opinion and now believe the feature to be an admirable reduction of the whole. In fact, it was not the usual hatchet job but was creatively condensed by Kneale as he was writing the two versions simultaneously. The only thing really missing from it are opportunities for the characters to reel from and grieve their losses - otherwise, all the essentials feel there, along with a sharper sense of geography and cause and effect. Kneale's novel QUATERMASS remains the best version of this story, but - as this magnificent restoration helps us to see - this is a genuine science fiction epic of ideas, more relevant than ever after a passing of 35 years. Furthermore, this release stands with Arrow Video's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE as one of the most exciting and needed restorations of the year.

Though Kneale conceived the story in response to what he saw happening in the world in the late 1960s, it speaks with startling clarity to the world we inhabit today - where news sources cannot be trusted, where large collectives of people have turned away from education toward superstition, where shootings are rampant. Indeed, just as Kneale's Martian hypotheses in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT have become accepted by scientists as a reasonable scenario for the origin of intelligent life on this planet, some of this film's theorizing about magnetic templates existing far below megalith sites like Stonehenge have been bourne out by recent research. 

Had QUATERMASS not been made for television, had it been freer to show the real obscenity of apocalypse that it can only hint at, people might regard its two versions at least nearly on par with Romero's first DEAD trilogy. Taken as a whole, the Quatermass tetralogy - THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, QUATERMASS II, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION - is to science fiction what Romero's trilogy is to horror: stories of alienation and apocalypse on a global scale that rally our last shreds of humanity and intelligence to the surface.

As one character says, "They knew it was the only way... to beat the dark."

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