Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good

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Quatermass II (1955)

In my review of Quatermass and the Pit, I wrote about the scientist Professor Quatermass, who was the hero of a trilogy of excellent British made-for-TV science fiction series. Professor Q. is a very well developed character, and if you are only slightly interested in well-written sci-fi, you should not miss the two preserved series (only two episodes of the original series, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), still exist, though all episodes were remade in 2005). In addition, Hammer films remade the entire trilogy a few years after the originals in good but somewhat different movie renditions.

The spaceship in Quatermass II (1955)

The second series was aptly named Quatermass II (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), and was originally broadcast exactly 60 years ago (the final episode was televised sixty years ago this Thursday). The title was the first time the number two was appended to the title of a sequel, though the roman numeral refers not to the series as such, but to the spaceship Quatermass II, which is an important plot object. It has been suggested that it inspired others to use similar numbering for sequels in later film series. It has even been suggested that the spaceship name was just made up as an excuse to smack the “II” label on the title, though that explanation feels a bit far-fetched.

In Quatermass II, Professor Q. battles invading aliens who are jettisoned from an asteroid orbiting earth, and upon landing take control of human bodies. This idea was not new in literature. See for example The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein, available (parts 1, 2, 3) from the Internet Archive. But as far as I know, it had not previously been used on screen. The following year, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released, which is one of the most famous examples in the movies.

This film is best enjoyed for the story (brilliant throughout) and actors (uneven, but mostly very good). Frankly, though, other aspects of the production, such as sets, special effects and camera work, feel very cheap and sometimes amateurish by modern standards. Even so, the positive aspects weigh so heavily that I can only recommend watching it.

John Robinson in Quatermass II (1955)

Quatermass II
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Year: 1955
Running time: 3 h 6 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: John Robinson
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack

Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Television in its early days was essentially a live medium. Almost everything was broadcast immediately, in the same moment it was created, and that was just as true for drama series as for news or comedy shows, for example. This had several practical implications. Techniques had to be invented for changing scenes quickly and effectively, especially if the characters had to change clothes or environment. It also meant that everything had to be extremely well rehearsed, in a sense much more closely related to the theatre than to film.

Some of the best television in the 1950s was produced in Britain by the BBC. Among other things, they broadcast a number of very good science fiction series with the somewhat unique hero Professor Quatermass.

Quatermass and the Pit (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) was the third and final Quatermass series, and arguably the best (the first, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), is only partially preserved today). It had a higher budget than the previous two series, which can be clearly seen in the scenography, and it used pre-filmed material interspersed with the live action.

André Morell in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

In Quatermass and the Pit, construction workers discover the remains of prehistoric humans in London. Later at the same site, they also find what at first is assumed to be an undetonated World War II bomb, but it appears to be made of a substance that is harder and more durable than anything previously known. Professor Q. advances the hypothesis that perhaps the artefact is not of earthly origin, but some refuse to believe that this is possible.

Quatermass and the Pit was made at a time when science fiction could not rely on cool special effects, especially not in a live TV series. Instead, it had to use aspects such as interesting characters, good dialogue and an intelligent story, things seen far too rarely in modern sci-fi. The series also delivers some interesting commentary on its contemporary society, some of which is still very relevant, for instance the gap between politics and science, and the tension between racial groups.

Professor Q. is a nicely developed character, and a type rarely seen on film. He is a scientist who, unlike Indiana Jones, relies on his brain rather than his muscles. In some moments, he reminds a bit about Sherlock Holmes, but where Holmes tends to use spectacular chains of reasoning, Quatermass relies more upon observable evidence and scientific method. Today’s popular media could use more heroes like that.

For many, Quatermass and the Pit is perhaps best known as the 1967 remake by Hammer Films, but that film has totally different qualities. The budget for special effects was higher, of course, and the whole story was condensed to about half the length, driving up the tempo and cutting out many subplots entirely. Both are good, but the original would be my first choice.

This film is best enjoyed if you want some quality science fiction with a good story and good actors.

Christine Finn and Cec Linder in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Quatermass and the Pit
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Year: 1958
Running time: 2 h 58 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: André Morell
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack