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Val Guest, 94; Director, Writer Best Known for Science-Fiction Movies

May 22, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Val Guest, the versatile British director and screenwriter who directed the science-fiction classics "The Quatermass Xperiment" and "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," has died. He was 94.

The Palm Springs resident died of prostate cancer May 10 in a hospice in Palm Desert, said his wife, actress Yolande Donlan.

Guest, whose film career spanned more than 50 years, initially made his name in the 1930s while writing British comedies.

After becoming a director in the 1940s, he made movies in a variety of genres -- including broad comedies, detective thrillers and period musicals -- but was best known in the United States for his science-fiction works.

"The Day the Earth Caught Fire" -- a 1961 drama in which secret, simultaneous nuclear detonations by the United States and the Soviet Union knock Earth off its axis and send it hurtling toward the sun as the world's weather turns chaotic -- earned Guest and co-writer Wolf Mankowitz best British screenplay awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The doomsday drama was told through the characters of two Fleet Street reporters.

Guest later said President Kennedy asked for his own copy and screened it for 200 foreign correspondents in Washington.

Guest "brought a lot of intelligence to a genre that is often sorely in need of it," director Joe Dante, a longtime admirer of his films, told The Times. "Every single one of his pictures is thoughtful and well-done."

"The Quatermass Xperiment" -- a 1955 science-fiction horror thriller about an experimental rocket ship that crashes in rural England with only one remaining crew member, who has been infested by an invisible force and gradually transforms into a monstrous "thing" as he absorbs plants, animals and humans -- was known for its semi-documentary feel.

In an interview for Tom Weaver's 1994 book "Attack of the Monster Movie Makers," Guest said that when he agreed to do the movie for England's Hammer Film Productions, he insisted on doing it his way.

His plan, Guest said, was "to shoot it as though a television company had said, 'Go on out and cover this story.' I wanted it to look as though it was [filmed by] hand-held cameras; we didn't have to frame somebody absolutely in the middle -- make it real."

In the science-fiction movie category, Weaver told The Times last week, "it wasn't quite like anything fans had seen before. The success of the picture helped put Hammer on the road to specializing in sci-fi and horror movies."

Despite his reputation as a maker of cult science-fiction films, Guest was "really a commercial director" who worked in a variety of genres, Dante said.

Among his more than 50 movies as a director are the comedy "Penny Princess" with Donlan and Dirk Bogarde; the science-fiction horror film "The Abominable Snowman" with Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing; the crime thriller "Hell Is a City" with Stanley Baker; and the dramas "Expresso Bongo" with Laurence Harvey and "80,000 Suspects" with Claire Bloom.

Guest also was one of the five credited directors on the 1967 James Bond spoof "Casino Royale."

"He was a jack-of-all-trades," Dante said, "but there are a lot of little gems in his output that, hopefully, will come to light now."

The son of a jute broker, Guest was born in London in 1911 and spent part of his early years living in India. As a teenager, he wrote movie news and gossip for London weeklies and for magazines such as Picturegoer and Film Weekly.

After a stint as an actor in touring companies and bit roles in movies, he returned to writing about films in 1934 for the London edition of the Hollywood Reporter.

A published interview with director Marcel Varnel in which Guest criticized his latest movie -- "If I couldn't write a better screenplay ... " -- prompted the director to hire Guest to work on the screenplay for his next film, the 1935 comedy "No Monkey Business."

After writing for comedy stars such as Arthur Askey and Will Hay, Guest made his feature-film debut as a director in 1943 with "Miss London Ltd.," a comedy musical starring Askey that Guest co-wrote.

In addition to movies in the 1970s, Guest wrote and directed episodes of the TV series "The Persuaders!," "The Adventurer" and "Space: 1999." He continued directing into the mid-1980s.

Guest, who was known as a delightful raconteur, chronicled his life in the 2001 book "So You Want to Be in Pictures."

In addition to his wife of 52 years, he is survived by his sons, David and Christopher, and two grandchildren.

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