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The Quatermass Experiment

by Glenn Erickson Dec 16, 2023

It’s the one and only original Hammer Sci-fi thriller that changed the genre, inspiring good filmmakers and copycats alike. Val Guest adapts Nigel Kneale’s teleplay with Yankee Brian Donlevy as a belligerent Professor Quatermass, the rocket project director and red-tape bulldozer. The movie is prime sci-fi gold, and genuinely disturbing: Richard Wordsworth is the courageous first man into space who comes back infected by a gruesome, horrifying parasite. Thora Hird writes his epitaph: “Walking? It was kind of … crawling!” The enhanced reissue carries a new commentary.


The Quatermass Xperiment
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1955 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 82 min. / The Creeping Unknown / Special Edition / Street Date December 12, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Richard Wordsworth, Jack Warner, Thora Hird, Jane Asher, Maurice Kaufmann, Margia Dean, David King-Wood, Gordon Jackson, Harold Lang, Lionel Jeffries, Sam Kydd, Jane Aird, Basil Dignam.
Cinematography: Walter J. Harvey
Art Director: J. Edgar Wills
Film Editor: James Needs
Makeup: Phil Leakey
Special Effects: Les Bowie
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Richard Landau, Val Guest based on the BBC television play by Nigel Kneale
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Directed by
Val Guest

In The Beginning, writer-director Val Guest accepted the job of transforming the BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment into a feature film for Hammer, with the stipulation that he could do it his way, as a ‘reality’ show, not a conventional haunted house monster movie. The big success The Quatermass Xperiment doesn’t look like a handheld documentary movie, but it also isn’t studio-bound or decorated with visuals previously associated with fantasy. Val Guest’s idea of ‘reality’ was simply to film in ordinary locations, without glamorous actors. An effort was made to treat the fantastic content — a crashed space ship, various slimy appearances of an outerspace organism in metamorphosis — as if they were ‘just there’ and a camera was trained on them.

Nigel Kneale’s brilliant concept and Val Guest’s pragmatic approach created the first English Sci-fi classic of the 1950s, and arguably the most influential. The idea of an organic invasion from outer space using us as its point of infection was already out there, but Xperiment makes it very personal. A luckless astronaut becomes the organic raw material for a species from beyond the stars. Hammer would quickly follow with  a variation on the idea, while exploitative blob-monsters appeared across the globe, in  Japan,  the U.S., and  Italy. The fate of that astronaut gave a preview of David Cronenberg’s ‘body horror’ films made two decades later, with visions of bizarre tumors and organic transformations. The idea isn’t magic — as every Monarch butterfly knows well.

 

Forget bug-eyed monsters and death rays: Nigel Kneale’s invasion from space is as simple as a biological contamination. If a ship from the tropics can bring a deadly virus to Europe, why can’t a rocket carry a new alien contagion back from outer space?  Hammer cleverly exploited the BBFC’s ‘X’ certificate as a marketing factor, by giving Kneale’s title an alternate spelling. Co-writer and director Val Guest distilled the BBC’s multi-part teleplay down to eighty suspenseful minutes. United Artists’ import version hit American screens in June of 1956, nine months after the London debut, with the title The Creeping Unknown. It was slightly abridged, as explained in the Extras.

England has a ‘Rocket Group.’

It’s the space age: even if a financial slump is stunting the UK’s aerospace industry, the Boffins have established a ‘group’ for space exploration. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Donlevy) rushes to the crash site of his rocket group’s first manned spaceship. Astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) stumbles alone from the sealed cockpit; his two companions are inexplicably missing from the tightly sealed ship. Victor is in a sickly trance and is unable to speak. Doctor Briscoe (David King-Wood) discovers that his tissues are undergoing disturbing changes. Convinced that the abrupt, stubborn Quatermass has quarantined her husband for his own interests, Judith Carroon (Margia Dean) hires private detective Christie (Harold Lang of Hammer’s Cloudburst) to spirit the sick astronaut from the hospital. The now deranged Carroon instead kills Christie and escapes into the streets, leaving Quatermass with no choice but to help Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (popular English actor Jack Warner) track him down.

What happened in space?  The Professor has the answer: an unknown living entity entered the spaceship in flight, consumed the other two astronauts and took up residence in Carroon’s body. The space ‘thing’ collects and incorporates living organic matter into its biology. No longer himself, Victor absorbs other organisms (a cactus plant, zoo animals, unlucky humans) for raw materials. By the time Quatermass corners Carroon in Westminster Abbey, the astronaut has become a mollusk-like mass of protoplasm.

 

In Nigel Kneale’s view, Demonic Posession has been replaced by Parasitic Infestation. The ‘space contagion’ may not even be intelligent. Unlike American Sci-fi scripts compelled to kowtow to the Production Code regarding religion, this English show dispenses with the notion that the unknown is God’s domain, and that scientists are trespassers. The unflattering truth about man’s place in the cosmos is that the difference between a human being and crawling vermin is apparently just a few hundred switch-throws on a helix of DNA.

The courageous space pioneer Carroon was fully aware of the risks when he dared to test the ‘waters’ of outer space. It’s the same progress vs. humanism problem seen in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier. Kneale’s Quatermass character assumes that space is man’s future, and that risking the lives of Carroon and other brave astronauts is a necessary expense.

Part of Victor Carroon’s volunteer duty is to be treated like a test subject in a research clinic. Nobody seems to understand the concept of tight security. They put Victor in a lax quarantine, not realizing that Victor is himself the disease. An interesting test: find the exact point where Quatermass and Lomax stop regarding Carroon as human to be rescued, and start thinking of him as a monster to be exterminated. When does the change in attitude take place?

 

Inspector Lomax is the film’s voice of humanism, a decent fellow who finds himself taxed with saving London from alien monsters. The Bernard Quatermass from Nigel Kneale’s TV serials was a similar fellow, a kindly and responsible gentleman. Given the American actor Brian Donlevy, Val Guest reinterprets the Professor as a human blunt object, continually shouting his colleagues down while bashing through bureaucratic obstacles. Some Hammerphiles equate Donlevy’s Quatermass with the studio’s interpretation of the Baron Frankenstein character. Bernard doesn’t brood over his hard decisions, as did his American predecessor Dr. Fleming (Morris Ankrum) in co-producer Robert Lippert’s earlier Rocketship X-M. Quatermass wastes no time in mourning. The failure of the first space mission only puts more urgency on the next.

Why Brian Donlevy?  When American producing partner Lippert nominated the name actor Donlevy for the role, he was likely thinking of Donlevy’s part nine years earlier in MGM’s highly propagandistic whitewash of the Manhattan Project, The Beginning or the End. It’s a great movie to see, in the wake of last year’s blockbuster Oppenheimer. Brian Donlevy’s bullish Atom Project chief General Leslie Groves is a humor-challenged martinet, an obsessive who treats his mission just as seriously as does Donlevy’s Quatermass.

 

The Quatermass Xperiment betters most monster thrillers of its day because its creature is more than a man in a scary costume. Growing inside the pathetic Carroon, the cosmic parasite is a disturbing thing to contemplate. It rearranges Victor’s internal structure as it absorbs more living things. The creature grows differently depending on what organic matter it absorbs, an idea that echoes the shape-shifting creature in the famous science fiction story Who Goes There? The parasite’s possession-control capability is made shockingly clear when Carroon is compelled to painfully smash his hand into a cactus plant. The resulting grotesque arm sprouts plant-like thorns; its swollen appearance also reminds us of photos of nuclear accident victims, returning once again to the Atom age dangers expressed in The Beginning or the End. By the time the Carroon-creature is killing and absorbing zoo animals, we see only its staring eye, and hear its bulk dragging along the ground. The only hint of Carroon’s final form is the snail-like slime trail he leaves on wet cobblestone streets.

An early ‘Found Footage’ experiment.

Xperiment’s realistic approach adopts the urban-dull look of realistic British crime films. Ten years after the war, the London we see is still economically depressed. Carroon makes contact with various working-folk including Thora Hird’s alcoholic street vagrant. Is the show a debut for “found footage” filmmaking?  The rocket’s on-board automatic camera recorded time-lapse images of the flight, just as had been done on WW2 bombing missions. Instead of flashbacks to the space flight,  we see Quatermass and his Rocket Project assistant Marsh (Maurice Kaufmann, unbilled) look for clues to the mystery by viewing the film recovered from the crashed rocket.

Xperiment was a medium to low-budget production, and the resourceful Guest filmed accordingly. Hammer’s local Bray Fire Brigade was enlisted for the opening with the crashed rocket, which sticks out of the ground like a dart. Because London’s Westminster Abbey denied admission to Hammer’s film crews, special effects man Les Bowie used static mattes to insert live action into still photos of the famous church. A nighttime dragnet scene economizes by incorporating some stock shots from an earlier atom extortion thriller, the highly recommended Seven Days to Noon. It has the exact same semi-documentary approach employed by Val Guest.

In addition to supplying additional financing and actor Brian Donlevy, the American producer Lippert nominated his actress-girlfriend Margia Dean for the film’s only substantial female role. Dean receives star billing on American posters but is poorly dubbed and does not come off well. Also in the cast are favorites Gordon Jackson as a TV director, and Lionel Jeffries as a harried Rocket Establishment bureaucrat.

 

Alien life always “finds a way” too.

Nobody forgets Richard Wordsworth’s haunted-looking astronaut. The actor’s mime neatly balances sympathy and menace, projecting the idea that a malevolent ‘other’ is in control. As sympathetic as Frankenstein’s monster, Carroon has a beautifully acted and directed Karloff-like encounter with a little slum girl, who doesn’t know how lucky she is. The child is played by a very young Jane Asher, who only wants to play Tea with her favorite dolly. Ms. Asher was later to become an accomplished actress (The Masque of the Red Death,  Alfie) but for a long time was more famous as the girlfriend of Paul McCartney.

The Quatermass Xperiment is acknowledged as a major step forward in filmed Science fiction. Sci-fi thrillers of the ’50s offered violent threats and distressing sermons about the consequences of irresponsible technology. Part of the unease behind Xperiment is its suggestion that, where Life in the Universe is concerned, Earth may be little more than an orbiting Petrie Dish waiting to be colonized by whatever alien organisms might drift by. In other words, the cosmos is more likely ruled by cruel competitive biology, than a benevolent God.

Hammer Films would acquire all three of the Nigel Kneale’s BBC Quatermass serials for adaptation to the big screen. The company followed up quickly with the even more exciting Quatermass 2, also starring Brian Donlevy. The third installment was delayed by seven years while the studio pursued its lucrative gothic horror subjects. Packed with imaginative and intellectually stimulating ideas, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass trilogy is now considered a high point of classic British science fiction filmmaking.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Quatermass Xperiment is an enhanced reissue. The basic transfer is the same as that seen in the 2014 BD release. We’ll have to let the analysis sites tell us if the encoding is different or the bit rate improved. It looks the same to us. Added to the very good 2014 extras is a slipcover and one new item, an enthusiastic audio commentary by author and screenwriter Gary Gerani.

Mr. Gerani has recorded commentaries for discs of the TV shows The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Boris Karloff’s Thriller. His talk reminds us that in the (now lost) original TV production, the alien invader inside Caroon could communicate with Quatermass. It also incorporated the consciousness of the other two ‘ingested’ spacemen. Could that icky concept have been carried over to Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, or had a score of Sci-fi pulp stories already used it?

MGM/UA Home Video remastered the original English cut back around 1996, for laserdisc and VHS. George Feltenstein went to the trouble of seeking out original transfer materials, and found a fine grain positive held by The British Film Institute. Kino Lorber’s new reissue again formats the movie in its original widescreen aspect ratio.

The older QX extras have been accumulating since the first MGM DVD in 2011. They include the input from director Val Guest, who passed away in 2006. Noted Hammer historian Marcus Hearn hosts Guest for a good video interview, and provides an audio commentary as well; both are from 2003. From 2014 is a short piece with director John Carpenter, whose 1982 The Thing remake brings an Xperiment– like shape-shifting monster to life in gruesome detail. Much the same as his commentary for The Crawling Eye, Carpenter’s best remarks center on his childhood matinee experiences. His thoughts about his own collaboration with Nigel Kneale are unfortunately brief — they apparently did not get on well.

Val Guest is back for From Reality to Fiction, an interview featurette made in 2002 for an aborted MGM Midnite Movies release. He repeated the same stories for the Marcus Hearn interview. A versions comparison feature shows what was cut out to make The Creeping Unknown, explains a few anomalies in the credits and shows all three title treatments. One was salvaged from an old Sinister Cinema tape loaned by editor Todd Stribich. How can we find the words to express the brilliance of these older featurettes?  Well, we like seeing our credit on screen as much as anyone.

Ernest Dickerson’s Trailers from Hell trailer commentary piece for the ’56 The Creeping Unknown is included, as well as a clean (and 1:37 flat) copy of the same original trailer. It hypes every horrific moment in the show but foolishly reveals the mystery monster right off, spoiling the suspense. Don’t watch it first.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Quatermass Xperiment
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
New audio commentary by Gary Gerani
Audio commentary with Val Guest and Marcus Hearn
Interview with Director Val Guest interviewed by Marcus Hearn
Carpenter on Quatermass interview with Quatermass fan John Carpenter
DVD Featurettes From Reality to Fiction, Comparing the Versions and Alternate Main Title
Trailers From Hell with Ernest Dickerson
Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
December 12, 2023
(7043quat)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Chuck Shillingford

Hi Glenn, this was a great review of a phenomenal movie, I just wish that the word ‘trilogy’ wasn’t bandied about so frequently when discussing film or character series. It’s irksome but nonetheless both the film series and your reviews are wonderful.

david smith

Love it along with similar era copycats: Trollenberg terror and X the Unknown. Even the First man in Space and the terrific walking brain film Fiend without a Face. It was a great era for low budget brit Sci-fi. It all started with Quatermass

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