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The Quatermass Xperiment holds a high roost in filmed sci-fi. As England's first 50s success in the genre it enabled its maker Hammer Films to get a leg up in the industry. Adapted from Nigel Kneale's sensationally popular 1953 television serial, the thriller unfolds as a deceptively ordinary police mystery. Writer Nigel Kneale's very different kind of invasion from space involves not an alien armada but a biological contamination. If a ship from the tropics can transport a deadly virus back to Europe, why can't a rocket mission unknowingly carry some new alien contagion back from outer space?
Hammer helped their thriller become a smash hit in England by incorporating the adults-only 'Certificate X' rating into its title. As the popular Quatermass character meant nothing to American audiences, United Artists imported the film as The Creeping Unknown. Under either title, Xperiment's human metamorphosis is probably the most imitated concept in filmed science fiction. Various slime creatures, blobs, and "blood rust" soon arrived from outer space or were spawned as the result of atomic radiation. Hammer's Jimmy Sangster immediately wrote X the Unknown, a knockoff tale about radioactive ooze from inside the earth. 1
Co-writer and director Val Guest distilled Nigel Kneale's multi-part teleplay down to eighty suspenseful minutes. The story begins as professor Bernard Quatermass (Donlevy) rushes to the crash site of his rocket group's first manned spaceship. Only astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) stumbles from the sealed cockpit; his two companions are missing even though they could not possibly have left the ship. Victor is in a sickly trance and is unable to speak. Doctor Briscoe (David King-Wood) discovers that Carroon's tissues are undergoing disturbing changes. Convinced that the abrupt, stubborn Quatermass is holding her husband for his own interests, Judith Carroon (Margia Dean) hires private detective Christie (Harold Lang of Cloudburst) to spirit Carroon from the hospital. The now deranged astronaut instead kills Christie and escapes into the streets. The Professor's diagnosis of the situation is chilling: an unknown living entity entered the spaceship in flight, consumed the other two astronauts and took up residence in Carroon's body. Victor now 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 jellyfish-like mass of protoplasm.
American producer Robert Lippert arranged to provide Hammer films with additional financing, American star Brian Donlevy and co-writer Richard Landau. Lippert also nominated his actress-girlfriend Margia Dean for the only substantial female role. She receives star billing on American posters (see below). The Quatermass Xperiment betters other modestly budgeted monster thrillers of its day because its creature is much more than a man in a scary costume. Predicting the themes of early David Cronenberg films, Xperiment taps our primal fears of personal decay and disease through the pitiful, suffering astronaut played by Richard Wordsworth. As sympathetic as Frankenstein's monster, Victor Carroon has a Karloff-like encounter with a small girl. She is played by Jane Asher, a future Paul McCartney girlfriend and accomplished actress (Alfie). The alien creature grows inside the pathetic Carroon and rearranges his internal structure. Compelled to jam his hand into a cactus plant, Carroon is soon walking around with an arm and fist bloated into a twisted, thorned growth. By the time he's killing zoo animals, we see only his staring eye, and hear him dragging his bulk along the ground.
Project assistant Marsh (Maurice Kaufmann) recovers an automatic camera from the spaceship cockpit. When the film is processed the investigators watch a time-lapse version of what happened out in space: it's an early example of the "found footage" subgenre of horror filmmaking. Quatermass has no choice but to help Scotland Yard's Inspector Lomax (popular English actor Jack Warner) track down the zombie-like Carroon. In addition to presenting a sticky extermination problem, Victor's transformation into a mollusk-like creature introduces new ideas to the science fiction film. The first explorers into space have inadvertently given an alien entity an opportunity to explore us. Carroon is possessed, but not necessarily by an alien with plans for invasion - the 'space contagion' may not even be intelligent.
Nigel Kneale often reinterpreted supernatural phenomena in science fiction terms, and in The Quatermass Xperiment what would previously be explained as demonic possession is now parasitic infestation. Unlike American sci-fi compelled to reinforce the status quo regarding religion, this English production dispenses completely with the notion that the unknown is God's domain, and that scientists are trespassers. The unpleasant 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. Carroon and his crew were fully aware of the risks they took, and courageously dared to test the 'waters' of outer space. The failure of the first space rocket only makes Quatermass more determined to try it again. Wasting no time in mourning, the Professor prepares to launch rocket number two.
Val Guest gives his film a documentary flavor. The low budget shows when a nighttime dragnet scene incorporates stock shots from an earlier film (Seven Days to Noon). A country fire brigade arrives to cool the crash-landed rocket, which sticks out of the ground like a dart. In London, Carroon makes contact with various working-folk, including Thora Hird's alcoholic street vagrant. As permission was not granted to bring movie cameras into Westminster Abbey, this final location is a mix of live action matted into photos of the famous church. A laboratory sample of the space creature festers into an amoeba-like thing that attempts to consume some test mice. But until the climax, the only hint of Carroon's final form are snail-like slime trails on the wet cobblestone streets.
Original author Kneale conceived Quatermass as a kindly elder statesman and objected to Val Guest's interpretation. Brian Donlevy's bull-headed and belligerent Quatermass is continually shouting people down as he blurts out new bits of exposition. He portrays the Professor as a human blunt object forever bashing through bureaucratic obstacles. But the most remarkable performance remains Richard Wordsworth's haunted-looking astronaut. Victor Carroon wordlessly projects the idea that a malevolent "other" is guiding his actions. The cosmic parasite might become a different monster depending on what beings it encounters, an idea that echoes the shape-shifting creature in Who Goes There?, the original story from which The Thing from Another World was derived. Like The Thing, this space invader absorbs other life forms. This is shockingly conveyed when the parasite forces Carroon to painfully smash his hand into a cactus plant. The grotesque arm looks like photos of nuclear accident victims with severe radiation burns. Wordsworth's mime performance in the scene with little Jane Asher is beautifully acted and directed, neatly balancing sympathy and menace. As most English movies about slum life in London weren't commonly distributed in the United States, Asher's little poor girl is very affecting.
Margia Dean is unfortunately dubbed and does not come off well. Also in the cast is war movie favorite Gordon Jackson as a TV director, and batty Lionel Jeffries as a harried "Rocket Establishment" bureaucrat.
Hammer Films acquired all three of the 1950s Nigel Kneale BBC Quatermass serials for adaptation to the big screen. The company followed up quickly with Quatermass 2, an even better film 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 often intellectually stimulating ideas, Nigel Kneale's Quatermass trilogy is now considered a high point of classic British science fiction filmmaking.
The MGM Limited Edition DVD-R of The Quatermass Xperiment is derived from a beautiful HD master made in 2008 (Savant wrote about the transfer) and screened frequently on the MGM HD cable channel. Scanned from a fine grain positive held by The British Film Institute, the video quality is excellent. Outside of expensive Criterion-style restorations few English movies of this age have looked this good on home video.
The cut is the original English The Quatermass Xperiment, which is a couple of minutes longer than the slightly edited Creeping Unknown American release. If you haven't seen the movie in the last twenty years, what's been restored are a couple of uncensored shots of skull-faces, shriveled hands and some footage of an alien spore threatening some mice in a cage. As it was filmed in 1955, I would have thought that the show would be formatted for 1:66, but doing so crops the main title card.
At MGM in the middle 1990s George Feltenstein went to the trouble of securing an original English source for a laserdisc and VHS release. In 2004 I was hired by MGM Home Video to edit interview and comparison comparison featurettes for a DVD that was then dropped from the schedule. I still have my copy -- it's a good show and disc producer Greg Carson's Val Guest interview is now a rarity. It's a shame that Home Video companies, if they directly release library titles at all, no longer include added value extras.
This disc offers United Artists' original 1956 The Creeping Unknown trailer. It hypes every horrific moment in the show but foolishly reveals the mystery monster right off, spoiling the suspense. So watch the movie proper first. MGM's cover art with its homemade lettering is just terrible -- it was thrown together quickly when the disc was almost released as The Creeping Unknown, even though the company put it out on both VHS and Laserdisc under its original title.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Quatermass Xperiment rates:
1. Three separate main title cards exist for the movie. As non-Britons wouldn't get the "X" reference, Hammer exported it with a card spelled conventionally: "Experiment." United Artists crudely cut in their own "Creeping Unknown" title sequence, wiping out Hammer's possessory credit. They also misspelled their own company's name as "United Artist".
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T'was Ever Thus.