The worst thing you can say about the classic science fiction film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) is that its three sequels are even better. DD Video has produced a handsome special edition DVD of this seminal Hammer Film, worth getting for its handsome booklet alone.
For the uninitiated, Quatermass (not "Quartermass") is Professor Bernard Quatermass, a rocket scientist who on four occasions encountered alien life forms here on earth. The Quatermass saga began as a 1953 television serial produced in the earliest days of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The Quatermass Experiement was filmed by Hammer two years later, though it was retitled The Creeping Unknown for release in America. (The slight change in the title, the "X" in Xperiment, was to emphasize the picture's "adults only" X-certificate in Britain.) The same team, more or less, adapted the BBC's 1955 follow-up, Quatermass II, which Hammer filmed in 1957, and which became Enemy from Space in the U.S. The third Quatermass adventure, aired in 1959 and filmed seven years later as Quatermass and the Pit, likewise retained its title in Britain, but again was changed for U.S. release, this time to Five Million Years to Earth. A fourth drama, The Quatermass Conclusion (1979), was filmed and released as both a multi-part television drama and in a feature version.
The Quatermass stories are the creation of Manxman Nigel Kneale, and with each story he delved deeper and more intelligently into areas of science fiction frequently explored in literature but almost never on television and even less so in films. His stories are logical and sophisticated but uncluttered with scientific jargon. Their ideas are complex and far-reaching, yet always accessible to a mainstream audience. Finally, Kneale always anchored his stories with solid, well-drawn characters, another rarity in '50s science fiction cinema. The first two films were enormously influential, insomuch as their stories have been imitated endlessly in the years since. The Quatermass Xperiment, unlike Quatermass II, has lost some of its impact through the years, but still holds up as one of the more intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction films of its time.
The story begins at the crash site of a rocketship, Britain's first manned spaceflight. One of its astronauts, Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), though injured, has survived the crash. However, the two other astronauts have vanished, leaving only their empty space suits. Quatermass (American actor Brian Donlevy), head of the Rocket Group and under pressure from both the press and the British government for answers concerning the unsanctioned flight, investigates. As Quatermass tries to unravel the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the two men, Carroon, conscious but catatonic, appears to be undergoing a strange metamorphosis....
The Quatermass Xperiment's strengths are the vividness and intelligence of Neale's storytelling, and the sense of urgency given the film version by director and co-screenwriter Val Guest. Neale reportedly hated Donlevy's unwavering, singularly un-British Quatermass, but much of what seems to have bothered Neale comes out of Guest and Richard Landau's script rather than Donlevy's performance. In cutting the roughly four-hour television program down to a 78-minute movie, Guest and Landau cleverly turned Quatermass into a hurricane of a man who races through the story's necessary exposition. He lets nothing stand in his way -- politeness and procedure be damned, he has a job to do and time is of the essence! Stocky, unflappable Donlevy is marvelous, walking a full beat faster than everyone else, and giving each line a concerned, ruthless authority that makes the story's fantastic elements seem entirely plausible.
The late James Bernard likewise contributes to this enormously as well, giving the picture its notably tense score, one dominated by unrelenting, piercing violins. It also complements Guest's savvy direction, which wisely opts for a stark, documentary look most of the time. This, in turn, gives the film its air of verisimilitude while going a long way to hide its paltry budget.
Video & Audio
DD Video offers a solidly good transfer of The Quatermass Xperiment, which retains the Xperiment title card (which had been altered for reissue and television versions) and is uncut. (Some retailers, though, still sell it under the Experiment title.) The presentation is in standard 1.33:1 format, billed on the DVD's jacket as the "original screen ratio." Considering the film began shooting in October 1954, it seems likely that the picture was released with 1.66:1 cropping in mind. On the other hand, compositions on this presentation are generally tight, which suggests the film might have been hard-matted or, perhaps, that the 1.33:1 format might very well be correct. This reviewer would welcome a definitive answer or additional information regarding this. The mono sound is crisp and clear, representative of the period, and there are no subtitles.
DD Video has done an excellent job here, giving The Quatermass Xperiment a nicely packaged set of extras that equal or even surpasses what Hammer fans have come to expect from companies like Anchor Bay. By far the best of these is a superbly designed, full-color booklet. It features 24 pages of well-researched "viewing notes" by scholars Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, which go into considerable detail on the changes that were made adapting the TV serial to the big screen. Their essay is accompanied by a series of very clear, never-before-seen (at least not by this reviewer) publicity stills and advertising material, along with a complete cast and crew list and even a bibliography.
Next is a screen-specific audio commentary track with director Val Guest (still going strong into his 90s!) and Marcus Hearn, who also appear in an eight–minute on-camera interview. The commentary/interview goes into quite a bit of detail, and is on par with similar commentary tracks for Anchor Bay's Hammer titles. Finally, there is a 4:3 matted U.K. trailer for the feature version of Quatermass and the Pit.
The Quatermass Xperiment is several cinematic landmarks at once. It's a watershed science fiction drama that also helped establish Hammer as a major exporter of fantastic cinema. And, best of all, it introduced to the world the thrillingly smart storytelling of Nigel Kneale and what is perhaps his greatest character.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.