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Quatermass Who?

The Quatermass Xperiment is said to be the first of a series. What are the other titles? What is The Creeping Unknown?

The groundbreaking, influential Quatermass films are one of the best kept secrets in science fiction cinema. Their story isn't complicated, but I've heard so much misinformation about them that it's good to have the opportunity to get the whole truth out here - is this great journalism, or what?

The early fifties in Great Britain was a hot time for live television drama. One of the most successful writers for these was Nigel Kneale, and his most popular creation was the continuing character Dr. Quatermass, a no-nonsense scientist constantly combating some impending science fiction crisis. Three tv plays were produced: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass 2, and Quatermass and the Pit.

At the time, England's Hammer Films Ltd. was in the down-market position of adapting radio and television shows for the big screen, often importing fading Yankee stars for the lead roles as a way of obtaining an American release. Hammer hired Brian Donlevy and veteran writer/director Val Guest and made its feature version of The Quatermass Experiment in 1955.

On its initial release the film was retitled The Quatermass Xperiment, as a marketing play on the British 'X' certificate that was automatically received by even the mildest of horror films. And Xperiment delivered the goods with squeamish scenes of shriveled corpses and creeping space amoebas: its theme of a biological invasion, with an astronaut being slowly transformed into an alien creature, was a science fiction first. It was a huge influence on the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, among others.

English audiences apparently didn't mind that Val Guest changed Quatermass from the thoughtful and concerned humanist of the TV plays, to the brash and bullying scientific zealot played by Donlevy. The picture was a smash hit, jump-starting Hammer into an ambitious production schedule that resulted in their huge international horror successes. A copycat, non-Quatermass followup Hammer production was X the Unknown.

In the U.S., United Artists released Experiment under the title The Creeping Unknown, snipping out about three minutes. MGM's release on VHS and laserdisc (out of Print) is the original uncut version, which, besides having a crystal-clear picture and sound transfer, restores the missing footage. A moody night scene set in a small English zoo is much longer. A gruesome shot of a victim is back in, as is a short but effective sequence of a protoplasmic thing oozing across a laboratory floor. American sci-fi fans can now see this for the first time.

The next Quatermass film is the excellent Quatermass 2 (U.S. title: Enemy from Space), a direct sequel also with Donlevy. Rights for it

are no longer held by United Artists; Anchor Bay has released a quality DVD. Much later Hammer produced Quatermass and the Pit (U.S. title: Five Million Years to Earth) with the late Andrew Keir (of Rob Roy) in the title role. This third film, in color and with a remixed 5.1 soundtrack, is now available on DVD as well.

All three are considered bona fide science fiction classics. A four-hour television play called simply Quatermass was produced even later, with John Mills as the professor. It was released direct-to-video in America, cut by more than half, as The Quatermass Conclusion. There is also news (from Gary Teetzel of MGM) of an even more recent BBC radio show, The Quatermass Memoirs (1996), written by Nigel Kneale and also starring Andrew Kier. In it, the Quatermass character revisits his earlier adventures.

Real trivia: the little girl who befriends the stricken astronaut in The Quatermass Xperiment is Jane Asher, who nine years later would costar with Vincent Price in Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death, and with Michael Caine in Alfie. Ms. Asher is also known as the girlfriend of Beatle Paul McCartney.

Want to know more? See the Quatermass Home Page.

Like SCIENCE FICTION? Try the following SAVANT entries!
Review: IT HAPPENED HERE, The Ultimate INVADERS FROM MARS, METROPOLIS and STAR WARS, DUNE and David Lynch, DANGER: DIABOLIK, The Uncut THINGS TO COME, THE ANGRY RED PLANET and CineMagic, Jump Cut 1 - FORBIDDEN PLANET, An Exotic Treat - THE MYSTERIANS!, Review: Quatermass and the Pit, Those ASTRAL COLLISION Movies, The Strange Case of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD.

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Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2002 Glenn Erickson

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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