The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
"Beware of the creeping unknown"
A experimental space rocket, designed and launched by Professor Quatermass and his team, crash lands back to Earth. However, two out of the three crew members have mysteriously vanished during the mission and the surviving member, Victor Carroon, is in bad shape and taken to a local hospital. As Quatermass and his team try to fathom out what happened to the rocket, Carroon slowly undergoes a horrible metamorphosis. Quatermass realises that he has been taken over by an alien being which absorbs everything it touches and increases itself in mass.
Greatness has to start somewhere and here we are with the true birth of the Hammer Films studio. Hammer, which became synonymous with horror and would reinvent the genre in the late 50s with a series of ground-breaking films, had been making film noir since the early 50s. The Quatermass Xperiment was their first major breakthrough in horror and science fiction and was seen as a massive gamble by the studio at the time. Originally a serialised TV play shown by the BBC in 1953, the story caught public attention and the rights to a cinematic adaptation were soon snapped up by Hammer. The film received the dreaded X certificate by the BBFC and Hammer slightly re-worked the title to play on that fact (hence the Xperiment bit). The film was a resounding success at the box office and established Hammer as a big player. It proved that there was an appetite for horror from the British cinema goers, an appetite that Hammer would fully satisfy two years later in The Curse of Frankenstein.
That's not to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is an outright horror film. The science fiction elements dominate this one and though it may be a landmark British film, time has not been too kind to it from the horror viewpoint. Looking rather quaint and antiquated nowadays, it's rather difficult to identify just what caused the BBFC to give it the X rating. Caroon's mutated hand and the eventual appearance of the alien at the end look rather tame today but I guess back in the 50s when fear of the A-bomb and Cold War paranoia was running high, the more psychological elements may have hit a raw nerve. Everything happens in a rather procedural fashion, evidential of Hammer's earlier film noir output, and it plays out more like a crime thriller for the first half.
Given the slew of sci-fi monster movies being churned out in America during the 50s, one would have expected The Quatermass Xperiment to go down the same route and the change of approach comes as a bit of a shock. But legendary screen writer Nigel Kneale, who was one of the finest sci-fi writers ever to pen a script, made his name with the BBC television play. The adaptation by Val Guest pays faithful attention to that, expanding the scope of the play for feature film length and, in turn, crafting a more thoughtful, haunting film instead of the generic gung-ho popcorn filler than the Americans were making in the same era. This is "thinking man's science fiction" which, in some quarters, can mean that the film is rather slow. It is, there's no question of that. The slow, methodical build-up to the finale does plod along merrily in old school British fashion. But Guest's intelligent script keeps the mystery level high (Kneale had no involvement in the cinematic version and was unhappy with a number of changes made to make the serial more exciting).
This is down, in no small part, to the great performance by Richard Wordsworth who plays doomed astronaut Victor Caroon. Wordsworth, who I've only just found out was the grandson of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, makes for a sympathetic and tragic character, almost Frankenstein-like in his silent portrayal (he even encounters a little girl and everything goes wrong from then onwards, just like his bolt-necked counterpart). The audience knows that something is seriously wrong with Caroon but we don't know what. The blank expressions and pain-stricken eyes hide something deadly and the film takes its time to drip-feed the audience hints as to what that could be. It's not pleasant, that's for sure.
Brian Donlevy seemed like a rather awkward choice to play the lead role. Donlevy was an Irish-American actor who was cast in the role by Hammer in an attempt to breakthrough into the US market but in his later years he was known for his alcoholism and was troublesome to work with. Ironically it's these qualities that make his Professor Quatermass click. Donlevy plays the role with a gruff, no-nonsense approach and turns his Quatermass into an arrogant, obnoxious, single-minded character. Given the nature of Quatermass' almost-obsessive determination to succeed, Donlevy makes the right call to play him this way. If you're a fan of the serial, then the differences in portrayal are fairly stark, but this approach works for this adaptation.
It's of no surprise to see that the finale is the part of The Quatermass Xperiment which hasn't aged well. The appearance of the rubbery alien in Westminster Abbey gets decent build-up and would have looked alright back in the 50s. But nowadays it's a bit of a dud creation and the finale is a let-down given the suspense leading up. The alien worked so much better in the human guise of Caroon but the story dictated that it fully reveal its true form at the end. The finale doesn't really spoil the rest of the film but it feels like a waste and is highly anti-climactic - Hammer's budget wouldn't stretch too far and the special effects are adequate but unconvincing.
The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most influential genre films ever made and definitely one of the UK's most important contributions to cinema. Without this film's success and the identification of a niche market for horror in the UK, Hammer may never have decided to make The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, two landmark films which changed the horror genre as we know it forever. Though some of its elements lack the impact they most undoubtedly did upon its original release, The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most intelligent and ambitious science fiction films of its era, ambitions that were challenged further in its two sequels Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, both of which (in my opinion) are far superior. I would have loved to have seen what else Hammer could have done in the science fiction genre but they chose to focus their efforts on the horror market. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Quatermass Xperiment
Also Known As: The Creeping Unknown
Director(s): Val Guest
Writer(s): Richard H. Landau (screenplay), Val Guest (screenplay), Nigel Kneale (based on the B.B.C. television play by)
Actor(s): Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, Thora Hird, Gordon Jackson, Lionel Jeffries, Sam Kydd, Richard Wordsworth
Duration: 82 mins