Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Quatermass Xperiment

Over July and August of 1953, BBC's 6-part television serial The Quatermass Experiment had gripped the nation, with an average 3 million people tuning in each week to discover the fate of Victor Carroon, the doomed astronaut who crash landed back on Earth carrying a deadly organism. Among them was Hammer producer Tony Hinds who immediately saw the serial's potential as a feature length film, and two days after the final episode had aired, Hammer purchased the rights from the BBC, a move which would forever change the fortunes of James Carreras' company.

Renamed The Quatermass Xperiment as a mischievous endorsement of the BBFC's X-rating, the film was enormously popular with the public on its release in the summer of 1955, but when shooting began in October '54, the film's success could not be guaranteed. Hammer's previous dabbling in science fiction, The Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways (both from 1952) were met with indifference and quickly forgotten, so the Quatermass film was cautiously granted a modest budget. Perhaps in an attempt to deflect the serial's more fantastic elements, Val Guest a talented journeyman with four previous Hammer assignments under his belt was chosen to direct. Guest had little affinity with science fiction and Horror but proved to be an inspired choice giving the film a solid touch of realism. Guest went on to direct the magnificent Hammer noir Hell Is A City in 1960 and it many ways the Quatermass film shares the same gritty urban ambiance in the latter half of the film as the police dragnet closes in on Victor Carroon.

Nigel Kneale however was less satisfied with the film. The writer had profitted little from Hammer's acquisition of the serial, and worse still, the changes made to the story to bring it within an 80-min feature length, had greatly angered Kneale. In fact screenwriter Richard Landau and Val Guest had done a fine job condensing the plot and opening up the teleplay for Cinema, devising an alternative ending which was decidedly more pyrotechnic and exciting than the soulful, melancholic climax of the serial, where Professor Quatermass appeals to the last vestiges of humanity left in the creature. Kneale however had his revenge on Hammer when he refused the studio the use of the Quatermass character for Dean Jagger's scientist in 1957's X The Unknown, a Quatermass film in all but name. The writer's criticisms aside, the film version retained two set pieces from the serial which brilliantly translated to the big screen - a scene where a hideously mutated Victor Carroon stumbles into a chemist, and a wonderful eerie sequence where the monster stalks animals in a zoo.

Brian Donlevy - the fourth Quatermass

If the film has a weakness it's Quatermass himself. In the serial Reginald Tate portrayed the Professor as a sensitive, troubled man of science, but in the film Irish American actor Brian Donlevy made Quatermass ill-tempered and surly, exactly the type of man, Kneale's Quatermass would have loathed. Apparently Donlevy had great difficulty on set with his lines which perhaps had more to do with actor's dedication to the bottle than Landau's writing. (Ironically, Donlevy returned for the sequel the following year making him the only actor to have played Professor Quatermass twice). Much more impressive in the film is Richard Wordsworth playing Victor Caroon, his tall frame and gaunt emaciated face give him a genuine alienness. Look out for a fabulous creepy moment in the film when Wordsworth fixes his wife, oblivious to the monster growing inside him, with a sinister stare. Yet, Wordsworth's often childlike portrayal of an alien emerging into a strange new world manages to elicit sympathy from the audience which in retrospect seems prophetic - the success of The Quatermass Xperiment gave Hammer the confidence to tackle another sympathetic monster when plans were made to film a version of Frankenstein.

The Quatermass Xperiment is available in the UK on the Icon label (collected as single disc double bill with Quatermass II). The Icon disc has come in for some criticism for it's lo-fi image quality and while the film most definitely looks unrestored, both picture and audio are perfectly decent for a budget disc. The Icon disc has no extras, a shame considering the previous UK edition, the superior but now hard-to-find DDVideo disc came with a comprehensive booklet, and an audio commentary with Val Guest. In the US, the film is available as a burn-on-demand MGM DVD and although light on extras, it features a much better transfer than the UK edition.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Wes. This is truly one of those once-seen-never-forgotten films. The scene you described where Victor stumbles into the chemist concealing his arm is vividly etched in my mind, even though I haven't seen the film in over twenty years!