Monday, 29 August 2011

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)


The Creeping Unknown

Nigel Kneale’s BBC television drama The Quatermass Experiment was little short of a phenomenon when it was originally broadcast over six weeks in the summer of 1953. Audiences flocked to the cliffhanging science-fiction serial led by Reginald Tate as the eponymous British professor. Although Hammer Film Productions had a certain inbuilt audience for their big screen treatment, success was far from assured. This was a particularly fragile moment in the companies fortunes. Some histories strongly suggest that The Quatermass Xperiment was a make or break film for Hammer. Whether this is actually true or not, there is no doubt that the decision to explore the tropes of science-fiction and horror represented a last resort for a company that was increasingly running out of ideas. The film now has such a position of legendary prominence that its humble production shows what little ambition Hammer had for it. With a slight budget of just £45,000 and a faded imported American actor at the helm it’s clear Hammer felt other strategies were required to aid success. One of these was to brazenly flaunt the X certificate the film received from the BBFC, and to lure an audience that might otherwise have overlooked the film.

The director chosen for the assignment was Val Guest, who along with Richard H. Landau also provided the screenplay. By and large Guest and Landau do a competent job of reducing a narrative that ran for 150 minutes in its tele-visual form to one that ran to just 82 minutes for the cinema. Because of contractual obligations to the BBC Kneale was unable to contribute to the film treatment, but this didn’t stop him vocalising his dissatisfaction. His main objection was to the casting of Brian Donlevy, who had made a career out of playing villains and heavies. But what Kneale didn’t seem to recognise was Guest’s differing approach to the material and the necessity therein for an actor with a no nonsense and brusque physicality. Donlevy would have been miscast in Kneale’s slow burning BBC adaptation, but in Guest’s swiftly moving, tense, urgent and gritty approach Donlevy seems perfectly suited in my view. One cannot imagine a doddering old eccentric professor cutting through the bureaucratic red tape with quite the degree of conviction. It is the assured authority of Donlevy’s conception of Quatermass that makes his performance ring true.

The film opens by contrasting the rural quietude of the Berkshire countryside with the incongruous sight of a downed space rocket. The idea of Britain perpetuating its own space programme is wonderfully quaint, and The Quatermass Xperiment has a general sensibility of overstating Britain’s importance in world events. When one considers Britain’s greatly reduced role in the world post World War Two and the embarrassing situation in Egypt which would culminate in the Suez Crisis the film is a clear attempt to put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain. This opening sequence is a testament to Guest’s grittily realistic approach. He makes surprisingly frequent use of handheld cameras as the fire engines sweep through the quiet streets and the local constabulary keep back the hordes of curious onlookers. The realistic approached is further enhanced with newspaper headlines, news announcements, location shooting, and ultimately at the dénouement a BBC documentary crew in Westminster Abbey. This all adds to a verisimilitude that helps to distinguish The Quatermass Xperiment from American competitors in the sci-fi/horror field.

The basic plot of the film which sees astronaut Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth) return to Earth possessed by an alien bacteria which causes his body to metamorphosis into an unwieldy composite of plant and animal predates the thematically similar Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Whereas Don Siegel’s film was an impressively conveyed political metaphor, Hammer travels this terrain through the more conventional form of the monster movie. Caroon’s gradual and agonising transformation is brought to vivid life by Phil Leakey’s excellent make up effects. Wordsworth’s cadaverous features and pitiful eyes speak of unfathomable suffering and torment. Perhaps most effectively seen in a short sequence where the mutating astronaut encounters a little girl in a chilling echo of the infamous drowning sequence in James Whales Frankenstein (1931). Like Boris Karloff twenty two years earlier Richard Wordsworth produces a wonderful non-verbal acting performance. Another sequence in which the alien interloper drains the life from a menagerie of animals at Chessington Zoo is equally effective. The location work on The Quatermass Xperiment is one of its outstanding features.

The brashness of Quatermass’ anti-authoritarianism is tempered somewhat by the jocular presence of Inspector Lomax (played with warm hearted ebullience by Jack Warner), and the likeable scientist Dr. Briscoe (David King-Wood). The emotional and moral centre of the film belongs to Caroon’s devastated wife Judith (Margia Dean) who frequently clashes with the inhumanity of Quatermass’ cold logic. Although the finale is given a certain self-referential quality by having the alien blob filmed by a BBC documentary crew as it’s fried alive by a huge charge of electricity (in the series Quatermass appeals to Caroon’s last vestiges of humanity and convinces him to commit suicide) it is the sequence aboard the rocket filmed by the ship board camera that is the most eerie and disturbing. The palpable silence both within the rocket and the screening room adds immeasurable tension. The success of The Quatermass Xperiment and its influence on Hammer’s production roster cannot be understated. Although Hammer went on to eclipse the film (both commercially and artistically) its importance within the landscape of British sci-fi/horror and the cycle of pictures that followed is vast.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. It's a terrific little movie.

  2. I love this movie and, somehow, it always creeps me the hell out. I think it is the thing you talk about - the "realistic approach" that does it. The drama is never made silly or sensational - it just feels dead real.

  3. The film that got me into Hammer and Quatermass.


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