The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
From 1957 to 1973, Hammer Film Productions reached iconic status within the genre of Gothic horror, with such entries as The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and The Vampire Lovers among others. However, the film that helped launch Hammer's successful, 16-year run as the king of the horror box office was, in fact, a contemporary science fiction film. Based on a 1953 BBC television serial written by Nigel Kneale, the superbly crafted and acted The Quatermass Xperiment1 put Hammer on the worldwide financial map and added to the sci-fi lexicon a new scientist-hero, Professor Bernard Quatermass.
A rocket crashes nose down in a field a few hours outside of London. The mission command team headed by Quatermass arrives at the fiery scene to find that only one of the three-man crew has survived. In fact, the bodies of the other two are missing from the ship, with only their space suits left. The third, Victor Carroon, is in a near-catatonic state. After watching a video record of the space mission taken by the astronauts on the mission, Quatermass determines that Carroon's body may have been infected by an alien parasite that is causing him to transform into a horrible, tentacled creature. Confined to a hospital for tests, Carroon escapes, aided by his unsuspecting wife, and begins killing humans and animals to feed his metamorphosis into the creature. Quatermass, with help from Scotland Yard Inspector Lomax, frantically works to track down and destroy the creature before it's too late.
The Quatermass Xperiment (American release title: The Creeping Unknown) marked only the second genre credit in director Val Guest's long career2, yet he handles things here with the aplomb of a veteran of numerous science fiction movies. Guest and director of photography Walter Harvey utilize stark black and white photography, hand-held cameras, actual location shooting (including filming in London and Surrey's Chessington Zoo3), and tight editing to give the film a documentary-style feel and a sense of urgency to the action. The opening missile crash is particularly good example of this palpable tension, as Guest chooses to put the focus on the details of preparation the command team and emergency technicians go through before opening the rocket to rescue the crew. Guest does keep the scene moving with a lot of activity and heated verbal interaction between Quatermass and company, but he prolongs the payoff as much as possible. Something horrible may be happening inside the cockpit, but Guest will reveal it only in his way and on his time.
Propelling the story even more is the taut script, by Guest and Richard Landau, taken from Nigel Kneale's original teleplay, which manages to condense the BBC serial and remove some sequences while still fleshing out the main characters and offering meaty dialogue. Quatermass is portrayed as an obsessive truth-seeker who'll stop at nothing to get answers, yet is given hints of flaws, especially his inability to cope with the human element in this terrible equation. One scene early on has Victor Carroon's wife Judith confronting Quatermass about the necessity of putting her husband through the tests in his condition, to which Quatermass replies: "There's no room for personal feelings in science, Judith!". Quatermass is content to leave the humanity here to Judith, Carroon himself, and to Inspector Lomax, all three provided with bits of character traits showing their struggle with the notion that the very human Victor may be turning into something that will have to be destroyed. There's also a neat, subtle subtext suggesting guilt and/or blame on Quatermass and that Victor may be a victim of the mission and desperation to solve the mysteries of space.
Standing out amidst a uniformly fine cast are Donlevy as Quatermass and Richard Wordsworth as the pitiable, helpless Carroon. Donlevy brings his typical forcefulness to Quatermass, essaying him as something of a flesh and blood bulldozer, smashing through anything and anyone with equal zeal in his search for answers. Drawing from a career of playing mostly hissable villains, Donlevy imbues the almost anti-hero professor with some of those same unlikable haracteristics, making him ultimately very real and human. Wordsworth nearly steals the film as Carroon. Given almost no dialogue, Wordsworth still manages to evoke sympathy through facial reactions, body language, and the occasional crying whimper or scream. Showing Carroon as sad sack victim allows the film to at least briefly ask the question of who is the real villain here, even if the ending leaves no doubt to the necessity for Carroon's demise.
The cherry on top of this fine confection is provided by both Phil Leakey's effectively creepy makeup, carefully transforming Carroon piece by hideous piece into the creature antagonist, and effects man Les Bowie's end result monster. The alien is not fully revealed until the end and, while the reason for this was mostly due to a lack of effects budget, this actually enhances the impact when the viewer finally gets an eyeful at the finale. Guest gives the audience a chance to have fun with it and let their own imagination run wild. Bowie's resulting, frightening creation is no disappointment either, a simple mix of tripe and rubber placed on top of a model of Westminster Abbey.4
While it may be a surprise to some, devoted Hammer fans know that the studio was more than a company that just produced good Gothics, replete with busty heroines and dollops of "Kensington Gore," for 16 years. The folks behind the nicknamed "Studio That Dripped Blood" were equally adept at making solid and profitable product in science fiction, cop thrillers, dramas, comedies and other film genres. The Quatermass Xperiment is a prime example of that quality outer space adventure, even without the boobs and fake blood.
- The BBC serial was titled The Quatermass Experiment. Hammer, attempting to capitalize at the box office on the British Board of Film Censors' introduction of the X rating in 1951 for films with themes deemed too strong or intense for anyone under the age of 16, dropped the first E in Experiment and capitalized the X. Source: Meikle, Denis, and Christopher T. Koetting. A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009. Print. (back)
- 1951's Mister Drake's Duck, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Guest's future wife Yolande Donlan, was his first effort. (back)
- Meikle and Koetting. (back)
- Abbey officials refused to allow filming. Matte paintings of portions of the Abbey were used to provide scale to the model. Source: Meikle and Koetting. (back)