Written by: Richard H. Landau & Val Guest (screenplay), Nigel Kneale (teleplay)
Directed by: Val Guest
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, and Richard Wordsworth
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Nobody ever wins a cold war."
Like so many things in my cinematic life, I suppose I can credit John Carpenter for my knowledge of the Quatermass character. Said knowledge is quite passing due to the fact that the director used the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass” on Prince of Darkness, which was inspired by the trilogy of films produced by Hammer Studios in the 50s and 60s (which, in turn, were based of a television serial). Though the latter two in that series were released on DVD years ago by Anchor Bay, the landmark first film, The Quatermass Xperiment, is only now bowing on the format thanks to MGM’s Limited Edition series. This is quite a surprise given its extreme cult status and its importance as one of Hammer’s first forays into the horror genre.
The title character (portrayed by Brian Donlevy) here has conducted an experiment that’s sent three men out into deep space. When their rocket crash lands back to earth, only Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) emerges from the wreckage in an almost trance-like state. Unable to speak (except to mouth “help me”), he’s admitted to a local hospital as Quatermass and the local police force attempt to discover what went wrong. As it turns out, Carroon has come into contact with an extraterrestrial life-force that’s bent on spreading through the earth like a fungus, as it absorbs everything it encounters.
As far as alien invasion movies go, The Quatermass Xperiment is a very well done sci-fi-horror adventure. Produced squarely in the middle of the 50s, it’s obviously a part of that B-monster-movie craze that populated theaters and drive-ins. However, its steely, stern paranoia and coldness also recaptures the seriousness of Cold War allegories like The Thing From Another World, and it even managed to beat pod-people standard Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the punch by a year. Perhaps hindsight alone only keeps this from being the crackling mystery it may have been in ‘55, as modern audiences have been treated to riffs upon this theme for decades since (Body Snatchers itself has been remade no less than three times). But it still works quite well, as I very much enjoy the quaintness of these British creepshows, which sometimes managed to outdo their American counterparts due to their legitimately eerie, naturalistic vibe.
Quatermass is no different; filmed on a shoestring budget, longtime veteran Val Guest presents a low key, realistic take on extraordinary events. In fact, the apocalypse is sort of at stake if Quatermass and crew aren’t able to prevent Carroon from mutating out of control. The compact, almost slice-of-life take on this is interesting and reminded me of the Village of the Damned films and even Carpenter’s The Thing, which features some obvious parallels to the plot here. This isn’t a grandiose endtimes epic, but rather a look at how an alien invasion could conceivably get started and how it might impact on a small scale. As such, The Quatermass Xperiment plays out as part police procedural and part science drama as the heroes attempt to uncover the mystery surrounding the events. In fact, Carroon himself spends about half the time confined to a hospital bed before he embarks on his climactic monster movie rampage.
For whatever reason, I’d always envisioned Quatermass as bit of a swashbuckling adventurer, maybe like a sort of proto Indiana Jones. Donlevy’s turn is anything but that, though, as his Quatermass is a set, almost stuffy type. He often resembles a detective more so than a scientist, and he’s sometimes quite abrasive in his determinism. It’s not that failure isn’t an option for him--it’s simply not in his vocabulary, and the film’s great final shot captures the character’s unending resolve. Cast in the shadow of his failure, he marches on to future possibilities. Interestingly enough, he’s actually a bit outshined by that failure during much of the run time, as Wordsworth’s performance as the vacant Carrroon is fantastic. A tortured and tragic husk, the zombified astronaut draws comparison’s to Karloff’s Frankenstein monster; Wordsworth even somewhat physically resembles Karloff with his sharp, stern, angular features. His restraint is particularly effective, as we can see his humanity attempting to creep through; in case the Frankenstein comparison wasn’t obvious enough, he, too, encounters a little girl (a super young Jane Asher) that serves as a pivotal point for the character.
Other fine moments, such as an ill-fated car ride with his wife, make The Quatermass Xperiment a little more haunting than you may expect. Though it’s set up as a standard creature feature, it doesn’t capitulate to that mode until the very end, when the monster is finally revealed. It probably looks a little silly to modern audiences, and the film itself is certainly quite tame, this was the stuff of an “X” rating in its heyday (which also explains the odd spelling of the film’s title, which is a marketing ploy). Most of its terrors at the time would have been the psychologically unnerving sort, as audiences were only a decade removed from atomic horrors and UFO hysteria was about to reach manic heights. Guest’s film definitely taps into all of that, though it still works as a brisk, cool horror movie without those subtexts.
Regardless, its historical legacy is inherently interesting for horror fans. Not only was it an early horror film produced by Hammer, but it also features a lot of familiar Hammer faces in the cast and crew. Wordsworth would pop up in future productions, and this is the film that brought composer James Bernard to Hammer. His score here is especially ethereal and moody, and he would eventually lend his talents to notable titles like The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula. Most importantly, however, Quatermass Xperiment was the first film to garner major American distribution from United Artists (who released it as The Creeping Unknown), which no doubt made later productions possible. It’s quite feasible that Hammer wouldn’t have been what it was without this film.
Remarkably, Region 1 DVD aficionados have had to wait until now to own it; I suppose rabid fans will be disappointed that it’s part of MGM’s glorified DVD-R on demand service, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Once again carrying a disclaimer regarding the image quality, this disc actually fares pretty well despite the 4:3 aspect ratio (the OAR is 1.66). The black levels and details are pretty solid given the lack of a proper remaster, and the soundtrack is mostly clean. Given that I’ve wanted to see this film for many years, I’m just glad to have finally seen it; that fact that such a gem still remained to be uncovered speaks to the importance of this collection from MGM. More tasking for me will be tracking down the two sequels, which are long out of print. As for this one, though? A definite treat for Brit horror and sci-fi fans, who will no doubt eat it up. Buy it!
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