Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Quatermass Xperiment

Before Dr. Who, British television audiences watched the science fiction adventures of another doctor, Bernard Quatermass, who began his serialized adventures in 1953, and has made periodic appearances on the British tube ever since. The character was created by English screenwriter Nigel Kneale. After the first serial was a success, Hammer Films converted it into a feature film, condensing the story without much input from the original writer, and casting American actor Brian Donlevy in the title role instead of an Englishman (this was typical of Hammer at the time, using an American lead in an attempt to broaden a film’s appeal). The change did not please Kneale, who thought Donlevy was stiff and close-minded, but the film was a success. It was directed by Val Guest, beginning a rich run of sci-fi efforts. The movie version was called The Quatermass Xperiment (although tame by today’s standards, it received an “X” classification from the British censors, and Hammer was proud of the rating and wanted to emphasize it), sometimes known as the better-spelled The Quatermass Experiment, and as The Creeping Unknown in the United States.

A young couple is cavorting in a field* when a rocket crashes near them. Various official agencies and important personages gather, including Dr. Quatermass, whose area of expertise is rocketry. It seems that Quatermass managed to pull off the feat of secretly launching the rocket into outer space, and it has returned a bit unexpectedly. When the rocket cools enough to be opened, they find two of the three occupants (the term astronaut hadn’t been coined yet) have disappeared, and the survivor is near catatonic. Medical men soon observe the survivor’s skin and body are undergoing changes. It seems the unlucky explorers ran into an alien lifeform in space, which devoured the other two, and is changing the other into something else.

To say quarantine procedures were ill-conceived is overstating the fact. Despite the subject wasting away and changing, people come and go as they please, with little thought to it being caused by some dread and unknown disease. Security is loose, too, and the survivor’s wife, who obviously isn’t the brightest candle, sneaks him out of the hospital, but not before he has absorbed a cactus (!) giving him a nice barbed weapon for a hand. Out in the open, the poor bastard goes on something of a rampage, menacing a number of people and the animals at a zoo, before ending up at Westminster Abbey.

The biggest problem with the film is the miniscule budget, meaning what passed for special effects were produced on a shoestring, and the final form the creature morphs into just sort of sits there and waves its tentacles. I would have to agree also with Kneale that Donlevy wasn’t quite right for the role. He had been a movie star for twenty years by this time, but he was on the downward slide, and his alcoholism had probably taken a lot out of him. His characterization of Quatermass is pretty much continual irritation.

Still, the movie is a lot of fun. The script is pretty good, even in its condensed form, and Guest makes the best he can of his budget. Richard Wordsworth (a descendent of William Wordsworth) does a very good job as the afflicted space traveler. All in all, I’d say if you enjoy 50s sci-fi horror like The Blob and Them!, you’ll probably get a kick out of The Quatermass Xperiment/Experiment/The Creeping Unknown as well.

*If this was a modern movie, I would have probably been using “cavorting” as a euphemism for something more intimate, but this was filmed in 1955, and they really were just cavorting.

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