Writter by writer, NKKingston
The film opens with two young lovers enjoying a literal roll in the hay, when a rocket crashes into a nearby field. As the fire and police services attempt to hold back the curious public, it becomes obvious the crash was not entirely unexpected. A group of government scientists arrive and explore the cooling spaceship. Only one of the three astronauts originally on board appears to have survived, but more curiously, the other two aren’t just dead, they’re completely missing!
The Quatermass Xperiment is often claimed to be Hammer’s first ‘proper’ film, an ironic claim considering Hammer had been around for two decades by this point, and the name Hammer doesn’t even appear in the credits, the film being distributed by subsidiary company ‘Exclusive Films’.
It was based on a BBC TV serial from 1953, written by Nigel Kneale. Hammer passed over Kneale in favour of one of their current roster of writers. Though Kneale would go on to write Quatermass 2, Quatermass and the Pit, and several other films for Hammer, the bad blood was never quite washed away, and he remained upset about the changes they insisted on in each adaptation. The film was shorn of much of the serial’s post-war subtext, including Quatermass* questioning his own actions as the repercussions unfold, and the ending was entirely rewritten to give it a more dramatic finale. The X in the title capitalised on the film’s X certificate; previously seen as something to be avoided, Hammer would use the X as part of its ongoing marketing campaign to attract adult audiences with a promise of the kind of terror an A just couldn’t evoke.
Four out of the six parts of the BBC serial are now lost, so it’s impossible to compare the two versions now. But how does the Quatermass Xperiment stand on its own?
(The following contains spoilers for the end of the film)
It starts well, with a creeping dread that’s not entirely attributable to anything going on (though probably has something to do with the film’s haunting score). The combination of studio and location shooting gives the scenes a sense of scope missing in a lot of monster films of the same period. The film takes a documentary style approach in terms of camerawork, and overall there’s a very British feel to the beginning of the film – a combination of curtain-twitching and bureaucracy – that has a touch of nostalgia for modern viewers, but overall the film hasn’t dated too badly.
The characters are established quickly, if a little two-dimensionally, and the plot continues at a swift pace. Donlevy is brusque and a little off-putting for the eponymous character, but Wordsworth (playing surviving astronaut Victor Carroon) conveys the pain and confusion of his character superbly despite having almost no lines. Margia Dean (Judith Carroon), the only woman in the main cast, seems to be present mainly to scream loudly at opportune moments.
The film takes advantage of location shooting again as Carroon escapes the scientists and starts a rampage around London, leading the rest of the cast on a merry chase through London Zoo*** and the East India Docks. The make up comes into its own here as Carroon slowly transforms from human to alien, absorbing material from plants, animals and people to do so. The level of detail and lack of squeamishness was what Hammer would base its reputation on. Phil Leakey (make up artist) and Les Bowie (special effects) would both become mainstays of Hammer’s effect department, and it’s easy to see why Hammer were keen to continue employing them both.
Unfortunately, Hammer’s luck with locations did not extend to the film’s finale, as Westminster Abbey refused them permission to film. The set looks a little cheap, especially compared with the rest of the film, but with the final reveal of the monster taking place the viewer’s eyes aren’t focusing on the matt paintings behind it. To a modern audience the creature may be a little disappointing, but for its day the complexity and cost would have had a dramatic impact.
In the BBC’s ending Quatermass would talk the creature into killing itself, but Donlevy’s Quatermass takes a more no-nonsense approach. Though the climatic battle is dramatic, it’s really the very end of the film most viewers find chilling. The alien has killed three astronauts and several civilians, wreaked havoc throughout London, and had it not been killed its spores could potentially have destroyed all life on earth. Quatermass, however, is unmoved. The space program is to continue.
The Quatermass Xperiment is a cut above many of its contemporary monster films and has stood the test of time well. Its greatest achievement, I believe, is its ability to make virtues of its flaws: Nigel Kneale hated the bullish, anti-hero interpretation of his character, but Quatermass’s lack of empathy gives the film a final bite just as audiences leave the cinema. Its influence on later films means that anyone with an interest in the science fiction or British cinema can’t afford to the miss The Quatermass Xperiment.
* Played by American Brian Donlevy, in a move recognisable to Britons throughout the twentieth century as ‘making it easier to sell to the US’
** Great, great grandson of William Wordsworth!
*** Well, Chessington Zoo in Surrey, actually.
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