began life as a live, six-part TV serial that aired for consecutive Saturday nights on the BBC over the summer of 1953. By episode four, the serial became a national event. Unfortunately, contemporary recording methods were…less than adequate (British films make me polite) and only two episodes of the original serial survive…though the BBC did stage a remake for its fiftieth anniversary.
That they did so is all the testament this story ever needed. There’s evidence this show doubled the number of TV-owning U.K. households all by itself, and the BBC immediately commissioned writer Nigel Kneale for a sequel. Needless to say, even back then, a movie was inevitable.
It only took two years thanks in part to the production company: Hammer Studios. Resurrected after its founders returned from service in World War II, Hammer quickly established itself as the go-to house for “quota quickies” – cheap movies, made fast and bought up by theater chains anxious to satisfy their requirements under the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927. Parliament originally hoped the Act would fertilize a bumper crop of upstanding, vertically-integrated, English film production company monopolies, like the ones that dominated Hollywood at the time…and still do today, for that matter.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
No one knew this slow-burning, sci-fi TV show cash-in would earn Hammer Studios an international reputation for horror movies, even though the “X” in the title comes from the rating this film received from the British Board of Film Censors. “No one under sixteen admitted. May contain disturbing imagery/themes/blah-dee-blah.” The usual Board of Censors bullshit, right? But like any good business that makes movies to fill quotas, Hammer turned the black mark into a badge of honor and put the “X” right in their title.
Wasn’t long before an American distributor, drawn by the sound of Hammer’s brass balls hitting the floor, snatched this film up and brought it to our shores as The Creeping Unknown. But I need a movie that starts with “Q” and isn’t “Quarantine.” So, “Quatermass Xperiment” you are and Quatermass Xperiment you shall remain. Let’s see if this is the review that finally breaks my spell-checker.
The Quatermass Unknown opens with…oh, hell. Two teenagers, frolicking in an idyllic field directly under the sword of Damocles. Sure ’nuff, a blazing object crash lands into their fields…holy crap, it’s a phallic rocket. Yes, Virgina, this is the mid-50s and, in a move that’s only surprising to me because I’ve watched so many sci-fi films from Japan, this is not an alien spacecraft. Instead, it’s the first manned rocketship, shot into space by suavely-dressed Super Scientist Bernard Quatermass, with a little help from the Ministry of Defense.
The man himself’s played by American actor Brian Donlevy, because Hammer’s then-exclusive U.S. distributor – a theater owner named Robert L. Lippert – often required Yank stars appear in Hammer movies. More marketable, you see. Marsh (Maurice Kaufmann) is the Token Young Person, driving the sweet VW van. He’ll be fiddling with dials quite soon. Blake, (Lionel Jeffries) is the Ministry flunky on-site, and quite pissed because Quatermass (somehow) managed to launch his rocket without waiting for official sanction. Judith (Margia Dean) is an astronaut’s wife in full Astronaut’s Wife Mode, unable to bear Quatermass and Blake’s dueling exposition storms.
There’s some nice, tense build up as Quatermass unilaterally assumes command (God bless the ’50s, when Scientists were Heroes and could still do that whenever they wanted) and Team Quatermass (by which I mean “Marsh”) sets up the equipment. Lay-people mill about the edge of the field, trying to catch a glimpse of the action. Questions of Science are discussed. Is it safe to open the rocket up? Will the sudden change in pressure kill the three-man crew? Are any of them still alive in there? Marsh thinks he hears tapping, but reentry could’ve broiled them like steaks. Assuming they didn’t die in orbit. Team Quatermass lost all contact hours ago and had to bring the ship down on remote. For all they know know, their gigantic leap for mankind might’ve just become the world’s first rocket-propelled coffin. They won’t know for sure until it cools down.
Or until Quatermass decides to crack it open. Which he soon does. That tapping, you know. Which brings up something I don’t hear discussed…at all, really…and it’s this: everything that happens in this film – including all the many horrors to come – is all Quatermass’ fault.
The rocketship’s sole survivor, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), staggers through the newly opened door, nearly mute with shock and twitching like a speed freak feeling a serious Need. The rest of the crew? Gone. There’s some goop in a crawlspace that might’ve been human…once…but it looks like Victor’s the only one who can tell them what happened…until they get in the in-flight film recorder (with its crazy, automatic editing technology that splices shots of the instrument panels into the main footage on the fly...in the 50s!) developed.
Making matters worse, police Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) has opened up an investigation. “When three men take off in a rocket and only one comes back, in our reckoning that leaves minus two.” Quatermass is displeased.
“There’s only one investigation likely to serve any good purpose in this situation, inspector: that’s a scientific one. And I’m sure even you will agree that, between the three of us, I’m the best qualified for that assignment.”
Jesus Christ. Tact is for people who aren’t smart enough to be Scientists.
Back to the lab, then, where Victor sits catatonic, unresponsive, even to the pleas of his darling wife. Team sawbowes Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) insists that Victor “belongs in a hospital” with the same gravitas Indian Jones uses to insist something belongs in a museum…until Quatermass talks him out of this common sense. How? With a dramatic speech, of course, appealing to Dr. Briscoe’s vanity as an insider. Movie Scientists were great speechifiers back in the 1950s, and Professor Bernard Quatermass is one of the best of the bunch. Check it:
“Would a hospital know what goes on out their, in space? On the other side of the air? There’s a whole new world out there; a wilderness, uncharted. And he’s been there. And come back. He’s got the map. Unlock his mind for me, Briscoe, and find it. I know you can do it! I know the strain and tension you’ve been under but to stop now, when you’re so close, on the brink of something tremendous; the very fringe of some great discovery! We can’t stop now, Briscoe.”
Quatermass just says things like that. He’s a brash, arrogant, manipulative wordslinger. He could sell yams to New Guineans if he weren’t so into Science. Throughout the film, he walks around saying things like, “Every experiment is a gamble. The unknown is always a risk!” This is Nigel Kneale’s fascination with “science gone wrong” shinning through the narrative, which is an object lesson in the consequences of such “science” going “wrong”; a parable – like so much else at the time – for the science that went spectacularly wrong at Los Alamos.
But nuclear partisans need have no fear: Kneale wasn’t some precursor of Superman IV. After all, he named his Heroic Scientist “Bernard” after Bernard Lovell, the physicist and radio astronomer whose eponymous telescope (which he helped design and construct) came online a few months before this film came out. Years later, the Lovell Telescope would be literally instrumental in proving the literally universal presence of high energy particles, like the kind our sun emits. All that hippy-dippy crap you hear about us all being made of the same stardust? Yeah…that’s actually kinda true. Thanks in part to Lovell, it even says so in Science text books.
Kneale understood the two faces of Science in a post-Hiroshima world: creation and destruction. He hated this movie, largely in part because he hated Brian Donlevy’s portrayal. Thanks to the cut of Brian Donlevy’s gib, this Quatermass comes off as a Howard Hughes of Science. No stargazer, this one. There’s rockets to engineer and secrets to pry out of unresponsive people’s heads.
Personally, I see the appeal. I’d go so far as to call myself a Quatermass “fan” with the contention that I wouldn’t want to meet him, or anyone like him. Donlevy kept a flask of brandy-laced coffee with him at all times on set, and it shows, particularly in the early scenes. Even when you aren’t in England, night shoots can get cold real fast. Gives him an edge that helps to communicate the real stress of the situation: a technical genius, Quatermass deals with everything as if it were a technical challenge. The only question, for him, is “How challenging?” He’s seems like the kind of guy who’ll toss puzzles aside half-finished because he knows at once they’re too damn easy. A guy wound so tight, my spider-sense tells me he’s only one or two personal tragedies away from designing orbital Death Ray platforms and becoming a supervillian.
Victor, on the other hand, reacts with pure instinctual need, and only when the other character’s backs are turned, allowing us to see the full-eyed, creepy, covetous looks he throws them. Like a starving man in front of a Kansas City steak dinner. You can feel the bugs crawl up you arms. Like James Bernard’s score, Victor’s movements are all stiff and jerky…unnerving…unnatural…exactly what they needs to be to hold this movie together.
Along with my favorite thing in the flick, Wordsworth’s performance. Without it, this would be a decent British sci-fi movie that morphs into a monster-on-the-loose flick about halfway through…once Victor inevitably escapes. Ah, but it’s the way he escapes that makes all the difference. Poor Judith, frozen out of Victor’s hospital room by her civilian status (and the Ministry’s vain attempts to keep Victor under guard and under wraps) hires a private detective to sneak her husband “out of hospital” as they said. (The English are deathly allergic to sticking definite articles in front of things like “hospital” or “university.”)
I’m of two minds about Judith’s (and how loaded a name is that, eh?) sudden, impulsive action. I’d like to marry a girl bad-ass enough to break me out of the Secret Government Project…especially when there’s every chance they’ll attempt to make me an un-person…but not if I’m carrying the Andromeda Strain. I’m just saying, “All you single ladies out there, if you wanna get with me, you better read your fucking Michael Crichton.”
Not that it really matters. The movie quickly punishes Judith for her titanic stupidity. Because the thing with Victor’s face isn’t quite Victor any more. He came back from space…changed. Just how changed is made clear when he promptly murders the get-well cactus plant in his room, somehow absorbing the essence of the plant into himself, morphing his right arm into a murderous instrument…which he uses to give Judith’s PI a quick face-lift.
Sighting his twisted hand, Judith exits the film screaming. Rather than take her life, Victor exits their car and wanders off to terrorize the populace of London, helping to establish a grand tradition of monsters-on-the-loose films, from Arkoff to Zontar: The Thing From Venus, in the process. Victor even comes across a little girl having a tea party with her doll in some bombed-out industrial district.
And I’m thinking, Oh, no. Little girl with doll in baby carriage? Are you going Frankenstein on us The Quatermas Xperiment? No. All he does is break her doll and run away in horror over what he’s become. This movie’s not quite Frankenstein cool (though Quatermass does say “it’s alive” at one point). At least it shows Victor fighting against his alleged alien possessor, making him more than another mindless, radiation-made monster. At least for a scene.
Yeah, it turns out the rocketship encountered an invisible, energy-based being during its trip through high orbit. It entered the rocket, entered Victor’s body, and consumed the other two astronauts so that it might grow strong. We learn this once the photographers get back to Team Quatermass with a playable copy of the rocket’s in-flight tapes.
This is the best sequence in the movie by far, and it’s all of one shot, close on the projection screen. I won’t spoil it anymore than I already have, as it contains probably the only aspect of Hammer horror films that hasn’t been shamelessly copied ad nauseam by the generations they inspired: the perfect use of a good score. The whole sequence is silent, save for James Bernard’s contributions and, since the rocket’s attacker remains unseen (or obscured by flashes of light that temporarily whites-out the image), we can imagine all kinds of horrible things going on inside those blanks. Our morbid imaginations can conjure up their own soundtrack. We don’t need to hear the screams of these three doomed, damned souls. The fact that we can’t actually makes it worse.
Then Quatermass makes the intuitive leap all Scientists must make in monster movies, instantly theorizing that the creature is an invisible body-snatcher, using Victor to reproduce. Finding the cactus’ inside Victor’s hospital room, Quatermass puts that together with Judith’s now-dead PI and instantly knows the creature’s planning to bud, like the Martians in H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Its spores could easily wipe out all life on Earth, should they be allowed to spread far enough and grow large. Can’t have that, now, can we?
How does he know all this? Hell, he’s the Scientist and the Titular Hero. That’s as good an excuse as anyone ever needed to pull plot details straight out of their ass. Or a mug of alcoholic coffee from their trench coat pockets.
Like so many other influential classics, The Quatermass Xperiment has a ton of very basic problems most people ignore, thanks to their own nostalgia goggles. Everyone who isn’t Quatermass is his diametric opposite. Judith’s compassionate; him, not so much. Dr. Briscoe’s conventionally ethical; Quatermass, less so. Inspector Lomax is a “simple, Bible man” who’ll tell you he doesn’t read science fiction right to your face. I feared Quatermass would prove equally ignorant of his genre…until he pulled the whole “An invisible energy alien’s mutating my pet astronaut into a giant octopus/cactus… “Cactopus”…?” thing.
Seriously, Victor goes from “pathetic man-monster” to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” faster than you can say “Cthulhu fhtagn,” wrapping his new tendrils around the scaffolding of Westminster Abby. Quatermass and Lomax arrive on the scene, and things get weird, with Lomax coming across (and forcibly ejecting) a BBC film crew…in the middle of a live broadcast. Sure, it’s a documentary about the Abby itself instead of an epic, sci-fi/horror miniseries…but still, the moment’s delightfully meta.
See? I can’t even criticize The Quatermass Xperiment without tripping over something I like. And that’s most definitely not my own nostalgia goggles talking. As a critic, I was forced to make them a burnt offering to Pauline Kael years ago. It’s the only way to get your license, the final test on the exam. Better than an essay question. I write enough of those already.
No, Quatermass is a well-made, sci-fi/horror quickie that won’t seem nearly horrible or quick enough to those raised on today’s rotten remakes and shitty sequels. Val Guest keeps the suspense high and shows off his Hitchcock influence by only moving the camera when he needs to, saving it for special occasions. Or Evil POV shots.
Hell, this film was a special occasion: a brief glimpse of a future where Hammer and “Horror Movie” would go on to become synonymous. Most of my gripes come from the fact that this is plainly a cliff-notes version of a much-longer story. In case you forgot my opening sentence, this began life as six half-hour long TV shows. How long’s the movie? Eighty-two minutes with credits (which are a little long one both ends by America B-movie standards of the time…but that’s them Brits for you: they’ll spoil their artists rotten). You can’t cut a three hour movie in half an expect it to be as good…(unless you’re Zack Snyder, and fuck him, eh? Right)…or lavish the same attention on its remarkably-large cast…for a movie. Though, again, the cast is the prefect size for an on-going series.
Lucky me, Hammer turned right around and made a quickie, cash-in sequel. But we’ll talk about that later. For now, let me recommend this, the original, to everyone who loves Hammer, everyone who loves horror, and every student of SF and/or Horror history. You could write whole libraries about the number of modern tropes Hammer’s movies cemented into genre. But it all started here, with this one, alcoholic Scientist and his pet astronaut/plant monster.
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to begin.