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The Quatermass Xperiment
cast: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, and Richard Wordsworth

director: Val Guest

78 minutes (PG) 1955
DDV DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
The Quatermass Xperiment (aka: The Creeping Unknown) was the first in Hammer's hugely successful cycle of horror films. Subsequent Hammer horrors raided Universal's vaults and gave the vampires, werewolves and other assorted monsters of European folklore a lush and garish Eastmancolor makeover. Their first outing drew from a more modern source - Nigel Kneale's groundbreaking 1953 BBC TV serial drama, The Quatermass Experiment. The principle was the same in both cases: take an existing screen success story and remake it as cheaply and effectively as possible. This was true of Universal's 1930s Dracula and Frankenstein movies. Similarly, Kneale's serial had gripped UK audiences in 1953 on Friday nights. With The Quatermass Experiment and subsequent plays, such as Year Of The Sex Olympics, Nigel Kneale practically invented British TV science fiction. The legendary emptying of pubs as drinkers rushed home to view the next episode of Quatermass also reflected the new reality of television's encroachment onto the territory of more established and public forms of entertainment, such as the cinema. So Hammer's adaptation of the TV serial represented a shrewd "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" response to this competition from the new medium.
   As the DVD commentary by and interview with director/co-writer makes clear, this extended to his approach to the story, which he wanted to present in the style of a BBC documentary, a format the TV serial had also used. On the other hand, he had not been caught up in the hype surrounding the serial and so had no sense of loyalty to the original material. This enabled him and fellow screenwriter Richard Landau to edit the six rambling half-hour episodes of the original script into a slick 78-minute thriller. In the process, the Hammer version sacrifices some of the characterisation built up slowly and deliberately in the TV serial. This is in evidence right from the beginning: the nail-biting opening scene of the drawn and haggard British Rocket Group scientists desperately struggling to re-establish contact with the lost expedition is absent. Instead Guest opens with the BRG rocket crash-landing in a farmer's field, not on a row of suburban gardens in Croydon, as in Kneale's script, so we lose the sense of this disaster happening in the populated area of London with the Blitz still in living memory.
   The action does then move to London, as the single survivor of the three-man space expedition Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) is taken ill. At first, no trace is found of his crewmates but a pair of empty space suits, and with Carroon initially suspected of their murder, Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) proceed to investigate the wreckage of the rocket. In one decisive improvement on the TV play, they discover not a sound recording but film footage of the three astronauts' ordeal. This is a particularly chilling sequence in a film that is, in its own quiet way, as gruesome as any of the lurid Kensington gore epics that spewed forth hot on its heels from the House of Hammer (notably in the way Phil Leakey's makeup and Les Bowie's special effects convey the horror of absorption). In many ways, the later Hammer film it most resembles is Revenge Of Frankenstein, with its anguished monster tormented by forces beyond its control. While the creature in Revenge reverts to cannibalism, Carroon is driven to absorb those around him by the alien force that has taken him over. There is even an echo of James Whale's 1931 Universal Frankenstein, as Carroon encounters a little girl (Jane Asher) by a canal. Mercifully, unlike in Frankenstein, the girl doesn't end up in face down in the water. In fact, you get the impression that Carroon is more frightened of Asher with her creepy doll and incessant offers of tea, than she is of him! Joking apart, Wordsworth's performance in the role of Carroon is worthy of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, commanding the screen as he does with barely a word of dialogue.
   On the other hand, if Quatermass fulfils the role of Frankenstein, perhaps the casting director should have given the role to Peter Cushing rather than Brian Donlevy. In his interview and commentary, Val Guest has a brave stab at defending this spectacular piece of miscasting, but it still seems like the equivalent of the once-rumoured casting of David Hasselhof as Doctor Who. Donlevy plays the scientist as some kind of hardboiled cop or gangster, happy to bulldoze over people's objections to his actions. In keeping with this, Victor Carroon's wife Judith (Margia Dean) is portrayed as an irrational ignoramus - unlike the Judith in TV serial who is herself part of Quatermass' team on the rocket experiment. As the trailer for Quatermass And The Pit (included on this DVD) reminds us, Hammer eventually got their casting of Quatermass about right with Andrew Kerr approaching the role like a dishevelled physics teacher. But we are more than compensated for these shortcomings in characterisation by brisk, pacy direction, James Bernard's ominous music with its trademark chromatic hammering and screeching and a palpable sense of tension and unease, in a science fiction thriller that anticipates Alien and David Cronenberg's body horror themes, particularly in The Fly.
   DVD extras: audio commentary by director/co-writer Val Guest and Hammer films historian Marcus Hearn, and a 24-page booklet with viewing notes, stills and information about the film.
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