The Quatermass Xperiment
November 4, 2011
Based on the popular 1953 BBC television serial The Quatermass Experiment, written by the legendary Nigel Kneale, Hammer films adapted it into a feature film known as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). Director Val Guest condensed the serial and changed the climax as well as allowing Brian Donlevy to reinterpret the protagonist in ways that did not please Kneale who has been highly critical of this adaptation. Regardless, the film was a huge success in the United Kingdom and became Hammer’s first film to attract a major distributor in the United States where it was renamed The Creeping Unknown.
Much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the opening credits play over clouds moving through the sky, which establishes a subtle, ominous tone right from the start. A couple out walking one night are nearly killed by a rocketship that crash lands nearby. There is a cool-looking shot of the craft sticking out of the ground that is ever-so creepy as well. The Ministry of Defense arrives on the scene and Dr. Bernard Quatermass (Donlevy) immediately takes control, barking orders.
He’s headed an experimental program that sent three astronauts into outer space. Only one has managed to survive and Victor Carroon (Wordsworth) stumbles from the wreckage before passing out. The other two are inexplicably missing. Victor is in a state of shock but manages to utter the words, “help me.” Victor’s wife Judith (Dean) and a friend manage to sneak the astronaut out of the hospital where he is under observation (what kind of security do they have?) but he kills the man by literally draining the life out of him. Victor is soon loose on the streets of London with Quatermass and his team in hot pursuit.
Brian Donlevy plays Quatermass as a no-nonsense man of science who, at times, speaks like a character out of a Mickey Spillane novel with such choice tough guy talk like, “I’m a scientist not a fortune teller predicting the future.” Another gem comes a little later on when he tells a fretting Judith, “There’s no room for personal feelings in science!” Richard Wordsworth is quite good as the tortured astronaut rapidly losing his humanity as he finds himself cursed with an affliction that forces him to drain the life from others. He doesn’t any have any dialogue but his expressive eyes and body language convey his character’s tortured emotions.
Guest employs several effective moments of dread, like how the camera gradually moves in on a shot of bushes at night where Victor is hiding and then reveals only a glimpse of his face. Guest also creates an air of authenticity by shooting largely on location, which only enhances the atmosphere of the film.
Like many science fiction films of the 1950’s, The Quatermass Xperiment is a parable about the hubris of science and how we are subsequently punished for overstepping our bounds. Many films from this decade dealt with threats from outer space and this one is no different. One can even see its influence in a film like Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985), which features vampiric aliens from outer space that drain the life from their victims. Filmmaker John Carpenter has also cited this film as a major influence on his own work.