Q: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

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The Quatermass Xperiment _aka Shock_ aka The Creeping Unknown_ _1955_ UK_We’ll get a commonly-known piece of trivia out of the way: the missing initial “E” in “Xperiment” was a clever little nod to the British film classification’s “X” rating – no one under 16 allowed. That wouldn’t have flown for us Yanks, though, who needed none of those fancy-pants classifications, we just relied on good ol’ censorship to make our movie-going safe. So over here we called it The Creeping Unknown, which is much more butch.

So a rocketship crash lands just outside a British farmhouse, and among the folks flocking to the crash site are Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) of the British-American Rocket Group. Quatermass, ever the pushy American, sent out the rocket and its three-man crew without waiting for official sanction, much to the dismay of the man from the Home Office (the always welcome Lionel Jeffries). And now this! Jeffries sputters. Shut up, Quatermass explains.

3582619_s1_i2It turns out only one crewman is in there – Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth). All that remains of the other two are empty pressure suits. Caroon is in shock and can say nothing.

Quatermass has Carroon taken to their base so Briscoe can try to puzzle out the man’s condition while his wife, Judith (Margia Dean) fusses about. Carroon’s body is undergoing strange changes, and he seems to rouse from his catatonic state only when Judith brings flowers into his room…

Cartel+1955+The+Quatermass+Xperiment+7-1024x751Eventually Carroon deteriorates to the point that Briscoe overrules Quatermass and has him taken to a hospital – where Judith, having had enough, hires a detective to smuggle her husband out. During this escape attempt, Carroon can’t hold out anymore and punches a decorative cactus in his room. The investigator notices that Carroon’s hand is now changing into cactus, and Carroon kills him, “absorbing his essence” -ie., sucking all the blood and water out of his body – and escaping into the night.

quatermass-hammer-1955-monsters-armQuatermass, reluctantly joining forces with Inspector Lomax of the London Police (Jack Warner), now must track down the metamorphosing Carroon as he lurches about London, trying not to kill people but failing as the alien thing inside him grows and grows. A piece – or something of a seed pod – falls off, and examining it while it eats mice (offscreen, luckily), Briscoe deduces that once Carroon fully transforms, he will release spores, and then there will be millions of the creatures.

This is, of course, the first of the highly successful Quatermass movies, based on a character created for a popular BBC TV serial, which was, for 1955, “Event TV”. It was written by Nigel Kneale, a name which would become synonymous with intelligent science fiction. Many film companies were interested in turning it into a movie, but they all balked at making something that would surely be rated “X”. Except for this one upstart company, known up to that point for only making “second features” – what we call “B movies” over here. A little studio called Hammer Films.

image4Director Val Guest, heretofore known primarily for comedies, claims that he was the only person in England who didn’t watch “The Quatermass Experiment” when it was first broadcast – he didn’t like science fiction. He intended to put off Producer Anthony Hinds by going on vacation and only grudgingly taking the script with him. His wife, actress Yolande Donlan, teased him about it until he read the script in one afternoon on the beach and fell in love with it.

Kneale’s original serial ran three hours, I believe, and was heavily edited for the movie. What he resented even more, however, was the casting of Donlevy as Quatermass, a necessity for selling the picture to an American market. In the serial, Quatermass is a thoughtful Oxford Don type. It has to be admitted that Donlevy’s brusque, no-nonsense approach to the character propels the movie forward like a barking dog shepherding its flock. Kneale had his contract with the BBC re-negotiated so he would have more control over his intellectual property in the future (though Donlevy is still playing Quatermass in the sequel film Quatermass II – in America, Enemy From Space).

brian-donlevy-bernard-quatermass-hammer-1955Val Guest’s equally no-nonsense direction is what gives Quatermass most of its power – he decided that such a fantastic story – this is still two years before Sputnik, remember – needed a realistic delivery, and tried, as much as possible, to shoot the movie in a documentary fashion, to great effect. And no discussion of Xperiment can be complete without at least a mention of Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed, tortured Carroon. Never speaking, everything the character is experiencing – the horror, the struggle – is delivered only through facial expression and body language. Best known as a theatrical actor with occasional TV roles, this is Wordsworth’s first movie role. Certainly not his last.

2590xper4The Quatermass Xperiment was a tremendous success for Hammer (although the reviews from the local press are amusingly disdainful), and in the next couple of years they would produce Quatermass II and the faux Quatermass movie X the Unknown (Kneale wouldn’t let them use his character), before finally hitting the cash cow they would ride for a decade and more, gothic horror with Dracula. (Horror of Dracula hereabouts, just to distinguish it from all those other Dracula flicks)

This is a ground zero movie, folks. This is the progenitor of its own sub-genre; from this descends First Man Into Space, Monster-A-Go-Go and others. As the first, it demands some respect, and that respect is quite honestly deserved.

And now for a spoiler-iffic trailer!

Buy The Quatermass Xperiment on Amazon

1 Comment

  1. […] haven’t seen, but I do make an exception for anything I haven’t seen in 20 years, like The Quatermass Xperiment. Zombie definitely […]


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