The Vesuvius Xperiment (2015)

If you haven’t heard of Joshua Kennedy by now, you should have.

Really.  It’s your own fault.

Joshua is one of a growing number of young filmmakers who turn out remarkable films for next to nothing, the garage bands of the film world.  He is also one of the more accomplished of that small but fascinating group.  He’s been making films since he was five (“It Came From The Bathroom”), and had his first movie released on DVD when he was sixteen.

But what makes his films stand out from that crowd of oddball efforts, besides the increasingly professional polish he brings to his film, is the way in which he takes his inspirations – whether Hammer Horror films, Spaghetti Sci Fi, or Charlton Heston – and recreates them in films which often bear little resemblance to the originals.  After all, where else are you going to see a Hammer Dracula film with a video chat room scene?

He is also one of the few directors producing deliberately retro SF who does not mock the old films he is referencing, but who has chosen to treat them with respect, even when indulging in comedy.

The Vesuvius Xperiment comes billed as his homage to Hammer’s great Quatermass films of the Fifties (and even borrows its eccentric spelling from the first film).  By now, you may have noticed my deep respect for that series, both the original BBC (and later, ITV) serials and the Hammer films based on them (see, for example, these three essays).  And, I have to confess, it always sends shivers down my spine when I hear that ominous march from the original BBC serials, a theme song as iconic – and memorable – as Dr. Who‘s.

So what better way would there be to start a Quatermass homage than with that familiar theme?  In fact, looking at Joshua’s films, one notes how well he uses his musical cues – sometimes, as in his Dracula A.D. 2015 , mixing them in totally unexpected ways.

He further reinforces the Quatermass comparisons by filming in black and white.  It seems strange to me that so many people these days feel cheated when watching a color-free film.  Black and white has an ability to evoke mood – particularly in horror films – which is almost impossible to achieve in color.  And that is definitely on display here.

While its plot is reminiscent of the original – with a man slowly mutating into a monster while the authorities pursue him – it surprised me that this film actually bears a far greater resemblance to Hammer’s series of Frankenstein movies starring Peter Cushing.  As in Hammer’s final Frankenstein, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Vesuvius is the head doctor of a psychiatric hospital, carrying out his horrible experiments on his patients.  And, like Cushing’s Doctor, while Vesuvius claims that he hopes to help all of mankind – that terrible abstraction – with his scientific discoveries, he has a total disregard for the real people affected by his experiments and seems to care for nothing other than what scraps of knowledge he can pry loose from universe by brute force.

Compare this to the original Quatermass, who was genuinely upset by the loss of his friends and felt a very heavy burden from the terrible results of his rocket flight.  True, Brian Donlevy’s Quatermass  was far more driven than the original, and far more obsessed with his work, but he never had that callous disregard for others that Cushing’s Frankenstein – or Dr. Vesuvius – displayed.

There is a lot here which brings to mind the Quatermass films, from the creepy sequences set at the zoo, to the iconic image of the mutating Richard Delambre stumbling away, his horribly deformed arm clutched to his side.  But there are also references to other films, and Joshua Kennedy ties it all together with his own fertile imagination.

Several moments stand out here, from the emotional moment when the mutated Delambre tries to communicate with his wife, to the disturbing images of the giggling horde of escaped lunatics pursuing the creature, which remind me of some other film – perhaps some thirties horror film – which just seems to escape my memory.

Admittedly, there are a few other things which leave one chuckling, like the nurse who spends the entire film running around in a tank top for no particular reason – other than the two obvious ones, that is.

It isn’t quite as accomplished as his later films, such as Dracula A.D. 2015., or The Night of Medusa, and, as strange as this might sound when talking about a low budget film, it is way too short and needed a bit more running time to really develop the horror of their pursuit of the rapidly mutating creature (I know, most cheap films should have been mercilessly cut down to pare away all the excess baggage.  But then, Joshua has never been afraid to make his films the right length, rather than padding them out to be more commercial)

But the film is a joy to watch, with a lot of nicely scary moments, some enthusiastic lo-fi creature effects, and a wonderfully goofy mad scientist’s plan (which, curiously, resembles that of the not-quite-mad scientist father in the Soviet-era Amphibian Man, a film it seems somehow unlikely that Joshua would have ever seen).

Then there’s that iconic final scene, which echoes the final shot of Brian Donlevy in the Quatermass Xperiment, one of the finest “curtains” of SF film history.

All in all, it’s an entertaining little film, one that is far better than one would expect from such a bargain basement effort, and which clearly shows the love that went into it.  It’s definitely worth a watch for anyone who loves classic horror and SF film – even if the only way to get it is to buy one of Alpha Videos lousy DVD-Rs.

Bonus:  You can watch Joshua’s homage to Hammer’s Christopher Lee Dracula movies here!

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