The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

(aka, The Creeping Unknown)

“Let me tell you something, Blake: they’ll fire the imagination so there’ll be a hundred men begging for the same privilege when we launch the second one.  You can’t stop it now.”

“You mean I can’t stop you now.”

“That’s right.”

It starts with nervous violins playing against a dark sky.

An eerie theme stands out from them for a moment, but the weird cacophony fades and gives way to a bright, sunny day, and cheerful music to match as two young lovers play among the hay.

But we’re not fooled for a moment.  We know something bad is coming, with a sound of thunder, and a mighty crash which nearly levels the cottage they take shelter in…

It’s a strong opening thanks to James Bernard’s score, which always seems to be searching, searching for something…a moment of clarity, perhaps, an instant when the entire orchestra harmonizes — but never finds it.  It is an ominous sound, one that inspires the same nervousness in us as we sit in the dark, wondering what’s coming.  It’s hard to believe it was his first score, but it is unsettling and magnificent, and he would go on to score countless Hammer horror films over the next two decades.

But that isn’t the only first here: this was Hammer’s first attempt at a horror film, and its success would lead to all those great Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Draculas and Frankensteins.

True, they’d made other television shows into movies before, but there was already something very different about Quatermass: at a time when even the slightest horror elements would earn a film the equivalent of an “R” rating, The Quatermass Experiment had thrown them onto the small screen, much to the shock of the audience.  It was enormously popular, and Hammer rushed in and bought the rights, releasing their version only two years later.

Besides Bernard, we also have Val Guest, a talented director who brings a down-to-earth, almost documentary style to the film which makes the strange events seem far more real.

What disturbs our bucolic lovers is a rocket ship making an unscheduled return to Earth.  It looks just right for a mid-Fifties rocket: it has a strong resemblance to a V2, with big Chesley Bonestell-style fins with pods on their outer edges.  The rocket was the creation of Professor Bernard Quatermass and his colleagues in the British Rocketry Group, and it was the first rocket to carry human beings into the fringes of space.

But something went wrong.  He’d lost contact with the ship forty-seven hours earlier and it vanished from his radar.  Nor has there been any response from its crew since it crashed into the farmer’s field.

But when the rescue crews open it, they find only one of the original three crew members, Victor Caroon, on board.  There is not sign of the others, other than their empty pressure suits — and no way they could have left the ship.

Caroon is in shock and can’t speak.

But something far more serious is wrong with him…

I have to confess:  yes, I love all things Quatermass and have written about the tv series, the films and their long lasting influence on British cinema and Hammer films.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I have long been cold to Quatermass’ first Hammer film.

Yes, I love Hammer’s two sequels, Quatermass 2 and Quatermass and the Pit/Five Million Years to Earth.  But somehow I never thought as much of their first film.

However, Janne Waas’ review sent me looking for this one again, as he pointed out just how influential it really was, and how much of what we take for granted in Science Fiction film was first seen here.  It’s easy to lose that perspective when we look at these films today, and a lot harder to understand why this one had such an effect on Fifties audiences.

And I have to say that he’s right, and film seems far better to me than it ever did before.

Now I’ve always loved Brian Donlevy’s performance as Quatermass.  Yes, I know that Nigel Kneale, who created the good Professor, hated Donlevy, and that the hardcore British Quatermass fans have never liked him as he is so different from the original television version of the character.

But Donlevy gives an absolutely ferocious performance as a man so completely sure of himself, and so set on his mission to expand our knowledge through science, that he is rude, brusque, and even ignores people.

Also noteworthy is the makeup used on Caroon, which is surprisingly subtle and minimal, yet gives him an increasingly alien quality.

Then there’s Jack Warner (who went on to play Dixon of Dock Green endlessly on the BBC) who gives us a lighthearted touch as Lomax, a persistent Police Inspector tagging along after Quatermass, as it’s the only way he can hope to sort out the mess (note particularly the scene which introduces him, and what the constable brings him).

It is also a surprisingly lean film, where even a humorous interlude carries the story forward.  There’s a lovely reference to James Whale’s Frankenstein, and a great climax at a famous landmark.

Okay, it might have helped if we’d seen a bit more of the original Caroon at the start, even if we see that he is fighting something from the moment he’s dragged out of the ship, and are aware at times that there must still be a little of him left beneath the terrible transformation.

But Janne is right: The Quatermass Xperiment is a classic, one which changed the face of Science Fiction film more than we realize.  It was dark and serious at a time when too many people thought science fiction was just for kids, introduced just a touch of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and yet still had room for interesting characters.  Kneale might have written it as his answer to The Thing (From Another World), but it took on a sinister life all its own.  It’s a shame that Kneale didn’t get to write the script, or collected any residuals, but his Quatermass success allowed him to rewrite his contract with the BBC and end up controlling the character.  He would write the scripts for the sequels both on TV and the Hammer films, and even write the script for Hammer’s version of his non-Quatermass play, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

It’s tense, taut, remarkably well made and it comes with an incredible, unearthly score.

And, best of all?

It ends on one of the finest moments you’ll find in any Science Fiction film…

So watch it already.  Then check out the next two films.

They’re better.

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