A (sort of) space age retelling of Frankenstein, Nigel Kneale’s engrossing sci-fi/horror classic THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT comes to American Blu-Ray in its first-ever full-length version, thanks to the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc. Concurrent “Ewwwws” and “Blob’s your uncles” all around!
The picture, a major triumph for Hammer Films, was adapted from a BBC television serial that had British audiences glued to their sets throughout the summer of 1953. It told of the frightening “didn’t-figure-on-that” after-effects of the first manned rocket into outer space. Only one of the crew remains on-board; the others have vanished without a trace. This mystery is slowly and grippingly unraveled by the creator of the ship and mission, Bernard Quatermass. Mary Shelley by osmosis, Victor Carroon, the surviving spaceman, has been infected by an alien host. This aggressive contagion ingests all living matter around it as it blossoms to full birth – transforming its “container” into an slithering plant-like creature that can sub-divide at regular intervals, eventually taking over the – you know – planet. Yikes, uh-oh, and WTF were you thinking, Quatermass?!!! For the big screen feature version, much had to obviously be pared down, including a fundamental subplot in which Carroon’s infected body contained remnants of his fellow crewman’s communicable (but rapidly diminishing) intellect; in short, the ability to reason.
Offered to director Val Guest, the original script by Richard Landau was practically rescued from the trash bin by Guest’s wife, actress Yolande Donlan, who thought it interesting. Guest indeed saw possibilities and, if Hammer allowed him to film it in gritty documentary style, he’d accept. They did, at which point former news reporter Guest, utilizing his journalistic touches, did a redux.
Typical of the period, to guarantee an all-important American release, British film companies had to often cede to importing a lead Yank actor/actress to seal the deal. Usually, this meant folks who had seen better days, but whose marquee name could still arouse some interest. In this case, it was actor Brian Donlevy. Donlevy, a raging SOB (even BEFORE he became a star in the States), proved to be (as expected) a royal pain in the ass. Nevertheless he was a fine actor and, as long as he kept sober, Guest was fairly delighted with the results. Less so, Kneale, who thought the diminutive thesp to be appalling – the primary sore thumb in the project. The soft-spoken Quatermass was now an intellectual hothead, prone to violent outbursts if riled (which could be often). In effect, Donlevy’s take turns the revered scientist into a modern Professor Challenger, which ain’t bad. Even in later installments, that diamond-in-the-rough aspect of the character remained, notably in the finest movie Quatermass, 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit, starring the wonderful actor Andrew Keir.
Donlevy was, in effect, the recipient of the Wallace Beery Big Bastard Award, except unlike Beery, Donlevy really was a tough guy. His early years were spent riding with Pershing into Mexico to hunt Pancho Villa and then later, as a pilot, flying with the Lafayette Escadrille in the Great War; yet, contradictory to his persona was his Doc Martin revulsion to the sight of blood – something director William Wellman and costar Ray Milland took advantage during the filming of 1939’s Beau Geste. Milland accidentally-on-purpose nicked Donlevy, causing him to pass out, a bit of nasty business that nonetheless was received with great applause from cast and crew.
Donlevy’s becoming a star a couple of years later made things worse, as more and more folks refused to work with him. This and increased drinking quickly began the Preston Sturges favorite to slip with the velocity of Quatermass’s spaceship. And there you have it. Shooting the essentially low-budget Hammer Film hadn’t given the one-time A-lister any humility. Getting ready daily proved a metamorphosis only slightly bettered by Carroon’s transformation. Only after Donlevy had attached his lifts, corset and toupee would he stumble onto the set/location, generally plastered. Kneale recalls him not knowing any of his lines, the names of his costars, director or even the title of the picture. He’d shout out his dialog as they were being prompted to him off-camera (on the second Quatermass picture, Mother Nature took her revenge, blowing Donlevy’s rug off whilst on-location, resulting in the crew doing an emergency snipe hunt). If this is all true, he’s even a greater actor than I give him credit for. Donlevy’s really good in this picture, but, then again, I love the idea of a bum with the brain of a genius.
The supporting cast was a different story entirely, a hefty helping of iconic British character actors, including Jack Warner (no, not him!) as the (initially) non-believing inspector, plus Gordon Jackson, Lionel Jeffries, Sam Kydd and Thora Hird (who appears as a cantankerous, crusty soak named Rosie, a veritable female version of what would become Hammer’s Michael Ripper role). In another nod to Frankenstein, Guest wrote a bit where the now half plankton/half human Carroon meets up with a little girl a la Maria in the James Whale picture (future starlet, actress and Paul McCartney squeeze Jane Asher). Carroon’s wife was always a head-scratcher for me – a serviceable but unremarkable bit by American starlet Margia Dean. I never could understand why she had to be imported over along with Donlevy until it came to my attention that it was deal arranged by U.S. distributor Robert Lippert, who handled most of the Hammer product in the States. Lippert concurrently had a deal going with 20th Century-Fox, and Dean reportedly was the girlfriend of Fox mogul Spyros Skouras, the man Billy Wilder once defined as the personification of a Greek tragedy. So there you are.
This brings us to the one genuinely brilliant performance in THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT, that of Carroon himself – the fantastic actor Richard Wordsworth. Scary but with a broad swatch of pathos, it’s a tortured enactment of a person knowingly losing control. It, dare I say, borders on the Karloffian. One of Wordsworth’s favorite “reviews” was from his landlady. Vividly describing a scene in which he did not physically appear (his carcass now a mass of rubbery, gooey special effects), she praised him for the bit where he was the blob.
Many folks forever associated with Hammer worked on THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT. Future producer Aida Young functioned as a second assistant director, while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster functioned as second unit production manager. But the key addition to the studio’s stock company, was composer James Bernard. QUATERMASS would be his first Hammer Film, and already the score contains all the chilling musical elements that comprise would become known as the Hammer sound.
Guest’s desire for a documentary feel was beautifully conveyed to d.p. Walter Harvey, who relied upon available light and hand-held camera sequences. It’s most effective and adds a realistic aura to the proceedings, so much so that Guest used the technique for his subsequent science-fiction masterpiece, 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The screenplay is rife with some goosebumper-to-bumper pips, engineered and delivered with perfection for ultimate flesh-crawling impact (“But these prints aren’t even…human,” “Some force converted two men into jelly”). There’s even a Donlevy/DeForest Kelley moment (“I’m a scientist, not a fortune teller!”) And, of course, the telltale sign that something god-awful is going to happen (“There is no cause for alarm”).
Censors went ballistic at the violence and carnage in the picture, screaming that it went even beyond their not-suitable-for-children X-certificate (“…so exaggerated as to be nauseating and revolting…”). But X it did get, which Hammer cleverly used as a selling point, hyping the “X” in the unusual “experiment” spelling to promote the fact that this was too-rough-for-TV stuff.
British critics, lying in wait to unfavorably compare the feature film to the television edition, were fairly surprised by final effort. While many acclaimed that it surpassed the way bigger Hollywood productions War of the Worlds and Them!, a few held back and trashed it – although snarkily so (Reynolds News referring to it as “quiteamess”).
Audiences had no problem, however, and flocked to theaters in droves to see the movie, making it one of the most popular British entries of the year.
UA acquired the rights for America (after Fox turned it down, as it negated their new “color and CinemaScope only” policy), and, realizing the non-recognition of the Quatermass name, retitled it The Creeping Unknown. In order to assure its wide release for the pivotal youth market, they also snipped five minutes off the running time before shipping it out on a double-bill with the all-star goofy horrorthon The Black Sleep. More bizarre was its UK distribution fate where QUATERMASS was co-featured with Jules Dassin’s Rififi!
The Kino Blu-ray of THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT is a must-have for all horror/sci-fi and Hammer collectors. As indicated, this is the complete 82-minute version, and it looks (in its 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio) and sounds wonderful.
In addition, there are numerous extras, including cheesy supplements from the original VHS edition, but also audio commentary from Guest and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn (who likewise appear in an on-camera interview), an appreciation of the QUATERMASS and its influence (also on-camera) with John Carpenter, the theatrical trailer and more.
A superbly realized Fifties horror flick – one that would helped to move Hammer Films toward the color goths they’re renowned for – this movie gets better with each viewing. As far as the genre goes, it literally spews with (quater) mass appeal.
THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT. Black-and-white. Widescreen [1080p High Definition; 1.66:1]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc. CAT # K1529. SRP: $29.95.