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The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

Just two years prior to launching the second wave of classic horror upon movie screens world wide in vivid color with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein followed by Dracula, The Mummy and a host of other monsters and demons, producer Anthony Hinds and director Val Guest under the Hammer Films banner produced this adaptation of the BBC teleplay. Cut down to a crisp 82 minutes, the film jettisoned the supposedly very British scientist of the BBC version in favor of American Brian Donlevy who delivers a cold, crisp and very Baron Frankenstein like performance.

I dare say that if this film had been made after 57’s Curse of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing, is solidly in the lead with Christopher Lee in the role of the doomed astronaut who has returned to Earth awaiting his transformation into a deadly creature.

This science fiction tale (or science fact as Val Guest preferred) begins when a returning rocket shop crash lands into a field outside of London. It’s a circus like atmosphere when locals descend upon the farm land accompanied by ambulances, firefighters and the military. Donlevy as Quatermass arrives with Lionel Jeffries. The latter representing the ministry of defense and at odds with the firm Donlevy. The rocket had been sent up by Donlevy with three astronauts on board but as we’ll soon see there is only one man inside the ship on it’s return to Earth.

The returning astronaut is played by Richard Wordsworth who appears to be in a constant state of shock and will find himself hospitalized in Donlevy’s laboratory under constant tests and observation. Jack Warner also turns up as a police inspector who wants to know just what has happened to the missing men who never made the return trip. As far as he’s concerned, Wordsworth, is a murder suspect. While this goes on, the astronaut’s wife, Margia Dean, wants her husband released and left alone.

In todays film world, Wordsworth, appears to be descending into a zombie like existence. His body is going through a physical change and he’s lost the power of speech. As Donlevy and Warner try to solve the mystery of the flight, Miss Dean, arranges for her hubby to be secreted out of the hospital by an acquaintance. It’s at this point that Wordsworth’s transformation begins to hasten after he smashes his fist into a cactus plant.

No doubt John Carpenter’s The Thing comes to mind from here on out crossed with a heavy dose of Karloff’s Monster.

What we have here is an alien life force that has taken hold of Wordsworth using him as a host that can absorb the life of others with a simple touch. Following the cactus incident, Wordsworth, has a serious growth overtaking his arm and he’s left to wandering the side streets and shipping yards as a sickly vagabond.  It’s during this segment that the actor’s winning performance seems to be heavily influenced by Karloff’s Monster as does the script. Stumbling about he’ll come across a little girl looking for a playmate just as the Monster did with little Maria down by the lake.

I won’t play spoiler and divulge the end result of their meeting.

Following this it’s back to Donlevy and Warner attempting to stop this alien being from taking over not only poor Wordsworth but from splicing itself into an untold number of other beings that could easily take over the planet. By the time it comes to an end we’ll see Donlevy, like Cushing’s Baron, coldly head back to the lab to send up his next rocket.

As a matter of fact, Donlevy, would return for Quatermass II released in 1957 which saw him reteam with the producer, director and studio. Hammer would let the character lay dormant until 1967 when actor Andrew Keir took over the Quatermass role in the highly regarded, Quatermass and the Pit. Anthony Nelson Keys would produce the latter film with Roy Ward Baker directing.

I hadn’t actually seen this film since the VHS release. What struck me upon this long overdue revisit was what the script had in common with other genre titles from both the past as in James Whale’s Frankenstein and what lay ahead in Carpenter’s version of the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Beyond The Thing there’s even Gloria Talbot’s plight in I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) that comes to mind when looking at Margia Dean’s problems with her hubby returning from space in a mutating form. Not to mention 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man!

I’m quite confident you may have considered some other titles that have escaped me.

Apparently the original writer, Nigel Kneale, was not enamored of Donlevy being cast in the title role he had created. Not having seen the original BBC production, I have no real problem with the one time Oscar nominee in the title role though would not argue if someone accused him of playing it far too cold and uptight with no compassion whatsoever towards the ailing Wordsworth. Looking back 1955 would prove to be a good year for the aging actor. A sci-fi cult favorite and co-starring in the Noir classic, The Big Combo.

Also of note is the score by Hammer regular, James Bernard. His music here is instantly identifiable and a credit to the many Hammer Horrors he’d score in the near future. Hammer enthusiasts will also spot Phil Leaky again billed as the make-up artist on the film. Like the composer, he too would work on many of the horrors that lay ahead at Bray Studios.

Released in North America as The Creeping Unknown, The Quatermass Xperiment can be picked up on blu ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics with plenty of bonus materials and a Val Guest commentary. Guess it’s time I pay a visit to the sequel which like this film I haven’t seen since it was released to VHS in the clamshell case by Anchor Bay. For the record, the sequel known as Quatermass II is supposedly the first film in movie history to use the roman numerals on a sequel. Something that has become common place in today’s movie world.

12 Comments »

  1. You are correct Mike,Kneale was most unhappy with Donlevy’s casting-he found the actor too bombastic. The “little girl looking for a playmate” grew up to be the lovely Jane Asher. I don’t have a problem with Donlevy and Guest’s Cinema Verite style adds much to the film. I love the idea of Cushing and Lee in the film and Cushing would have been the best Quatermass of them all-pity it never happened. An interesting point of reference Joseph Losey’s TIME WITHOUT PITY (1957) with Cushing as a lawyer and Wordsworth as an anti death penalty politician. The film was shot by Freddie Francis,he and Losey never got on Francis found Losey “a right old misery,an unhappy person”, the film is however very good. On Guest’s THE ABONIMABLE SNOWMAN Cushing and Forrest Tucker got on like gangusters. Guest put this down to the fact they were both solid pros they always turned up on set fully prepared,unlike,Guest quipped “Dear Mr Donlevy” On THE ABONIMABLE SNOWMAN Cushing was known as “props” Cushing as he was forever pulling objects out of his pocket that were not in the script. “Tuck” on the other hand liked to make various suggestions not all of which Guest approved,on the suggestions Guest rejected Tucker would quip “that’s OK if that’s how you want to be remembered”

    • I’ve yet to see Time Without Pity. One of the rare Cushing titles I’ve still missed out on. Props Peter. I love calling him that when watching him on screen because there is rarely a performance he isn’t pulling something out of a pocket to utilize in character. A real pro and by all accounts a true gentleman,

  2. I’ve always wanted to see this one, and its sequel, and now your review REALLY makes me want to see it. Like you said, it resembles different movies for different reasons, and as soon as you mentioned the vehicles arriving at the crash site (a great photo, by the way), I thought of a movie I reviewed called ‘They Came from Beyond Space’ (I think you reviewed it as well). If you’ve seen both (or all three), which is your favorite?

    • That scene with the giant ship in the background is really effective. These are worth the effort tracking down if you can locate them. Beyond Space fits as well in my comparisons. While I’m sure to watch two and three in short order, the first time around I believe I liked the second film the best.

  3. Big fan of Quatermass here. Though I haven’t seen this one again for many years. Time for a refresher.
    I do love that alternative title of The Creeping Unknown! Spooky.
    All the bonus material sounds like a must buy! Especially with a Val Guest commentary.
    I second the above recommends on the TV series for extra Quatermass.

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