BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT

By • Jan 15th, 2012 •

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What kept this one down in the vaults all these years? QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (FIVE MILLIION YEARS TO EARTH) and QUATERMASS 2 (ENEMY FROM SPACE) have both been in release for quite a while. And now that it’s out, although it bears its original UK release title, I miss it’s American moniker, THE CREEPING UNKNOWN. I saw it several times back in 1956, so the US title has sentimental value for me.

This was a pivotal production for Hammer Films, adapting the popular early Brit TV series into a no-kids-allowed theatrical version. It did great business and steered them away from film noir quota-quickies and into sci-fi-horror and, shortly thereafter, into the Gothic Horror field that would be their bread-and-butter and their legacy.

Val Guest adapted the script and strove to give the film its documentary sensibility whenever possible. He also introduced the Frankenstein-monster-and-little-Maria sequence about midway through, a nice touch, which would be reprised yet again in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. There’s only one false note in the entire 82-minute running time, and that is when a drunken female derelict comes into the police station complaining about seeing a monstrous thing. There’s an artificial comic tone to this scene that I’ve noticed in other Hammer films, as if they felt it was a necessary rhythmic break – but they were almost always mistaken.

Nigel Kneale, the author of the original broadcast series’, was so affronted by American actor Brian Donlevy’s brusque, egomaniacal take on his beloved creation that he ranted about it for the rest of his life. Personally I love Donlevy in this, and in its sequel. I think he very much embraced the cold, self-involved and not necessarily humanistic image the Brits had of scientists following the war, a group not to be trusted (along with military and certain governmental types). QUATERMASS AND THE PIT has them all, except that in that 1967 film Quatermass is humanized by Andrew Keir, more in line with how Kneale envisioned him.

In THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, three men go up into space, but only one comes back, and he’s not who he was when he left. Richard Wordsworth plays Victor Carroon, the doomed astronaut taken over by some monstrous force that has designs on our planet, with a surprising range of emotions. The film has its quotient of creepiness, scares, and upsetting makeup effects. It also has intelligent dialogue, and a strong directorial hand that keeps it moving quickly through its 82 minutes, by far my favorite running time when I was a kid.

I show this film every year in my History of Horror class at the School of Visual Arts, and they always ‘get it’ and enjoy it, applauding appreciatively after it ends. It’s gratifying to see this little sci-fi thriller working its wonders 50+ years since its debut.

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