When we last saw Bernard Quatermass, he was fighting an alien threat in a dingy low-budget studio, but imagine what would happen if money was sunk into the project! I usually have reservations for these TV to movie conversions, as the production companies had a tendency in those days to “mess up” the original plot and characters. I recall watching the Peter Cushing Doctor Who and the Daleks movies, and not really liking them too much for this very reason. They were bright and colorful, but somehow were also soulless and bland. In the case of Quatermass, however, only two episodes of the serial exist today, so watching a film based on the original script is amazing, as I can now see what happens after the slow and talkative first few episodes. So here we have The Quatermass Xperiment, from Hammer films – can it live up to the original?
Before any Grammar Nazis try to correct me, dropping the “E” in the title isn’t a typo on my part! Hammer Films deliberately went for an “X-Certificate” rating (nobody permitted under the age of sixteen) with the release of this film. This included branding all the posters with a huge red “X” to make them stand out. This audacious plan was met with reservations within the BBC and Hammer Films, but ultimately was a success. The Quatermass Xperiment was one of the first films from the ailing production company to be sold overseas (as The Creeping Unknown) and basically kicked off their “Hammer Horror” line, which became synonymous with the company.
One will immediately notice that the character of Bernard Quatermass isn’t the same reserved thinking man that he was in the TV serial. Now played by Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy, the character was reinvented to be gruff and more action oriented. According to Wikipedia: “’Donlevy, in his own words, specialized in “he-men roles–rough, tough and realistic’”; a far cry from the way the late Reginald Tate carried the role. Basically think of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens, that is Donlevy’s Quatermass to a tee. At first I wasn’t too thrilled with this take on the character, but when viewing the movie as a whole – Donlevy’s take works best with the movie. The entire serial’s tone has also shifted to go along with the new Quatermass; it’s darker, dingier, and more grotesque. This honestly reminds me of the evolution of Doctor Who; specifically in that once the show changed to a 45 minute format, the character became more of an action hero.
The plot has been changed around a bit as well, mostly for time constraints. This condensed time means that things that took an entire episode to explain before had to be cut down. An example of this is: in the serial, episode one was mostly dialog between Quatermass and his assistant about how distraught they all were because of the disappearance of the rocket. This segment was completely removed meaning that the movie kicks right into gear when the rocket crashes to Earth (in an awesome special effect scene). Better special effects and more money also mean that scenes involving dialog to explain a situation can be replaced with an effect shot, a scene change, or an action scene. Since I don’t have anything to compare it to, I will state that the rest of the film is definitely more of a horror film than a science fiction film, thus explaining most of the aforementioned differences. The plot centers on the transformation of the creature and it wreaking havoc, not Quatermass and his team.
I mentioned the special effect shots being pretty cool earlier, and for an older film they do not disappoint. Most 1950’s era science fiction films had terrible costuming and set design in my opinion; Quatermass stands heads and tails above a lot of them. Granted, most of my knowledge of films in this genre of this era are the kind of movies that would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that most 1950’s science fiction is sort of camp. There is one effects shot in particular towards the middle of the film that got my attention. Quatermass and his crew are studying a grainy film that was taken onboard the rocket during the ill-fated flight. At one point, one of the astronauts walks up onto the wall – suggesting a low-gravity environment of some sort. It couldn’t have been a huge special effect, but a remarkable one in its simplicity. I’ll even excuse that the crew seems to be piloting the craft by turning a series of steering wheels mounted on the far wall.
There are some truly grotesque horror shots in the film, ones that definitely lead the movie being branded X-rated at the time. While there isn’t any gushing blood or gore, there are things like shots of dead bodies with their skulls caved-in and an entire zoo of dead animals left in the wake of the monsters rampage. I was actually pretty surprised at a few of these considering the puritanical nature of most film violence at the time, and now can see how Hammer got its shocking reputation early on. The creature make-up is also pretty impressive at times. When we finally get a good look at the transformation Victor Carroon has undergone (as played by Richard Wordsworth ), he has his arm bandaged up, and the now swollen mass of cactus like spikes and putrid flesh in its place is a bit unnerving.
It was also during this scene that I truly saw the influence that this movie has had on later pop culture. Doctor Who has used a similar “man turning into a monster” plot most notably in The Lazarus Experiment, and much earlier in The Ark in Space. Other shows and films such as The Fly (the newer one) and even an anime film I love called Akira all seem to have been somewhat influenced as well, directly or not is up to speculation. This really shows that Nigel Kneale really had the pulse of televised science fiction and horror under his belt, as he seems to have basically influenced most of it for the last sixty years!
So there we have it, it wasn’t the first piece of film cast into the Quatermass catalog, but it was definitely the one that got the property noticed. Not only has the plot from this movie been used over and over countless times, but I haven’t seen anything more influential to other science fiction and horror for a while. As I stated, I’m not sure I like Donlevy as much as Tate in the role of Bernard Quatermass, but the two characters couldn’t be any more different. Aside from the plot, it’s honestly better to think of the film and the TV show as separate entities; a fact that is hard for me to do, but the quality of this movie makes it easier. I’m not a huge horror fan, much less older horror movies, so any film of the genre that keeps my attention must be good. Hammer Films went on to make two more Quatermass films, both of which I will be looking at on here! Come back again tomorrow as I take a look at the TV version of Quatermass II, continuing “Quatermass Week!”