Fabulous Films of the 50s: The Quatermass Xperiment

presented as part of the CMBA FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 50s blogathon

Hammer films had been rolling along before 1955, turning out dramas and mysteries, and in later decades made cavegirl pictures, among other things, but let’s face it, when you say Hammer, most people think “Horror,” and for that you can thank The Quatermass Xperiment, aka The Creeping Unknown.

It’s a movie that comes out smack dab in the middle of the decade, at the end of Hammer’s deal with American company Lippert Pictures, at the start of a new era of British sci-fi and represents Hammer’s pivot into one of the most recognized brand names in film.

Professor Quatermass. What a great, evocative, Dickensian character name that is, suggesting a quaking mass, a crater, a creator, all words hinting at scientific things of large scale, potentially earth shattering and perfect for a movie about a professor that inadvertently makes it possible for a monstrous thing to come to Earth. This professor, played by Brian Donlevy, has been in charge of a secret three man rocket expedition to space. The rocket is lost, who knows how far, and then returns, screaming and crashing back to earth, impaled spear-like into the ground. Only one man survives, or is found at all for that matter, and investigation of the ship and its recording devices shows there was no opening of the craft, no way to leave or enter. So what happened to the missing two? Further, and more concerning, what is happening to the survivor, played so well by Richard Wordsworth. What has come back to our planet with him?

Though Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, who’d previously seen his story unfold on British TV, was unhappy with this adaptation, and hated Donlevy, though many reviews of the movie consider Donlevy too clipped, severe and grumpy, and Margia Dean as the returning astronaut’s wife terribly underwhelming, though the horrors seem mild to us now, after we’ve been conditioned by decades of gorier stuff, despite all those things, Quatermass is still an excellent specimen of its kind, and was a big success.

The Quatermass Xperiment.(1955).Director: Val Guest.

Director Val Guest keeps the tension tight and sustained through the film. The suspense winds up during the preparation for the opening of the rocketship. Authorities and first responders surround the craft and debate how best to get inside, and what might possibly await them, while having heated arguments with Donlevy, blaming him for causing the disaster and probably deaths of astronauts with his crazy space travel folly. Imagine watching this, still 6 years before the first manned spaceflight, when such things still seemed impossible, combined with concerns about what might be out there to eat us up, plus the reality of mass destruction coming from the sky still being all too fresh in people’s minds.

The suspense doesn’t let up as we watch frantic studies into what really happened, while lone survivor Wordsworth sits still as a statue, with his thousand yard stare, sits tracking people with just his eyes like a portrait in an old dark house, slowly transforming into some transparent skinned, slimy thing. When he awakens and starts lumbering through the streets, it reminds you of Frankenstein (right down to the interaction with a girl, Jane Asher, playing with her dolly, though with a nicer ending). It’s a fantastic performance, well featured by the director who teases with some scenes and lets others unfold behind people’s backs, or behind glass, without sound. The alien bits that come to life apart from a human host are weird stalk and root-like tendrils in an octopus formation. When the more developed but still growing jellied Crab-rantula finally reveals itself and climbs atop a scaffold… all I can say is Kill it with Fire!

quatmonst

 

But there are less graphic moments that spook as much, if not more: the horrifying revelation that the contents of a small beaker might be the remains of the other two astronauts; the footage salvaged by the flight recorders which show the bright light, extreme heat, confusion, panic and collapse of the rocket crew; the empty space suits found laid out in a way that it’s obvious they were not taken off but occupied till the very end, and that the body in them just plain evaporated. Those things are so well staged and just plain creepy, no effects are needed.

I’m a fan of Brian Donlevy but for my taste he did play it a bit too stiff here. His defensive wall is not surprising since he’s under attack everywhere he turns, blamed for everything that’s gone wrong in the name of his wacky newfangled ideas. He’s right that “there’s no room for personal feelings in science!” and he’s right that progress like this can’t stop to hear or satisfy everyone’s worries. Maybe being cold and ruthless was just right for this, I just wish Donlevy had brought in a little more humanity and his usual devilish brand of charm. It bears repeating that Richard Wordsworth really makes the picture work. Just when you wonder if there’s anything human left in that shell of a body, he’s reveals he’s in there struggling, still careful not to hurt a child. Jack Warner as a Scotland Yard inspector and Lionel Jeffries also add a lot for the movie buff to enjoy.

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I picked this movie to talk about not just because it’s one of the fabulous sci-fi monster flicks of the Fifties, but also because of the huge importance it has for the studio that made it. Quatermass was groundbreaking, setting Hammer’s course for years to come. Boosted by this “monster” hybrid sci-fi/horror hit, Hammer made sequels but was also inspired to start turning out Gothic horror– The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy– hits that somewhat ironically pulled attention away from more good Hammer sci-fi pictures that followed more closely in Quatermass’ footsteps–X the Unknown (which was actually meant to be a sequel to Quatermass Xperiment but creator Kneale pulled approval) and The Damned, to name a few. For its place among the decade’s monster movies, and for its impact on movie history, The Quatermass Xperiment is

one of the CMBA FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 50s — click here to see all the other films featured in this blogathon

 

image sources
http://opustheo.com/post/35861060463
http://mazmorramaldita.tumblr.com/post/34853502713/the-quatermass-xperiment-1955-director-val
http://theblackboxclub.blogspot.ca/2012/11/the-quatermass-xperiment-hammer-films.html
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25 thoughts on “Fabulous Films of the 50s: The Quatermass Xperiment”

  1. Love this flick, but just for oddly sentimental reasons I think my favorite of the Quatermass films is Quatermass and the Pit. Saw that one on TV as a kid, but i think I came into it just a little late, so it wasn’t until much later that I knew what the name of it was. Nonetheless, that climactic “vision” sequence at the end REALLY grabbed my attentiion and imagination and stuck with me over the years, inducing, as I recall more than a couple of nightmares.

    1. I haven’t see it but your high opinion of Q &the Pit seems to be the consensus, from everyone I’ve talked to about it, Can’t wait to see that one, also Keir as Prof Q is better liked almost universally from reading the reviews. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I’ve only seen a few Hammer films, so I am always slightly amazed and entertained to read about the company’s other films. Loved your description of the monster–Crab-rantula.

    1. AND what’s better I have fixed the missing image that supports my coinage of that term 🙂 I still have quite a few Hammer films to see myself, beyond the basics, and this was my perfect opportunity to grab and review this one, will have to follow up with the sequels soon. Thanks for visiting

  3. I think this is a terrific film, and I like Donlevy’s performance (though I understand he was the opposite of Kneale’s conception of a humane, far-seeing scientist). Donlevy plays Quatermass (love your analysis of the meaning of that name!) like an obsessive – he’s like an American CEO, intent on accomplishing his one goal, and I wonder if that’s what Keale found out of sync. And I like your description of Richard Wordswordth’s “thousand-yard stare” and his touching performance. I read that he was a direct descendant of the poet William Wordsworth, so the talent must be in his genes. Great post!

    1. yes I can definitely see that about Donlevy, some aspects of his approach would work. Not having seen the other adaptations I have nothing to compare to and really look forward to seeing how the role was done later (or before for that matter) It’s never easy to step into something already familiar and well loved so he had that against him too.
      And very interesting detail about Wordworth, thanks for that and thanks for the visit

  4. Have not seen any of the Quatermass films but I love much of what Hammer has put out. Need to catch up on this. Excellent contribution to the blogathon.

    1. They certainly built into a reliable brand and it was fun to see where this part of it started. I aim to follow up and watch in order including the “almost” sequel. Thanks so much

    1. They do! I love any of these, am well acquainted with The Thing & Blob, and this was a perfect opportunity to fill in this Jelly-creature shaped hole in my cinema knowledge 🙂 Thanks

  5. Very good! This and the direct sequel are a lot of fun and we pick on Donlevy too much as we are used to seeing him in other genre’s. It should come as no surprise he drifted into films like this and Curse of the Fly……after all he did marry Lillian Lugosi after she divorced Bela. haha

    1. Yes I am probably being tough on him, out of love, I like him usually. And you are the one to thank here, hat tip for giving me these movies in the first place, like I say I can’t wait to work through them now. That is a fun fact about ex Mrs Lugosi! Thanks

    1. You will enjoy! I see your List is capitalized, be careful it doesn’t take on a life of its own and become the Creeping Unknown. Thanks!

  6. The various Quatermass permutations all have their little magic, don’t they? Even ones I don’t care for so much are all watchable, and even the worst one has more of that oh-so-rare mystical vibe that came with Hammer sci-fi/Horror movies of that time. I’m a Nigel Kneale fan BIGTIME, so I watch whatever comes within his little universe!

    Great write-up as usual!

    1. Thanks! Definitely watchable to me, any nitpicks are tiny compared to the fun and creeps of it, I’m real eager to watch thru them to compare, and the are always more Hammer movies to catch up on too.

  7. There’s no denying the influence of this film and the original TV serial by Neale. It’s a thoughtful, suspenseful sci fi tale. But Donlevy is a liability for me. He seems horribly miscast, especially compared to Andrew Keir in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (my favorite of the film series).

    1. I’m going to work my way through the sequels so it’ll be fun to get to those, Keir as the best seems to be the consensus. Yes I like Donlevy but just found him hard to like here. Thanks for visiting

  8. Great tribute to a classic horror film. One I, err, still haven’t seen *ducks head*, but I definitely want to. I like how you encapsulate the character of Quatermass and the situation so neatly at the beginning of your review. I was physically leaning forward in my chair, wanting to find out what happened next. I’ll have to bump this one up my list. Hammer Horror in general is something that I need to dig into a lot more closely.

    1. Well you and me both, I know all the “basic” Hammer horrors, but really want to see many more. Glad I finally saw this, and will be watching all the sequels very soon so stay tuned if you’re curious. Thanks for the compliments, glad you enjoyed!

  9. I really enjoyed your post, and though I’ve not seen this movie, am intrigued by how important the alien sci-fi genre was in 1950s film. This is a great contribution to this most interesting blogathon.

    1. that genre made a handy catch-all for themes of suspicious others, skepticism about scientific progress and any number of other metaphors, plus the film FX got better so no wonder it was so prevalent. Thanks so much for visiting

  10. Kristina, my brother used to watch both Quatermass films from Andrew Keir and Team B favorite Brian Donlevy, and we must admit we first liked Donlevy first because we young’uns were always waiting to see if Donlevy would just punch the evil space critters’ lights out! 🙂 But there’s plenty of humanity and poignancy in The Quatermass X-Periment.. Excellent post, Kristina, as always!

    1. Haha yes that’s right, in the second one he sure looked like he was ready to sock somebody. I liked him better there because his edge was put to better use.
      I always try to imagine seeing these movies back in the day, we can be a bit cynical and inured to the shocks but if they still work so well for us, they must’ve scared those audiences to death. Thanks!

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