The Quatermass Xperiment [US title: The Creeping Unknown] (1958)
Hammer Film Productions
Directed by Val Guest
Produced by Anthony Hinds and Robert L. Lippert
Written by Richard Landau and Val Guest
Based on the BBC television play by Nigel Kneale
Cinematography by Walter J. Harvey
Makeup by Philip Leakey
Edited by James Needs
Music by James Bernard
Kino Lorber Blu-ray
An enormous rocket crashes nose-first into an open field in the middle of a British farming community. In no time at all, police, firemen, and a whole host of officials arrive on the scene, trying to figure out what just happened. A car full of men, led by Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) barrels its way through all the local officials, stopping just before the rocket. Quatermass soon takes charge of the situation, barking orders and getting things done. Earlier Quatermass had told the men in the car that he sent the rocket up and he brought it down, all without “official” sanction. If we know anything about Quatermass early on, it’s that he’s going to get things done and heaven help you if you’re standing in his way.
Although three men went up in the rocket, Quatermass and his crew find only one man onboard, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth, right), clearly in shock and unable to utter any words beyond “Help me.” As Carroon is taken to the hospital, Quatermass speculates on what could’ve happened to the other men. Quatermass himself, the head of the project, states, “Something happened in here… something beyond our understanding of the moment.” If this guy – who planned the entire operation – can’t understand what happened, that can’t bode well for the rest of us.
Back at the hospital, it soon becomes obvious that Carroon is displaying strange symptoms. No one can communicate with him, including his wife Judith (Margia Dean). Telling you anything further would be unfair and would rob you of an excellent movie-watching experience.
The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the very few films that works in three different genres: science fiction, horror and mystery. All three elements are essential to the success of the film, but none of them seek to trump the other two. Philip Leakey’s makeup holds up extraordinarily well, especially (and surprisingly) in high definition. The scenes played for shock value (while they aren’t really all that shocking today) are brief, not the lingering gratuitous shots we’ve (unfortunately) become all too used to. James Bernard’s musical score stands out as a soundtrack that heightens the tension and unease felt throughout the film.
One of the film’s best scenes – perhaps the very best – occurs inside a zoo. I won’t describe it, but even today, you’ve probably never seen anything like it: simple, effective, and extremely disturbing. Another great scene is reminiscent of the monster meeting the little girl from 1931’s Frankenstein. This time the little girl is played by Jane Asher, famous for many reasons, not the least of which being the one-time fiancée of Paul McCartney.
Although Hammer Films had been around since the 1930s, The Quatermass Xperiment was the studio’s first significant venture into horror, a step that would define the studio for decades. For this film, Hammer made two smart moves. First, it chose the spelling “Xperiment” over “Experiment” in order to capitalize on the (then) new “X” certificate for British films appropriate for viewers 16 and over. Second, the studio wanted the film to be bankable in the U.S., so the lead role went to American actor Brian Donlevy, who often played tough, hardheaded in-charge guys. Donlevy’s performance works superbly here. I can’t imagine the film’s chilling final line delivered by anyone else.
Kino Lorber has done it again, releasing an Xcellent (Sorry, couldn’t help myself..) Blu-ray package highlighted by on-camera interviews with John Carpenter, Val Guest, two featurettes on the film, an audio commentary by Val Guest and Marcus Hearn, and a “Trailers from Hell” segment. For anyone interested in horror and/or science fiction films, The Quatermass Xperiment is a must-own.