Continuing this recent Hammer marathon, my delve into Hammer films I haven’t seen before means we now go back a little further in time, to 1955. The Quatermass Xperiment is widely considered the beginning of the Hammer line of films that fantasy and horror fans hold dear and would both cement the company’s name in British film history, and put its films on the world stage.
The Quatermass Xperiment was based on Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment (note the subtle spelling change for the film version) from 1953. which had been hugely successful for the BBC. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds immediately saw the possibilities in a film version and chased the film rights as soon as the six episodes were aired.
Three astronauts have been launched into space in the first launch of the British-American Rocket Group, which crashes back to Earth in an English field after straying off-course and out of contact with Ground Control. Of the three crew, only one remains, the only sign of the other two astronauts being their spacesuits, still sealed but empty. The sole remaining crew member is Victor Carroon (Richard Wandsworth) who is badly injured and incoherent. Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) who is in charge of the project desperately tries to find out what happened to the flight while it disappeared for a number of hours, and what happened to the two missing crew. Meanwhile Carroon baffles his doctors, never becoming coherent and slowly deteriorating. Recovered from the crashed ship, in-flight footage from during the period in which the ship was out of contact suggests an extra-terrestrial encounter with something unseen that killed the missing crew. Carroon breaks out of hospital abetted by his wife, beginning to transform into some monstrous creature to terrorise London and threaten the whole world.
One of the chief pleasures of material like The Quatermass Xperiment is its vantage point at the start of the Space Age, back when anything beyond the Earth was alien and unknown and full of mystery. Space has inevitably been ‘normalised’ over the decades since, but back in the early 1950s (and of course in all the 1930s/1940s pulps prior) space was unknown, full of dark mystery. There are wonderful moments in this film when people wonder at the astronauts having been somewhere no-one else had ever been, experienced things no-one has ever seen or felt, and an almost palpable sensation of the fear of a dark frontier. There is an almost Lovecraftian theme of humanity transgressing where we should not go, or of the Outer Dark of Space infecting us, changing us. A contemporary sci-fi/horror film loses that.
The Quatermass series by Nigel Kneale has always had a dark and foreboding theme questioning our place in the universe: Quatermass and the Pit (both the 1967 Hammer version and the earlier BBC serial) has always been a personal favourite of mine, the Hammer film scaring me witless when I was a kid.
For once, the casting possibly hindered my enjoyment of this Hammer effort. For one thing, Brian Donlevy’s American Quatermass proved especially troubling- the guy is portrayed as a bully and a jerk, striding around like he’s got a broom up his ass. Quite unlike the portrayal I’m familiar with from the two versions of Quatermass and the Pit I’ve seen. This seems to have been a concious decision of the film-makers and one that original writer Nigel Kneale (who had no input in the film) was particularly unhappy with- so incensed was Kneale that he refused to allow Hammer to immediately make a sequel (which is what X: The Unknown was intended to be, necessitating that Dean Jagger’s character be changed from Bernard Quatermass to Dr Adam Royston).
The other particularly sour point in the casting is Margia Dean as Carroon’s wife, Judith. On the evidence of this film, Margia Dean simply could not act: its like watching someone from some amateur acting group thrown in front of the camera, not helped by being horribly dubbed in post as if by someone hellbent on making her look/sound even worse (so jarring its a little like Harrison Ford’s ‘deliberately bad’ narration in the theatrical prints of Blade Runner in 1982). So bad in fact was Dean that I looked her up and wasn’t really surprised to read of sources alleging that she was cast in the film because she was the girlfriend of 20th Century Fox president, Spyros Skouras (I’ve since been surprised that she appeared in quite a few films, despite her apparent lack of talent, before retiring in 1965 upon marriage to an architect). It did strike me a number of times just how much better the film would have been had June Thorburn played the part- it seems the kind of role that Thorburn would have excelled at.
Better casting includes Jack Warner as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (predating his most popular turn as Dixon of Dock Green), Richard Wordsworth who is absolutely brilliant as the doomed Victor Carroon, and good old Lionel Jeffries as an harassed Government minister who constantly complains to Quatermass regards his recklessness (not unfounded, as it turns out, with Quatermass coming across as some modern Frankenstein by the end of the film through a sobering epilogue).
With a typically great soundtrack by James Bernard (who deservedly went on to become a Hammer regular), a score that prefigures some of the techniques of Bernard Herrmanns Psycho, the film is a great thriller, the source material raising above the limitations of some of the cast. Certainly, its inevitably somewhat dated but its pre-Space Age perspective adds a certain mood of horror and Lovecraftian atmosphere. Some of the imagery is terrific- particularly that of the crashed space rocket. The Quatermass Xperiment is one of those films that I’ve heard about for many, many years and yet somehow never got around to. Well, I’ve rectified that at long last and I’m so glad I did.
It was rumoured a year or so ago that the film was going to be getting a remake; I don’t know how that has been progressing but do I think that bringing it up to date into our current times might lose much of the charm of the piece.
The Quatermass Xperiment is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime