Friday, February 26, 2016

Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

... aka: Creeping Unknown, The
... aka: El experimento del Dr. Quatermass (The Dr. Quatermass Experiment)
... aka: L'astronave atomica del dottor Quatermass (The Atomic Spaceship of Dr. Quatermass)
... aka: Le monstre (The Monster)
... aka: Quatermass Experiment, The
... aka: Schock
... aka: Shock!
... aka: Xperiment Q

Directed by:
Val Guest

This is a feature film remake of the 3-hour-long BBC production The Quatermass Experiment (1953), which was broadcast live in 1953 and is now partially lost in its complete form (only the first two 30 minute segments still survive). For this film version, Richard Landau and director Val Guest have compressed the original Nigel Kneale-penned television play into a more compact running time ranging from 78 to 82 minutes depending on the cut. All of the original actors from the TV version were replaced, with American actor Brian Donlevy taking over the central role of Professor Bernard Quatermass from Reginald Tate, who was slated to reprise the role but passed away before filming began. Not only an important genre title content-wise, this is also noteworthy as being one of the few Hammer horror films to precede their breakthrough hit THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). It was released in the U.S. under the title The Creeping Unknown in 1956, became an international hit and led to numerous other Quatermass tales, starting with the TV miniseries Quatermass II (1957), which itself prompted a theatrical remake that same year (released as Enemy from Space in the U.S.). That was followed by a third miniseries called Quatermass and the Pit (1959), which eventually saw a theatrical version in 1967 (released in the U.S. as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH in 1968) and brief revivals in both 1979 and 2005.

A rocket crash-lands in a field in the English countryside. Part of a secret project headed over by scientist Quatermass, the ship had been launched "1500 miles into space" and was manned by three astronauts... only one of whom has returned safely. Engineer Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) is that lone survivor and yet it's immediately apparent that something isn't quite right with him. For starters, he's disoriented, sickly and no longer speaks. He's also ice cold to the touch, his fingerprints change completely and his skin slowly begins to look cracked, pale and gray. Further analysis by Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) reveal his heart rate and blood pressure are so off that he *should* be dead. A gelatin-like substance is discovered aboard the crashed space crash that may be the remains of the two missing astronauts and, since a film camera was placed aboard, our heroes at least get a bit of proof that something inscrutable and other-worldly happened. They're just not entirely sure what.

While Quatermass, Lomax (Jack Warner), an inspector who's been assigned the case, and others attempt to get to the bottom of things, Victor is taken to a clinic and put under observation. Not wanting her husband to be some guinea pig, his wife Judith (Margia Dean) hires sleazy private eye Christie (Harold Lang) to pose as an orderly and help bust him out of the clinic. Things don't go off quite as planned and, by the time the authorities get there, there's only a blood-drained corpse and a missing cactus to tell the tale of what really happened. Now free and on the run, Victor continues to mutate into something inhuman, absorbing other life forms (including a zoo full of animals) along the way until he becomes some a large, ever-growing, tentacled, octopus-like blob who finally turns up at the BBC.

Well-directed, written, photographed, paced and acted (for the most part), this was influential not only to 50s sci-fi and horror in general but also the concept of 'body horror;' a subgenre of film where one's body is overtaken by something and goes through horrifying physical mutations as a result. That style of film would begin to become very popular in the mid 70s and continues to be popular to this day. This is one of the earliest films I've seen to attempt that. The makeups and special effects (by Philip Leakey and Les Bowie) I frequently see criticized, but they didn't bother me at all. In fact, I found them quite good for the time, especially considering the main ingredient to create the monster was tripe! This film also marked a turning point for Hammer Pictures, who were struggling to keep afloat by 1955. Without the success of this first Quatermass film prompting the company to focus primarily on horror productions, there may not have been their first Frankenstein film and thus never been a Hammer as we know it today. Enough questionable content made this the first X-rated sci-fi film made in the UK; something the altered spelling "Xperiment" consciously pointed out to audiences as a selling point.

Quatermass creator Kneale had mixed feeling about this version, but most especially disapproved of casting several American actors in lead roles. Though Donlevy claimed to be from Ireland and IMDb states he was born in Ireland, he was actually born in Cleveland, Ohio and the whole Irish thing was something cooked up entirely by his publicist. Either way, the actor doesn't do a bad job at all and his commanding, gruff, hard-edged and somewhat pushy performance is appropriate for the character. Apparently Guest didn't mind his work either because the actor got to reprise this role in the 1957 follow-up. Most everyone seems to agree that the real standout of the film is Wordsworth, the great-great grandson of poet William Wordsworth, who creates a pitiable and sympathetic character with no words and a limited amount of screen time. The character certainly has more than a few things in common with the Frankenstein Monster.

The only flaw in the central casting was Dean, a former Miss California and one-time girlfriend of the president of 20th Century Fox, who was hoisted upon the filmmakers as part of the American co-financing deal. Yes, despite being currently listed most places as being an entirely British production, this was actually co-produced and financed by Americans (Robert L. Lippert's "Regal Films; which was more-or-less a branch of Fox). Guest would later say of Dean: "She was a sweet girl, but she couldn't act." As a result of her inappropriate American accent (and presumed poor performance), all of her dialogue was dubbed over by someone else in post. Unfortunately, whatever actress they chose to dub the role also could not act and didn't even sound British! Regardless, it stands out like a sore thumb in this otherwise professionally-done movie. Also in the supporting cast are Gordon Jackson, Thora Hird, Lionel Jeffries, Marianne Stone, Maurice Kaufmann, Henry B. Longhurst and a young Jane Asher as a little girl whose encounter with the monster works out better for than it did little Marilyn Harris in Frankenstein.

Upon its 1955 release in the UK, this became one of the biggest hits of its year. Here in America, where it was cut down by four minutes and frequently double-billed with THE BLACK SLEEP (1956) by distributor United Artists, it was also a big hit. At one showing, a nine-year-old boy died of a ruptured artery in the lobby after viewing the films, which prompted the Guinness Book of World Records to list this as the only incident of an audience member being "scared to death." A unsuccessful lawsuit by the boy's parents followed. This story ran in a 1956 issue of Variety and very well could have been where William Castle got his idea for the later "death by fright" insurance policy gimmick for MACABRE (1958). After the boy's death, the producers of Black Sleep tastelessly urged theater owners to “Cash in on the Variety Headline Report!” in their press materials.

There have been numerous releases of this film over the years on laserdisc, VHS and DVD (mostly through MGM as part of their "Midnite Movies" line). In 2014, Kino Lorber issued a Blu-ray, which contains a commentary track from director Guest and film historian Marcus Hearn, interviews with the director and John Carpenter (who was clearly very influenced by seeing this film as a boy) and a guide the differences between the cut and uncut versions. 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...