by Mel Valentin
Professor Bernard Quatermass. Most American genre fans will be unfamiliar with the name of this fictional character, unless they've come across "The Creeping Unknown," "Enemy From Space" or "Five Million Years to Earth" (as they were retitled for release in the United States). Professor Quatermass, the head of the fictional British Experimental Rocket Group, originated in a BBC serial written by Nigel Kneale in the early 1950s. The success of the low budget, quickly produced serials made crossovers into other media more than likely.In 1955, Hammer Studios produced the first theatrical feature, The Quatermass Xperiment, directed by Val Guest from Kneale's first BBC serial. Commercial success led to a sequel, Quatermass 2 (the first English-language sequel to feature a number in the title), and more than ten years later, Quatermass and the Pit, the first to be filmed in color. Kneale wrote a final serial for the BBC in 1978 (it made no room for additional sequels). Quatermass and his exploits continue to be considered highly influential in science fiction, influencing the long-running Dr. Who series (including one storyline that borrowed heavily from the third serial) and later, Chris Carter's The X-Files. Just this year, the BBC revived Quatermass with a new production (performed live, it remains unaired in the United States).
"Notable primarily for its influence on the sci-fi genre."
As a standalone film, The Quatermass Xperiment will leave novice viewers wondering why Quatermass became such a popular character in England. Quatermass, as played by American actor Brian Donlevy in the first and second films, is peevish, hot-tempered, and arrogant, with only an anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment streak to make him palatable. In The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass has succeeded in sending a manned rocket into space. The rocket ship has crash-landed in the English countryside. Rushing to the scene, Quatermass and his colleagues discover only one survivor (out of three), Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth). Victor has devolved into a state of near-catatonia. Quatermass, interested more in what Victor may have learned in space, shows little interest in his well being (Quatermass is too single-minded to allow empathy or compassion dictate his actions). That role is left to Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) and Victor's wife, Judith (Margia Dean), both of whom try, without success to break through Victor's silence.
Victor, of course, isn't what he seems. His catatonia hides not just knowledge of outer space and whatever might exist there, but somehow, he's brought something back with him. What that might be is better left unsaid, since it provides one of the few pleasures in an otherwise slow-to-develop, dialogue-driven storyline. After initial resistance from Quatermass, Victor is hospitalized (rather than quarantined, as he probably should be). Chief Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) slips into the storyline, concerned about the strange disappearance of the two Victor, or rather something, escapes, causing a few offscreen deaths along the way, a massive manhunt, a suspicious slime trail, a scene involving a monster and a little girl (most likely lifted from James Whale's Frankenstein), a few dead animals at the local zoo, and finally, after much dawdling, a confrontation at Westminster Abbey where the fate of England (and, therefore, the world) is at stake. No points for guessing who wins. Quatermass, unbowed by a brush with an extraterrestrial organism that posed a substantial threat to humanity, chillingly decides to press on with his experiment.
As expected for a film made with limited resources circa 1955, the special effects in The Quatermass Xperiment are, to be charitable, laughable. While we never see the rocket ship in flight (we hear it), the final transformation from man to monster is missing and when we do see the monster (an all-too unimaginative puppet), is less than impressive. The audience is also asked to believe that an oversized, slow-moving, slimy monster somehow escapes detection by the police and average citizens out for their daily constitutionals, until the monster manages to find its way to a scaffold inside Westminster Abbey. Given the time period, the less said about the science, the better. To be fair, Kneale was writing speculative fiction, but given the fifty-year time difference, Kneale's ideas are either wrong or simply quaint.Directing wise, Val Guest does nothing to distinguish "The Quatermass Xperiment" from other adult-oriented science fiction films of the period. Guest errs on the side of including too many dialogue-heavy scenes or otherwise superfluous scenes. The actors acquit themselves well, although only Richard Wordsworth as Victor makes an impression (as the sympathetic astronaut). As Quatermass, Brian Donlevy tends to deliver his lines over emphatically, making his characterization unsympathetic (unlike Andrew Keir's interpretation twelve years later in "Quatermass and the Pit"). Ultimately, "The Quatermass Xperiment" is more notable for its status as the first Quatermass film and its impact on science fiction in the decades that followed.
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originally posted: 10/31/05 17:42:22