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Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

Courtesy of Hammer Films

Main image of Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)
35mm, 82 min, black & white
DirectorVal Guest
Production CompanyHammer Film Productions
ProducerAnthony Hinds
ScreenplayRichard Landau
 Val Guest
From the TV play byNigel Kneale
CinematographyW.J. Harvey
MusicJames Bernard

Cast: Brian Donlevy (Professor Bernard Quatermass); Jack Warner (Inspector Lomax); Margia Dean (Judith Carroon); Richard Wordsworth (Victor Carroon); David King Wood (Dr Gordon Briscoe); Thora Hird (Rosemary 'Rosie' Rigley)

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When his experimental rocket returns to Earth with only one member of the three-man crew on board, Professor Bernard Quatermass finds himself combatting a terrifying extraterrestrial entity.

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During the production of Hammer Films' screen version of television's The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, 1953), Nigel Kneale, the writer of the original series, did not participate (much to his lasting chagrin), as he was still under contract to the BBC. The project was instead handed over to American writer Richard Landau, an old Hammer hand, who was entrusted with condensing the approximately three-hour series into an 82-minute feature (amending the dialogue to suit American audiences was also part of his remit).

The drastic but necessary truncation obviously resulted in narrative elements being either simplified or discarded outright, with one notable revision occurring during the Westminster Abbey climax; where Quatermass had induced the astronauts' collective residual humanity to resist absorption and, in effect, 'commit suicide', the creature is now simply electrocuted in order to provide a more exciting conclusion.

The simplification shifted emphasis on to the story's more horrific aspects, largely at the expense of Kneale's original subtext about Britain's postwar scientific and technological ambitions. Illustrative of this change is the scene between Carroon and the chemist: although the latter survives the encounter relatively unscathed in the television series, he suffers a horrific death in the film. In their eagerness to exploit the horror content, Hammer even amended the film's title to The Quatermass Xperiment to highlight its X certificate and adult content.

But while Kneale was displeased with such revisions, the greater share of his wrath was directed at the casting and portrayal of Quatermass himself. In the television series, the professor, while confident at the outset, began to express doubts and uncertainties over his responsibility in causing the alien life-form to reach Earth. However, as played by American actor Brian Donley in the film, the character moves through scenes and rattles off dialogue at such a relentless pace (and volume) that he has little time to express any doubts at all.

The result, then, is a film that comes close to a standard 'monster on the loose' B-picture. But in its defence, it successfully establishes a frantic pace that never slackens (helped by James Bernard's first score for Hammer), the little known Richard Wordsworth gives a truly moving performance as Carroon, and the climax is actually an improvement on the original (at least if the BBC's 2005 remake, which included Kneale's original ending, can be taken as a guide). And even Donlevy is not that bad.

John Oliver

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Video Clips
1. The transformation begins (3:00)
2. On the loose (2:57)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
X the Unknown (1956)
Quatermass Experiment, The (1953)
Guest, Val (1911-2006)
Hinds, Anthony (1922-2013)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Jeffries, Lionel (1926-2010)
Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)
Warner, Jack (1896-1981)
Hammer Horror
Science Fiction