"I’m a scientist, not a fortune teller… Quatermass sent it up and he brought it back"
In 1953 British television audiences watched transfixed with terror as Nigel Kneale’s series The Quatermass Experiment played in six gripping episodes. Hammer Films (then known as Exclusive Films) purchased the rights for a big screen version, which was to be very different for several reasons. Firstly the budget, while still relatively small, allowed for some special effects shots, including the remarkable crashed rocket at the film’s opening. Then there was the casting of Brian Donlevy in the title role – a move designed to increase the film’s chances abroad. And third was the title itself – although also released as The Quatermass Experiment, the later word was changed to Xperiment to capitalise on the film’s graphic nature and its "X" rating from the BBFC. It was a shrewd move – a knicker-wettingly scary concept was given the extra edge denied its small screen counterpart. Who wouldn’t flock to see that?
The first film opens as a young couple’s roll in the hay is cut short by the crash landing of Britain’s first manned spaceflight. First on the scene is Professor Quatermass, the brains behind the mission, who remains adamant that, despite the fact that his craft has churned up the British countryside and that two of his three astronauts are conspicuously absent from the ship, the mission was a success: "Dead or alive they’d still be heroes." However, the surviving occupant is fast becoming a vegetable (literally!) as a result of his exposure to cosmic rays, and is developing a taste for draining humans of life, leaving behind hideous gnarled husks. As the last vestiges of humanity ooze from his metamorphosing form, London (if not the world) faces the real prospect of an alien apocalypse.
The Quatermass Xperiment has stood the test of time well, and is still a creepy and effective film. This is partly down to the script (based upon Nigel Kneale’s series but not written by him), Richard Wordsworth’s eerie performance as the doomed spaceman Victor Carroon, and some remarkable make-up work creating drained bodies and translucent skin effects. There are a number of nice touches, such as the homage to James Whale’s Frankenstein, but there are a couple of problems too. The story jumps to its conclusion rather than builds to it – probably as a necessity of the budget. Then there is Quatermass himself. Donlevy’s performance is that of a bullish sociopath completely unrepentant about the string of deaths he has caused and the fact that he has very nearly destroyed the world. The pioneering spirit may well fire up inside him, but he seems oblivious to the consequences of his actions.
Quatermass II similarly started life as a BBC television series and, following the success of its predecessor, Hammer bought the rights, and this time asked Nigel Kneale, the series’ creator, to write the screenplay. As promised at the close of the first film, Quatermass is determined to keep the British space programme up and running, but faces funding difficulties. This is actually the least of his problems, since it’s not what he is intending to send into space that is the concern, but what is coming in from the cosmos – a shower of meteoric rocks which cause skin irritations. Local villagers are keeping quiet – they live too close to a top secret plant guarded by the military. But surely there are more sinister reasons for its presence than a synthetic food plant? Naturally, it turns out an alien intelligence is seeking world domination and only Professor Quatermass can stop them…
Quatermass II is a far more expansive (and expensive) project than its predecessor, and Donlevy’s bombastic style is less conspicuous this time around. Events move swiftly with each revelation topping the last. The climax again involves a battle, this time with three pulsating toxic monsters lumbering around the plant in a manner all too familiar to lovers of Toho’s ‘kaiju’ films (they bear striking similarity to the monster in Gojira tai Hedorah (1971) [aka Godzilla vs the Smog Monster]). But the most revolting sequence occurs early on when Broadhead stumbles from the food plant leaving a trail of blood and burning flesh as he gasps his last – "The food…it burns". It’s a truly unsettling scene, and probably harder to watch because of the black and white photography.
The Quatermass films heralded the golden age of Hammer. Without them the gore-drenched fantasies that typified the company in later years would never have been made, despite the films’ monochrome photography, low-key lighting, and their bias towards contemporary science fiction rather than period horror. Top marks too for the excellent DVD releases, which provide fans with a long overdue chance to own the films. Both have commentary tracks and short interviews (in which Val Guest admits that he "wasn’t a science fiction fan" and "didn’t see it as a horror film at all") and informative illustrated booklets including stills and poster designs. All we need now is a release for the final film in the series, Quatermass and the Pit (1967), to complete the collection.