Friday, April 3, 2020

The Quatermass Xperiment

The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown)
Val Guest

A rocket crashes in the middle of a farm somewhere in rural England. The rocket belongs to one Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), a cranky rocket scientist. Two of the three astronauts who were supposed to be on board are missing and the one survivor, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) isn’t looking too good. While Quatermass and his team try to uncover what happened to the missing astronauts, Victor is snuck out of the hospital by his wife. Quatermass discovers that Victor isn’t Victor at all, he is an organism that has hollowed out that man and is now loose and looking to spread itself across the world.

Those going into the Quatermass Xperiment expecting Bernard Quatermass to be a kindly eccentric British scientist (ala Doctor Who) are in for a shock. Professor Quatermass is brusque and rude but driven. He does show concern for people in danger and expresses regret at deaths but these moments are fleeting and soon enough he’s back to working on the problem. It is a surprising portrayal for a lead character, his personality has no soft edges. The problem comes from there being no real sympathetic characters in the film. The closest comes in the form of astronaut Victor Carroon, who at least shows moments of hesitation or pity for his actions but at the same time, he is something quite inhuman. I think a stronger script could have played off the coldness of Quartermass and the dwindling humanity of Carroon to great effect.

"Oh him? Yeah, he's fine."
The Quatermass Xperiment is a slow procedural film, so if you are expecting some prime 1950s era kitsch, there isn’t much of that here. There are a lot of lengthy talking scenes of scientists figuring out the mystery at hand. Much of this is a holdover from its source material the original Quatermass Experiment (1953) a six-episode series broadcast by the BBC, which would have necessitated limited locations and plenty of dialogue. The film compresses the story greatly and makes a few minor changes, but somehow doesn’t increase the pace.

The special effects are few in this film, but it uses what it has effectively. The two most striking are the gaunt Carroon with his deformed hand and the massive tentacled monster at the climax. Both are kept out of sight until they can achieve maximum impact and it does wonders for the air of doom that hangs over the entirety of the story. For all its pacing and character issues, this movie makes its horror trappings work transforming it into one of the great early Horror-SF hybrids.

There is nothing whizbang about The Quatermass Xperiment, it treats its characters and its subject with gravitas. There is some amusement to be found in just how big a jerk Quatermass himself can be, but it is almost never played for deliberate laughs. This is a serious film hiding under the guise of another monster from space romp and it is the start of a trilogy of films that get better with each incarnation.

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