In 1953, Nigel Kneale’s creation of Professor Bernard Quatermass appeared in a six-week television summer serial on the BBC, capturing the imaginations of a large quota of the British viewing public. Seeing the unexpected success of this, Hammer Films quickly made a deal with the BBC to adapt Kneale’s “The Quatermass Experiment” for a dissimilar motion picture, and hence, “Hammer Horror” was born. After a long delay, MGM is now releasing THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (better known in the U.S. as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN) on DVD as part of its Limited Edition Collection.
After a space mission into the unknown, a missile returns to England, crashing into the countryside ground. Two of its astronauts have disappeared (with their empty spacesuits left behind), while the third member, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), is found mute and riddled with a strange disease. The scientist behind the exploration, Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) concludes that the two missing men were absorbed by an alien life-form that’s now using Carroon as a carrier on earth. With police inspector Lomax (Jack Warner, A CHRISTMAS CAROL) keeping a close eye on the matter, Carroon’s foolish wife (a re-dubbed Margia Dean, THE DESERT HAWK) enables him to escape from a hospital, after his contact with a planted cactus begins to transform his arm into a vegetated deformity. Carroon breaks away from his wife’s car, becoming increasingly un-human and scavenging for food in the form of people and animals. The search for Caroon concludes at Westminster Abbey, when during a live television broadcast, his unrecognizable, unearthly state makes a startling appearance.
When THE QUATERMASS XPERIEMENT was released in the U.S. in 1956, the title was changed by distributor United Artists to THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, as the character’s notable U.K. small screen appearance was unseen of here. One thing that did matter on these shores is the casting of Donlevy, the Hollywood film noir heavy, popular in the 1940s. His recognizable name was to make it more marketable in the U.S., though Donlevy’s Quatermass is far from the English intellect which Kneale envisioned (Kneale himself was not very accepting of Donlevy in the role, unlike director Guest who was satisfied with the performance he got out of him). Although many fans and critics are on the fence about Donlevy in an unlikely part he would play twice, here he’s able to pull off the character with a cold, straightforward confidence that certainly does the "B" picture no ill.
This was the first British film of its type to get the “Certificate X” rating for adults only in the U.K. (hence the title’s “Experiment” became the blatant “Xperiment”), and it was a huge success, certainly ushering in Hammer’s newfound, internationally marketable niche of sci-fi (X THE UNKNOWN, QUATERMASS II) and more significantly, gothic horror (the Frankenstein and Dracula cycles). Shot on location and at the company’s headquarters of Bray Studios, the film showcases Hammer’s well-acknowledged knack for stretching a miniscule budget into something visually eye-catching and proficiently produced (the impressive glass-matted replication of Westminster Abbey is more than convincing). Phil Leakey’s make-up and Les Bowie’s effects (including the alien-affected decomposed corpses and the climatic undescribable monstrosity; sure it’s hokey, but in a creepy Lovecraftian nightmare sort of way) are prominent examples of the behind-the-scenes artists who would become significant Hammer mainstays (especially Bowie who was with the company until the very end). Another Hammer trademark coming into its own here is the score by James Bernard, as his distinctive, intense arrangements would become as recognizable to Hammer fans as Cushing and Lee.
Surely THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT stands as one of the superlative (and often imitated) 1950s science fiction endeavors, with its tense pacing, proficient direction, an intelligent script (penned by Guest and Richard Landau) and a fine cast of players. Acting honors though must go to Richard Wordsworth in the non-speaking role of the tormented Carroon, and the expressions and pathos he gives the character make his unworldy plight disturbing to watch. No long-time sci-fi fan could picture anyone but Wordsworth in the role, and his performance has more than often been compared to Karloff’s first essay of the monster in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN (ironically, Wordsworth’s ill-fated Carroon comes in contact with an unaffected little girl, played by an uncredited Jane Asher). Wordsworth would continue to play supporting roles in Hammer films, with memorable turns in REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF on his résumé. The film’s cast also includes such recognizable character actors as Lionel Jeffries and Maurice Kauffman, both who go on to star in numerous roles, many of them within the genre.
Although it’s been available on DVD in several other foreign regions, the last time THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT was visited in this country is when MGM issued it as a VHS-only “Midnite Movies” release more than a decade ago. For this very welcomed MGM Limited Edition Collection manufactured-on-demand DVD, the film has been recently remastered and is here presented in its uncut 82-minute form with the original British title in the credits. The resulting image is full frame, which was probably the best choice to go with: although some accounts have it as 1.66:1, it was shot in 1954, so any kind of intended theatrical matting is still questionable. The open frame holds the compositions well, and the transfer looks spectacular with rich detail and deep black levels, and hardly any debris or blemishes to be found on the source print. The mono English audio track is quite clear from start to finish. The original American theatrical trailer has been included (it’s 1.66:1 anamorphic) and chapter stops can be navigated at ten minute intervals. (George R. Reis)
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