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. THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (better known in the U.S. as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN) now gets a “just in time for the holidays” U.S. Blu-ray release, in a special edition better than any Hammer fan could hope for, courtesy of Kino Lorber.
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, THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND), is found mute and riddled with a strange disease. The scientist behind the exploration, Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy, CURSE OF THE FLY) 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 (devastating a local zoo). 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 theatrically 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 over 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 indescribable 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 the appearances of Peter Cushing and Christopher 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 unworldly 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, later the star of Roger Corman’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH). 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 (FIRST MEN ON THE MOON) and Maurice Kauffman (THE GIANT BEHEMOTH), both who go on to star in numerous roles, many of them within the horror and sci-fi genres.
Although it’s been available on DVD and Blu-ray in several other foreign regions, the last time THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT was visited in this country is when MGM issued it as part of their Limited Edition Collection manufactured-on-demand DVDs a few years ago. For this Blu-ray release, Kino has licensed the film from MGM with winning results. The film is presented here in 1080p HD and unlike the previous full frame DVD, the Blu-ray has it at 1.66:1. Framing and compositions looks fitting and accurate throughout, while the black & white image is very pleasing. The transfer is rich in detail with excellent contrasts, black levels are deep and grey scales are also replicated nicely. Overall, the transfer has an attractive, filmic appearance to it, and any fleeting instances of blemishes only give it character. The DTS-HD Master Audio English track is quite clear from start to finish.
The Blu-ray is accompanied by a number of “Quatermass Xtras” including some great featurettes. “Carpenter on Quatermass” (9:17) has legendary director John Carpenter talking about how he became aware of the “groundbreaking” film when he saw THE CREEPING UNKNOWN trailer in a theater as a kid, and then catching it on a double bill with THE BLACK SLEEP(which he didn’t like) . He goes onto discuss how 1950s sci-films plucked people’s fears and utilized them and describes QUATERMASS (which he praises) as being of the “fungus among us” genre (Carpenter, who later worked with screenwriter Kneale, describes him as “a handful”). “From Reality to Fiction” (11:30) is a fullscreen featurette, seen here for the first time, originally produced by Greg Carson for MGM back in 2004 for a “Midnite Movies” DVD which never materialized. Director Guest (who passed away in 2006) sums up his experience on the film, from receiving the script (which instantly turned him into a sci-fi fan) to working with producer Anthony Hinds and the main cast and that he was actually happy to have Donlevy in the lead despite Kneale’s protests (he also makes a joke about Donlevy’s toupee). Guest also touches upon the documentary/Cinéma vérité approach he took, as well as the film’s locations, special effects and make-up. “A Creeping Xperiment” (6:57) is a featurette designed to compare the British version with the American version of the film (and features a rare “The Quatermass Experiment” title card which was never used) and visually details the cuts that the U.S. version suffered (this featurette was also produced for MGM in 2004 but unseen until now). “Interview with Val Guest by Hammer Film Historian Marcus Hearn” (8:12) was originally found on the DD Video Region 2 U.K. DVD, released in 2003. Hammer expert Hearn commences the sit-down conversation, stating that QUATERMASS is one of five pictures Guest made in the year 1954. Guest mentions how he got the original television scripts for reference from Hinds before taking off with his wife for a vacation in Tangier and being riveted after reading them. Guest, who had done mainly comedies before this one, mentions that his “newsreel” approach was his attempt to inject some reality and create something that looked closer to “science fact” than science fiction.
An entertaining and thorough audio commentary with Guest, nicely moderated by Hearn, also originally appeared on the British DD Video DVD from 2003. Although some of his insights from the two video interviews are repeated here, the commentary provides a great listen, as Guest discusses shooting the opening scenes on the surrounding backlot of Bray studios, condensing the original television scripts into an “up-to-date” feature film, and he is able to share some scene-specific recollections (so it’s a treat to hear him detail how the climax was shot). Other topics include the atmosphere at Bray Studios at the time, another anecdote about Donlevy’s “rug”, the trouble the art department went through to give the film an authentic look, and his thoughts about various cast members who went on to be part of his “rep company”. Rounding out the extras are a “Trailers From Hell” segment with “The Walking Dead” director Ernest Dickerson affectionately talking about the film over the trailer, the alternate U.S. main title sequence (as “The Creeping Unknown”) and an anamorphic presentation of the original American theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)
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