The Quatermass Xperiment

Rating 2½

Directed by Val Guest

Written by Richard Landau and Val Guest, based on the original BBC television play written by Nigel Kneale

Starring Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Richard Wordsworth, Margia Dean, David King-Wood, Lionel Jeffries, Thora Hird, Sam Kydd, Gordon Jackson and Jane Asher

A secret manned rocket launch into space, conducted under the auspices of Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), becomes news when the rocket crashes back to Earth, landing near to an English village. Only one of the three-man crew survives, the other two crew-members having mysteriously disappeared from the ship. Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), the sole survivor, exhibits signs of severe traumatic shock, but when he escapes from the hospital where he is undergoing treatment it becomes clear that he is changing into something not of this Earth. From this point onwards it becomes a race against time to stop him before it is too late to save the human race.

‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ is, essentially, a variation of the same story told in the 1951 film ‘The Thing From Another World’. This 1955 Hammer Films version was based on the original BBC production ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, which was broadcast in six 30-minute segments between 18 July and 22 August 1953.

Professor Bernard Quatermass was the creation of the writer Nigel Kneale and was partly based on the famed British astronomer Bernard Lovell. Kneale was not impressed by the casting of the veteran American actor Brian Donlevy to play the title role. Donlevy’s Hollywood film career dated back as far as 1923 and he had been Academy Award nominated for his role in the 1939 film ‘Beau Geste’, but his career was now in decline and he took work wherever he found it. Kneale claimed that Donlevy was often drunk on set, an allegation that was disputed by Val Guest, the film’s director, who said Donlevy was professional and committed to the production throughout.

The American bit-part actress Margia Dean plays Judith Carroon, the wife of the doomed astronaut and gives a performance of rather transparent ineptitude. The film is otherwise cast with a group of instantly recognisable British actors, including Lionel Jeffries, who later starred in ‘H G Wells’ First Man On The Moon’ (1964), which was co-written by Nigel Kneale, and ‘Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon’ (1967). Also present are the always-reliable Sam Kydd and the wonderful Thora Hird, who would later find her niche working with the writer Alan Bennett. Jane Asher, then aged just nine-years-old, makes an early appearance here, in a sequence clearly inspired by ‘Frankenstein’.

It is also worth mentioning Jack Warner, who plays Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard. Warner was famous for his role as PC George Dixon in the 1950 film ‘The Blue Lamp’, gunned down by Dirk Bogarde’s young thug. George Dixon, played again by Warner and now promoted to the rank of Sergeant, was resurrected for the BBC series ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, which began in 1955, the same year ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ was released, and ran for a total of 432 episodes until 1976.

‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ is inferior to the original BBC version, although the production values are undeniably higher. It had a production budget of £42,000, a rather pitiful sum by today’s standards. Allowing that Brian Donlevy is miscast, he gives a perfectly adequate performance. Richard Wordsworth is impressive as Victor Carroon and the film would probably have benefited from this character being given greater depth and screen time.

The film remains well worth watching for anyone with an interest in 1950’s science fiction. It is also interesting as a visual snapshot of the austerity of Britain in the decade following the end of the Second World War. I like the film, but I much prefer ‘X the Unknown’, which is more or less a Quatermass film in all but name and was released in 1956 to cash-in on the success of ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’.

The BBC commissioned Nigel Kneale to write a second Quatermass series, which was broadcast in 1955. Hammer Films turned it into the film ‘Quatermass II: Enemy From Space’ in 1957, once again with Brian Donlevy in the lead role, much to the annoyance of Kneale.

In 2005 the BBC commissioned a new version of ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, which was broadcast live. Jason Flemyng took the lead role. David Tennant and Mark Gatiss were among the cast.

No comments: