THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT was a pivotal production for England’s Hammer Films, adapting the insanely popular early Brit TV series into a no-kids-allowed theatrical version – hence the ‘X’ in the title. It did great business and steered the company away from film noir quota-quickies and into sci-fi-horror and, shortly thereafter, into the Gothic Horror field that would be the company’s bread-and-butter and their legacy.
Val Guest adapted Nigel Kneale’s TV script, whittling a six part series into under an hour and a half, and strove to give the film a documentary sensibility whenever possible. (Footage in the space ship was actually shot in 16mm) He also introduced a Frankenstein-monster-and-little-Maria sequence about midway through, a nice touch, which would be reprised yet again in Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN a few years later. There’s only one false note in the entire running time, and that is when a drunken female derelict comes into a police station complaining about seeing a monstrous thing. There’s an artificial comic tone to this scene that I’ve noticed in other Hammer films, as if they felt it was a necessary rhythmic break – but they were almost always mistaken.
Screenwriter Kneale was so affronted by American actor Brian Donlevy’s brusque, egomaniacal take on his beloved creation that he ranted about it for the rest of his life. Personally I love Donlevy in this, and in its sequel, ENEMY FROM SPACE. I think he very much embraced the cold, self-involved and not necessarily humanistic image the Brits had of scientists following the war, a group not to be trusted (along with military and certain governmental types). The third installment, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT has them all, except that in that 1967 film Quatermass is humanized by Andrew Keir, more in line with how Kneale envisioned him.
In THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, three men go up into space, but only one comes back, and he’s not who he was when he left. Richard Wordsworth plays Victor Carroon, the doomed astronaut taken over by some alien force that has designs on our planet, and in his pantomime performance he displays a surprising range of emotions. The film has its quotient of creepiness, scares, and upsetting makeup effects. It also has intelligent dialogue, and a strong directorial hand that keeps it moving quickly through its 82 minutes, by far my favorite running time when I was a kid.
What a difference an aspect ratio makes. For years I’ve been showing students a 1:33:1 version in my Horror Genre class, and they’ve diplomatically respected the film. But, now, with the 1:78 image on Kino Lorber’s recent BluRay release, suddenly the film has reclaimed some of its original horror. From the very first scene, with the rocket coming down, there’s a sense of terror with your vision stretching from one side of the screen to the other. A little image information is lost on top, but it’s livable.
Also, contrast has increased in the new wide-screen release. In the car ride to the field where the rocket is wedged in the earth, Quatermass and his associates are more over-and-under exposed than they were in the flat version of the film, and it lends tension to their conversation. After THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT played here in 1956 it was written up in the Guinness Book of Records as the first horror film to scare a patron to death (a 9-year-old boy died of a ruptured artery in the lobby), and the film may or may not have been responsible, but it was a reputation that had to be lived up to, and the earlier MGM limited edition DVD just didn’t deliver the goods. The new Kino Lorber BluRay comes closer to replicating that momentous theatrical event. And I’ll be projecting it in room 502 in a few weeks, so come prepared to avert your eyes if things get too scary, and keep repeating to yourself, “Why did Roy make us watch this? Why did Roy make us watch this…!”