Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT


Let's face it. Quatermass is a dick.

 At least, he is as portrayed by American actor Brian Donlevy in the British science fiction film THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) (released in the U.S as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN).

The first Quatermass adventure was was originally written by Nigel Kneale as a six-part serial that was broadcast on BBC-TV in 1953. The "mini-series" proved to be enormously successful and the material was developed into a film by Val Guest (director/writer) and Richard Landau (writer). The film is an important "first" for two reasons. It's the first science fiction/fantasy/horror film to be produced by the legendary Hammer Studios and thus qualifies as the first official Hammer horror film. It's also the fist in a trilogy of films that include QUATERMASS 2 (1957) (released in the U.S. as ENEMY FROM SPACE (or "Enema From Space" as we referred to it when we were kids)) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) (known in the states as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). All three films are highly recommended but let's look at the first entry (which I watched again the other day with my movie buddy Kelly Greene) a bit more closely.

Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is a brilliant scientist who has financed, built and launched his own private rocket ship. The ship, carrying a crew of three men, crash lands back on earth outside of London at the beginning of the film. Emergency crews quickly respond. One spaceman emerges from the ship in a near catatonic state. When Quatermass and others enter the ship, they find no sign of the other two crewmen, only their empty space suits.

It soon develops that the sole survivor has become infected with an alien entity which causes him to consume the life forces of other living things (people, animals, plants) in order to sustain itself. After ingesting a variety of life forms, the space man transforms into a gigantic, one-eyed, multi-tentacled monstrosity which takes up residence inside Westminster Abbey. It's there that the creature is destroyed after which Quatermass strides off into the night determined to build another rocket ship and send men back into space. We see him do this in a brief scene that fades out at the end of the film.

Although he helps save the day, Quatermass is also responsible for putting the citizens of London in jeopardy in the first place. After all, it was his space ship and his crew who encountered the alien. The trouble is, Quatermass treats all of this a minor inconvenience that must be overcome quickly so he can get on with the business of science.

Donlevy's portrayal of the character makes Quatermass come across as rude, brusque, belligerent, impatient, arrogant, and selfish. He's far from likable and not the least bit sympathetic. He's like a dark Reed Richards, a man so obsessed with exploring the unknown that he completely disregards the consequences that may occur as a result of his recklessness. In short, he's a dick.

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT succeeds despite Donlevy's unsympathetic portrayal of the title character. The story is compelling enough to overcome the decision to have an American actor play a British scientist with a gargantuan ego and immeasurable hubris. The black and white photography is crisp and atmospheric with many scenes shot on location on the streets of London and the surrounding countryside. The special effects are serviceable and there's a real sense of the uncanny at work here. Highly recommended.

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