Saturday 2 April 2016

Film: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

A few weeks ago, in my review of Interzone 262, I devoted a paragraph to the Quatermass stories, which originated in BBC TV serials in the early 1950s. Coincidentally one of the spin-off feature films was shown on UK TV recently, so of course I had to watch it.

An experimental manned space rocket returns to Earth in a crash-landing. Only one of the three crew is on board, and he is in a catatonic state. He gradually recovers consciousness but his physical condition continues to worsen, despite which he escapes from hospital and starts to attack people. The rocket scientist Professor Quatermass, in charge of the mission, realises that the man has been taken over by an alien life form, and the race is on to stop the creature from reproducing via spores and spreading across the planet.

The Quatermass Xperiment was one of three such films made by the Hammer film studios in England, following the success of the TV serials featuring the same scientist. Hammer subsequently became famous for making horror movies, this film being the first example of their creepy style.

One difference between this film and the original TV serials is that Hammer used an American actor (Brian Donlevy) to play Quatermass, apparently in the hope that this would make the film more palatable to the US market. I found this very jarring; Quatermass sounded more like a hard-boiled private eye than the diffident professor of the TV shows. He also appeared to be in control of everything – including launching a rocket on his own initiative, which seems strange to us today. There is another US actor in the film (Margia Dean – who I see from Wiki is still around at the age of 93) who speaks with a weirdly artificial-sounding, very soft voice – did American women ever speak like that in real life? It isn't just the American accents which seem odd today – the sound of what might be called "BBC" British English has changed radically, with news announcers of the 1950s sounding ridiculous now. In the film, there is a scene with a girl of maybe 6 or 7 who sounds exactly like the adults, with a precise and carefully enunciated “posh” speech which would have people today rolling around in laughter, assuming it was some kind of spoof.

It was interesting to see Jack Warner as a police inspector; he was subsequently demoted to constable to take the lead role in the police TV series Dixon of Dock Green, which ran for 21 years. The Scottish actor Gordon Jackson, well-known from later TV series (especially Upstairs, Downstairs and The Professionals), also makes an appearance.

The Quatermass Xperiment was a considerable success, and it is easy to see why: it is well-plotted and held my attention throughout. Of course, it was a product of its time and radically different from similar movies made today, so is very much a period piece. On a final note: I watched this after rejecting City of Bones; a film which seemed promising but repelled me with a prolonged scene of crude violence in which a woman is beaten up. Score zero for subtlety and restraint; I have no wish to watch such stuff.

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