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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Quatermass Xperiment

It was a little difficult figuring just where to insert this movie in the timeline. The Quatermass Xperiment (QX) was a Hammer Films version of a 1953 BBC television series. Released in the UK in 1955, American audiences didn't see it until 1956. By then, an alternative tile of The Creeping Unknown was in use too. (see poster). The BBC produced a second television series: Quatermass II which itself would become a feature film in 1956.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A rocket crash-lands in the English countryside one night. It's the first manned rocket of the British space program, returned from being lost for two days. Only one of the three crewmen staggers out. The other two are gone. Only empty pressure suits remain. The surviving crewman, Victor Caroon, is obviously very sick. The local police inspector suspects Caroon of murder. "In my book, 3-2=1 means I investigate the 1." Caroon's fingerprints are no longer "human." Caroon's distraught wife hires a man to get him out of the security hospital. Caroon strikes the man, killing him. A mere touch drains the life out of him. Caroon's wife is horrified when she sees that his hand has become large and thorny (he touched a cactus and 'merged' with it.) Caroon runs away. The police search fruitlessly. Caroon hides but is discovered by a little girl. Eventually, he hides in a zoo and after hours, saps the life out of many of the animals. A conspicuous trail of slime is now seen. A fragment of the thing is found and taken back to Quatermass's lab. There, they see that it absorbs life (lab mice) to grow. While they're away, the blob breaks out of its glass case, but expires on the floor before reaching more mice. It was just about produce spores. The bigger blob must be too. Time is short.
A TV crew are televising a show about the restoration of Westminster Abby, when the giant tentacled blob thing that once was Caroon, wriggles onto the scaffolding. It goes into a quiet mode in order to release its spores. Quatermass orders all of London's power grid be hooked up to the metal scaffolding. It is, and the blob is roasted. The world is safe, but irascible Quatermass is only interested in launching a second rocket. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story is classic sci-fi with classic horror overtones. The pacing is pretty good and the effects are passable for the era. The Caroon character is especially creepy and keeps the plot interesting.

Cold War Angle
QX has little trace of typical Cold War themes. The story is more of a pure sci-fi monster tale about the unknown dangers that may lurk in space.

Pre-Blob -- Quatermass theorizes that out in space there was a form of life which did not utilize tissue, as earth life did. This is a concept that will reappear many times in sci-fi. When the rocket passed through it, the stranger merged with Caroon. The merging seemed to have killed the other two. Once hybridized into corporeal form (Caroon), the creature sought out new life forms to merge with (the cactus) and found that it could feed off of living beings by absorbing them -- rather like more-famous The Blob in 1958. It continued to mutate beyond man-shape into the tentacled blob thing. It wasn't a menacing intelligence so much as a life form going about it's bio-business -- eating and trying to reproduce. Man still struggles against beast for survival. Space is the new dark jungle.

Small Space -- Quatermass bombasts about how the rocket went "1500 miles into space!" as if that was a really long ways. At this time, Sputnik had not yet flown, so people had little mental image of space. Actually, pretty ordinary GPS satellites are up around 1200 miles. Geostationary weather satellites are at 22,000 miles. 1500 miles is actually not that far up. In the mid 50s, it must have seemed very far out there. After all, the much-vaunted V2s only went up 50 miles. Ah, how much larger space turned out to be.

Nobody Listens To Me -- One amusing feature that occurs somewhat frequently in QX, is the unimposing and ineffectual image of the British police. They cordon off an area, but when Mrs. Caroon goes in anyway, the bobbie can only trot along behind her bleating, "Hey, miss, stop. Hey." She ignores him. When the crowds assemble, a police car with loudspeaker whines. "Please go home. You're only going to hamper our efforts. Please go home." No one leaves. This ineffectuality happens many times. Perhaps a subtle commentary on British policing?

You Call Yourself A Rocket Scientist? -- The Brian Donlevy portrayal of professor Quatermass seems odd today. He's brash, arrogant and rude. Yet, he's still revered and respected (in the story). This may be a glimpse into the British reverence for scientists. They can be total jerks and get away with it. "There's no room for personal feelings in science, Judith," he tells Caroon's wife. Apparently there's no room for civility either. That's her husband, for crying out loud. Perhaps Quatermass was intended to portray a sort of Churchillian determination (to make the British space program succeed), but Quatermass lacked any of the charm of Churchill. Instead, he's just a pompous jerk.

Good ol' Electricity -- Ah, how many sci-fi monster flicks rely on our old friend electricity to kill the beast. Interesting that all of London's power could be channeled through a single two inch cable. Those were the low-power consumption days, I guess.

Bottom line? QX is definitely worth the watch. Yes, it's low budget, but it's well done and a classic example of the sci-fi horror genre.


Anonymous said...

Sure you already know, but The Quatermass Experiment was actually staged again - and broadcast Live again - in 2005 and starred future "Doctor Who" David Tennant, and all-round good egg Mark Gatiss.

The broadcast was notable for having a big banner cover half the screen for some time, advising viewers to change to the BBC News channel for an "Important Announcement" - the announcement being the passing-away of Pope John Paul II.

Darci said...

Pompous jerk? I think rather that Quatermass, as portrayed by Donlevy, was merely impatient with hidebound bureaucrats and Luddites. That said, I've never read a comment from a native of the UK that liked Donlevy's version, Kneale among them.

Unknown said...


A very moody and dark film.

It makes you rethink planting cactus in the yard.

Well acted and carried through.

Forget about the holes in the plot line and have a good time.