Friday, 11 January 2013

No Terror Ever Like...

Hammer’s 1955 film adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s ground breaking ‘The Quatermass Experiment’* perhaps inevitably loses some of the subtlety and complexity of the much longer TV series, but it makes up for it in sheer propulsive energy, and in the way it uses documentary film devices to make science fiction appear to be science fact.

When the first manned rocket into space (British, of course) breaks contact with base for several days, it is assumed to have been lost until it suddenly reappears and crashes into a field. The rocket is intact, but minus two out of three astronauts, who seem to have vanished, leaving only their empty suits behind. The third man (the unforgettably named Victor Caroon) is in a catatonic state, and who can blame him, because Victor isn’t really Victor anymore as the rocket was infiltrated by a drifting parasitic space bug which has largely conquered Caroon, completely absorbed his two colleagues and now intends to take over the world. It’s a solid gold concept, and the film conveys the horror and uncanny threat of it superbly.

Shot largely in a cinema verite style, it’s gritty, actual approach lends a sense of genuine unease, especially when the mutating Caroon is stalking the bombsites and back yards of a very recognisable London, or sucking the animals at the zoo dry to feed the invaders insatiable appetite.

As Caroon, Richard Wordsworth gives a quite amazing performance, his long, bony face wordlessly expressing that the true tragedy of the situation is not that Caroon has disappeared, but that a part of him is still in there, completely unable to stop his absorption into something foul and alien and slimy but desperate to try. There is a scene where Caroon breaks into a Chemist’s shop and, horribly aware of what is happening to him,tries to mix the necessary poisonous elements needed to kill himself but, overcome by the alien forces within, murders and absorbs the pharmacist instead. The original ending of the TV series played on this awful concept, with the powers that be appealing to the human beings now within the alien to destroy themselves – and it – in order to save the world. In the film, however, they simply electrocute it – ZAP! – and the rubber prop catches fire and falls to bits, a far less satisfactory but perhaps more obviously ‘thrilling’ finale (it's definitely more shocking, if you'll forgive the pun. Oh, you won't? Fair enough, it was pretty poor).

Professor Quatermass, the progenitor of the scheme, is played by Brian Donlevy. Donlevy has long been a figure of ridicule for his brusque, barking, waddling performance, as well as for apparently being hammered in pretty much every scene. I don’t think he’s that bad, but he simply doesn’t convince as a visionary scientist – he doesn’t think or understand enough, and always seems to be a beat behind, reacting to rather than anticipating issues. He’s also an American, which makes sense in terms of contemporary funding / box office opportunities, but now seems like a lost opportunity for a generation of home grown character actors. Shame, especially as, ironically, Donlevy was actually born in Northern Ireland.

For all the quibbles, though, it remains a great film - but then, with the sort of source material Kneale provided, greatness is no more than you would expect. What would proper film critics call it? Oh yeah, a truly seminal work.

*Hammer’s version was renamed ‘The Quatermass X-periment’ to make the most of its ‘X certificate’ status. Brilliantly predictable, those Hammer types, shameless masters of self-promotion. 


  1. I once interviewed Renee Glynne who oversaw script continuity for the first Hammer Quatermass - she told me that Donlevy always behaved professionally on the set - because you know...I had to ask.

  2. Val Guest said the same thing. I think most of the rumours originated from Nigel Kneale himself. Kneale was a wonderful writer and a great man, but I get the feeling he could be a bitter enemy. Woe betide you if you didn't measure up to his ideals.

    I've heard similar stories about Dana Andrews in 'Night Of The Demon', but he gives a marvellous performance. They obviously bred them tough in Hollywood!