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The Quatermass Xperiment
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The Quatermass Xperiment

With a screenplay based on a six-part serial on the BBC, The Quatermass Xperiment (1956, aka The Creeping Unknown in the U.S.) became Hammer Studio's first international hit. Released in the United Kingdom in 1955, it was named for its central character, a scientist who attempts to unravel the mystery behind a failed space mission and why its lone survivor is slowly mutating into a tentacled monster.

Filmed on the Hammer lot at Bray with some location work in and around the London Zoo and Windsor Castle, The Quatermass Xperiment was a challenge to director Val Guest who was not used to working in this genre or having to condense a two hundred minute serial to a ninety minute movie. And there were complaints from sci-fi fans about the casting of American actor Brian Donlevy in the role of Quatermass, a part originally played by Reginald Tate in the serial. There were also rumors about Donlevy's excessive drinking on the set which Guest dismissed in an interview with writer Tom Weaver: "So many stories have been concocted since about how he was a paralytic drunk. It's absolute balls. He wasn't stone cold sober, either, but he was a pro and knew his lines." Guest obviously respected Donlevy's work because he also cast him in the sequel, Enemy From Space, originally titled Quatermass II (1957).

But the most memorable aspect of The Quatermass Xperiment is Richard Wordsworth as the doomed, mutating astronaut, a performance that elicits both sympathy and fear not unlike Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. Val Guest, in an interview with Tom Weaver for Attack of the Monster Movie Makers, recalled Wordsworth and said, "He was very good, yes. He came from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that was his very first film. I thought he had the right gaunt face. And he never stopped laughing throughout the years afterwards, saying that his very first appearance in a film was his hands coming out the door from inside a rocket...pulling himself up...and getting twenty-three hoses worth of water right in his face. That scene with the rocket was shot on the lot at Bray. The gnarled old tree that we propped the rocket up against is still there. And the little girl in Quatermass turned into Jane Asher, who nearly married Paul McCartney."

The success of The Quatermass Xperiment in England and in the United States propelled Hammer into specializing in lurid melodramatic horror and science fiction films, such as Horror of Dracula (1958) and the Quatermass sequels. Although made before Hammer had established its trademark use of garish color for accenting bloody scenes, The Quatermass Xperiment still compelled British censors to issue the film shocker a Certificate X, prohibiting young children from seeing the black-and-white thriller. Drawing on director Val Guest's former expertise as a Hollywood publicist, the producers actually exploited rather than resisted the stigma that such a rating usually implied by changing the spelling of the British title, The Quatermass Experiment, to reiterate its adult nature and attract curious ticket-buyers. The gamble worked and The Quatermass Xperiment became a landmark film in the sci-fi genre.

Director: Val Guest
Producer: Anthony Hinds, Robert L. Lippert
Screenplay: Richard H. Landau, Val Guest (based on the play by Nigel Kneale)
Cinematography: Walter J. Harvey
Art Direction: J. Elder Wills
Music: James Bernard
Cast: Brian Donlevy (Professor Bernard Quatermass), Jack Warner (Inspector Lomax), Richard Wordsworth (Victor Carroon), Margia Dean (Judith Carroon), Thora Hird (Rosie), Lionel Jeffries (Blake), David King-Wood (Dr. Gordon Briscoe).
BW-82m.

by Scott McGee and Jeff Stafford

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