Saturday, October 22, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 17: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

It was many years before I figured out why the title of The Quatermass Xperiment deliberately misspells "Experiment." I mean, I grew up in the 1990s, so deliberate misspellings to sound "cool" have been a part of my life for as long as I knew how to spell words correctly.

However, I would eventually learn that there was a delightful reason for the film's title. In the 1950s, the British Board of Film Classification introduced the "X" Certificate which restricted ticket sales to persons over the age of sixteen. Most studios were terrified of the certification as it was viewed much as an X-rating from the MPAA would later be in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Now, Hammer Studios, on the other hand, had seen great success with previous films branded with the "X." And given that Hammer would soon establish themselves as pushing the envelope as much as they could, it's not shocking that they almost immediately went for it by literally daring the BBFC to rate the film with an "X" by titling it The Quatermass Xperiment.

Naturally, the BBFC made sure that that title was accurate, and I have to admire the gall it took to tempt the BBFC as they did.

We open with a young couple in the countryside chasing each other around and laughing. However, as they finally get down to rolling in the hay--no, literally, they're lying on hay and kissing--they hear a strange sound. It's not a jet, but they quickly realize the sound is coming from an object that is rapidly zooming toward their position. They rush to the relative safety of the girl's farm, where her father hurries them inside before the house is shaken by an impact. Naturally, when the girl's father heads outside there's a rocket ship buried in the field and surrounded by fire.

"I knew I should have taken that left turn at Alpha Centauri!"
Fire crews, police, and ambulances converge on the scene but the really important players are a group of government officials on their way in a VW van. They are led by Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), who is the head of the British Rocket Group and the rocket is his brainchild. Somehow the rocket mission was kept secret until they suddenly lost contact and then it crashed back to Earth. While Quatermass is more concerned about the success of his experiment, Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) reminds them that the important thing is the safety of the three astronauts in the rocket, and he reminds them that the wife of one of them, Judith Carroon (Margia Dean), is in the van with them.

There's still no radio response from the rocket, and it's too hot to put water on it and opening the hatch would kill anyone inside when the super-heated air flooded the interior compartment. However, when the radio operator hears a knocking coming through, Quatermass decides they need to get the astronauts out of the rocket as quickly as possible since if they wait they risk their safety almost as much. Quatermass hits upon the idea of spraying all the firehoses at the door of the rocket and then opening the door. It's a long shot, but it works, and out staggers Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) to the relief of his wife.

However, when Quatermass and his technicians enter the craft, there's no sign of the other two astronauts except for their spacesuits, which are weirdly still linked as though the men inside simply vanished. The camera is smashed, so that's not going to tell them much. Quatermass tries to question Victor, but he's in no position to answer anything. In fact, all he can manage to do is plaintively whisper, "Help me," to Briscoe.

Well, with two missing men, that gets Scotland Yard involved, in the person of Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner). Actually, one of his subordinates was the one who went in person to try and talk to Carroon, but given the man was basically catatonic he settled for just taking his fingerprints. It turns out that, harsh as he may be, Quatermass is very protective of his coworkers and he angrily barges into Lomax's office to demand to know why Carroon is being treated like a criminal. Lomax manages to calm Quatermass down and explain it's just standard procedure in a case like this, and Quatermass shows he can be reasonable, too, by handing over his personnel files on the three astronauts.

Back at the Rocket group HQ, Briscoe is examining Carroon. He's come to an alarming concluson, which is that Carroon is somehow changing or mutating--his skin and bone structure, specifically. Even more bizarrely, when Lomax comes to see Quatermass, it's because Carroon's fingerprints taken after the crash don't match those in his file--and, indeed, they're not even human. My favorite part of this bit is that Quatermass starts to say, "These prints aren't even..." before the phone rings to interrupt him and then he continues, "...human," before addressing the person on the phone.

"My God, these cheekbones are out of this world!"
The phone call was to let Quatermass know that one of his technicians has found a strange bit of..well, jelly, in the cracks and crevices on the rocket's interior. Briscoe takes it as a sample and Quatermass bemoans the fact that they have no film of what happened--whereupon the technician advises that, actually, the film in the camera wasn't ruined but he didn't want to say anything until he was sure the lab could develop it.

Briscoe determines that the jelly in the rocket was the remains of some organic matter, which has pretty nasty implications for the fate of the other two astronauts. Those implications are confirmed when Quatermass screens the flight footage for Lomax, Briscoe, and a few bigwigs. Around the time the rocket went out of contact, a strange bright light filled the rocket and the other two astronauts collapsed and their bodies seemingly evaporated before Carroon was overcome by the strange force.

Quatermass concludes that there must be creatures drifting through space, lifeforms totally alien to our concept of such. The rocket must have passed through one of these creatures, and it devoured the other two astronauts before entering the body of Carroon. Well, when Carroon collapses after trying to reach for a potted plant, Quatermass finally acquiesces to the requests of both Briscoe and Mrs. Carroon to take the man to a hospital, even though he objects they won't know what to do with him.

That seems a reasonable action on Quatermass's part, but Mrs. Carroon doesn't think it's reasonable enough and hires a private investigator to sneak into the hospital and get Carroon out. Unfortunately, as the man is getting Carroon ready, he doesn't see Carroon walk over to a potted cactus, smash his fist into it, and then toss an empty pot across the room. When they're in the elevator, the man does notice that Carroon is hiding his right arm under his coat and makes the mistake of asking to see his arm...

So while Carroon joins his wife by himself, a nurse enters the elevator and trips over the dead body of the investigator--who's missing half of his face. Mrs. Carroon then shortly discovers what Carroon is hiding, as well, but he retains enough of his humanity to merely swipe at her and jump out of their car, leaving her to scream in terror. Lomax, Quatermass, and Briscoe rush to the hospital and note that the dead man's bones are crumbling to powder and he's been drained of all bodily fluids. When word comes in that Mrs. Carroon was found, moaning about a gray hand with skin like a cactus, Lomax remembers that there was a cactus in Carroon's room and Briscoe finds the same jelly as all that remains of the cactus.

A young girl runs afoul of Carroon the next day and makes the mistake of trying to invite him to tea, but he merely smashes her creepy doll and runs away. A local chemist (or pharmacist, to us Yanks) is not so lucky, as Carroon barges into his drug store looking for something and when the man offers to help him, Carroon reveals his cactus-like arm and then kills the poor man.

"I say, uh, perhaps a bit of lotion would clear that right up!"
Lomax, Briscoe, and Quatermass find the man's body hidden in a supply closet when they happen upon the store--and worse, Briscoe finds that Carroon was mixing up a concoction that would kill an ordinary human, but he fears that Carroon made it to speed up his transformation into whatever he is becoming.

Things get even worse when a zookeeper goes home for the night--after saying good night to "Simba", the zoo's big male lion, for those who think Disney made up the name. After the man is gone, we see Carroon's eyes staring at the animals from the bushes and then we see the Carroon creature's pseudopod or tail dragging behind it as it approaches the frightened animals in their cages.

Well, Carroon devours half the zoo, but helpfully leaves a chunk of himself behind for Briscoe to find. To Briscoe's horror, the creature absorbs three out of the four mice he puts in its container within minutes. Worse, when Briscoe and Quatermass are following up on other possible sightings of Carroon, the creature breaks out of the container and dies just shy of reaching another cage full of mice. When Briscoe and Quatermass find it, Briscoe notes the dead creature had spores forming on it and if it had reached the mice, the whole lab would be covered in the creatures. Now they know it's crucial that they find the thing that Carroon has become, or he's likely to spore, too, and end all life on Earth...

I was skeptical when Andrew Lloyd Webber announced another sequel to Phantom of the Opera, but I love the new direction he took!
When I, typically out of order as always, reviewed the third film in Hammer's Quatermass trilogy, Quatermass and The Pit, for my first HubrisWeen I made it pretty clear that I had an affection for the entire series. That is most certainly true for this, the first of their adaptations of Nigel Kneale's multiple TV miniseries about Professor Bernard Quatermass.

I confess I have not seen any of the miniseries yet, so I have no point of reference for what the movies do better or worse, but this is a rollicking sci-fi horror film and it must be said that Hammer knew how to take advantage of that X certificate with a fair bit more gore than you might expect from the period. The film also moves along at a great clip, not wasting a single minute of its 82 minute running time--not bad for a film based on a miniseries that ran about 180 minutes.

The cast is overall excellent, with the exception definitely being Margia Dean as Mrs. Carroon, since she just comes across way too stiff. Nigel Kneale famously hated that Hammer cast American Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the first two films, but while I agree that Andrew Keir does a better job in the role in the third film, I'm quite fond of Donlevy. He brings a perfect sense of determination and arrogance to the role while also showing signs of compassion under the abrasive surface. Quatermass definitely comes across as the kind of short-sighted genius asshole that still has an innate sense of duty to humanity that we have so many of nowadays it long since became the standard, but here it works really well.

The central menace of the film is also great. I'm particularly fond of the cyclopean mass of tentacles that Carroon ultimately turns into, even if it doesn't get to do very much. Sure, there's not really any explanation of why a creature dwelling in space would want to take over a human and populate the Earth with its mutant offspring, but we don't really need a good reason for it to want to do that, now do we?

There's honestly very little else for me to say. The film is out on a beautiful Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, whom I can only hope will eventually get the other two films out on US disc, and it's simply a marvelous bit of pulp sci-fi with a hint of sophistication. If you haven't seen it, I recommend checking it out as soon as you can.

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