Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Quatermass Xperiment


Nigel Kneale was an interesting writer, born in Barrow of Manx origins, who earned lasting fame by creating Bernard Quatermass (the surname is Manx) for a six part BBC serial, The Quatermass Experiment. Its success led to various sequels, as well as this film version from the Hammer Studios.

I saw a modern re-make of this story on BBC 4 a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but at last I’ve caught up with the original, and I did like it, even though the characters behave in a barmy way after a rocket designed by Quatermass crash lands on a farm. Only one of the three astronauts, Caroon, is found on board. And he is sick – very sick.

Almost inevitably, it turns out that Caroon has been taken over by an alien life form – a sort of slimy gel with hunger pangs – that threatens mankind as we know it. The police hunt is led by amiable Jack Warner, better known to us as P.C. Dixon, of Dock Green fame. Quatermass is wildly miscast, played by the American Brian Donlevy, whose relentless rudeness and intransigence make it a wonder he was ever allowed near a rocket. The support cast includes the ever-reliable Thora Hird and Sam Kyd, while Caroon is played by William Wordsworth’s great great great grandson Richard.

I was tempted to say the film was terribly dated, until I realised it was made in the year of my birth – not that long ago, then! But despite the creakiness of the story, I enjoyed it, because the tension is built up really well by director Val Guest. It’s not too much to say that it verges on being a masterclass in the art of creating suspense. It may be sci-fi, but it has the virtues of a good thriller. And that is why it deserves its classic status.

9 comments:

Fiona said...

I must be remembering the sequals to the original, Martin - I'm 8 years older than you and we didn't have a TV until I was 10. Not that I watched any of them, but I can recall the programme being on...didn't it have a very atmospheric signature tune? I certainly remember Dixon of Dock Green, which was much more to my (all female) family's taste!

Ed Gorman said...

For me the Quatermass films run a close second to Invasion of The Body Snatchers as the best of Fifties science fiction. I still dutifully read new articles about the writers, actors, directors of the films. Most make a point of how the very young Anthony Newley was in one of them. Most also rage about how Brian Dunlevy ruined the second (?) in the series. I read a piece that even smeared him personally. He was a good actor and the reason for all the anger eludes me. Thanks for covering Quatermass. I still watch the first one at least once a year. Near-perfect in story, tempo and most of all mood.

aguja said...

Childhood memories! I was terrified! Yes, Quatermass is brilliant and a definite classic.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks very much for these comments. Ed, good to hear from you again - hope things are going well for you.

Ian Edward said...

Many years ago I saw one of the sequels, which starred John Mills as Quartermass, and involved young people converging on Stonehenge. I remember enjoying that and have always wanted to check out the earlier films, so you've spurred me on. I'm a great fan of British SF, my all-time fave being John Wyndham's novel, The Day of The Triffids. It may be sf, but the main focus is on the human relationships and the fragmented new societies evolving, and it is also a masterwork of mountintg suspense.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing The Quatermass Experiment in its original six-part television version. That must have been in 1953, the year we like many thousands of other households got a television set for the Coronation. The series caused a sensation – much too horrific for home viewing! - but was hugely popular. Looking back, I'm amazed that I, as a ten-year-old, was allowed to watch it.
I can't remember any of the cast, but the Professor certainly wasn't the later version's Brian Donlevy – it was typical of the 1950s that an American star had to be imported to ensure a film was financed (for example, Dana Andrews came over a couple of years' later to star in another terrific scary movie, Night of the Demon - still worth catching).
The critic of the [London] Times enjoyed the Quatermass film immensely, neatly summarising it as “Gentleman into Cactus”. (According to the IMDb, another member of the film cast was Jane Asher: nine years' old and already on her fourth movie!)
Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier (the tv Quatermass director) also collaborated on the BBC's 1954 version of 1984, which caused even more of an uproar (I definitely wasn't allowed to watch it). It was shown on a Sunday night and, as was the custom, repeated the following Thursday, both performances being live!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Ian, yes, I have long been a great fan of John Wyndham, my fave sci-fi writer.

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks, Anon. I love 'Gentleman into Cactus!'

Anonymous said...

It's worth remembering that Kneale hated the film version precisely because Donlevy was cast as the troubled Professor. Reginald Tate played a much more in-control title character in the original telly version. If you get a chance, get hold of the DVD box set of the three original TV serials. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT from 1958 is absolutely magnificent, and requires no concessions from the viewer as regards changes in TV technique.