Hammer-Rama: The Quatermass Xperiment, by Alexander Miller
Before Hammer had set the world of cinema ablaze with their lurid Victorian horror films, the studio that dripped blood coined a new type of thriller. “Gothic fantasy” became the best way to describe their adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s hit BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment. Hammer had been gaining traction with a string of films noir, comedies, and a couple of clunky ventures into sci-fi with The Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways. In 1951, Hammer had signed a four-year deal with American producer Robert Lippert, who would supply an American actor therefore making their films from this period marketable in the states as well. Brian Donlevy would be the American export in this early Hammer chiller (easily the utilization of Lippert’s deal) playing the stern Professor Bernard Quatermass as a cold and unfeeling protagonist. Science and the advancement of his work are priorities. Humanity and compassion are secondary, perhaps nonexistent, to the good professor. The exigent sense of timing in this movie correlates with the characters (especially the darkly driven “protagonist”) and the script, thus calibrating us with the stakes of a rapidly mutating astronaut who fatally “absorbs” people (in some ways predating body horror), simultaneously instilling a classic sense of vampiric horror. In short; hard sci-fi enlivened by Guest’s utilization of modern realism makes this film feel genuinely scary.
Emphasizing the mature subject matter, they changed the title to The Quatermass Xperiment, stressing the film’s X-rated film certificate. While Kneale’s script is considered a hallmark of classic television, however, Hammer’s interpretation of the material elevated the six-episode phenomena into one of the studio’s tentpole franchises. The Quatermass Xperiment hits the ground running when a roll in the hay is interrupted by a derelict spacecraft plummeting into the earth. Once Professor Quatermass is on the scene, the rocket ship’s lone survivor, Victor Carroon, emerges. Carroon is upright and capable of basic motor skills but from the moment he’s out of his space gear we know he’s not all there.
Wordsworth’s magnetic stoicism is equally terrifying and consistent with the sympathetic outcast monster mold (there’s even a Frankenstein reference when Carroon runs into a young girl) and his mutation plays out with restraint and theatricality indicative of what would become of the studio’s energetic and intelligent style. As Carroon’s reign of terror continues, we arrive at a satisfying finale bringing the balance of themes (hard sci-fi and body horror) to a head with Les Bowie’s surprisingly effective creature design. Despite the film showing its age by the final act, Hammer Studios proved themselves capable of delivering an A-feature on a B-movie budget without pandering to a reductive demographic.
The pedigree of Hammer is their ability to tap into a genre and take full allegorical charge with the materials that exist in the confines of their interest. Politics don’t figure as much in Hammer’s Victorian horror thread and they are front and center of their war films (more about those later) but the Quatermass series was endemic of the trepidatious postwar years. Themes of hostile invasion at this time were likely more resonant, considering the historical proximity of these films to the Second World War.
The Quatermass Xperiment is far from the lurid Victorian Technicolor features that would typify Hammer Horror-while it’s a full-fledged science fiction tale replete with mutations and monsters, this film also bears the DNA of grainy kitchen sink realism.
Regarding Hammer’s burgeoning style, this movie is important to note as the collective talent proved to be some of the studio’s strongest players. Val Guest, who would helm many Hammer films as director, intensified the material, employing a cinema verite style and insisting that he approach the movie as if it were a documentary. The Quatermass Xperiment stresses a formerly unseen level of realism. Known for “making miracles for nothing,” Les Bowie’s special effects and Phil Leaky’s makeup work is first rate. Another key player in Hammer’s repertoire is composer James Bernard; his score for The Quatermass Xperiment was Bernard’s first for Hammer. John Hollingsworth was the studios musical director and is believed to have limited Bernard’s first feature film score to string arrangements before giving him reign over an orchestra.
The result is superb and his high-pitched staccato string arrangements predate Bernard Hermann’s infamous composition for Psycho. Even resident editor James Needs cut the film, Hammer Films was a dedicated studio, with recurring cast members and a fraternal crew who began shaping their unique blend of artistry and craftsmanship. Like many films from the studio, The Quatermass Xperiment (released in the States as The Creeping Unknown since the Quatermass name had no recognition for American audiences) found success in its native country as well as America. Hammer would make two more Quatermass films (Quatermass 2 and Quatermass and the Pit). Both would bolster the studio’s clout and gain international acclaim.