“For the first time in the history of the world, man has sent a rocket 1500 miles into space. You can’t expect such an experiment to be perfect.”
There’s this home video of my sister as a strawberry blonde toddler at a family picnic. Sticky watermelon caresses her cherubic face as she sings the phrase she captured that day, “And again? And again and again, and again?” Yes, chipmunk-voiced Bela: again and again. That’s how often I’d watch Quatermass Xperiment. It’s so rich in storytelling and layered delivery that I’ll watch it more than once to fully appreciate it, and discover something new every time.
Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is the scientist who develops the first rocket to send humans to space in this sci-fi set-up. When the vessel loses communication and crash lands on earth, only one of the three astronauts survive. Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) tumbles out of the rocket in changed shock. Oddly, the other two space suits and helmets are still attached as if holding limp bags.
The cast and crew that gather around Quatermass to break the mystery is filled with talent well-known and respected for their work now, if not already when they were cast in this film: Blake (Lionel Jeffries), Doctor Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood), Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), and Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean). The men were all British stage and screen performers, while Dean is an American-born actress.
Quatermass, Briscoe, Lomax and Mrs. Carroon keep Carroon under tight watch. He’s not himself since the crash: abnormal heartbeat, hardening skin stretched over strained blood vessels. Sitting in catatonic stare for hours, Carroon grazes the walls and plants in his hospital room. Something’s changing.
Scouring the dead rocket for clues, the team finds a gelatinous substance not of this earth. What if some life form came into contact with the space team, entered Carroon’s body, took over? What could have happened to the other men inside an airtight ship hundreds of miles from Earth? Information to the public’s on a lockdown and so is Carroon.
Sleepless nights and no improvement in sight, Mrs. Carroon employs a con artist to break her husband out of the hospital. He slips in, dresses the patient, ensures empty hallways. But when the two reach the elevator, Carroon is suspiciously holding his arm tightly to his chest and inside his jacket. As his wary liberator struggles to grapple a response and the arm free to see what’s inside, Carroon lashes out, knocking him to the ground. Out the back entrance and into the getaway car, his wife seems clueless about the hired man’s absence. Leaving everything behind, her husband’s still speechless and looking worse by the moment: eyes widen in dark-skinned hollows and he moves in ghostly time. When the car stops, she reaches for him but he pulls back and lashes out. He jumps out in defiance and she screams.
Back to the crime scene of an empty patient room and dead man in an elevator—the con man’s face is ripped open and warped as if eaten by acid. The investigative team finds a little cactus pot that once sat cheerily at his bedside broken and empty on the floor. Then the police report comes in—Mrs. Carroon has been found alive in her car on the roadside, in shock, mumbling something about her husband’s arm … like a cactus.
(Spoiler) here’s the alien element, the transformation surprise. Whatever happened in space, Carroon is no longer human; he was taken over by an otherworldly organism that feeds off plant matter and reproduces by absorbing other living things and sporing through attacks. And so he continues his journey through the British countryside—attacking, eating and absorbing plants, people and animals until he becomes a giant, unidentifiable plant-looking monster that must be killed in the end to ensure the survival of humans.
Riveted – this is the first sci-fi/horror movie that’s kept me riveted to the screen in a long time. While the story is intriguing, the multiple and engaging layers of screenplay, staging, cinematography style and performance kept me interested. Director Val Guest uses cinematic elements often related to cinéma vérité documentary style to flesh out his film. Intricate, non-linear blocking, overlapping dialogue and stage direction develop the characters even when they aren’t speaking. When the rocket lands and Quatermass instructs firefighters to roll up their hoses and reposition to cool the vessel’s heated doors, we watch them perform the otherwise mundane task in choreographed sync. We didn’t need to see it but it’s an organic part of the story, another detail that naturally paces the film. Later in the lab, when Quatermass and his team discuss Carroon’s changing appearance, Dr. Briscoe moves in and out of the conversation and lab work in the background, making natural use of the space, letting the natural action continue in front of the all-seeing camera eye, even if it isn’t part of the rising action.
We appreciate the theatrical stage experience and style brought by cast and crew to film, especially by actors Jack Warner and Richard Wordsworth. Dean comes off as a little ditzy and overacted in the first half of her performance. But Warner, and a young uncredited Maurice Kauffman playing Quatermass’s assistant Marsh are my favorites.
Controversy supposedly surrounded the making of the original TV play into a film. British actor and writer Nigel Kneale wrote the original television play with BBC for a wildly successful six-week run. In 1953, it was rehearsed and performed live to British TV audiences. But when UK-based Hammer Film Productions bought the rights, Kneale apparently was not included in the decision-making process and did not approve of the significant story and casting changes made.
Hammer brought on British horror/sci-fi film director and writer Guest to turn the teleplay into a film for international audiences. Working with writer Richard Landau, Guest modified the story, cast American performers (i.e. Donlevy and Dean), and tweaked the title to market to American audiences as well. Changing Experiment to Xperiment apparently banked on the scary factor of the X rating the horror film garnered in the 50s.
Controversy aside, the film team pumped out a meaty theatrical feast. The Xperiment stands on its own and both TV and film versions set a strong precedent for British and American science fiction and horror cinema. One of the strengths for this genre’s artists is the opportunity to take risks without having to rationalize every choice as they are challenging our expectations of normality and essentially creating worlds that didn’t exist before. We the audience are like the village people existing in a “normal” world until something quickly happens that challenges our paradism; at least one character transforms without explanation, breaching the black between original understanding and the new unknown, and those surrounding that character are swept into his/her journey of horrific discovery.
Following Carroon and his followers, we end up in Westminster Abbey where British broadcasters are (ironically) transmitting a live broadcast and play. Lights go out all the sudden on a live shot and Carroon-turned-monster takes another life. There it is hanging in the rafters, spiked tentacles scoping out its next victim. In this film version, officials electrocute it to death and it’s quite a site to see. With all the impressive writing, performing and production, monster costumery and special effects were still new so the fake monster death scene seems a little hokey watching it 60 years later. But the whole package is enough to keep you seated until the end.
Lights dimming, monster dead, Quatermass leaves the Abbey in determined stride and his assistant Marsh runs up and asks if there’s anything he can do. After all the killings, fear, failure and fighting, without hesitation he responds, “Yes Marsh, I’m gonna need some help.”
Marsh: What’re you gonna do?
Quatermass: Gonna start again.
And again and again …