Review Date: November 22, 2011
Released by: MGM
Release date: October 12, 2011
Widescreen 1.33 | 16x9: No
The 1950s are widely regarded as the golden age of science fiction, and thereís some truth to that. The postwar era was a time of tremendous progress in the west, a time when leaps and bounds were made in almost every scientific discipline. The world seemed absolutely pregnant with possibilities, yet a sinister pall Ė that of nuclear destruction Ė also hung over everything. This was apparently the perfect climate for science fiction to proliferate. In literature, we saw the rise of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. Film gave us such classics as War of the Worlds
, Forbidden Planet
, This Island Earth
and The Day the Earth Stood Still
. It would seem that the US had a lock on the sci-fi genre in the 1950s, but that would be a mischaracterization. Across the Atlantic the British were also contributing. The genre had all but been invented in Europe with the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and, of course, Europe produced the first masterpiece of science fiction cinema: Fitz Langís Metropolis
. In the 1950s authors such as John Wyndham were also helping keep Europeís sci-fi tradition alive. Perhaps Englandís most notable contribution to sci-fi cinema during this period was Val Guestís The Quatermass Xperiment
. Originally broadcast as a BBC miniseries written by the legendary Nigel Kneale, the massive success of the program prompted Hammer studios to snap up the film rights and produce a feature film adaptation of the program. The result was not only a financial success that led to several sequels but also arguably one of the most influential science fiction pictures of the era.
A couple of young lovers on a romantic, moonlit stroll down a country road are startled by the sound of a low flying aircraft. At first they think itís a military jet but as it approaches they realize that it is rocket ship. The couple quickly ducks into the girlís farmhouse, which is damaged as the craft crashes in her fatherís wheat field. The rocket, recently returned from space, represents the culmination of an experiment conducted by the taciturn Dr. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy
). Defying direct orders, he launched the space craft, with three astronauts on board, 1,500 miles into space (not far enough away from the Earth to leave the exosphere, but whatever). Now the craft has returned, contact with the astronauts has been lost and a lot of important people have questions that need to be answered.
Quatermass and emergency crews arrive on scene but when they are about to attempt a rescue, the opens of it sown accord and a sole returning astronaut, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth
) crawls out. He is taken immediately to a private, high security hospital. Victor seems to be in a state of shock and no information can be gleaned from questioning him. Looking for answers, Quatermass and Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner
) examine the inside of the spacecraft. There are no signs of foul play on the part of Caroon. The real explanation is far less prosaic: the other two astronauts were liquefied into gelatinous goo. Victor himself seems worse for the wear: his skin is turning translucent and has a rubbery texture to it. Victorís wife Judith (Margia Dean
) tries to sneak him out of the clinic, but she and her accomplice are murdered by Victor. As Victorís grisly mutation continues he leaves behind a trail of mangled, shriveled corpses (both human and animal). The body count rises, Victor transforms even further, and Quatermass must find and stop the creature before it potentially infects all of London with alien spores.
Itís a pretty straightforward story the impact of which has been irreversibly diluted by decades of being ripped off. Itís quite distracting to watch the film and see that, even after so many years, filmmakers are still cribbing from it. The translucent alien firemen from X-Files: Fight the Future
, the cadaverous returning astronaut desiccating his victims in Lifeforce
and even as recently as District 9
, the scenes of Vikus wandering with his slowly mutating hand bundled in rags all feel like homage to Quatermass
. Thereís probably a bit of a chicken and egg question as to whether these are intentional, direct lifts or if the imagery has just become so pervasive in the genre that the references are unintentional, but either way Quatermass
is an immensely influential film.
Although The Quatermass Xperiment
was released two years after George Palís modernized version of War of Worlds
, keep in mind the source material, the original serial, was actually aired a month before War
opened in the States. The timing suggests that they are not influenced by one another but just that both films captured a similar zeitgeist. In that respect Quatermass
serves as an interesting companion piece to Palís War
as a British take on similar material. The film also harks back to classic American cinema, as well. Thereís a scene reminiscent of James Whaleís Frankenstein
but set in the milieu of English, post war industrial decay (though the little girl doesnít meet such an unpleasant end this time around). Itís an interesting case of the symbiotic nature of cinema; how different nations influence one another and how cyclical that influence continues to be long after release.
Despite Britainís reputation for cracking down on cinematic violence far harder than in the US, thereís still some surprisingly potent gore for a film from the mid 1950s. Victorís desiccated and mangled victims and the mutated hand he used to kill them are pretty grisly. The editing around this imagery is extremely judicious, which actually helps. It adds a ďblink and youíll miss itĒ nervousness to the film. Despite its impact being diluted over the years it still displays a surprising amount of sustained tension in the middle act. Even in the beginning of the film, the scene where firefighters are counting down to douse the hot rocket with water starts the film off on a note of suspense.
The matter-of-fact way Quatermass
and his crew take in the aftermath of Caroonís rampage, combined with the surprisingly graphic depictions of gore make the film strange and unsettling. It doesnít go for broad, cheap ďbigĒ moments where the camera dollys into the scientistís face as he proclaims his big discovery, yet the film manages to have moments of similar impact precisely because of the restraint in its technique. I hate to bust out the old chestnut and say ďdocumentary realism,Ē but thereís something like that going on here.
If the build-up and development is great, then itís the payoff that suffers. The last twenty minutes leading up to the final showdown in Westminster Abbey feel rushed and the final reveal of the monster, a silly rubbery octopus, is hoary and laughably out of place in a film that has emphasizes tension and suspense up to that point. And the sequel friendly final shots feel as tacked on as any youíd find in a modern slasher film. Perhaps thatís another area in which Quatermass
still exerts its influence today.
The success of The Quatermass Xperiment
wasnít a slow burn. It was followed a mere two years later by a sequel, Quatermass II
and followed a decade after that by Quatermass and the Pit
. Given its sustained, half-century reputation Iím surprised that nobodyís thought to remake Quatermass
. Itís the kind of property that best lends itself to updating: the central story is still potent but the trappings could certainly use modernizing. Now that Hammer Studios is up and running again, it might be a nice Xperiment for them to tackle.
The Quatermass Xperiment
is presented in 1.33 full-frame. Iím not sure if this aspect represents the way Quatermass
was exhibited initially. Iím also unsure if this transfer is open matte or if some of the image has been cropped for the full-frame presentation. I suspect, given how little work is put into these MOD transfers, that itís open matte. At any rate, the image looks good. Thereís an occasional, slight wavering of brightness very characteristic of films of this era. Otherwise, contrast is good, if perhaps a bit too dark at times. Thereís a large, noticeable scratch mid way through, but other than that the source shows very little damage or degradation. Overall The Quatermass Xperiment
is a very pleasing presentation.
The Dolby Digital 2-channel mono included here is also extremely good of its type. Dialogue is always very clear and audible and sound effects and music are mostly well balanced, although the occasional sound effects too shrill (such as the fire truck bells in the opening scenes). Still, the audio never suffers from clipping on the high end. No receiver generated artificial enhancements should be needed to enjoy, except maybe with the exception of the occasional thick Cockney accent which might be unintelligible to North American ears, regardless.
The sole supplement is the Theatrical Trailer (2:11) for the US version of the film, titled The Creeping Unknown
. Itís in quite good shape but, oddly, it is presented in 1.66 widescreen while the feature is 1.33 full-frame. Itís loaded with the kind of portentous narration and silly wipes that youíd expect from a 50ís trailer. It also tries to sensationalize what is actually a thoughtful, intelligent sci-fi thriller into a silly, drive-in creature feature.
Iím not surprised by the lack of extras. Honestly, with the Limited Edition Collection the inclusion of a trailer is usually above and beyond. Itís hard not to see this disc as a missed opportunity, though. The Quatermass Xperiment
is such an influential classic that itís sad to see it shortchanged. John Carpenter wrote the screenplay for Prince of Darkness
under the pen name Martin Quatermass. If he was willing to contribute to an audio commentary for Once Upon a Time in the West, Iím sure heíd be ecstatic to do one for Quatermass
. How about a documentary about Quatermass
í origins as TV serial and the transition to the big screen? A retrospective about the filmís initial reception and its place in genre history today? So much you could do for a film that not only deserves it, but practically demands it. At the very least they could port over the extras from the Region 2 special edition if they were interested only in expending the very minimum of effort.
Iíve been a big supporter of the manufacture on demand business model. Not every film is going to sell enough copies to warrant a full-on retail release, but MOD ensures that these more obscure films are available to those who want them (even if they have to pay a premium price). Releasing Quatermass
through this program, though, makes no sense to me. This isnít some dusty cult relic only of interest to the MST3K
brigade; itís a critically well-regarded and highly influential film from Hammer studios. Youíd think the Hammer name alone and its built-in audience should be more than enough to justify a legit release.
I highly recommend you not buy The Quatermass Xperiment
. Instead, write or email MGM and let them know why you are foregoing this release of Quatermass
. Perhaps, if the support for Quatermass
reaches critical mass, MGM will give it the full on special edition treatment this classic so totally deserves.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - C
- Running time - 1 hour and 22 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 2.0