Friday, 21 June 2013

The Quatermass Xperiment/Quatermass 2

It's well known how much Nigel Kneale detested what Hammer did when adapting his BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment, principally the damage done in casting a tired old yank ham like Brian Donlevy, who stiltedly plays the scientist hero as a belligerent grumpy old git that doesn't deserve the audience's support.  

Likewise Margia Dean should gain audience empathy as the tragic Victor Carroon's wife Judith, but she's so wooden and irritating it is impossible. Word is she was only cast because she was shagging the 20th Century Fox president at the time who ensured she got the part here, much to director Val Guest's annoyance.

But despite these massive own goals there is still much to enjoy in this big screen version. Guest handles the direction assuredly and with genuine tension and he's thankfully helped out by a truly affecting performance from Richard Wordsworth as Carroon (pictured above) an anguished sensitive portrayal that is right up there with Karloff's Monster in Frankenstein. Jack Warner as the affable down to earth detective, Lomax (the kind of role he was so adept at; see also Dixon of Dock Green and any number of British B movie crime features) is also a highlight as is David King-Wood as Briscoe, although he's a little underused.

There is also appearances from old stalwarts Thora Hird, Gordon Jackson, Lionel Jeffries and Sam Kydd and look out for a very young Jane Asher (pictured below)

Typically for a low budget sci fi/horror film from 50s Britain, the effects are fair to middling. The matte shots of Westminster Abbey and the model work are impressive enough, less so is the realisation of the monster Carroon ultimately morphs into; essentially a crappy blob.

Flaws aside, what cannot be underestimated is how much of an impact The Quatermass Xperiment had on cinema in starting Hammer's successful and revered fascination with horror which continued with the sequel.

Still hampered by the distinctly un-Quatermass Donlevy, Hammer's second attempt at adapting Nigel Kneale's BBC serials is an improvement on the first, perhaps because Kneale was allowed to adapt his own work here?

Quatermass 2 is tense and gripping from the off, once again helmed by Guest. It also benefits from more action which means it's more suited for the big screen. Like all of Kneale's best works, it concerns itself with real issues and events and then uses them as a springboard into the realms of 'what if?' As such the then contemporary fears and Cold War paranoia concerning off limit MOD bases and research centres like Porten Down,  plus shady government ministers and corrupt councillors of the burgeoning blank soulless new towns of the time are all thrown into the pot and brought to a pretty engaging and thought provoking boil. 

Like the previous Hammer adaptation the supporting cast is strong (stronger than Donlevy certainly) Sid James, Bryan Forbes, Percy Herbert, William Franklyn and Hammer regular Michael Ripper all perform brilliantly, with James - more familiar to comedy fans with the Carry On series - turning in a surprisingly good dramatic and affecting performance. 

Sadly Jack Warner was unavailable to resume the character of Insp. Lomax and the part was given to silent movie veteran John Longten instead. Personally as capable as he is, I preferred Warner, though it's worth noting that Kneale rated him over Warner's 'breezy' comedy in the first film.

The effects aren't an improvement sadly and we're left with another seething blobby mass.

Following the Hammer films, Kneale would return to the BBC and produce Quatermass and the Pit, still one of the finest science fiction serials ever. Hammer would ultimately adapt that too in the late 60s, finally casting an actor with the chops to do Kneale's heroic scientist justice; the Scotsman Andrew Keir.


  1. Excellent write-ups Mark. I sense an evening with the Quatermass box set coming up soon. Any chance of a post about the BBC serials by way of a follow up?


    1. Thanks, and always happy to spur a rewatch on:)

      No plans on the horizon old chap, but my attention will turn to a BBC sci fi show shortly.