Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Horror by the Decade: The Quatermass Xperiment

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the fourth post in this series, featuring a movie from the Fifties).

The cycle towards horror films in the Forties finally played out around 1946. A new cycle towards horror would not begin until the early Fifties. The horror films of the early to mid Fifties would be very different from their predecessors. For the most part horror movies of the Thirties and Fifties tended towards Gothic horror. The horror films of the early to mid-Fifties tended to be science fiction oriented. This was not just true of American productions, but British ones as well. A case in point is The Quatermass Xperiment.

The Quatermass Xperiment is significant in film history as the first horror movie produced by Hammer Films, a studio which would become famous for its horror movies in the coming decade. It is also significant as one of the first film adaptations of a television programme on either side of the Pond. The Quatermass Xperiment was based on the BBC mini-series or serial (as they are called in the United Kingdom) entitled The Quatermass Experiment. The Quatermass Experiment was created by Nigel Keane and was run on the BBC in the summer of 1953. The serial centred around Dr. Bernard Quatermass (Reginald Tate), a scientist in charge of the first manned space flight. Unfortunately, when the space flight ended, two of the three astronauts are missing, while the third astronaut returned to Earth very different from what he was before. The Quatermass Experiment proved to be a television phenomenon in the summer of 1953, average 3.9 million viewers throughout the serial--an rather astounding number for British television at that time. It also received top marks from the nation's critics.

Among the viewers who watched The Quatermass Experiment was Anthony Hinds, producer at Hammer Films. It was only two days after the broadcast of the final episode that Hammer contacted the BBC to enquire about the film rights to the serial. At the time the BBC rebuffed Hinds, as they felt that Hammer as a producer of B-movies would tarnish their reputation. Instead the BBC favoured Group 3 Productions, as well as the production team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. In the end Hammer Films would win the rights to adapt The Quatermass Experiment for two simple reasons. The first was that the studio offered the BBC £2,000 and 20% of all profits from the film. The second it that, unlike the others pursuing the rights to The Quatermass Experiment, Hammer had no fear of the film receiving an "X" Certificate (for those who do not know, the "X" certificate was a film rating created by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in 1955 for films were were deemed only "Suitable for those 18 and over").

The first draught of the screenplay for The Quatermass Xperiment was written by American screenwriter Richard Landau, who had written Hammer's first foray into science fiction, Spaceways. Director Val Guest would revise the script even further. The BBC possessed the right to approve the script and asked Nigel Kneale to do further revisions. In many respects, The Quatermass Xperiment was not a particularly easy movie to write. The original serial had consisted of six forty minute episodes, for a total running time of 240 minutes. This had to be cut down to a more reasonable running time for a feature film--in the end  The Quatermass Xperiment ran 82 minutes. The screenplay would also run afoul of the BBFC. BBFC Secretary Secretary Arthur Watkins said of the script, "I must warn you at this stage that, while we accept this story in principle for the ‘X’ category, we could not certificate, even in that category, a film treatment in which the horrific element was so exaggerated as to be nauseating and revolting to adult audiences." Ultimately, The Quatermass Xperiment would be certificated, and with an "X" Certificate as expected. In fact, Hammer having observed the success of Les Diaboliques (which had received an "X" Certificate), decided to exploit the fact that the film was certificated "X," not only in its title, but in its advertising as well (the tagline "X is not an unknown quantity").

The casting of Bernard Quatermass in the film would prove to be a point of controversy between Hammer Films and the serial's creator Nigel Kneale. Hammer cast American actor Brian Donlevy, veteran of several Preston Sturges comedies,  in the role to help the film appeal to American audiences and to find distribution in the United States. Donlevy would play a very different Quatermass than Reginald Tate had in The Quatermass Experiment. Tate's Quatermass was very British and very cerebral. Donlevy's Quatermass tended to be more gruff and no nonsense. This did not sit well Nigel Kneale, who did not care for Donlevy's portrayal of Quatermass at all. The cast was rounded out by Jack Warner, on loan from the Rank Organisation (at the time he was best known for the series of Huggerts comedies) as Inspector Lomax; Richard Wordworth, the great great grandson of poet William Wordsworth, as the tragic astronaut Victor Carroon; and Margia Dean, former beauty queen, as Carroon's wife Judith.

Val Guest, who directed The Quatermass Xperiment, had directed Hammer's first two feature films in colour: the Robin Hood movie The Men of Sherwood Forrest and the thriller Break the Circle. Val Guest had decided to shoot the film as if it was a newsreel, giving a realism it might not have had otherwise. To achieve this Guest made extensive use of a hand held camera for much of the film, a practice that was virtually unheard of at the time. In part due to concerns over the BBFC and in part due to the film's extremely low budget, Guest kept the film's source of horror offscreen for most of the film. Much like American filmmaker Val Lewton, he reasoned that audience's imaginations would create something more frightening than anything he could create on screen.

To maximise the film's potential at the box office, Hammer Films timed the release of The Quatermass Xperiment to coincide with the BBC's broadcast of the sequel to the original serial, Quatermass II. Quatermass II was broadcast from October 22, 1955 to November 25, 1955. The Quatermass Xperiment went into wide release on September 28, 1955. The film's premiere was held on August 26, 1955 at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus. It was shown on a double bill with The Eric Winstone Band Show. Because the BBFC only allowed so many films to be certificated "X," The Eric Winstone Band Show would be dropped from the bill for the wide release of The Quatermass Xperiment. Instead, the film would be shown on a double bill with the French caper film Rififi, directed b Jules Dassin. It proved to be the highest grossing double bill of the year in the United Kingdom.

Finding a distributor in the United States for The Quatermass Xperiment proved troublesome. Initially the film was to be released in the United States by 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately, Darryl F. Zanuck had decided that all 20th Century films would be shown the studio's Cinemascope or another widescreen process. Having not been shot in Cinemascope or any other similar widescreen process, 20th Century Fox then passed on The Quatermass Xperiment. American producer Robbert L. Lippert, who had provided part of the financing for the film, had interested Columbia in distributing the film. Ultimately, Columbia declined to do so. Retitling the movie The Creeping Unknown, Lippert finally interested United Artists, who paid $125,000 for the rights to the film. The film proved to be such a success that United Artists went further than simply asking Hammer Films for a sequel. They also offered to partially finance the sequel and to double its budget!

The success of the original serial, The Quatermass Experiment, would lead to three sequels on the BBC, two of which would be adapted by Hammer Films (Quatermass 2 in 1957 and Quatermass and the Pit in 1967). The Quatermass Xperiment itself would be a precursor to the horror films which Hammer would make from the late Fifties into the early Sixties, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. The Quatermass Xperiment is in many ways a very different sort of film from Hammer's later horror movies. It is shot in black and white in a cinema vérité style, with its frights based in science fiction. Hammer's later horror films would be shot in colour, with their frights based in Gothic horror. Still, The Quatermass Xperiment proved that a British horror film could be successful on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Quatermass Xperiment would prove to have a lasting influence. It was Hammer's first horror movie, paving the way for the horror films for which the studio would become best known in the next two decades. Director John Carpenter always counted The Quatermass Xperiment as one of his biggest influences, even going so far as to recruit Nigel Kneale to write the original screenplay for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Kneale had his name removed from the credits after producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted on adding more gore and violence). In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King counted The Quatermass Xperiment as one of his favourite horror movies. The 1999 film The Astronaut's Wife is often considered a near remake of the film I Married a Monster From Outer Space, but actually bears enough of resemblance to The Quatermass Xperiment that is very probable that it was influenced by that film.

It should come as no surprise that The Quatermass Xperiment would have a lasting influence. While it is a science fiction horror film like many produced in the United States during the same period, The Quatermass Xperiment stands apart from most of them. Although abbreviated a great deal from Nigel Kneale's original serial, the implications concerning Britain's interest in science and technology present in the serial remain in the film. As a result, The Quatermass Xperiment was very much a thinking man's horror movie, delivering frights as well as food for thought.

This is not to say that The Quatermass Xperiment could not be appreciated simply as a horror movie. The cinema vérité style which Val Guest used on the film actually made it more frightening, giving the movie an immediacy it might not have had otherwise. What is more, Guest's choice to keep the film's horrifying elements off the screen actually made the film even scarier still, the horrors in viewers' imaginations being much more terrifying than any cheap special effects he could have shown on the screen. The Quatermass Xperiment was also greatly aired by the performance of Richard Wordsworth as the tragic Victor Carroon. It has often been listed among the greatest performances in a horror film, along side those of Boris Karloff.

Today The Quatermass Xperiment remains one of the most effective horror movies to emerge from the Fifties. Moving at a deliberate pace, the film not only offers plenty of frights, but plenty to think about as well. Although it is in some respects a very different horror film than those for which Hammer would become famous (shot in black and white, its premise based in science fiction rather than Gothic horror), it was a worthy start for the studio in the genre for which they would become best known.


Holte Ender said...

We didn't have a TV in the house until 1959, so I missed Quatermass, I remember hearing about it vaguely, after reading your post it probably would have scared the bejazus out of me.

Mercurie said...

I always wanted to see the original Quatermass Experiment. Sadly, I seem to recall the original serial is lost, like so many other early BBC programmes. BBC Four remade the original serial in 2005, which I really want to see sometime!