The following review should not be read by children or those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition.
No, that’s not a title typo. In fact that apparent missing E is a handy piece of shorthand. It allows us to tell the 1955 film from the TV version broadcast two years earlier (which I am yet to see). Hammer emphasised the X, and even blew it up on the film poster, to draw attention to the X certificate (equivalent to the current 18). It was this film's success persuaded them to pursue the horror genre they became so famous for – in fact their very next production was entitled X the Unknown!
So, boys and girls, who else in the annals of horror fiction was famous for carrying out an experiment? You don’t score many points any more by comparing Quatermass Xperiment to Frankenstein. Many Frankenstein motifs even reappear (albeit in an altered way), such as the little girl who wants the monster to play with her. My contention however is that, like a rain dance performed backwards in order to make the sun come out, this film’s Frankenstein played in reverse. While Frankenstein brings his creature to life through electricity, the good doctor here uses the same stuff to kill his monster off.
Frankenstein is fundamentally a warning against hubris, a story of a man who egotistically defies the laws of nature and has to face the consequences. Quatermass is a Galilean figure who’s beset by consequences, but faces them down without blinking. Yet Brecht’s Galileo is a classic example of a nice sort of scientist - also a teacher, keen to aid and educate those around him. Quatermass is ruthlessly single-minded and intemperate, curtly unconcerned when his actions lead to such a calamitous sequence of events. It’s he who sent the space rocket up too early, without waiting for official clearance. Yet when told the astronauts aboard are probably dead, he instantly snaps back there’ll be other volunteers.
Frankenstein scorns at the superstitious villagers, brandishing their inbred torches, then later finds they were the ones in the right. Quatermass is portrayed as so arrogant and dislikeable, you keep thinking the script must be biding its time to teach him a similar sort of lesson. There’s certainly plenty of ‘villager’ scenes in the shape of gawping crowds, told to stay back by hilariously over-polite policemen. But there’s three characters who seem set up to become his antagonist. There’s a Civil Servant who blunders on about rules and procedures, who Quatermass largely ignores. However, we in the audience tend to follow his example. His function’s more as a sort of redundant marker point, endlessly reiterating “you’re not supposed to do that you know… oh, you already have.” (The character’s probably given a name at some point, but I’m buggered if I can remember what it is.)
Then we have the surviving astronaut’s wife, Judith. Though somewhat irritatingly played by Margia Dean, she starts to act as Quatermass’ conscience – expressing to him the not altogether inexplicable view that she doesn’t like seeing her husband as a walking corpse. But while Quatermass sends up the rocket it’s she who half-kidnaps half-releases him, allowing the space bacteria that now inhabits him to roam free. Then, having precipitated the film’s main act, she obligingly retires offscreen to go mad. Only the stolid earthy Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) manages to cross swords with Quatermass and last the whole film through.
Lomax is an important character, and one we’ll come back to. But Quatermass’ true antagonist is so obvious it almost becomes counter-intuitive – it’s the monster itself. All good monster stories make the monster their centre, and this becomes Richard Wordsworth’s film as the gaunt, haunted astronaut Caroon. With precisely one line of (whispered) dialogue, he conveys much more depth and nuance than Brian Donlevy’s verbose Quatermass. Despite Val Guest's strong and often imaginative direction, its unlikely the film would be half as memorable without Wordsworth’s performance. In a splendid moment of reversal, when he encounters the little girl who wants to play he recoils and retreats as if it’s he who’s scared of her.
Wordsworth’s monster is far from the sinister intelligence encountered in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, despite being released the same year. Crucially, he’s reduced to a pre-human state, deprived of speech, propelled lurchingly by such animal functions as the drive for food. (There seems to parallel a kind of evolution; first the monster fixates on plant life – flowers in vases –upgrades to animals in zoos, then finally sets its sights on people.) Despite being found in space, it represents everything that keeps us earth-bound. It’s the walking, stumbling antithesis of the headstrong star-stalking Quatermass.
As Peter Nichols has argued “by far the best parts of the film involve the earlier stages of Wordworth’s appalling metamorphosis”. (1.) In the film’s climax the final ‘pure’ form of the alien is revealed and is (to modern eyes) a risible effect. But the horror all along has come from the terrible vieing between man and monster embodied by Wordsworth. With this absent, once we’re confronted with the purely alien, we’re left with just another rubber wobbly thing. A modern CGI-created wobbly thing would not remedy this. Let’s remember there are plenty of remakes which have already tried that sort of thing.
At one point the Inspector tells Quatermass he doesn’t read science fiction – just the Bible. And of course the now-legendary climax is set in Westminster Abbey. In a nice twist, there’s a TV crew filming a documentary in there. (While we’re aware this contrasts the ancient with the modern world, we can’t help but find it quaint that TV then consisted of tweedy types pontificating over stained glass.) The monster’s stopped just before it spawns, taking over London the way it has the astronaut. Given that the Bible’s already been contrasted to science (albeit in the hyphenated form of science fiction), using this religious icon as a landmark seems more than coincidental. Does this creature gravitate towards the Church because it is held to represent everything primitive and superstitious in our brains, its spires spawning its own kind of infection? (For a Fifties film, this would flirt surprisingly closely with the sacrilegious.) We might also ponder why Westminster Abbey should become the single feature of this film which has so passed into legend.
After fixing its frying defeat, Quatermass walks out the Abbey as if shell-shocked - against the flow of human traffic, oblivious to all who speak to him. He finally stops to respond to someone, and states flatly “I’m going to start again”. The scene then cuts to a new rocket launch. The film saves up his expected moment of doubt till the very end, then confounds our expectations by having him come through it unscathed. Though our title character and nearest thing to a protagonist is a human battling a monster, he’s never really given a human face. Science isn’t sold to us as desirable but presented as coldly inevitable, remorselessly trampling over customs and traditions as it advances – much as the rocket ship demolishes the country cottage at the film’s opening. Quatermass represents what Harold Wilson would later call the white heat of technology. Our choices are to hop aboard or run for cover. (Brian Donlevy’s American accent, and association with the New World, would doubtless have underlined all this for contemporary audiences.) (2)
It’s a paradox as old as the genre. You set out to make science fiction, bold statements about our manifest destiny and future advances. But somehow it always seems to end up getting mixed in with the gothic, a literally conservative genre which decries reason and teaches us to fear and shun the unknown. As we finish watching, we’re intended to remember that second rocket ascending the skies and reflect that man has risen above adversity. But what we remember is the haunted figure of Caroon, and the menace of something lurking in Westminster Abbey. Our minds fixate upon the negative and eliminate the positive, in a film that has already dispatched with Mr. Inbetween.
(1.) Fantastic Cinema, Ebury Press, 1984
(2) Several reviewers have suggested the film plays Quatermass as a frightening and cautionary figure. Yet are they not projecting their own response back onto the screen, rather than watching the film? A critical reaction to the character may be understandable. But is it the reaction the film invites us to have? A similar objection could be made I’m inferring purpose from happenstance.Quatermass in the original TV version hadn’t been American, Donlevy had in fact been forced upon a reluctant Guest and the two had not exactly got on. If the character comes across as disagreeable, we may merely be seeing the director’s view of the actor. Much such accident goes to make up films, of course. But my response is the same as above – you go by what’s on the screen.