The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

The first X-rated picture from Hammer Films, directed by Val Guest, that paved the way for their horror films. DD-Video R2 DVD.

The Film

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Hammer Films produced a variety of low budget films based on popular BBC radio shows. When the BBC broadcast The Quatermass Experiment (1953-TV serial) it proved incredibly popular and Hammer quickly acquired the film production rights. The story was another sci-fi paranoia piece that reflected the public concerns of space-travel and science going 'too far' that Hammer had already explored in The Four Sided Triangle (1953) and that had inspired famous American productions The Thing from Outer Space (1951) and the early giant creature movie THEM! (1954), a theme dating back as far as Universal Studio's Invisible Ray (1936) with Boris Karloff.

The first manned space-shot returns to earth unexpectedly, crashing in a field in the English countryside. Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), who was in charge of the experiment, arrives on the scene and opens up the rocket where they find that of the three men who went up, only one has returned - Victor Caroon. The scientists take him back to their lab and discover that something has changed and Victor is no-longer human - something in space changed him and he brought it back. When a mutating Victor kills a man and escapes the hospital, the scientists and police have to find him before he kills again, or turns into something more deadly...

Most of the original concepts in the film come from Nigel Kneale's original teleplay. The notion of a mutating, characteristic absorbing creature outside of human understanding had originally been conceived in the John Campbell novel Who Goes There? which had been very loosely adapted as The Thing from Outer Space (1951), although without that particular plot element (it would later be more faithfully filmed as The Thing (1982)). The TV serial had to be heavily compressed for the screen, a task given to director Val Guest. The film obviously moves at a much faster pace than the 3 hour serial and there is barely a moment of dead-air in the production although it does mean that many plot elements are compressed or even lost - the main feature of the TV serial is the fact that the returning Victor possesses the characteristics of all three scientists, which gives Quatermass the first clues to identifying it - this fact is never explictly mentioned in the film. The film's climax is big and exciting, although the very ending doesn't quite work as well as it should.

Val Guest, like his colleague Terence Fisher, shoots the film in a very straight-forward manner, hoping to make it seem grounded in reality and letting the script emphasise the supernatural elements. In typical Hammer style, the set designs are very good and well researched and despite the low budget the exterior shots of the rocket crash site look good, with lots of emergency vehicles and crowds of onlookers. The variety of special effects in the film are used sparingly, but look good - even the film's special effects climax looks decent for the time. The light classical soundtrack comes from a debuting Hammer player, James Bernard and it fits the action well.

At the insistence of Hammer's American distributors, an American marquee name was cast in the lead role - Brian Donlevy was a former 'heavy' actor in a variety of Hollywood Westerns - his casting was controversial because his American character was very different to the mild-mannered British scientist that Quatermass was in the TV series - Val Guest liked Donlevy because he had a more realistic and plausible style. Richard Wordsworth as the doomed Victor gives an outstanding, mute performance that is easily the equal of Boris Karloff's monster. A number of soon-to-be-famous British actors make short appearances, including Lionel Jeffries, Thora Hird and a very young Jane Asher.

The Quatermass Xperiment
was a very influential film. For the BBC, the TV series proved the popularity of science fiction themes and lead to three sequels and ultimately the paved the way for their creation of their most famous Doctor Who series. For Hammer it was their first X rated movie, and showed the profitiability of adult horror themes that within a few years lead to their popular gothic horror movies and their step-up from producers of lesser-known B-card pictures to a top-billed studio. Compared with many of the American sci-fi/horror films of the time, there is much more talking than action here - although the compressed storyline does miss out many of the clever notions of the original teleplay. Guest's direction is strong, the low budget special effects do look good and the acting is strong and so this film comes partly recommended to both Hammer and sci-fi fans.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? Brian Donlevy - a former American 'heavy' actor, nominator for an Oscar for Beau Geste (1939)
Directed by anyone interesting? Val Guest - A former comedy director who shot many important Hammer films between 1954 and 1960 including their first colour picture Men of Sherwood Forest (1954) and crime drama Hell is a City (1960).
Is it scary?Some scenes might raise a shiver.
Any violence/gore? Several off-camera deaths, although we get to see the damaged bodies.
Any sex? None.
Who is it for?
Fans of the more intellegent sci-fi, and of Hammer films should be interested in this.
Good Soundtrack?The first movie soundtrack from future Hammer regular James Bernard.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.33:1 fullscreen. Black and White.
The print is strong, with good detail and almost no damage.
Audio English language mono. Some crackling and drop-outs between scenes, but mostly fine.
Subtitles None.
Run-timeFeature: 1hr 18m 24s (PAL)
Extras The disc includes:
  • Audio Commentary with Val Guest and Hammer Film historian Marcus Hearn - this is a very interesting track with no dead air, and some good set stories and backgrounds to the film.
  • On camera interview with Val Guest - covers little different ground to the audio commentary or the booklet.  (7m 52s)
  • Trailer for Hammer's later Quatermass and the Pit (1967) (2m 34s)
  • A detailed 24 page booklet about the film and its background.
AvailabilityAvailable as a single-disc release or in the Hammer Horror: The Early Classics boxset. Both include the booklet. Was also available in a dual-pack with Quatermass 2.
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Other regions? E-M-S German R2 DVD (title Schock), includes the interview and a World of Hammer episode but no audio commentary.
Cuts? None known - this print is the original British cinema version.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 18th July 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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