Saturday, July 6, 2013

#160: The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955)

It's a little funny, and maybe cognitively dissonant for me, how many horror and science fiction films I enjoy that require me to ignore a message, philosophy, and/or moral of the story I find insulting and stupid. These particular films all share a common trait: a driven scientist or team of scientists obsessively pursuing greater knowledge. Of course, they GO TOO FAR and endanger all of life as we know it. Knowledge is dangerous, these movies say, and trying to understand our universe is akin to playing God. Remain ignorant. Our Creator has a plan. Ours is not to understand. Like all sane people, I wholeheartedly disagree with this message in the non-movie world, the one where I occasionally buy 1% milk, go to work, and accidentally squeal my tires when I turn right on Lamar Blvd. at the intersection near my house with the Jack in the Box, the shitty Mexican restaurant, and the kickass taco stand. But in the world of the fantastical genres of film, I can momentarily set aside my objections to the anti-science/pro-superstition and ignorance crowd and get in touch with my inner ignorant fundamentalist. You went too far, bro. Ours is not to understand. Now we're totally screwed, and I love it.
The reason I can set aside some of my values for the sake of entertainment is that if these movie scientists did not go too far, we would be watching a movie about an experiment where nothing went wrong with the exciting conclusion of a scientist publishing his research in an academic journal and maybe speaking at a conference. "Hoo-aah!," Dr. Pacino tells his colleagues. "The rocket returned safely. Science occurred with no freaky results. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a dinner date with a Dartmouth economics professor ... and she's got A GREAT ASS! ATTICA! ATTICA!" Okay, I'd watch that movie, too, but you get my point.
In The Quatermass Xperiment, the first Hammer Film Productions horror film (which led to a 20-year run of successful horror releases), the experiment that goes too far is a rocket into space, manned by three brave volunteers. The film opens with a couple of 35-year-old British teenagers necking on a pile of straw who are rudely interrupted by a rocket crashing into the girl's yard. Her father goes outside with a rifle to confront the rocket (classic rural old man move) and is singed by the rocket's extreme temperature. Soon, the place is swarming with cops, emergency medical staff, government officials, reporters, and a van full of scientists, the team who designed the rocket. The head of the otherwise British team is brash American Dr. Quatermass, a guy you would not want as your boss unless you enjoy someone yelling at you all day and demanding immediate results. I love Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) for his hilarious lack of human emotion and his inability to suffer fools gladly for even a few milliseconds. For the duration of the film, Quatermass is almost always barking orders at everyone he meets in this basic style: "You don't tell me what to do. I tell you what to do. Shut up and do it now. I want the results on my desk yesterday, you chowderhead." I embellished this somewhat, but it's a fairly accurate summation of his inimitable style.
When the rocket cools down enough to be opened (I'm no science major but I don't think the bit with the fire hoses is scientifically accurate), only one of the three astronauts can be found. The other two spacesuits are empty. Nobody knows what happened, and the only guy who can say, remaining astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), has gone astro-nuts. (I apologize.) He's messed up, in a state of shock, and he looks skeletal. His body chemistry seems to be changing and he refuses to speak. Meanwhile, the police have joined the investigation, for some reason, and Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) and Quatermass form an uneasy alliance to get to the bottom of what happened in that rocket. Soon, we learn that Carroon is not alone. Something is living inside of him, something that requires food. He goes on the hunt, and our science fiction film turns into a horror film at the halfway point.
Adapted from a BBC television miniseries, Val Guest's film is a very fun sci-fi/horror hybrid that knows when to be stupid and when to be smart for maximum entertainment value. There are some nice character turns from almost everyone, even the actors with the smallest roles, though Margia Dean, as Carroon's wife, is very stiff. I especially liked the characters of the zookeeper, a homeless alcoholic woman, and a very young Jane Asher as a girl who invites Carroon to join her and her doll for an ill-fated tea party. The homeless alcoholic woman gets a great line when she goes to the police station to report a sighting of the space alien. When the police actually take her seriously, she replies: "Then you mean this one is real? I thought it was just a gin goblin." Note to aspiring rock bands: Gin Goblin is still available. Snatch it up quickly. The finale in Westminster Abbey, where a television crew is filming a documentary series, is clever and satisfying, and though the film is not exactly a visual marvel, Guest does a lot with a small budget.
The film did so well in England and in the U.S. (where it was retitled The Creeping Unknown and became a big hit at the top of a drive-in double bill) that two sequels followed: Quatermass 2 (or Enemy from Space in the U.S.) and Quatermass and the Pit. Director Val Guest, who died in 2006 at the age of 94, had a long and varied career. Besides the first two Quatermass films, he is best known for the cult sci-fi film The Day the Earth Caught Fire and the beatnik Cliff Richard film Expresso Bongo, as well as for being one of the directors on the '60s Bond spoof Casino Royale. He worked in several genres, including comedy, drama, horror, science fiction, musicals, mystery, family films, and even soft-core sex (Au Pair Girls, Confessions of a Window Cleaner).  We don't have his equivalent in the film business anymore, by which I mean non-auteur craftsman who are comfortable working in any genre, which is kind of sad.

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