Quatermass Xperiment, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Dec 27, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Quatermass Xperiment, The (Blu-ray Review)


Val Guest

Release Date(s)

1955 (December 12, 2023)


Hammer Film Productions (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A+

The Quatermass Xperiment (Blu-ray)

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The Quatermass Xperiment, also called The Creeping Unknown, put Hammer Films on the cinema map. Based on a popular 1953 BBC serial, it’s a science fiction picture with a strong dose of horror.

The film opens with a rocket ship crash-landing in a remote English field. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy, The Great McGinty), head of the British Rocket Group, which sent the ship on a secret mission into far outer space, rushes to the scene. Curious crowds gather as Quatermass and his team open the ship’s door remotely, revealing a single survivor, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth, The Revenge of Frankenstein). There’s no sign of the two other astronauts who were aboard. A mysterious jelly-like substance is found on the ship.

Quatermass removes Victor to a lab to study the aftereffects of his trauma to discover what happened to the ship and crew during the voyage. As he and his team examine clues, Victor’s worried wife, Judith (Margia Dean, The Big Show), begins to realize that Quatermass and associates are more interested in discovering what occurred on the rocket than in restoring the health of her husband. Victor himself cannot help them, as the incident has rendered him mute and unable to communicate in any way. Eventually the police, headed by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner, The Ladykillers), get involved as Victor grows increasingly violent, undergoes frightening physical mutations, and seems unable to control his vicious behavior.

The Quatermass Xperiment unfolds believably as it sets up the mystery of what happened to Victor and his fellow space travelers. Shot in a semi-documentary style, we get the impression that we’re watching a newsreel, with events occurring right before our eyes. The opening is reminiscent of The War of the Worlds, made two years earlier. In both films, a spacecraft crashes, crowds gather, and suspense ensues. The difference is that one craft is otherworldly, the other is of our own planet.

Director Val Guest has necessarily condensed the BBC serial, making for a brisk pace. The cast of mostly British actors is first class. The exception is the star, American actor Brian Donlevy. He portrays Quatermass as brusque, condescending, and inhumanely single-minded as he barks orders at the police and the fire brigade at the site of the crash and has Victor spirited away to a lab for study rather than to a hospital. In part, this is a function of how the role is written. Quatermass shows little sympathy regarding the tragedy that befell the ship’s crew and no concern that the wayward rocket could have killed innocent people on the ground. To him, Victor is less a suffering human than just another clue to unraveling the mystery. Eventually, Quatermass does allow Victor to be transferred to a hospital and does pay lip service to concern that whatever invaded Victor and turned him into a monstrous killer could spread to others. But Donlevy’s relentlessly authoritarian manner makes Quatermass unsympathetic.

The best performance is that of Richard Wordsworth as the unfortunate Victor. In a wordless role, he believably conveys the changes that befall Victor through facial expression and body language. In fact, his performance is reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s embodiment of the monster in Frankenstein, particularly as Victor’s condition worsens. A scene in which a lumbering Victor encounters a young girl having a tea party with her doll echoes the scene in Frankenstein when the monster encounters a girl picking flowers and joins her in a game. In both, the humanity of the unstable creature shines through.

Guest offers some chilling set pieces as the film turns to horror in its final third. Victor, who has up to this point been passive even when he’s obviously suffering, now uncontrollably lashes out as his body has been largely taken over by an alien life form.

With its blend of mystery and suspense, The Quatermass Xperiment is like an extended version of a Twilight Zone episode. It takes its time establishing the basis for the horror to come, playing up the mystery aspect of the story, and it gets under your skin as Victor is slowly consumed by a parasite from space. It was one of only a handful of films I saw as a kid that truly frightened me.

The Quatermass Xperiment was shot by director of photography Walter J. Harvey with spherical lenses on 35 mm black & white film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Kino previously released the film on Blu-ray in 2014, and they’ve returned almost ten years later with the same master, but now encoded on a BD-50 disc instead of a BD-25 to maximize the quality. For the most part, the picture is sharp and well detailed. However, toward the end, in a scene at Westminster Abbey, a matte line exhibits visible jitter. Black levels are deep and velvety. The crashed rocket ship is a matte that blends seamlessly with live action. Only a section of the rocket and its door was built full scale. Make-up effects are gruesome, but are held for only seconds.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct. In the opening scene, crowd noise, police sirens, clattering fire engines, and multiple fire hoses shooting water create a chaotic ambience. Victor’s silence gives way to painful grunts and moans. There’s also a piercing scream. In a scene that goes on way too long, Inspector Lomax shaves in his office with an electric razor.

Housed in a slipcover featuring the original UK theatrical poster artwork with a reversible insert featuring the original US theatrical artwork under the title The Creeping Unknown, Kino Lorber’s Region A Blu-ray release contains the following bonus materials:

  • Audio Commentary by Director Val Guest, Moderated by Marcus Hearn
  • Audio Commentary by Film Historian/Screenwriter Gary Gerani
  • Carpenter on Quatermass: On-Camera Interview with Director John Carpenter (9:18)
  • Interview with Director Val Guest by Hammer Film Historian Marcus Hearn (8:12)
  • The Quatermass Xperiment: From Reality to Fiction (11:31)
  • The Quatermass Xperiment: Comparing the Versions (6:57)
  • Alternate Main Title (1:12)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:14)
  • The Day the Earth Caught Fire Trailer (1:58)
  • The Land Unknown Trailer (2:11)
  • 4D Man Trailer (2:17)
  • The Last Man on Earth Trailer (1:51)
  • The Earth Dies Screaming Trailer (2:14)

Commentary #1The Quatermass Xperiment was the fifth film Val Guest made for Hammer Films. Locations included a country lane, a field, and the Hammer lot. Many Hammer scenes were shot in actual homes, making it difficult to move lights and cameras. The film condenses the BBC TV series. Producer Anthony Hinds gave Guest the script to read. Initially uninterested in doing a science fiction film, Guest liked the script and agreed to direct. Early sequences were shot in the style of a newsreel. Robert Wordsworth was an accomplished Shakespearean actor. Brian Donlevy was a real pro who liked to lace his coffee with brandy. He wears a hat in many scenes because he didn’t want to fuss with putting on his toupee. The reason Donlevy was cast in the British film is that the American distributor wanted a marquee star. The Quatermass character had to be suited to Donlevy but otherwise Nigel Kneale’s story remained essentially unchanged. Hammer Studio had a family-like atmosphere. Guest had actors overlap their dialogue to give it a realistic ring. Guest wanted the film to be science fact, not horror, and admired Kneale’s scripts for the BBC series. Critics liked The Quatermass Xperiment despite its being a low-budget Hammer picture.

Commentary #2 – Gary Gerani notes that The Quatermass Xperiment was filmed at Bray Studios in England. Opticals were kept to a minimum. The film has a “You are there” sense of reality. In the early 1950s, Hammer turned out B films and later realized that with better production values, its films would bring in more at the box office. Donlevy’s Quatermass is abrasive whereas Reginald Tate in the original radiated dignity, empathy and humanity. Donlevy’s Quatermass “wears smug defiance like a coat of armor.” The original series contained six episodes and was intended to attract and keep viewers returning week after week. Romantic subplots from the TV serial were dropped from the movie. When Kneale refused to write a Quatermass sequel, Hammer produced X The Unknown, about radioactive mud from the center of the Earth devouring human flesh. It was double-billed with The Curse of Frankenstein, which initiated Hammer’s Technicolor Gothic monster period. A number of movies and TV shows of the mid-1950s era are discussed. The Quatermass Xperiment premiered in London in August, 1955. In the U.S., it was released in 1956 under the title The Creeping Unknown on a double bill with The Black Sleep. It was Hammer’s first international hit. For the American release, scenes were edited so that the American version is 2 1/2 minutes shorter than the British version. The commentary concludes with references to subsequent adaptations of the Quatermass original.

Carpenter on Quatermass – In this interview, Halloween director John Carpenter talks about being intrigued by the trailer for The Creeping Unknown and relates the release of the film to reports of flying saucers, the atomic bomb, and the threat of Russia. The film captures and exploits those fears. Certain scenes, he points out, are reminiscent of Val Lewton’s 1940s horror films. Up until the release of The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer made routine comedies and dramas. Later, the studio struck gold when it modernized classic monster tales in the 50s and 60s. Carpenter singles out James Bernard’s music as “incredible.” He regards Val Guest as a master and says he was inspired by this film.

Interview with Val Guest – Marcus Hearn interviews the director, who reminisces about the making of The Quatermass Xperiment, the fifth film of five Guest made in 1954. He had never seen the series but knew it was enormously popular. He wasn’t a fan of science fiction, but the story was very different from the numerous comedies he had made and he was trying to get out of the “comedy rut” to avoid being typecast as a comedy director. Guest didn’t regard the film as horror but found it captivating. The title character differs markedly from the BBC version, in which Quatermass was more professorial. Guest had to tailor the role to Brian Donlevy without altering the main narrative.

The Quatermass Xperiment: From Reality to Science Fiction – This featurette repeats much information in the Val Guest interview. Guest speaks about the performances, singling out Richard Wordsworth’s haunted quality as Victor, the returned astronaut. Jane Asher, the young girl Victor encounters having a tea party with her doll, grew up to become an actress and co-starred with Vincent Price in The Masque of the Red Death. Guest explains that the rocket was a glass matte, and notes that a matte was used in the Westminster Abbey sequence because the crew was not permitted to film inside the Abbey. He credits Les Bowie with the film’s special effects. Guest was surprised that The Quatermass Xperiment turned out to be a cult movie, indicating if he had known it would have such a following, he would have demanded more money.

The Quatermass Xperiment: Comparing the Versions – The original British version purposely misspelled “experiment” to capitalize on the British Board of Censors’ Certificate X rating, which forbade minors from attending. A version with the standard “experiment” spelling was also prepared, possibly to use on the export copy eventually distributed by United Artists in the U.S. A 1955 continuity script shows that for a short while, the unoriginal Monster from Outer Space was intended for the American release. Because the Quatermass BBC TV series was not known in the U.S., United Artists opted for a more commercial title that stressed the film’s monster—The Creeping Unknown—which is 2 1/2 minutes shorter than the British version. Both British and American versions of edited scenes are shown.

Alternate Main Title – The opening credits are shown with the American release title, The Creeping Unknown.

The Quatermass Xperiment, with more dialogue than in typical science fiction films of the period, is intelligent, with palpable suspense established in the very first scene. Director Guest manages to sustain the suspense with Victor taking center stage as the key to what happened in space. As a forerunner of films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and The Thing, The Quatermass Xperiment deftly combines science fiction and horror, adding mystery as a driving narrative.

- Dennis Seuling