Prior to making a bundle of money and receiving the Queen’s Award to Industry with their now-classic Gothic horror films, full of breasts and gory color, Hammer Films made several successful black & white science fiction pictures which initially helped to put the British company on the map. Among these was The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), a taut little sci-fi thriller that hardly betrays its very low budget, owing to the talent and craftsmanship of the filmmakers. The film has already seen its blu-ray debut in Australia and the USA, much to the delight of fans. Now, Anolis Entertainment is releasing it in Germany and, as usual, they pack the release to the brim with savory extras.
Based on Nigel Kneale’s TV serial of the same name, which riveted the British public in 1953, Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment relies heavily on the no-nonsense, gritty direction of helmer Val Guest—best known, up until then, for directing comedies—and the equally no-nonsense, bull-in-a-china-shop acting style of its American star, Brian Donlevy, as Prof. Quatermass. Known in Hollywood for tough-guy roles, Donlevy’s Quatermass is at once a brilliant rocket scientist and a bully, steamrolling over anyone who gets in the way of his objectives. It’s a compelling performance—less warm and fuzzy, even less nuanced than a similar performance years later from Andrew Keir in Quatermass and the Pit (1968)—but it sets the template nicely for many similar “take no prisoners” male characters to come from Hammer, including Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing.
The other actor who needs to be mentioned is Richard Wordsworth as the victim of the Quatermass experiment. He plays an astronaut who returns to earth, infested by a strange, alien life form that grows in his body until it transforms him into a plant-like monster. It’s a completely silent role, and Wordsworth conveys his agony entirely with his body and face. And what a creepy gaze the man has!
Director Val Guest certainly keeps the film moving, but never at the expense of atmosphere, which benefits enormously from the grim, black & white cinematography. Guest was wise to adopt such a plain-spoken, documentary style, which results in the film seeming far less campy today than many similar sci-fi films being made in America at the time.
The great composer, James Bernard, who later came to define the “Hammer sound” needs special mention. This was his first film soundtrack, and his first job for Hammer. His score for Quatermass (composed entirely for strings and percussion, I believe) sets just the right, desolate tone right from the opening credits onward. This too adds enormously to the film’s singular atmosphere. Hammer Horror simply wouldn’t have been the same without him.
Technically, this blu-ray release is on a par with the previous releases. The restoration and transfer have rendered very natural results; with film grain dominating, but never overpowering the texture. The sound too is given plenty of body to accommodate Bernard’s score comfortably. The blu-ray defaults to the German track, but it’s very easy to switch to the original English track.
As always with Anolis Entertainment, extra features are plentiful. We are given two commentary tracks: one featuring film historian Marcus Hearn and director Val Guest; and the other, in German only, featuring film historian Dr. Rolf Giesen. Not being a German speaker, I can’t comment on Dr. Giesen’s commentary, but some of his commentaries on other releases, where he spoke English, were quite excellent. The Hearn and Guest commentary (in English) is a delight. The director is as sharp as ever, and Hearn keeps the conversation moving with compelling questions. There are also two video interviews with Val Guest: an 8-minute one with Marcus Hearn; and a 36-minute one with Stephen Gallager at the Festival of Fantastic Films, Manchester, 2000. Other extras include a full German theatrical version of the film (in 1080p); an 8-minute, MGM-produced featurette “From Reality to Science Fiction” based on an interview with Val Guest; a Super-8 version of the film; trailers, images, a comic, and various press books. Also included is a Trailers From Hell episode with Ernest Dickerson. The media book also includes a 28-page booklet written by Dr. Rolf Giesen and Uwe Sommerlad.
The Quatermass Xperiment is a creepy and entertaining little sci-fi thriller, and is worth checking out and forming an opinion on, even if you are not a Hammer aficionado. This new release from Anolis Entertainment is packed full of extra features and makes a compelling claim as the best release of the film thus far. Highly recommended.