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Why Do We Love What We Love? Or, Where Has Professor Quatermass Been All My Life?

Sometimes you discover movies, books, or some other form of storytelling that speaks to you for reasons you can’t explain. You may find that few others have experienced these works or even know about them. Maybe such titles came from other countries, other cultures, or maybe they were so obscure they never broke into the mainstream. If you’re lucky, you make a single discovery and find that the creator of that work created other works in that same universe. But be careful what you wish for. Thanks to one blind buy a couple of years ago, I now find myself in the inescapable clutches of the Quatermass universe.


My first Quatermass experience happened four years ago with a blind buy of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The basic story involves a rocket ship that crash-lands in a British farming community.

The man responsible for sending the rocket up in the first place, Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is keeping tight-lipped about the accident and for good reason. (I’ll talk more about the casting choice of Donlevy as Quatermass in a moment.) You can read my review of The Quatermass Xperiment here, but needless to say I loved it.

There’s something very appealing about science fiction films from the 1950s through the 1970s, before everything became an attempt to rip off Star Wars, Alien, E.T., and any other sf movie that captured the public’s attention (as well as their money). Many of my favorites from this era (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, etc.) weren’t simply science fiction. They also combined elements of mystery and horror, my ultimate trifecta.

I come about such attractions honestly. I grew up in the shadow of my older brother (and especially his comic book collection) and inherited his love of all things science fiction, mystery, and horror. When he went off to college, he left stacks of comics and horror magazines in his room, exposing me to titles such as Eerie, Creepy, and many others.

I became fascinated with the art of Wallace Wood and Bernie Wrightson, to name just a couple. Even at a young age, I quickly realized that movies couldn’t visually present all the things I could see in the comics and magazines, but that was okay. (This became painfully clear when I discovered the gorgeous poster art from films never materialized in the same way once the movie started playing.) Yet it was the stories that really mattered, and even the awkward and often clumsy special effects in movies I loved didn’t take away from the strength of compelling narratives. In fact, the lack of visuals actually increased the levels of tension and suspense.

Now I promise I’m not going to be one of those old guys who says, “Well, there’s too many special effects these days, CGI is ruining everything, Back in my day,” etc. I love special effects done well, but even more than that, I love stories done well. I think my love of these movies from the ‘50s-‘70s is more than just a trip down Nostalgia Lane, a simpler, more innocent time. I also think these films allow your imagination to kick into overdrive and complement the visuals (or sometimes lack of visuals) we see on the screen.

Just think, for example, of the effectiveness of a film like Night of the Demon (1957). We don’t really need a visualization of the demon at all (and I think the film would’ve been stronger without it), but its limited visual presence can’t rob the film of the wonderful atmosphere of tension and dread running through the entire movie.

All of this to say that this period of film (and television) has a strong appeal, so when I discover a previously unknown (to me) title or series, I’m apt to take it and run with it. After watching The Quatermass Xperiment, I ordered Quatermass and the Pit (1967) from the UK. Little did I know that I was just scratching the surface of the Quatermass universe, a universe created through stories written by Nigel Kneale (1922-2006), who enjoyed an extensive career in television and film in the UK, influencing a multitude of storytellers and filmmakers including Stephen King and John Carpenter. Yet Kneale himself couldn’t have anticipated the popularity of his Quatermass creation.

As I watched, I was not aware that The Quatermass Xperiment was an adaptation of a BBC Television show from 1953 called The Quatermass Experiment about the first manned space flight supervised by the leader of the British Experimental Rocket Group, Professor Bernard Quatermass (Reginald Tate, above). This six-episode (approximately 30 minutes each) series was broadcast live on the BBC. Unfortunately, only the first two episodes of the series survive.

Hammer Film Productions purchased the rights for a film adaptation, changing the spelling of the title to The Quatermass Xperiment, using the X to play off the X certificate, which limited designated films to audiences age 16 and older. As often happened in British films from this era, an American was cast in the lead in order to appeal to American audiences. Brian Donlevy - who often played aggressive, tough-guy characters - was cast as Quatermass, which greatly offended Nigel Kneale and probably many others. Since I’ve never seen the BBC television series The Quatermass Experiment, I can’t conduct a comparison between it and film The Quatermass Xperiment. I also (regrettably) have not yet seen either the BBC serial or the film adaptation of Quatermass 2 (1955 and 1957 respectively).

But I have seen both the 1958 BBC production of Quatermass and the Pit as well as the 1967 Hammer film. The film version is quite faithful to the serial, the obvious differences being the serial is in black-and-white while the feature is in color, and the differences in running time (204 minutes for the serial, 97 minutes for the film). The basic plot of each is this:

Workmen on an excavation site in Hobbs End in Knightsbridge, London (an extension of the London Underground in the film) discover what appears to be an unexploded bomb. Military officials contain the area and Professor Bernard Quatermass (André Morell in the serial, Andrew Keir in the film) is called in to access the situation. Quatermass quickly determines that what the workers have uncovered is not an unexploded bomb from the war, but an alien spacecraft.

Perhaps a fuller examination and comparison of the serial and the film is in order; we’ll see. Right now I don’t want to give you much more information than this, but if this brief description grabs you, I’d recommend checking out both versions. The serial is available on a new Region B Blu-ray from the BBC (UK, Region B) and the film is available from Optimum Home Entertainment (UK, Region B) and a Region A Blu-ray release on July 30 from Shout Factory.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your stories of what films, TV shows, or books connect with you. Please comment, yet realize that I might take awhile to respond. I may just be hanging out with Professor Quatermass.

Photos: Out of the Quicksand, DVD Beaver

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