Sunday, April 03, 2016

Vamp or Not? The Quatermass Xperiment

When I looked at the Hammer films I obviously looked at the traditional vampire films, and of course Hammer were masters in such things, producing some of the best vampire films. However I am always open to the suggestion that there may be others.

Step in the Quatermass Xperiment. Quatermass (fully Professor Bernard Quatermass) was a character created for the BBC by Nigel Kneale and they had run a six part serial entitled the Quatermass Experiment in 1953. This 1955 film, directed by Val Guest, was a remake of that – though Kneale was supposedly less than impressed – disliking the fact that Quartermass seemed to lose his first name (it’s mentioned on the IMDb credits but not uttered in film) and being unhappy with the casting of American Brian Donlevy as the titular character. It was Hammer’s first real foray into horror.

Hammer's first horror
So why are we looking at it? Well that’s because of Paul Meehan’s book the Vampire in Science Fiction Film and Literature. In it he says “The infected astronaut, who is the film’s vampire, fuses the science fiction notions of the vampiric plague carrier and the extraterrestrial bloodsucker into a single character.” Well that, and the fact that it is a Hammer film, prove enough to make me want to have a look-see. And after some doom-laden music over the opening credits the film starts proper…

it's coming from the sky
A couple are walking along a country lane and end up frolicking in a haystack when they hear something. They see something hurtling towards the earth and the girl, Maggie (Margaret Anderson), runs, with her boyfriend (Eric Corrie) not far behind. They reach the farmhouse and are ushered in by Maggie’s father, George (Henry B. Longhurst). There is an almighty crash and some of the ceiling caves in but the three are fine. George goes out of the farmhouse, with shotgun over arm.

the rocket
Soon the entire lane and nearby town are packed with people who have come to see the rocket that has crashed in the field. The police and fire brigade keep them at a distance as a car with Quatermass, some of his people, civil servant Blake (Lionel Jeffries) and Judith Carroon (Margia Dean) arrives. Blake is less than impressed, Quatermass tried the spaceflight without authorisation. They lost contact with the crew but eventually managed to bring it back down. Judith is the wife of one of the astronauts.

"help me"
When they arrive the ship is still too hot to touch and they cannot make contact with any of the crew. Suddenly they detect a knocking and Quatermass – despite the danger – has the rocket dowsed with water so they can get the survivors out. I have to say, Quatermass comes across as a detached and arrogant character, driven by the need to succeed at all costs and careless of human lives. Anyway, that aside, the door opens and Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) falls out. Inside they find the other two astronauts’ pressure suits linked up but empty. Quatermass goes to Carroon in the ambulance and he manages to say “Help me!” Let us gloss over the fact that the only family member they brought along was Carroon’s, after all she was plot necessary.

treating Carroon
So Carroon has been in to space and we have to remember that this was six years before Yuri Gagarin got there. When they examine Carroon his living status is a miracle – perhaps in doubt. His heart rate and blood pressure are too low, his skin has coarsened and it is suggested his facial bone structure and fingerprints have changed. His skin is icy cold to touch. He is being given blood transfusions, but they seem to make no difference, and he is awake but unresponsive – though he shows some reaction when Judith pricks her finger (to the blood we assume).

Christie post-attack
Later we see him try to get up – with some flowers being his goal – but he falls and is, finally, taken to hospital. Judith, however, is not happy with Quartermass and tries to have a PI named Christie (Harold Lang, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors) sneak him out. During this Carroon smashes a cactus and, in a lift, attacks Christie. When Christie is found his face is smashed, his body desiccated and police inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) suggests that he has had the “life drawn right out of him.

meeting the lifeform
Later Carroon kills a pharmacist (Toke Townley, Scars of Dracula) in the same way and we see that his arm is a sort of human cactus hybrid. He also drains a whole bunch of zoo animals and Paul Meehan points out that this is reminiscent of the way victims would die in the later Lifeforce. Working from in capsule film footage, the scientists work out that the ship has encountered some form of energy life form in space. It killed the other two astronauts (and reduced them to a small cube of gelatinous material) and merged with Carroon.

the final form
Carroon became little more than a vehicle for the lifeform (with the caveat that at least a little of him survives) and it then merged the animal life of the human with the vegetable matter of the cactus. It eventually becomes an almost octopus like creature (that leaves a slimy trail behind, a little like a slug). As Meehan noted the similarity to part of Lifeforce, I should point out that the book the latter film was based on, the Space Vampires, had its alien creatures have a true form that was octopus or squid like – a coincidence I’m sure. Because of the merging of animal and plant the scientists have to stop it before it releases spores and reproduces.

Carroon and the chemist
So, whilst he becomes something new this has an astronaut turned in to, what might be called, a vampire. He is dead – for all intents and purposes, as his vital signs are too low to maintain life – and yet aware and active. As I said above, we could assume that something of Carroon remains as he doesn’t attack his wife (though she essentially goes mad having seen his arm) or a little girl he meets. The alien presence gives us a possession aspect, I suppose. I was reminded of the later the First Man in Space - whilst that was not an alien life force but some strange space substance and cosmic rays, both pieces were based on the anxiety of what leaving this planet might bring. The later film had the vampire drink blood – in this Carroon drains all the body’s liquids it seems – but I still think there is enough here to class this as Vamp.

I mentioned that it was based on a BBC series and I should also mention that the series was remade in 2005, done as a live broadcast. When I get opportunity I will, of course, compare and contrast those.

The imdb page is here.


Octobercynic said...

I recall first seeing this one early in my childhood, a Saturday night viewing of the 'Project Terror' show on the local station in San Antonio, Texas. It was under the nom de guerre "The Creeping Unknown." I later found out I had seen the edited version (they excised the scene with the child for some reason).
I do agree that Donlevy's version of Quatermass was arrogant to the point of being overbearing. I liked Andrew Keir's turn in the role in "Quatermass and the Pit/ Five Million Years to Earth." I, too, would like to find the BBC series versions, either the old or new.
I always like the "Vamp or Not" posts, as it gives a new take on classic horrors. Thanks for that. As always, cheers.
- Billy

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks Billy