The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

Bloody Good Terror the English Way: ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ and ‘Burn Witch Burn’

Brian Donleavy shouts and Peter Wyngarde wears pyjamas in these two British horror classics.

Two British horror films that were previously released on US discs only as no-frills on-demand DVD-Rs from MGM Limited Editions have now been upgraded to Blu-ray, with extras imported from the UK DVD versions.

The Quatermass Xperiment is a milestone, as Hammer’s first horror film. Director Val Guest, who adapted it with Richard Landau from Nigel Kneale’s blockbuster BBC-TV serial of 1953, thought of it as a sci-fi film in which he emphasized realism both via handheld newsreel photography and in general design and performance. It is sci-fi, of course, but audiences responded to its horrific aspects of an astronaut whose possession by an alien turns him into a mindless vampiric blob. Hammer promptly launched more of the same, and the rest is horror history.

The movie was considered so shocking, gruesome, and adult that it received Britain’s X certificate, meaning no one under 16 could be admitted. Hammer capitalized on this by changing the title word to “Xperiment”, although the film was properly spelled in reissues as The Quatermass Experiment (same as the BBC serial), while the slightly shorter US version was called The Creeping Unknown.

Imported American star Brian Donlevy stars as a loud, impatient, irritating scientist so dynamic and flawed that he’s still a fresh subversion of the typical sympathetic heroes of ’50s monster movies, as well as a complete contrast to Kneale’s patrician English conception of Quatermass — which is why Kneale didn’t like it. The show is stolen by the dialogue-free performance of Richard Wordsworth (great-great-grandson of William Wordsworth) as the gaunt, tortured, zombie-like astronaut who at certain points seems to evoke Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, especially in his scene with a headstrong little girl played by future celebrity-star Jane Asher.

This is the original British print, as on MGM’s 2011 on-demand disc, but the commentary with Guest and critic Marcus Hearn is imported from the UK DVD, as well as an interview with Guest. There’s also an interview with John Carpenter recalling the film’s impact on his childhood, trailers for the US version, and a comparison of the two versions.

Burn Witch Burn (1962)

The Blu-ray of Burn Witch Burn does nicely by its black and white photography, which is rich without losing grain. Made in England for American International Pictures, the movie spins a yarn about a university professor (Peter Wyngarde) whose life goes to hell when he tries to prove to his wife (American import Janet Blair) that her “white witchcraft” is all hocus-pocus that’s got nothing to do with his success. PopMatters reviewed the older on-demand release here, noting how the movie’s supernatural elements illuminate the story’s sexual politics about ambition in the academic sphere.

Let’s say a little more about sex. While Blair is always made up to be elegant and demure, even when getting into an atavistic panic in her nightgown, Wyngarde is the movie’s sex symbol. Audiences had just seen him as the sexually menacing Peter Quint in The Innocents. Although he’s supposedly tamed into a middle-class don here, he makes his female students hot and bothered with his shiny jacket and tight trousers, in sharp contrast to his unprepossessing colleagues. (In a bonus interview, the old darling says these were all his own street clothes, and that the jacket had fish scales!)

His character’s sex appeal will create one of his first crises, thanks to an unbalanced co-ed and her jealous boyfriend. He’ll spend more than one scene displaying his hirsute self, whether running around in pyjama pants or thrashing sweatily in bed. Since the villain is a sharp-faced professional woman with a limp — that is, masculinized yet castrated — her motive can be read as more than mere professional jealousy, but thwarted desire in general.

This Blu-ray adds extras from UK release, where it’s called Night of the Eagle. The biggie is a commentary by the late Richard Matheson, who co-scripted for American International Pictures with friend and fellow Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont. He hasn’t much to say except that he wrote the first half and Beaumont the second, and that the script was followed closely.

By contrast, Wyngarde’s interview suggests that the script was trash but improved by director Sidney Hayers. Wyngarde claims he went to the London premiere (also an X rating) with Alan Bates and John Schlesinger, and they were the only ones there. This print is the US version, with a pre-title incantation by Paul Frees protecting the viewer from bad mojo.

RATING 6 / 10
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