Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hammer Monster Mash

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955)
THE GORGON (1964)

"All Earth Stands Helpless!" Aware that the Quatermass name held no weight in the United States, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT was retitled SHOCK! then THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, and cut by United Artists. The movie was released with THE BLACK SLEEP, which featured Basil Rathbone as a mad scientist opening the brains of his victims to discover a means to cure his wife's tumour. It was alleged that this double-bill literally scared a nine-year-old boy to death, who died of a ruptured artery during a showing in Illinois.

HAMMER were always happy to capitalise on established hits; having previously drawn on radio (Dick Barton (1946 - 51), PC49 (1947 - 53)), the studio looked towards television with a truncated version of Nigel Kneale's celebrated six-part THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1953). While most British production houses regarded the X certificate as a kiss of death for the box office, Hammer hoped that the subtle title change to Xperiment would be a marketing ploy to help the financially stricken company. Thankfully the film was a hit; without THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, it would be doubtful that Hammer would have survived to create the Gothic horror renaissance that is so entrenched in our cinematic heritage.

The film begins with experimental rocket ship Quatermass 1 crash landing at Oakley Green. This opening - where the phallus-like rocket ship plunges into the ground breaking the monotony of two coy lovers - is a fitting allegory for the arrival of Hammer horror. In this instant, the domesticity of the British feature film makes way for a new order of directness. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) - the British rocket group scientist responsible for launching the craft without official sanction - discovers that two of the three crew members have disappeared. The sole survivor - Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) - is suffering from alarmingly low blood pressure, pulse and heart rate. As Carroon's condition worsens, the astronaut plunges his fist into a cactus, starting a consumption by an alien organism which mimics the plant form. Quatermass tracks the mutated creature to Westminster Abbey, and before its spores can spread, is electrocuted.

Richard Wordsworth's alien-infected Carroon in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT is an unwilling martyr to Professor Quatermass' abrasive scientific crusade. The actor would later bring similar sympathetic tendencies to the role of the feral beggar in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

In keeping with a long-established pattern, a Hollywood star was contracted for the benefit of stateside distribution. Fading heavy (and alcoholic) Donlevy was selected much to Kneale's horror (Donlevy's alcoholism reducing the actor to read off cue cards) and in 1995 the writer was still vociferous of the actor's portrayal of the scientist: "I may have picked Quatermass' surname out of a phone book but his first name was carefully chosen: Bernard, after Bernard Lovell, the creator of Jodrell Bank. Pioneer, ultimate questing man. Donlevy played him as a mechanic, a creature with a completely closed mind. He could make nothing of any imaginative lines, and simply barked and bawled his way through the plot. A bully whose emotional range ran from annoyance to fury." Donlevy's Quatermass is indeed pointed and bullish, refusing to waste time even when considering Carroon's increasingly catatonic suffering ("There's no room for personal feelings in science ... some of us have a mission").

As well as the wayward Donlevy, American Margia Dean plays Carroon's wife Judith. Suffering from a case of indifferent post-synching, Dean was imposed upon director Val Guest because she was reportedly the girlfriend of American co-producer Robert Lippert. Thankfully the British cast feature more strongly: David King-Wood as Dr Briscoe, Harold Lang as private eye Christie and Thora Hird as Rose the baglady are uniformly excellent, with Jack Warner's Police Inspector Lomax shadowing his trademark role in DIXON OF DOCK GREEN (1955 - 76). Wordsworth's heart-rending performance, however, is the highlight; communicating an unbearable loneliness through mime, the success of the actor's illustration of a once intelligent man consumed by forces beyond his control was key to Hammer when contemplating their re-imagining in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). Discovering body horror years before David Cronenberg, Wordworth's poignancy matches Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, particularly in the scene with a little girl (Jane Asher), which mirrors Karloff's lakeside encounter with Maria (Marilyn Harris). Interestingly, it is in this sequence that we glimpse Carroon in human form for the last time, as if the innocence of the child evokes the astronaut's last note of sympathy.

The girl who befriends Carroon in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT is played by Jane Asher, who seventeen years later would star in Nigel Kneale's THE STONE TAPE.

Many characters and sub-plots are inevitably missing when compressing the television serial to feature length - for example, the intriguing notion that the alien ether had made Carroon absorb the other two astronaut's minds - but such trimming makes THE QUATERMAS XPERIMENT a fast-paced thriller which is made even more immediate by Guest's gritty, semi-documentary style. Perhaps one constriction too many was the change made to the Westminster Abbey conclusion; instead of the explosive climax in the film, on television Quatermass appeals to the human consciousness within the alien, which wills itself to death. Totally lost upon the feature is the teleplay's framing of this climax within a fictionalised live BBC broadcast - which must have raised a few eyebrows of those tuning in late - but although THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT loses this particular faux realite, Guest's feature does incorporate one of the earliest examples of found footage in cinema history: a silent video feed shows the bombardment of Q1 by the cosmic rays which cause Carroon's transformation.

While the changes to the teleplay are in the interests of producing a box office success, the cuts made by United Artists for the Americanised THE CREEPING UNKNOWN release are, in fact, insulting. Nearly three minutes of footage is removed - mostly cheapening the London Zoo sequence - but the devil is in the detail: Donlevy and Dean receive above the title billing opposed to Donlevy and Warner in the British version, and the titles also downplay the importance of Kneale's play. Furthermore, American prints eliminate acknowledgments to the BBC, The Air Ministry, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co, The British Interplanetary Society, The Post London Authority and General Radiological Ltd, as well as replacing the closing "A Hammer Production, produced at Bray Studios" with a simple "The End."

Having exhausted the gallery of classic movie monsters, Hammer turned to mythology for inspiration, resulting in THE GORGON being one of the studio's most poetic and haunted achievements.

When THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was unleashed, it set in motion an initial burst of robust Hammer Horrors that focused on dominating male characters and situations. THE GORGON, however, made seven years later, started a trend towards predatory yet well-spoken female parts that fundamentally weakened narrative. Hammer's later move from Bray to Elstree was detrimental enough, but this gender shift resulted in a hit-and-miss series of films which portrayed murderous but sexualised lead woman: for every measured entry like FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1966) and HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971), there was a debacle such as THE WITCHES (1966) and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1970).

The last Hammer film to combine the talents of stars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and director Terence Fisher, THE GORGON is overwhelmingly fatalistic.  Set in 1910, the film focuses on the village of Vandoft, which has been suffering a series of mysterious deaths for five years. However, the local doctor Namaroff (Cushing) has been concealing that the victims were all turned to stone, and suspects that the derelict Castle Borski is housing Megaera, the last of the legendary Gorgons. When an artist's model and her unborn child are turned to stone, her boyfriend Bruno (Jeremy Longhurst) hangs himself, which results in the boy's grieving father Professor Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), his second son Paul (Richard Pasco) and Paul's mentor Professor Meister (Lee) investigating.

Barbara Shelley in THE GORGON. Ballet dancer Prudence Hyman played Shelley's monstrous alter ego with the infamous stiff snake-hair.

Ambiguities add to this dream-like storyline. Hammer may have looked to mythology for new monsters, but the Greek Megaera was not even a Gorgon, rather a deity who causes jealousy. It is unclear why The Gorgon only appears during the full moon, as is the question of why - after thousands of years - the spirit has possessed a human, Namaroff's assistant Carla (Barbara Shelley). Although her back story is never elaborated on, Carla was an amnesia victim who came to Vandorf for treatment, the doctor exhibiting both concern and deeper feelings for his patient. Shelley brings her usual grace and strength to the role, but the inversion of Cushing and Lee's usual screen persona's creates mixed results. Cushing plays the stern, humourless authority role that Lee would normally be presented with, Namaroff a tormented variation of Cushing's Frankenstein as he struggles with guilt and unrequited love. Lee, however, seems uneasily cast - in an unflattering greying facade - as this particular Van Helsing substitute.

The doctor's observation "the most noble work of God, the human brain, is the most revolting to the human eye," underlines Fisher's unrelentingly grim approach. With only some humorous asides from Meister to relieve the gloom ("Don't use long words, Inspector; they don't suit you"), the director's emphasis on the pain of romance has great depth, with the central love triangle being the most poignant to be found in Fisher's oeuvre. Despite THE GORGON being considered a second-tier release by Hammer historians, It is an intimate picture which uses its careful pace as a necessity of its mood. Indeed, there are scenes here that rank with the best of Fisher: Heitz's call to the Castle Borski, for example, and the sequence where the doomed father attempts to pen a letter to Paul during his gradual petrification.