presented as part of the CMBA FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 50s blogathon
Hammer films had been rolling along before 1955, turning out dramas and mysteries, and in later decades made cavegirl pictures, among other things, but let’s face it, when you say Hammer, most people think “Horror,” and for that you can thank The Quatermass Xperiment, aka The Creeping Unknown.
It’s a movie that comes out smack dab in the middle of the decade, at the end of Hammer’s deal with American company Lippert Pictures, at the start of a new era of British sci-fi and represents Hammer’s pivot into one of the most recognized brand names in film.
Professor Quatermass. What a great, evocative, Dickensian character name that is, suggesting a quaking mass, a crater, a creator, all words hinting at scientific things of large scale, potentially earth shattering and perfect for a movie about a professor that inadvertently makes it possible for a monstrous thing to come to Earth. This professor, played by Brian Donlevy, has been in charge of a secret three man rocket expedition to space. The rocket is lost, who knows how far, and then returns, screaming and crashing back to earth, impaled spear-like into the ground. Only one man survives, or is found at all for that matter, and investigation of the ship and its recording devices shows there was no opening of the craft, no way to leave or enter. So what happened to the missing two? Further, and more concerning, what is happening to the survivor, played so well by Richard Wordsworth. What has come back to our planet with him?
Though Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, who’d previously seen his story unfold on British TV, was unhappy with this adaptation, and hated Donlevy, though many reviews of the movie consider Donlevy too clipped, severe and grumpy, and Margia Dean as the returning astronaut’s wife terribly underwhelming, though the horrors seem mild to us now, after we’ve been conditioned by decades of gorier stuff, despite all those things, Quatermass is still an excellent specimen of its kind, and was a big success.
Director Val Guest keeps the tension tight and sustained through the film. The suspense winds up during the preparation for the opening of the rocketship. Authorities and first responders surround the craft and debate how best to get inside, and what might possibly await them, while having heated arguments with Donlevy, blaming him for causing the disaster and probably deaths of astronauts with his crazy space travel folly. Imagine watching this, still 6 years before the first manned spaceflight, when such things still seemed impossible, combined with concerns about what might be out there to eat us up, plus the reality of mass destruction coming from the sky still being all too fresh in people’s minds.
The suspense doesn’t let up as we watch frantic studies into what really happened, while lone survivor Wordsworth sits still as a statue, with his thousand yard stare, sits tracking people with just his eyes like a portrait in an old dark house, slowly transforming into some transparent skinned, slimy thing. When he awakens and starts lumbering through the streets, it reminds you of Frankenstein (right down to the interaction with a girl, Jane Asher, playing with her dolly, though with a nicer ending). It’s a fantastic performance, well featured by the director who teases with some scenes and lets others unfold behind people’s backs, or behind glass, without sound. The alien bits that come to life apart from a human host are weird stalk and root-like tendrils in an octopus formation. When the more developed but still growing jellied Crab-rantula finally reveals itself and climbs atop a scaffold… all I can say is Kill it with Fire!
But there are less graphic moments that spook as much, if not more: the horrifying revelation that the contents of a small beaker might be the remains of the other two astronauts; the footage salvaged by the flight recorders which show the bright light, extreme heat, confusion, panic and collapse of the rocket crew; the empty space suits found laid out in a way that it’s obvious they were not taken off but occupied till the very end, and that the body in them just plain evaporated. Those things are so well staged and just plain creepy, no effects are needed.
I’m a fan of Brian Donlevy but for my taste he did play it a bit too stiff here. His defensive wall is not surprising since he’s under attack everywhere he turns, blamed for everything that’s gone wrong in the name of his wacky newfangled ideas. He’s right that “there’s no room for personal feelings in science!” and he’s right that progress like this can’t stop to hear or satisfy everyone’s worries. Maybe being cold and ruthless was just right for this, I just wish Donlevy had brought in a little more humanity and his usual devilish brand of charm. It bears repeating that Richard Wordsworth really makes the picture work. Just when you wonder if there’s anything human left in that shell of a body, he’s reveals he’s in there struggling, still careful not to hurt a child. Jack Warner as a Scotland Yard inspector and Lionel Jeffries also add a lot for the movie buff to enjoy.
I picked this movie to talk about not just because it’s one of the fabulous sci-fi monster flicks of the Fifties, but also because of the huge importance it has for the studio that made it. Quatermass was groundbreaking, setting Hammer’s course for years to come. Boosted by this “monster” hybrid sci-fi/horror hit, Hammer made sequels but was also inspired to start turning out Gothic horror– The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy– hits that somewhat ironically pulled attention away from more good Hammer sci-fi pictures that followed more closely in Quatermass’ footsteps–X the Unknown (which was actually meant to be a sequel to Quatermass Xperiment but creator Kneale pulled approval) and The Damned, to name a few. For its place among the decade’s monster movies, and for its impact on movie history, The Quatermass Xperiment is