Val Guest, 1955
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Richard Wordsworth, Margia Dean
Professor Quatermass is overseeing the test runs of a rocket he personally designed, when something goes horribly wrong. After a trip to space, the rocket crashes into rural England and out of the three pilots aboard, two are missing and the sole survivor, Victor Carroon, is catatonic. While Quatermass and a team of scientists are studying Carroon, he begins to horribly transform and soon breaks out of the hospital. Quatermass and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax begin a desperate manhunt after Quatermass realizes that Carroon’s new alien form is giving off spores with the potential to destroy the entire planet.
Known in the US as The Creeping Unknown, this first film in Hammer’s Quatermass trilogy was a major turning point for the studio — and for British horror in general. Based on the BBC television serial penned by sci-fi great Nigel Kneale, the film of course condenses the events of the serial, but also made two major changes. The first, and most grating, is the casting of American actor and film noir regular Brian Donlevy (Hangmen Also Die) as Professor Quatermass, turning Neale’s thoroughly British scientist into a rude, ball-busting American. He looks more like a gangster or an irate insurance claims adjuster than he does a scientist and chokes on some of his dialogue. In one scene, he says to Victor Carroon’s distraught wife, “There’s no room for personal feelings in science!” This is basically the ‘50s sci-fi equivalent of “There’s no crying in baseball.” Harsh and unlikable, Donlevy is completely miscast — Peter Cushing would have been a much better fit, though he wasn’t yet a Hammer star at this point — but he is still unable to ruin the film.
Named The Quatermass Xperiment to capitalize on the “X” rating certificate the film received from the British censor board, surprisingly little of the monster is actually seen in the film, but there’s a fantastic sense of atmosphere. The competent Val Guest went on to direct one of my favorite early Hammer films, The Abominable Snowman (1957), as well as sci-fi classics The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Though he keeps the monster primarily offscreen — a la Val Lewton a decade earlier — there are some fittingly grisly moments, such as a murder in an elevator and a bleak scene in a local zoo where the monster wreaks havoc on the animals. Though it isn’t quite scary (or gory) by modern standards, I can see why this was Hammer’s first major breakthrough, a success of such proportions that the studio not only produced a small run of sci-fi films, but began almost exclusively making horror films.
Character actor Richard Wordsworth (The Curse of the Werewolf) is the heart and soul of the film, giving a spectacular performance as the unfortunate Victor. Though his character ultimately transforms into something non-human, he gives a physical performance full of pathos and believability. Many of these early sci-fi horrors — particularly the British ones — have a romantic relationship at their center, but The Quatermass Xperiment doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on this, but merely uses Victor’s relationship with his wife — and her desperation to get him away from Quatermass — it to humanize Victor and elegantly move the plot forward. He is unable to kill his adoring wife, even though he is transforming into something alien and monstrous, and runs away from her in horror.
Aside from the casting of Donlevy as Quatermass, Guest’s second major change away from the serial is the conclusion, spectacularly set at Westminster Abbey. In the serial, Quatermass is able to remind Victor of his last, lingering vestiges of humanity, and in order to save the planet, he kills himself. But in the film version, Victor has become completely alien and Quatermass electrocutes him to death with the help of a conveniently placed television crew. This change makes The Quatermass Xperiment less of a human story and more of a monster movie, but the concept of a transformed astronaut was obviously horrifying enough to inspire a number of similar films in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
This isn’t the only reason why it’s considered a minor classic. Val Guest keeps the pace moving at a brisk clip and despite the occasional moments of scientific exposition, there is a steady sense of suspense, even claustrophobia, to the proceedings. The film is an almost equal blend of horror, science fiction, and murder mystery; Scotland Yard even gets involved because they think that Victor may have murdered the two missing astronauts. The Quatermass Xperiment also has a decidedly bleak note thanks to Quatermass himself, who exploits Victor and, at the film’s conclusion, is determined to start his experiments all over again.
The Quatermass Xperiment comes highly recommended and anyone who enjoys a blend of sci-fi and horror will definitely want to seek it out. Pick it up on Blu-ray and I promise you’ll be able to get past Donlevy’s heavy-handedness and, if this is your first exposure to Quatermass, you might even enjoy him. The film boasts plenty of delights, including some enjoyable effects, wonderful atmosphere, and a particularly fantastic score from Hammer’s regular composer, James Bernard, which would set the stage for the rest of their sci-fi films.