You’re probably a scosh confused by that trailer, extolling the terrors of The Creeping Unknown. That’s because that was the American title. In Britain in 1953, Nigel Kneale wrote a six-part serial entitled The Quatermass Experiment for BBC television, about Prof. Bernard Quatermass, the head of Britain’s experimental rocket group and the strange occurrences that surrounded the first manned rocket to outer space (in typical sci-fi fashion, it took place in the UK…sure it did). Hammer bought the rights to it and produced it. Since nobody in America had scene the TV serial, they changed the name, but Hammer, trading on the “X” certificate the film was sure to receive from the British Board of Film Censors, removed the E and called it The Quatermass Xperiment.
The film was directed by Val Guest, whose output at Hammer did not carry over into the Gothic Horror cycle, though he did direct the sequel, Quatermass II, the Peter Cushing-starring The Abominable Snowman, and the excellently titled The Day the Earth Caught Fire. He directs Xperiment like it were a newsreel, or a serious drama at the very least. It’s full of men in suits investigating strange things, watching horrific footage recovered from a rocket, and people setting up tests for alien activity. Sounds boring, but I assure you it isn’t. It’s mostly a quiet movie, but it’s punctuated by intense and creepy musical stings by the great James Bernard, who did most of the great Hammer scores. This is a movie that treats sci-fi and horror with intelligence as well as with a sense of menace.
The movie begins with a rocket crashing in the English countryside. Two young lovers run from it and nearly get hit. The police are dispatched as are the members of Britain’s rocket group, led by the stern and pragmatic Prof. Quatermass (Donlevy). It’s discovered that this is the very rocket that was sent up some weeks prior, but instead of three crew members, there is only one left, the gaunt and nearly catatonic Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth). This troubles Quatermass, physician Dr. Briscoe (David King-Wood), and police Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), who think something foul has to be up when two men go missing in outer space. The one actually pleased about things is Caroon’s wife, Judith (Margia Dean), who’s just eager to get her husband home.
Yeah, not so much fun for him. The viscous substance found inside the rocket after the crash is found to be animal in nature, not plant as Quatermass had expected. After recovering the film taken aboard the rocket, Quatermass and his associates see that something got inside the rocket and must have killed the other two crew members. Meanwhile, Caroon begins to display strange growths on his hand which eventually overtakes it. He’s in the hospital, but his wife tries to sneak him out, only for him to escape after killing an orderly, animals at the zoo, and later a chemist when he tries to obtain some medicine. As much as it pains the man, he’s compelled to feed and kill.
Eventually, Caroon is tracked to Westminster Abbey where Quatermass and his associates get Lomax’s police as well as the television news crew to accompany them, and what they find is shocking. No longer a man, Caroon has become a massive alien plant creature. Some spore had gotten inside the rocket and infected him and liquefied the others. The only way Quatermass can think to stop the creature is through electricity. They rig up a method to shock the creature in the rafters of the Abbey and when the time is right, they do so, destroying it, along with anything they might have learned with it. As everyone begins cleaning up, Quatermass walks out, not answering anyone until his assistant asks him if he needs any help. He says, coldly, “We’re going to start again,” signifying that this is just the beginning.
This isn’t a long movie, only 82 minutes, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in atmosphere. Nigel Kneale was not pleased about the casting of American tough guy Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, whom he saw as a very Keep Calm and Carry On Englishman. But I think Donlevy is actually very good, and gives the character the needed disdain and aloofness to be as cold and calculating as he is. This movie, along with the sequels and TV serials before them, would become a huge influence on Doctor Who, especially toward the end of the ’60s and certainly in the ’70s. The difference is that Quatermass isn’t an avuncular, wily sort like the Doctor; he knows what he wants to do and he’s going to do it, in the name of science above all else. Wordsworth is the other standout of the piece, giving some real heart and emotion and pain to his dialogue-free portrayal. He clearly does not want to hurt anyone, but he’s compelled to do so, losing his humanity in the process.
While certainly not as good as the third film, Quatermass and the Pit, made in 1968 with Andrew Keir as a brilliant title character, The Quatermass Xperiment is a good, chilling sci-fi film made at the height of the Red Scare/body-snatcher variety of sci-fi. There are some truly horrific bits and the monster at the end is not bad looking at all, considering. If you want a creepy and thoughtful night in, you can’t do much better than this.