(7/10) Released in the US as The Creeping Unknown, this British 1955 sci-fi horror film is a landmark of the genre. Based on a popular TV series, it was Hammer Films’ first horror movie and their first major hit film. American heavy Brian Donlevy stars as Quatermass, a bulldozer of a rocket scientist trying to solve the mystery of a returned astronaut being transformed from within by an alien life-force that threatens to release its spores all over London. A dark, unsettling sci-fi thriller that still resonates today.
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, UK). Directed by Val Guest. Written by Val Guest & Richard Landau, based on the TV series The Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale. Starring: Brian Donlevy, Richard Wordsworth, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, David King-Wood, Lionel Jeffries, Maurice Kaufmann, Thora Hird, Jane Asher. Produced by Anthony Hinds and Robert L. Lippert for Hammer Films and Exclusive Productions.
IMDb rating: 6.8/10. Tomatometer: 92% Fresh. Metascore: N/A.
Ah! Young love. A starry summer night on the rural outskirts of London. A playful couple on their way home from a night on the town tease and giggle as they fall into each other’s arms in the hay. But that’s all the romance and peace we have time for in this movie. Because just as the young lovers settle into an embrace, something comes roaring across the night sky, and from there on this 80 minute movie never once lets up it relentless pace. ‘
”What is that?” asks the boy.
”Is it a jet?” replies the girl.
”That’s no jet!” exclamates the boy, then points to the sky, horrified.
Fear-struck the couple race for safety, getting called into a house by a frightened farmer. ”Dad!” shouts the girls as the trio ducks for cover. There’s a tremendous roar and a crash outside. The roof of the house collapses. All are fine, but dad grabs his rifle and decides to have a look outside, only to be stopped with a dumb-struck look on his face. The camera cuts to his field, where flames and smoke rise, and in the middle of it a huge rocket has crashed nose first into the ground.
People crowd the streets of the rural London suburb. Fire engines race between the houses, bells ringing, followed by an ambulance. A police car rolls through the crowd: ”Would you all please return to your homes. You are only hampering operations by crowding the streets. Would you please get out of the roads, up on the pavements, please return to your homes.” But to no avail. A huge crowd has gathered outside the fence of the field, held back by police officers. The rescue vehicles arrive, police officers and firemen mill about in the darkness and the commotion. The farmer and his daughter are sitting by the wayside. ”You’ll be alright, they’ll take care of you”, says an officer. ”Oh, don’t you fuss!” the father tells the paramedics. ”It’s still to hot to put water on. We could do with another pump”, the fire-chief tells a policeman.
Cut to a BBC radio broadcaster, telling the public that there is no general danger, but the home office warns people to stay away from the area. Cut again to a dark country road, where a Volkswagen minivan speeds along. Inside are five grim-looking people.
”The home office stresses that there’s no immediate danger. Do you realise what you’ll have to face if this turns out to be a disaster, Quatermass?” asks a mustachioed bald man, poking the stern passenger in front of him with his finger. Quatermass ignores the question and instead asks the young man by his side how much further they have to drive.
”About fifteen miles”, he replies.
”I’m talking to you!” stresses the moustache man.
”For the last 20 miles I’ve been painfully aware of that”, replies an irritated Quatermass.
”Well answer me then, what happened, what went wrong?”
”For the first time in the history of the world man has sent a rocket fifteen-hundred miles into space. You can’t expect such an experiment to be perfect.”
”Well, you must have some idea!” stresses the baldie once again.
”I’m a scientist, not a fortune-teller who predicts what will happen!”
Turns out they have lost contact with rocket 47 hours ago, and the bald moustache man, the government representative on the team, complains that Professor Quatermass sent the rocket up without official approval from the home office. Quatermass replies, more with grunts than words:
”Well, that’s something to tell your ministry: Quatermass sent it up and he brought it back down again.”
Apart from the American grunter Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and the mustachioed government official (Lionel Jeffries), the car’s passengers are the young technician Marsh (Maurice Kaufman), medical doctor Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) and Mrs. Judith Carroon (American actress Margia Dean). They are in charge of the British-American rocket team (although Mrs. Carroon’s involvement remains unclear) that has sent three astronauts into space, and now might very well have killed them.
Two other characters are central to the plot. The first is astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), the sole survivor of the space mission. The second Scotland Yard inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), who sets about investigating what happened to the other two astrounauts, who seem to have vanished into thin air during the expedition, leaving behind to empty space suits, mysteriously still linked together intact, as if the astronauts really de-materialised inside of them. The one remaining astronaut won’t tell them anything, because he can’t – as he is seemingly in a catatonic state, and what worse, seems to be undergoing some strange physical change. But Quatermass will be damned if he lets this drawback endanger his space program, and crashes through the red tape and through any human emotions involved like a bulldozer to 1. find out what happened in space, 2. find out what happened to Carroon, and 3. if possible, save the astronaut from the hideous deformation that seems to be taking place in his body. And finally, as the film progresses: 4. to save the world from the monster Carroon is turning into.
I’m not going to reveal more of the plot at this point, since i don’t want to ruin the film for those who haven’t seen it, but be warned that I will discuss elements of the movie further down that will partly give away central plot devices, so: spoilers ahead.
As most sci-fi fans know, The Quatermass Experiment was a BBC mini-series that aired in 1953, and completely changed the way Brits looked at TV. I reviewed the series earlier, so I won’t go into detail about it. But suffice to say this was a sort of TV that had never been seen before, not only in Britain, but in the whole world. In Britain TV at the time was at a rudimentary state compared to the US, and most television productions were basically filmed theatre productions or illustrated radio plays, event coverage or journalism, almost all of it live-aired. The Quatermass Experiment was not only the country’s first science fiction programme on TV, it was really the first TV serial or mini-series in the world, meaning that a single story was played out over several episodes, in this case six of them. Written by the hugely influential BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale, The Quatermass Experiment swallowed the lion’s part of BBC’s drama staff’s writing budget of 1953. It was really the first science fiction production aimed at an adult audience ever aired on TV, at a time when, for example American broadcaster’s main science fiction output were kiddie shows like Captain Video and his Video Rangers (review), apart from the anthology show Tales of Tomorrow (review). Although not to everyone’s liking artistically, the BBC recognised The Quatermass Experiment’s commercial value, as it became the station’s biggest hit in history up to that point, eclipsed in viewing figures only by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, which coincidentally aired just prior to the mini-series (the only reason part of the series could be filmed in Westminster Abbey was that the drama team could use the same technical setup that had been used there for filming the coronation). This commercial value became important in 1955 when Britain opened up its TV market with the forming the commercial station ITV. In 1955 the BBC produced a second six part mini-series, Quatermass II. A shrewdly calculating small movie company that had acquired the movie rights to the first series launched the first Quatermass movie to coincide with the new series.
This company was Hammer Films, an old movie company from the thirties that had been reborn in 1949 to produce quota quickies for the British movie market. According to goverment-imposed regulations, a certain quota of British cinema output had to be new British films, and to combat the dominance of US movies, all American productions had to be double-billed with a British film. This gave rise to small so-called quota quickie companies, of which Hammer was one of many. In its legendary Bray Studios, built around an old mansion, Down Place, by the River Thames, Hammer had previously dabbled in sci-fi with films like Four-Sided Triangle (1952, review) and Spaceways (1953, review). Studio heads James and Michael Carreras, as well as Anthony Hinds, recognised the huge potential in turning The Quatermass Experiment into a motion picture, and quickly snatched up the movie rights from BBC in 1953. Many quota quickies at the time were based on BBC radio plays, but this was the first time a movie was to be made from a TV series. Initially Nigel Kneale had hoped to write the screenplay for the film, but his contract stated that he wasn’t allowed to work outside the BBC, a contract that he wisely revised for his second Quatermass series, when he left BBC to work as a freelancer.
According to one version of the story, the task of writing the first script draft fell to American Hammer collaborator Richard Landau, who had Hollywood experience with noirs and the lost world movie The Lost Continent (1951), and had also adapted the sci-fi film Spaceways for Hammer, from Charles Eric Maine’s radio play. At the time Hammer was on the last year of its four-year contract with American distributor Robert Lippert, a minor Hollywood powerhouse and producer of a number of American sci-fi movies. As part of the agreement, Hammer was obliged to cast American lead actors in films intended for distribution overseas, so one of Landau’s first jobs was to turn the beloved British Professor Quatermass into an American. In his first draft Doctor Gordon Briscoe was also American. Landau streamlined and simplified much of the original story in order to boil down nearly four hours of series into 80 minutes of film. Much of the philosophical pondering was dropped, as well as two subplots, one involving a romantic triangle between Carroon. Mrs. Carroon and Briscoe, and another focusing on a journalist trying to unravel the mystery of the Quatermass experiment. In my opinion these omissions don’t hurt the story much, in fact they are probably improvements. Landau also chose to play up the horror elements, as part of a shrewd plan by Hammer, which I’ll get to shortly.
According to this version, Hammer then reached out to director Val Guest, who received the script just prior to going on holiday in Tangiers. Guest was a multi-talented chap, who started off as a stage and movie actor in the late twenties and thirties, without any greater success, and then had a short stint as the London correspondent for Hollywood Reporter. It was during this time that director Marcel Varner got miffed with his criticism, and jokingly challenged Guest to write a better script himself if he could. So in 1935 he wrote the comedy No Monkey Business, which Varner directed. The film won no accolades, but turned out decent enough that Guest kept at it, and wrote or co-wrote over 30 scripts between 1935 and 1943 – 18 of them for Varner, who apparently found that Guest was indeed better than his previous writers. After some uncredited assisting directorial work, he got the chance to direct his first movie in 1943, Miss London Ltd., which was a fairly well received comedy quota quickie for Gainsborough Pictures. He continued to direct nearly 20 comedies for Gainsborough between 1943 and 1955, as well as a few for Hammer. I haven’t been able to find out exactly why producer Anthony Hinds thought Guest would be a good director for this dark sci-fi thriller, but I can imagine he thought Guest had a good hand with quick and witty dialogue and a fast, tight pace, something that was sorely lacking in the original Quatermass serial. He was also known for his affection both for the bizarre and for injecting satirical social and political commentary in his films.
However, Guest was no friend of science fiction, and had not seen the original Quatermass series, as he wasn’t in the country when it aired. So when this busy writer and director went off for his holiday in Tangiers, he deliberately left the Quatermass script on his bedside table. In 1975 Guest told TV Times (relayed via horrornews.net) what happened next: ”When I came back I read it through and I said to myself, ‘I don’t really I want to do this. It may have been a big TV success but I can’t see what there is in this.’ So I left it and then my wife read it and said, ‘What are you going to do about this Quatermass thing?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I want to do it,’ and she cried, ‘You’re mad! Do it. Do something different!’ So that’s how I came to do it. I very nearly didn’t.”
According to this version, Guest rewrote Landau’s treatment, and especially worked on the dialogue.
Later, in an interview for Tom Weaver, Guest gave a very different story:
”So [Anthony Hinds] met us at the airport and gave us [the original Quatermass TV scripts]. In Tangier, I put it by the side of the bed, and it was there for a week. Yolande [Guest’s wife, actress Yolande Donlan] said to me one day, ‘What’s this down here?’ and I told her it was a science fiction thing Tony Hinds wanted me to do. She asked me, ‘Have you read it?’ and I said, ‘No, that’s not me – I’m no good for that sort of thing. And she said, ‘Well read it. Since when have you been ethereal?’ I couldn’t answer that at all [laughs], so I said, ‘Well, I’ll read it”. Well, I read it – I plowed through it. It took it onto the beach with me, and I got absolutely hooked on it. I called Tony Hinds, and said that, yes, I’ll do it. That’s how I got on Quatermass. Without Yolande prodding me, I would never have done it.”
According to Guest himself, in the Weaver interview, Landau didn’t do the original draft. Guest says that he put together the script himself from the original TV scripts, other stories claim that Anthony Hinds had made certain omissions, and made a rough, shortened story draft by simply cutting out bits and pieces from the original scripts, and this would have been what he gave Guest. Guest claims that Landau’s only contribution was that he Americanised some of the dialogue.
However it went down, the script does follow the basic outline of the TV series, with some added bits and pieces, a lot of omissions, and a very different ending. American distributor Robert Lippert suggested the gruff Hollywood star Brian Donlevy, past his former prime, for the title role. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, as played by Reginald Tate, was a determined, but philosophical and thoughtful academic, characterisations which didn’t suit the straightforward, brawny Donlevy at all. Val Guest saw this as an opportunity, and instead of trying to fit Donlevy into the former Quatermass mold, he remolded Quatermass to fit Donlevy. Guest wrote him as a driven, cold and single-minded character, who cared little for the fate of the people involved in his space mission, but would walk through fire and brimstone for the sake of science. On the paper Guest’s Quatermass was a wholly unsympathetic character, but Donlevy’s speciality was playing blunt characters with just a hint of humanity and compassion, and this is what he does with Quatermass as well. The final scene of the movie is pure Val Guest genius. After dispatching the monster in Westminster Abbey, the camera follows Quatermass as he grimly walks through the church, from room to room, and out in the courtyard. One person after the other come up to him, asking questions, but Quatermass, in his tightly shut trenchcoat and fedora, doesn’t acknowledge any of them. He walks straight forward with a steely look on his face until he meets Marsh, who asks if there’s anything he can do. Quatermass replies, without breaking a pace:
”Yes, boy, I’m gonna need some help.”
”Help? What are you going to do now?”
”I’m gonna start again.”
Cue unsettling theme music as we see Quatermass from behind in a crane shot, walking away along the Thames under rings of light from the streetlights. Last shot of the film: another rocket taking off.
Nigel Kneale hated it. Hated it hated it hated it. Kneale called Donlevy ”a raincoat looking for somewhere to drip” and ”a former Hollywood heavy who was now in the weeds”. And many, but not nearly all, Brits agree. And while Donlevy may have been all wrong for Kneale’s vision of Quatermass, Kneale’s Quatermass would have been all wrong for Guest’s movie. And to be quite honest, I never cared much for Reginald Tate’s dry, impersonal performance in the series, nor that of his TV successor John Robinson. Donlevy brings a great dynamic to the film through his no-nonsense straightforwardness, and creates an intriguing lead character who the audience cheers for, without actually thinking he’s a very nice guy. In a sense, Donlevy was cast against type, which makes his Quatermass so interesting. You really feel that this is the sort of guy who would actually be able to send a rocket into space, by simply grabbing on to that dream and never letting go, if it so meant he had to go for years without sleeping, if he had to walk away from his family and burn all his bridges in the process. He’s the kind of guy who would crash like a juggernaut through all obstacles to get to where he’s going. He would gather around him the best of the best and inspire them all by example. But as we see, he would also put other people’s lives at stake, closing his eyes from the human costs of his dream.
Curiously enough, although Kneale hated Donlevy’s Quatermass and Guest’s movie, he agreed to write the screenplay for Hammer’s film Quatermass 2 (1957), based on his own TV play Quatermass II (1955), even though both Guest and Donlevy were back in that film. He also wrote the script for The Abonibale Snowman, another Hammer film that Guest directed based on Kneale’s TV series. Guest laments that Kneale felt so badly about all his pictures, probably because, as Guest says, the studio had to cut and streamline what Kneale wrote; ”A brilliant writer, but one who writes stuff as though you were reading it in a book.”
Guest, on the other hand, opted for a documentary feel in the film, he tells Weaver he wanted to direct it as if it was shot by a news team following the proceedings. This meant lots of hand-held cameras and getting in amongst the action. The film crew was terrified over the way Guest wildly let loose, swinging the cameras around, awkward compositing and shaky hand-held zooms and pans. The way he shot the movie was rather revolutionary, and he said he was inspired by Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950). To further add realism, he had the actors’ talk over each other with overlapping dialogue, beautifully realised in that first shot described above, very much like Howard Hawks or Orson Welles in the US. It gives the film an urgency and pace, and really sucks the viewer into the proceedings. And one must admit that it stands in stark contrast to the staged talkiness of Kneale’s original TV series, which, for all its merits, moves along as if it was walking in syrup.
Brian Donlevy’s performance will always divide audiences. Fans of the original Quatermass will never accept him, partly because they feel he has usurped a British hero, and partly because of the way Guest’s Quatermass is portrayed. His performance is stiff and boorish, more like an army drill sergeant than an academic. But as mentioned above, this is the Quatermass that the movie needs. Donlevy himself was not just any bit-part player, but a celebrated character and lead actor in the forties, after he had been nominated for an Oscar for his role in Beau Geste (1939). He played the title role in The Great McGinty (1940). He had leads or second leads in John Farrow’s Wake Island (1942), the noir classic The Glass Key (1942), Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and John Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947), among others. From 1949 to 1953 he starred in the radio serial Dangerous Assignment, which was turned into a TV series in 1952, but it aired only for one season. This was sort of the last hurrah for the ageing actor, and in the early fifties film roles were sparse, and he got attached to Robert Lippert’s small production company (a front for 20th Century Fox), which amassed a roster of star actors down on their luck.
In some scenes Donlevy seems a bit stiffer than usual, and this may be because he was drunk as a skunk on set. Drinking was one of the reasons for Donlevy’s fall from grace in Hollywood, but Hammer wasn’t aware of this, until a week into shooting, when they realised that the coffee he was always drinking on set was laced with brandy. Guest took the thermos away and said that ”there was no problem with Donlevy as long as you kept him sober”.
One of the reasons for the film’s huge success was its shrewd marketing. At the time the British movie censorship was very strict, which is why many British films from the early fifties feel rather lame when it comes to things like sex, violence and horror. Most filmmakers feared the dreaded X-rating. However, Hammer had secured American distribution and knew that an exploitation film with shock value would make their budget back in the US, so they instead took a gamble and decided to see if they couldn’t turn an X-rating into their advantage in the UK. As Hammer had been in trouble with the censors before, they now had to check their scripts with the guardians of cinema decency even before they started filming. Instead of trying to keep down the horror element, they sent in the script with the explicit request for the censors to give the movie an X-rating. When the censors were appropriately appalled by the script, Hammer plastered the X all over their marketing, even highlighting it in the title, by dropping the E from Experiment. It worked like a charm. The film became a tremendous hit in the UK, securing the spot of highest-grossing double bill in the UK in 1955. What more, Lippert was able to secure a distribution deal with a major US distributor, United Artists, and renamed the movie The Creeping Unknown (since the American audience didn’t know who Quatermass was), and the film became a resounding success in the States as well.
This unprecedented success spurred Hammer to quickly capitalise on the Quatermass franchise, and Hammer staff member Jimmy Sangster pitched a story about a monster emerging from the Earth’s core for Quatermass to fight. However, Nigel Kneale forbade the company to use the Quatermass character for this new story. This didn’t stop Hammer – the company went ahead and made the film anyway, and basically wrote it as a Quatermass film, but without the name. X the Unknown premiered in 1956, with Dean Jagger in the lead, basically doing his best imitation of Donlevy’s Quatermass. When Kneale was allowed to write the scripts from his own serials, he greenlighted Quatermass 2 (1957) and ten years later Quatermass and the Pit (1967), often perceived as the best of the trilogy. The reason for this ten-year gap in Quatermass films was that in 1957 Hammer struck gold with their new franchise – Hammer Horror.
After the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer did audience research to find out what it was that viewers liked so much about the film. It soon became clear that it was the horror aspect of the movie that appealed to audiences more than the science fiction element. While Hammer didn’t abandon science fiction, the studio decided to go along and make an all-out X-rated classic horror movie. They needed something that was cheap, something with a marquee value and something that could scare the living daylights out of the audience. They went for a famous story with timeless appeal, that was old enough to be in the public domain, something everyone was familiar with and would surely draw a young audience hungry for scares and thrills – Frankenstein. If Quatermass was a huge hit, Hammer probably had no idea of the ball they started rolling when they decided to bring together director Terence Fisher and actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing for their first colour film; The Curse of Frankenstein, in 1957.
The acting in The Quatermass Xperiment is very good all the way through, of course depending on whether or not you like Donlevy’s performance. Donlevy went on to star in Quatermass 2, but wasn’t called back for Quatermass and the Pit. He starred in two other science fiction movies; he played the lead on Curse of the Fly (1965), and one of the leads in Gammera the Invincible (1966), the re-shot and Americanised version of Daikaiju Gamera (1965). In Denis Meikle’s book A History of Horrors: The Rise and the Fall of the House of Hammer, Val Guest doesn’t have anything bad to say about Donlevy, despite his drinking problem: ”He was a great guy. He used to like his drink, however, so by after lunch he would come to me and say, ‘Give me a break-down of the story so far. Where have I been just before this scene?’ We used to feed him black coffee all morning but then we found out he was lacing it. But he was a very professional actor and very easy to work with.” Donlevy had created for himself a carefully managed image. Although quite dashing in his own right in his younger years, he very early started using a girdle to give him the triangle-shaped torso of an athlete. Every time he came on set, his ritual started with putting in his false teeth, then the girdle, platform shoes to make him seem taller, and lastly a hair-piece to hide his balding head. As Bill Warren writes in Keep Watching the Skies, in the fifties his girdle lent him the appearance of a brick wall. In my opinion Donlevy is absolutely superb in the movie, despite his stiffness and a few moments where he seems to be slightly inebriated.
The only one who perhaps isn’t very good in her role is American actress Margia Dean, playing Mrs. Carroon. Hammer producer, director and executive Michael Carreras says in Meikle’s book that Dean was the girlfriend of 20th Century Fox president Spyros Skouras; ”Skouras had a girlfriend who was an actress and he wanted her in pictures, but he didn’t want her in pictures in America because of the tittle-tattle or whatever, so he set it up through Lippert.” Dean was perhaps more of a so-called ”glamour girl” than an actress, and struggled along with bit-parts and extra work from the late forties to the early fifties, when she started dating Skouras. She had minimal roles in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), as well as in Mesa of Lost Women (1953, review). After she was taken under the wings of Skouras in 1954, he had her cast as female lead or in big supporting roles in a number of B movies, primarily westerns, often done by one or the others of Robert Lippert’s companies or Sam & Sigmund Neufeld. Guest tells Weaver: ”She was a sweet girl, but she couldn’t act.” All of Dean’s dialogue was re-dubbed in post-production.
Jovial and good-natured Jack Warner is splendid as Inspector Lomax, a counterpart to Donlevy’s Quatermass. The best scene in the movie is a small skit which shows Guest’s knack for comedy. Lomax sits at his desk when a policeman walks in. ”Did you get it?” asks Lomax seriously. ”Yes, sir”, answers the policeman, and starts producing an electrical cord, which he plugs into a socket and hands the other end to Lomax, who solemnly picks up a circular object and places it on the table. He then proceeds to pick up a box, removes a black, rectangular device, plugs in the cord, and just as we think some strange communication device will crackle into action, Lomax adjusts the circular mirror on his table and turns on his electric shaver.
Warner was already a hugely popular actor, but 1955 cemented his career, as he also appeared in Ladykillers and landed the titular role of police captain in Dixon of Dock Green, which he played for 21 consecutive years. Great is also David King-Wood as the the medical doctor, the team’s humanitarian voice, who frankly couldn’t care less about the experiment if lives are at stake. King-Wood was primarily a theatre actor, and only has a couple of dozen films to his name.
But the finest performance of the film is given by Richard Wordsworth as Victor Carroon. As opposed to the original TV series, Carroon has no lines in the film, and he gives one of the best mime performances ever in a horror movie. It is often compared to Boris Karloff’s in Frankenstein (1931, review). Wordsworth’s otherworldly performance displays the conflict within him with anguish, sadness and horror, as he struggles to keep the monster he realises he is turning into at bay. Never is it as wonderfully portrayed as in the famous scene where he plunges his hand into a potted cactus, and his final transformation begins, or where he (in a very Frankensteinean scene) is on the run and encounters a small girl on the river bank. While the monster wants to devour her for her life-force, the human Carroon fights with all his might to hold it back, resulting in him smashing her doll instead of her, and then he lumbers away. According to Meikle, the little girl, played by Jane Asher (later adult actress and almost wife of Paul McCartney), was genuinely frightened, and Wordsworth tried to comfort her after the scene was done – forgetting he was still in make-up.
Wordsworth had next to no film experience prior to The Quatermass Xperiment, and was contacted by Val Guest after he had seen him performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Guest thought that Wordsworth’s lanky, gaunt look, his deep-set eyes and prominent cheek-bones gave him the perfect look for the astronaut being devoured and transformed from the inside by the alien. The look was further enhanced by makeup artist Philip Leakey, who placed a light above Wordsworth’s face to use his natural feature as a starting point for enhancing shadows and lines. Leakey also created the ”cactus arm” and the strange skin texture of Victor Carroon. Bill Warren in his book laments that Wordsworth’s film career never took off the way it might have, but in fact this was a choice made by Wordsworth himself. Wordsworth was offered the role of the Frankenstein creature in The Curse of Frankenstein, but turned it down, because he wasn’t interested in repeating similar roles in film, and instead opted to focus on his theatre work. Thus, of course, opening the door for Christopher Lee to conquer the world as the titular, and many other, monsters. Wordsworth did accept a few roles in other Hammer productions and did quite a lot of TV work, though. He had one of the lead roles in the sci-fi TV series R3, which ran for one season in 1964, and guested on a couple of other British sci-fis in the eighties. Wordsworth was the great-great-grandchild of celebrated poet William Wordsworth.
There are so many great actors in the film that impossible to name them all. Award-winning masters like Thora Hird, Lionel Jeffries and Gordon Jackson show up in what are essentially walk-on parts. So many great actors are involved that Maurice Kaufmann, playing the technician Marsh – one of the main characters – gets bumped off the credit sheet.
Jane Asher, as stated, grew up to become a very successful actress, perhaps best known for her supporting role in Alfie (1966) and for playing the lead in the comedy Deep End (1970). She had a big supporting role in the 2006 TV movie A for Andromeda, starring a young Tom Hardy, and has a recurring role in the ongoing (as of 2016) TV series Eve, a teen drama about a female android living with a normal family.
One of the most memorable aspects of the movie is its eerie, dramatic, string-heavy score. The music was supposed to be written by John Hotchkins and performed by the Royal Opera House Orchestra. However, Hotchkins fell ill, so producer Tony Hinds asked the orchestra’s conductor John Hollingsworth if he could recommend anyone. Hollingsworth suggested a young man by the name of James Bernard, who he had worked with on the BBC. Since Bernard was new to the game, Hollingsworth restricted the arrangement to the string and percussion sections. Bernard recalled, ”I had not written for film before and had only used strings for the BBC scores, so I think that John thought it would be better to see how I got on with these two sections before letting me loose with a full orchestra.” The music sets the tone right from the opening titles with its unsettling rising and falling three-note seminotes. It has been noted that Bernard’s use of atonal strings predated Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (1960), but on this blog alone I have now written about at least five film composers that used this effect before Herrmann, so perhaps we just agree that Hermann didn’t invent it. Hammer was so impressed with Bernard, that they hired him to compose 22 more films for them, more than any other composer.
Makeup artist Philip Leakey worked on a shoestring budget to come up with the very effective and memorable makeup on Wordsworth. Guest impressed on Leakey that he didn’t want Carroon to turn into a hideous monster, but rather wanted the makeup to highlight Carroon’s tragedy as a victim of some ungodly horror, an alien disease. Therefore, the facial makeup was kept subtle, using liquid rubber to build upon Wordsworth’s naturally accentuated features. Carroon’s deformed arm was made out of latex and rubber and had tubes running inside, into which water was pumped to make the limb pulsate. The arm isn’t too convincing, but Guest wisely keeps it hidden throughout almost all of the film, as Carroon tucks it in under a coat most of the time. Guest only shows it in brief glimpses. I remember seeing the film for the first time in my late twenties, and the build-up is so great, that the first time Carroon pulls out the arm to kill another character, it really gave me quite a start.
And spoiler spoiler: Leakey also created the final stage of Carroon’s mutation, when the creature no longer had any resemblance to a human being, as Quatermass finds it perched on redecoration scaffolds beneath the roof of Westminster Abbey. It’s a hideous octopoid creature with glistening skin and writhing tentacles – and although the design itself isn’t especially original, it looks surprisingly organic and real. That’s because it wasn’t created out of rubber or latex, but out of tripe (cow’s stomach), which gives it a very realistic look. However, Anthony Hinds wasn’t impressed when he saw the dailies from the scene, as he felt it lacked an emotional punch. He had the idea to give it a bit more of a human feel by adding an eye and an almost human scream as it is dispatched in the end, and it did the trick.
Leakey did some spectacular work on small budgets, but this didn’t prevent him from having a personal retainer (not assistant) on Hammer’s payroll. Leakey continued to work foe the studio, and went on to the tricky task of creating a memorable make-up for Frankenstein’s creature, without infringing on Universal’s copyright, and did a few more movies for the studio, before Hammer’s executive producer finally revoked his retainer, as he now had a salaried assistant as well, which he took as a personal affront and as an attack on principle, and left the studio. His assistant Roy Ashton them became head of Hammer’s makeup department.
Unlike the BBC, Hammer didn’t get permission to film in Westminster Abbey. All of the scenes in the church were recreated at Bray Studios. The bottom part of the Abbey was created on set, and the rest was matted in with glass paintings, created by master matte artist Les Bowie. Another important matte was the crashed rocket in the field. Only the bottom part was built as a physical set-piece, the rest was painted. Art director was J. Elder Wills, a veteran of the silent era, who more or less retired after the film. The special effects team’s assistant cameraman was Roy Fields, whose first movie this was. Fields went on to win an Oscar for his groundbreaking work on Superman (1978), and created effects for a number of high-profile films. The mattes, the special effects and the miniature work is generally of surprisingly good quality considering the budget. There’s one clear glitch in the scenes in the abbey, when a central backdrop wobbles considerably. I can’t make out whether it’s a rear screen projection, a matte or a backdrop, but I’m pretty sure that the church has some architectural problems if one of their rooms can’t seem to hold still. Ray Caple, another part of the special effects team, also went on to a number of high-profile jobs, many of them sci-fi movies – such as Superman, Alien (1979), Brazil (1985) and Batman (1989).
Director Val Guest continued to dabble in a number of different genres, and made a few more films for Hammer. However, the Quatermass movies were the only science fictions films he made for the studio, unless you count The Abominable Snowman (1957) or the cult film When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) as sci-fi. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is often considered Guest’s best movie. He wrote the film, concerning the build-up to a nuclear holocaust, together with Wolf Mankowitz, and the two were awarded with a BAFTA for best British screenplay in 1962. In 1970 Guest was attached to direct the bizarre science fiction musical comedy Toomorrow, a vehicle to promote a new TV pop band helmed by Olivia Newton-John, which the producers hoped would be the new The Monkees. “Terrible”, was what Newton-John called it. That same year he also directed the tacky caveman film When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, best remembered for Jim Danforth’s stop motion animation and Italian-American starlet Victoria Vetri’s skimpy outfit. Vetri took up the battle with Raquel Welch over which cave girl could wear the least clothes without actually being nude. Guest is also known as one of the five directors who took on the impossible task of trying to direct the train wreck that was Casino Royale (1967). In 1971 he co-wrote and directed the heist movie Killer Force, best remembered for its amazing cast, including Telly Savalas, Peter Fonda, Christopher Lee and Maud Adams. He worked primarily in TV in the late seventies and eighties, and retired in 1984, after directed three episodes of Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. Guest passed away in 2006.
Even with an X-rating, English censors didn’t greenlight the movie the way the script was written, as they protested against the exploitation of the horror elements. Guest rewrote the script in such a way that Carroon’s later stages of transformation almost weren’t shown on screen at all, until the final climax of the movie. After Carroon has attacked a pharmacy we almost don’t see him at all, instead Guest only shows his eyes through the foliage of bushes at the London Zoo, we her him growling an panting, see him only as a shadow and finally watch as he approaches the caged animals through a POV shot. When police and the science team arrive the next morning, Carroon has killed all animals and left a disgusting trail of slime behind him. The scientists find – something – in the bushes, at which they recoil in horror, apparently the creature has now shed its skin, and what’s left is certainly not human anymore. This approach works wonders for the film, as it builds up a genuinely frightening atmosphere – what we imagine is certainly much better than what the filmmakers would have been able to create.
One interesting note is that this may be the first instance in a film where ”found footage” is incorporated, as Quatermass and his team inspect tapes from a film camera in the rocket to find out what happened on the voyage. Audiences may find it amusing that this crude footage, filmed with a single camera, every now and then jumps from a wide shot of the interior of the rocket to a close-up of the gauges. But even in this little piece of found footage, Guest has incorporated a very neat special effect, as one of the astronauts at one point demonstrates weightlessness, as he starts walking horizontally along the curved hull of the spaceship, while his colleagues remain sitting in the same position. This was probably done by having a rotating set, much like Stanley Kubrick would later have (albeit in a much larges scale) on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Second assistant director on the film was, unusually for the time, a woman, called Aida Young, who would later go on to become a successful production manager and producer, with a dozen films for Hammer in the sixties, but primarily in TV.
The Quatermass Xperiment further invigorated the burgeoning sci-fi interest among studios in Britain, and breathed new life into US science fiction as well, as the genre was descending into comic book territory across the Atlantic. The film carried on where Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951, review) left off – as a dark, scary movie aimed at an adult audience, with elements from horror films and film noir worked into the film. In fact, The Quatermass Xperiment is in some ways closer to the original story Who Goes There by John W. Campbell, that The Thing was based on, in the sense that it involves an invisible alien invading people’s bodies. In Campbell’s case it killed the humans and shape-shifted, like John Carpenter portrayed it in the 1982 remake.
Like the Thing in Campbell’s story took on the memories and knowledge of the people it devoured, Nigel Kneale added another layer of complexity: in the TV serial the alien turns the other two astronauts into organic jelly that the scientists dig out from the walls of the rocket – but their minds are transferred into the body of Carroon, where the three men and the alien all compete against each other for control. This leads Kneale to the climax, where Quatermass tries to appeal to the last vestiges of humanity in the alien, as it is just about to spore inside the Abbey, sending its seeds all over London. Quatermass begs the three humans still trapped inside the hideous blob of the alien being to ”will the creature to death”, if you will – basically talking the alien to death. I haven’t seen the finale of the TV series, as BBC only recorded the two first episodes, and then dumped the idea, as the copies turned out so poor they weren’t suitable for reprising on TV. However, I’ve seen the 2005 live remake, and even with modern technology they have a hard time pulling it off. Val Guest is probably on to something when he says that Kneale was a literary writer, not a screenwriter. The idea of a battle of minds within the alien as a finale is a wonderful idea from a psychological and philosophical standpoint, but it is almost impossible to render well visually. It’s a purely literary device. Guest’s (or Landau’s) decision to remove this element and have Quatermass dispatch the monster with through much more prosaic device is less ambitious, and turns the movie into more of a traditional ”monster on the loose” fare, but it does serve the visual medium better.
The film isn’t without its problems. The characters are rather one-dimensional and none of them have much of a dramatic arc, with the exception of Mrs. Carroon and of course Carroon himself. And despite it’s tightened story, the movie suffers a bit from pacing problems in the second half. As fine stand-alone scenes as they are, the episodes with Carroon encountering the little girl and paying a visit to the zoo do somewhat pull the momentum out of the film, especially as they come after another stand-alone scene – the pharmacy attack and the inevitable follow-up investigation. The problem is perhaps more than anything that the script has the viewer go through the same paces twice, both in the case of the pharmacy and the zoo – first with Carroon and then – at length – when Quatermass, Lomax and their men arrive to investigate. For a good twenty minutes, the film sort of treads water. It doesn’t help that all we see feels highly familiar from other monster movies, something that would partly be remedied in later Quatermass films.
Most of the movie was filmed in or around Bray Studios, and Guest makes good use of the facilities, but also does a lot of location shooting around London. The film’s slightly cramped feel does suggest a lack of resources, but Guest manages to turn this in his advantage, creating a dark, claustrophobic feel. Most of the outdoor shots are filmed at night, and there’s no ”day for night” shots of the sort often found in US low budget films at the time. Despite the movie’s low budget of 42 000 pounds (around 120 000 – 130 000 dollars at the time), the film almost has an A movie feel. The Bray fire department graciously agreed to appear in the film for free, and when Hammer didn’t get permission to film in London Zoo, they asked the smaller and nearer Chessington Zoo, where the management happily welcomed then film team.
The Quatermass Xperiment came along at a crucial time in Hammer’s history. Just like in the US, the movie industry of Britain was struggling to compete with the new popular medium of TV. Movie theatres were closing shop and many small studios went under due to declining ticket sales. Hammer’s movie production was almost at a stand-still. The studio’s American distribution contract with Lippert was running out, and there was talk of selling the newly renovated Bray Studios. James Carreras and Anthony Hinds were no visionaries or risk-takers, but had been toiling away since the late forties with safe middle-of-the-road quota quickie productions. The Quatermass Xperiment wasn’t a great risk – they knew the popularity of the TV series would draw a crowd, but it was Val Guest who pushed the envelope. And it paid off. Not only did the movie bring some much needed financial surplus, it also gave Hammer a new direction. The film proved that there was a huge market for adult-oriented horror films, and that the dreaded X-rating was something the studio could embrace and build on, rather than try to avoid. The movie’s success in the States also opened the door for negotiations with major distributors, thus eliminating the need for middle-men like Robert Lippert. The Quatermass Xperiment saved Hammer.
The Quatermass Xperiment stands proudly as one of the best sci-fi movies made in the fifties. Some would argue that the two sequels were even better. I can’t testify to that, since it has been a few years since I saw the later films, but this was still the film that kicked it all off, and it certainly shouldn’t pale in comparison. The film’s a bit uneven and sags slightly in the middle, and Guest and Landau were perhaps a bit too eager to simplify the plot and cut out Kneale’s more complex themes, something that was remedied when Kneale himself provided script drafts for the latter movies.
Thematically the movie was still ahead of its time, thanks to Kneale’s intelligent and novel ideas. The theme of an alien taking over the mind and body of a human wasn’t unheard of in literature, but didn’t really show up on film until 1953 with Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1953, review). Of course, the theme itself was as old as storytelling – it is basically the age-old trope of demonic possession, only updated to the space age. However the second part was rather novel: the thought of an alien fungus sporing, and spreading its seed all over London, and soon the world, was of course a great image for a western world worrying about communist infiltration – and perhaps also the effects of a nuclear war, even though the real dangers of nuclear fallout were greatly underestimated at the time. The film had an immense impact on a certain generation of would-be writers, directors and producers when it came out. John Carpenter, a self-proclaimed sci-fi nut, loved The Creeping Unknown when it came out in the States in 1956, when he was 8 years old; ”It was profound – my mind was blown when I saw this movie”, he stated in one interview. The film could also well have been an inspiration for Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett when they wrote Alien (1979), although I’m not aware that they ever named it among their long list of inspirations. The Quatermass Xperiment, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) represented the peak of the ”fungus among us” genre, as Carpenter labels it, in the fifties, and which further peaked in the eighties, when filmmakers that had grown up in the fifties were in their prime. The movie is still genuinely unsettling, and remains one of the finest examples of mid-fifes science fiction.
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, UK). Directed by Val Guest. Written by Val Guest & Richard Landau, based on the TV series The Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale. Starring: Brian Donlevy, Richard Wordsworth, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, David King-Wood, Lionel Jeffries, Maurice Kaufmann, Thora Hird, Gordon Jackson, Harold Lang, Sam Kydd, Jane Asher, John Kerr. Music: James Bernard. Cinematography: Walter J. Harvey. Editing: James Needs. Art direction: J. Elder Willis. Makeup artist: Philip Leakey. Special effects: Les Bowie. Visual effects: Roy Field. Sound recordist: H.C. Pearson. Stunts: Nosher Powell. Wardrobe: Molly Arbuthnot. Produced by Anthony Hinds and Robert L. Lippert for Hammer Films and Exclusive Productions.