THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT was unleashed from Britain in 1955, its 82 minutes a re-tooled condensation of a very popular 1953 BBC television series. Striking ore on home turf as part of a double-bill with the French heist classic Rififi, it was marketed in the States the following year as The Creeping Unknown, dumped on a double-bill with the cheapie fright flick The Black Sleep. Success wrought two sequels (Quatermass 2 in 1957 and ten years later Quatermass And The Pit), boosted the fortunes of the struggling Hammer Films, and influenced decades of sci-fi/horror films and film-makers. *
“It creeps, it crawls, it kills!”
When a spacecraft nose-dives into the English countryside, authorities, led by the mission’s instigator, scientist ‘Bernard Quatermass’, find—or rather, can’t find– two of the three astronauts. The third—alive but incapacitated— is revealed to be infected with some space-borne organism, goop that mutates him and grows as it absorbs other handy ‘food’ (a cactus, people, zoo animals). Escaping (of course), this famished spore-spawn will devour everything unless the brusque Quatermass and flustered Scotland Yard can find it and zap it back to atomized particle-dust.
Adapting Nigel Kneale’s TV creation, screenwriter Richard Landau and director Val Guest eliminated what they deemed extraneous background and sub-plots for a trim theatrical version, and to enjoin the American and international market they gave Quatermass over to the rough-edged character lead Brian Donlevy, whose belligerent interpretation of the scientist displeased originator Kneale, but worked well for Guest, who felt the irritable (and heavy drinking) Donlevy “gave it absolute reality”. **
Secondary roles were handled by Jack Warner, a popular British comic actor, Margia Dean, a woefully inexperienced American model (the girlfriend of 20th-Century Fox President Spyros Skouras) and British theater thespian Richard Wordsworth as the pitiable astronaut #3 (the actor was the great-great grandson of poet William Wordsworth). Warner provides light counterpoint to Donlevy’s amusing nonstop gruffness. Director Guest said of Dean “She was a sweet girl, but she couldn’t act”—for sure; badly enough that her lines were dubbed, but whoever dubbed them was also terrible. Fortunately, her awkwardness is pawed aside by the superb physical performance from Wordsworth, basically mime, sans any dialogue, all tortured body movements and anguished eyes–it’s highly regarded, with many comparing it to Karloff’s ‘Frankenstein monster’. Guest commented: “He was very good, yes. He came from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that was his very first film.”
Guest had cameraman Walter J. Harvey shoot much of it in cinema-vérité style to inject some semblance of reality, and James Bernard complements the slow-burning, steadily escalating tension with a nervous score that uses atonal strings in a fashion that pre-date Psycho. The limited budget of £45,000/$58,400 allowed only so much for special effects, but they’re pretty nifty creations of the yuck-variety, and Guest employs them, with help from shadow and light, to just the degree they’re needed to insure continued suspense, and a decent gooey chill.
With Lionel Jeffries, Gordon Jackson and Thora Hird. The little girl who shows up to play with her doll is Jane Asher, 8, who eight years later would become extra-famous for a while being fiancée to one Paul McCartney. The ‘X’ in the title was used to signify the rating given by British censors, and as a marketing ploy.
* Extensive amounts of material (or matter, if you run with the film’s germ) can be excavated on-line, showing the links this seminal saga spread to later genre items and the homage paid by writers and directors as well as bows from many knocked-out critics. “Watch the screens!” Show’s being a Business, writer-creator Keane was stiffed for payment on the filmed property as he was an employee of BBC, who owned his scripts. A weird, more tragic legal offshoot: in ’56, over in the US as The Creeping Unknown, it so frightened one 9-year old boy that he choked to death. His parents sued the theater and United Artists (handling the distribution) and the sad/bizarre event is noted in the Guinness Book of World Records.
** 54 at the time, Brian Donlevy’s predilection hitting for the hard stuff had him noticeably worn from the glory days of Beau Geste, The Great McGinty and Wake Island, yet he put plenty of salt & pepper into the part of Quatermass, and kept acting (with diminishing results) for another 15 years. The one-time cavalry bugle boy in the Pancho Villa Expedition (he was 14 during the chase) and WW1 pilot died in 1972, at 71.