The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown)

Year: 1955

Production: Hammer

Director: Val Guest

Starring: Brian Donlevy, Richard Wordsworth, Jack Warner

Screenwriter: Ricahrd Landau, Val Guest

Based on the BBC TV serial by Nigel Kneale

82 minutes, cut to 78 minutes; B/W


It was this film version of the BBC's tv serial The Quatermass Experiment that convinced the Hammer company there was money in horror. (The spelling "Xperiment" referred jokingly to the X certificate Hammer correctly expected the film to be given because of what seemed in those innocent days its alarming horror content.) An astronaut returns to Earth infected by spores from space that slowly take over his body, finally transforming him into an amorphous blob that retreats into Westminster Abbey, where it is electrocuted by Quatermass (The original tv serial ends with Quatermass talking to all the three astronaut psyches lingering within the monster, thus convincing the blob to self-destruct.) Richard Wordsworth's shambling, pitiful performace as the afflicted astronaut is quite moving, communicating (though he barely speaks) a sense of something utterly alien to human experience. The Quatermass Xperiment is a minor classic.

The sequels are Quatermass II (Enemy from Space) (1957), Quatermass and the Pit (Five Million Years to Earth) (1967), and The Quatermass Conclusion (1980).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Based on Kneale's ground-breaking teleseries - Hammer had a tradition stretching back to its first production, Dick Barton - Special Agent (1948) of adapting radio and tv material for the large screen - the phenomenal success of this film in both Britain and America transformed Hammer's fortunes. The company quietly dropped its planned next production, a costume drama, King Charles and the Roundheads , and put into immediate production a sequel, Quatermass II (Enemy from Space) (1957), the similar X the Unknown (1956) and began negotiating for the rights to the Frankenstein character. Thus began the British boom in sf (and horror) films.

Broadly speaking, the film is a condensation of the teleseries (though the character of Quatermass himself is considerably altered from Kneale's cultured intellectual to become, in Donlevy's fine performance, a tetchy, dominating man of science).

The sole survivor (Wordsworth, who with the assistance of Phil Leakey's makeup gives a marvellous performance as the pitiful man literally decomposing before our eyes) of a rocketship crash starts behaving strangely and a fungus-like growth appears on his hand. He escapes from the hospital and the growth creeps all over this body until he is nothing but a living fungus. The organism spreads around London, killing everybody in its wake and threatening to grow larger by the hour, until finally Quatermass corners it in Westminster Cathedral and electrocutes it.

In retrospect, what is most revealing about the film is the surprising confidence in space exploration (and science in the figure of Donlevy's Quatermass) that underpins it. After the alien is killed, the film climaxes with a second rocket launch. This is in marked contrast to the next instalment of the series, the bleak and far superior Quatermass II.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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