Hammer Sci-Fi: The Quatermass Xperiment aka The Creeping Unknown (1955)

Written by Richard H. Landau & Val Guest
Directed by Val Guest
Starring Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, Richard Wordsworth
US Release June, 1956
RT 78 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

creeping-unknown

Warning: review contains plot spoilers; ending of movie revealed.

The opening of The Quatermass Xperiment, known as The Creeping Unknown on its original United States release, is a marvelous example of efficiency in filmmaking.  It couldn’t be more effective, yet probably didn’t cost a drop in the bucket toward its budget.  As a young couple are literally rolling around in the hay (fully clothed; this was the mid-1950s), the wind picks up, then they look into the sky, scream and run.  “That’s not a jet!”  When they get inside, the house shakes and the roof collapses.  “It’s probably a meteor, isn’t it?”  When things calm, they step outside to see a rocket sticking out of the ground.

No special effects required, this sequence is terrifying, causing our imaginations to fire on all cylinders.  It’s made all the more chilling with crisp black and white cinematography by Walter J. Harvey and direction by Val Guest.  The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to its opening, but it comes close with its fast-paced mystery about the rocket’s lone survivor and the two astronauts who vanished in space.  At the same time, it introduced American audiences to popular British character, Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy).

The first words spoken by Quatermass are, “I’m a scientist, not a fortune teller who can predict what happens!” as he and his crew race to the crash site via a Volkswagen van.  He’s a cranky, impatient man who launched the rocket without official sanction.  “I launched it and I brought it back.  I think that’s quite an achievement.”   He doesn’t care as much about following rules as he does advancing science.  He’s a little overconfident, perhaps.  “Don’t argue with me.  I know what I’m doing!”  He’s certainly not emotional.  “There’s no room for personal feelings in science.”

That last statement is from a conversation with Judith Carroon (Margia Dean), the wife of Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) and is not very comforting to a woman whose husband may be transforming into a plant.  At least, that’s what I think is happening.  Quatermass is fast-talking with his explanations and I’m not sure I completely understand… not that you have to understand.  All you have to know is that there’s something wrong with Victor, he’s turning into a monster, and when Judith’s covert attempt to bring him home from the hospital backfires, he’s on the loose and a threat to the entire world.

As I review my notes, I think I’ve discovered why I’m uncertain about the details.  There are frequent conversations with vague comments like, “Something happened in here, something beyond our understanding at the moment” and “it’s almost beyond human understanding.”  I love how Quatermass uses the word “almost,” as if he does understand, but can’t be bothered to share what he knows with his number one guy, Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood).  Again, it simply comes down to this, “Carroon is a shell of a man being transformed. To live, it must have food.”  And they must stop him… it.

Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) provides a warm alternative to a cold Quatermass.  We learn more about him than the title character.  We see more lighthearted, personal interactions between him and other policemen, as well as a glimpse of him at home with his wife.  I suppose this maintains the mystique of Quatermass, for whom we receive no backstory or personal information other than his abrasive personality.  First bothered by Lomax, Quatermass eventually admits that since he’s best qualified to investigate the science, Lomax can tag along to investigate the rest.

The dead remains of people whom Victor encounters are gruesome.  Half their faces are eaten and their hands are shriveled.  It’s most chilling when a visit to the zoo leaves the place littered with dead animals.  Changed into a completely different creature, what used to be Victor is discovered at Westminster Abbey during production of a television show about its restoration.  High on a scaffolding, the plant-monster continues to transform, but is momentarily stationary so that Quatermass and his men can attempt to destroy it.  This requires London to go dark for electricity to be channeled to their location.

In the end, Lomax tells Quatermass, “This time you won.”  The differences between the two men are emphasized in a comment that hints at the perennial battle between science and religion.  Lomax says, “In my simple world, I did a lot of praying.”  Quatermass remains silent.  He then walks onto the street in a closing shot nearly as impressive as the movie’s opening shot and tells one of his men, “I’m going to need some help.  I’m going to start again.”  All in a day’s work, Earth-threatening alien invasion stopped, time to move on… That’s it for The Quatermass Xperiment.

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