A Journal Of The Dark Arts
The Quatermass Xperiment, under a variety of titles, would kickstart Hammer’s horror era with its chilling, tense sci-fi drama.
The Quatermass Xperiment, which was also released under the name The Creeping Terror, was the first film by Hammer Studios to incorporate elements of science fiction and horror. Despite its fantastic elements, The Quatermass Xperiment is rooted in tense Cold War thrillers of the ’50s, and its all the more terrifying for it. Nothing in The Quatermass Xperiment feels particularly far-fetched which is part of what makes it such a harrowing viewing experience.
The Quatermass Xperiment leaps right out the gate, wasting no time dropping you straight into the action. A rocketship returning from orbit crash lands in a field in rural England after having lost contact with the men aboard. Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), who was responsible for the rocket experiment, brings the ship back to Earth after 57 hours of radio silence. They figure out a way to open the rocket only to discover 2 of the 3 astronauts have gone missing, leaving only Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) to tumble to the British soil.
Victor is catatonic, leaving the researchers to try and figure out what’s wrong with him. It doesn’t take long to understand that something has gone wrong out there in the inky black void of space.
Quatermass is joined by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) and Mrs. Judith Carroon (Margia Dean), in his quest to figure out what’s happening to the remaining astronaut. The discovery of a pile of gelatinous matter which may once have been human warns that something sinister is afoot and time may be of the essence.
In the film’s thrilling culmination, the being that was once Victor Carroon escapes from the holiday and begins a rampaging campaign of terror throughout the remote British countryside. The Quatermass Xperiment comes to a thrilling culmination in Westminster Abbey, where a TV program is being broadcast. It’s a harrowing finale, stopping just a few moments before the possible extinction of all life on Earth.
Even this, however, isn’t enough to stop Quatermass’ space exploration.
At the time of its making, Nigel Kneale wasn’t happy with Brian Donlevey’s casting as Quatermass, disliking his brusqueness. While it’s true, it does give a unique tone to The Quatermass Xperiment, it’s in keeping with director Val Guest’s vision of making the film more believable, employing a clinical newsreel style of directing. The Quatermass Xperiment has more of a hard-boiled, hard-nosed noir style than a raygun epic. And it’s all the more unsettling and impactful for it.
The fact that The Quatermass Xperiment takes place almost entirely in old world English settings. A farmhouse, a zoo, and, of course, the epic culmination in Westminster Abbey seems to speak of a new world, with new anxieties, sprouting from the roots of traditional British culture. It’s like Stonehenge being converted into a launchpad or a Vaudeville circus as a clinical laboratory.
The Quatermass Xperiment came out in 1955, we must remember, long before the first manned flight to Outer Space. All of the fears about the effects of anti-gravity and radiation were still speculative, at that point. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the sci-fi id of the post-war era. And it’s genuinely frightening, which you can’t say about ’50s horror or sci-fi all that often. This, combined with the classical score from James Bernard is truly like watching an old school Hammer gothic horror film slowly morph into an existential sci-fi horror film. It’s like discovering some missing link, allowing us to appreciate both genres more, in the process.
You can watch all of The Quatermass Xperiment/The Creeping Terror via Dailymotion!