The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner)

An astronaut turns into a giant cactus monster in Val Guest’s classic sci-fi thriller, based on the BBC TV serial by Nigel Kneale. The film that built the reputation of Hammer Films.

In the first of the Hammer Horrors, a spaceship crashes to earth in the English countryside, containing a mute, catatonic astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) – and no sign of the other two pilots except some traces of gloop. It transpires Carroon has been infected by an alien parasite, responsible for the deaths of his fellow crew. As space program head, the ruthless, monomaniacal Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) says, “It’s almost beyond human understanding: some fantastic invisible force converted two men into… jelly!”

A rapidly mutating Carroon goes on a murderous rampage, pursued by Quatermass and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner, best known as ‘Dixon Of Dock Green’). The chase culminates in a showdown with the comprehensively mutated Caroon in Westminster Abbey.

Based on Nigel Kneale’s 1953 BBC TV serial (now mostly lost; it was transmitted live and only partially recorded), The Quatermass Xperiment benefits from its documentary style approach, menacing score, and some sterling performances. Particularly notable is Wordsworth (great-great-grandson of the poet) as the pitiable ‘monster’, whose horrified visage and total lack of dialogue simply adds to the poignancy of his condition (there’s an air of the classic Universal Frankenstein Monster’s pathos).

Conversely, Donlevy’s aggressive performance has been the subject of continued controversy, but his casting was a sop to the Stateside market. The ex-soldier and Hollywood tough guy replaced the first, very English and very cerebral Quatermass, played by Reginald Tate. In the original TV version, Tate’s Quatermass had ‘talked’ the monster to death, appealing to the last vestiges of its humanity. As Kneale (who due to contractual obligations, had no input) griped, “Mr Donlevy? He could have taken on aliens bare-handed”.

Despite these potential drawbacks, Guest makes a virtue of the low budget (£42,000), substituting genuine chills for effects and action – although a culminating glimpse of the hideous beastie leaves viewers in no doubt about the horrific consequences, should this one get away (it’s potential to reproduce is as terrible as that of The Thing). While the final shot, of an unrepentant Quatermass – perhaps the real ‘monster’ here – launching another rocket, is arguably the most chilling image of all.

Trivia: The unusual spelling of the movie’s title was a none-too-subtle marketing gimmick by Hammer, designed to draw attention to the fact it was an ‘X’ certificate film. Kneale didn’t approve.

Classic quote: There’s no room for personal feelings in science! – Quatermass (Brian Donlevy)

Cast: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, Thora Hird, Gordan Jackson, David KIng-Wood, Richard Wordsworth, Lionel Jeffries

Director: Val Guest
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Writers: Richard Landau , Val Guest
Photographer: Walter J Harvey

Hammer | 1955