The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
” It’s coming for YOU from Space to wipe all living things from the face of the Earth! CAN IT BE STOPPED?”
Director: Val Guest
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean
Synopsis: A British rocket scientist hunts an astronaut monstrously enveloped by an alien fungus.
Britain in the 1950s, where life is simple and giggling romance is found in a haystack — until one of those pesky rocket ships lands nose first in the local farmer’s field, that is. The ship’s arrival marks the beginning of a story that compresses a six-part TV series into a 82-minute movie and yet still feels like it’s just killing time on occasion. The rocket ship is one of ours, and there are supposed to be three men inside it, but only one staggers out. Inside, Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) discovers two empty spacesuits but no more spacemen. The mystery, however, revolves not so much around what happened out there in outer space, but where the slowly mutating surviving astronaut, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) has got to when he disappears from hospital.
Professor Quatermass is one of those characters who pops up every now and then on TV or in movies. He’s certainly an irascible chap here, arrogant and rude, brusquely dismissive of almost anyone who crosses his path, whether it’s the affable and capable Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (dear old Jack ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ Warner), who can’t finish a shave to save his life, or Carroon’s understandably anxious wife (Margia Dean). He even forbids Mrs. Carroon from seeing her husband, which sort of semi-mitigates her incredibly stupid decision to smuggle him out of hospital even though it’s clear there’s something seriously wrong with the poor bloke.
Carroon’s slow transmogrification into a heaving mass of tentacled jelly which drapes itself over the scaffolding at Westminster Abbey is quite impressively done, and credit must go to special effects guru Les Bowie, who apparently made use of bovine entrails and tripe to achieve the monster effect. Before the mute Carroon reaches that stage though, he undergoes a slow deterioration, his veins pressing against his sallow skin before mutating into something entirely alien. He also becomes filled by some kind of blood lust either as the conduit for the alien’s aggression or simply frustration and madness at what is happening to him. Bowie does an effective job here too at delivering victims who convincingly look as if they have had their life force sucked right out of them.
Unfortunately, immediately before — and between — these murderous acts, we’re subjected to an awful lot of talk which often serves only to prove what a curmudgeonly old duffer Quatermass is. Apparently his dialogue was adapted to match American actor Donlevy’s own terse character which might explain why he delivers his lines so convincingly, even though his face never seems to move when he speaks. Like Donlevy, Margia Dean was an American actor drafted in to appeal to audiences across the water, although she was a considerably less well-known name than Donlevy. We Brits had to make do with Jack Warner, in a secondary role, and Thora Hird in a small but memorable role as a bag lady.
Although distinctly British in looks, The Quatermass Xperiment seems heavily influenced by American movies, right down to the gimmicky title used to cash in on the fact that it was Britain’s first X-rated SF/horror movie. The plot is more or less the same as any drive-in B-movie monster-on-the-loose flick churned out by the likes of AIP, with echoes of the Frankenstein movies in the way that Carroon encounters a kindly stranger (Toke Townley, whom he kills and stuffs in a cupboard) and an innocent young girl (Jane Asher) who is blind to his condition. Of course, the quality of the writing and the performances is of a much higher standard, but it’s still just a routine monster movie.
(Reviewed 2nd September 2013)