The Creeping Unknown/The Quatermass Xperiment (1955/1956) ***½
Before you ask me, no— that’s not a typo. The original British title of this movie really does spell it that way, for reasons I’ll go into shortly. The Creeping Unknown/The Quatermass Xperiment is probably the most important horror or sci-fi movie ever made in England. Up until its release in 1955, neither genre had ever really taken root in Great Britain, for the simple reason that the British Board of Film Censors didn’t want them to. In contrast to the situation on this side of the Atlantic, where the Production Code Administration meddled extensively with movies in the works, but left them alone and unregulated after they were completed to the Administration’s liking, the British movie industry labored from the very beginning under a certification regime very much like today’s MPAA rating system, with the very important difference that the Board of Film Censors was an official government body with all the coercive might of the state behind it. If a British filmmaker didn’t like the certificate his movie was given (or threatened with), there was no possibility of releasing the film unrated and gambling on success in the art-house circuit. Not only that, the Board of Film Censors was actually empowered to ban movies outright. Unsurprisingly, the Board consistently came down hardest on horror and sci-fi movies, which were routinely saddled with the 16-and-up A-certificate and its successors, the adults-only H- and X-certificates. These ratings imposed a heavy financial burden on the movies assigned to them, both by the direct route of restricting the potential audience, and indirectly because of the flat-out refusal of many theaters to screen movies certified A, H, or X. The result was that studios soon learned to shy away from subject matter that seemed likely to earn an onerous rating, and “risky” movies simply didn’t get made.
By the mid-50’s, though, conditions had changed in one important respect. A number of enterprising, mostly minor studios in Hollywood had entered into partnerships with British companies, initially for the purpose of distributing American films in the Isles. But the deals naturally worked both ways, and it was thus possible for an English studio with Hollywood connections to tap into the huge US market and be all but assured of significant profits. And because US standards for violence and horrific imagery were far laxer than those prevailing in the UK, those connections had the unexpected side-effect of taking much of the sting out of the dreaded X-certificate. This is where a then-insignificant studio called Hammer Film Productions enters the picture. Hammer boss Michael Carreras had been casting American actors in his movies for years in a shrewdly calculated strategy for getting bookings in US theaters, and had enjoyed considerable success. In what was to prove a fateful decision for the company, his partner, Tony Hinds, acquired the rights to shoot a theatrical remake of the extremely successful BBC sci-fi mini-series “The Quatermass Experiment,” and gave the project to writer-director Val Guest. Guest livened up the story considerably, dropping many of its creakier philosophical trappings and playing up the horrific aspects. An X-certificate was inevitable, but Hammer’s ties to Hollywood were such that the producers felt emboldened to try to make a virtue of the rating. Changing the spelling of the title to draw attention to the adults-only certification, Hammer essentially dared audiences around the country to come see the film. The gamble paid off, to such an utterly unexpected degree that Hammer almost immediately embarked on a total image makeover, until, by the turn of the 60’s, the studio’s name had become practically synonymous with horror, an association that would persist until the company’s demise in the mid-1970’s. And more importantly, Hammer’s success opened the doors for similar movies from a wide range of other British studios, finally turning horror and sci-fi into self-sustaining cinematic genres in the UK.
In the United States, of course, there were no X-certificates to capitalize on with a strategically misspelled title, and no one had ever heard of the Quatermass mini-series (there was no such thing as PBS yet, and thus no reliable US outlet for BBC TV programming), so The Quatermass Xperiment was given the more conventional exploitation title The Creeping Unknown when it played American theaters in 1956. One needn’t hail from the British Isles to appreciate the film itself, though, whatever title it might appear under. It begins when an experimental British rocketship crash-lands in farmer’s field. This none-too-successful project was the brainchild of Professor Bernard Quatermass (American western star Brian Donlevy, cast radically against type in a role that we colonials seem to love, but Brits seem to hate), who rushes to the site of the crash as soon as he hears about it. This Quatermass is a far cry from the introspective, philosophically inclined professor of the TV series; he has more in common with the cold-blooded, hard-hearted, half-mad scientists so common in contemporary American sci-fi movies. At first, Quatermass scarcely seems to remember that the rocket carried a crew of three men— he’s too busy exulting over his success in bringing the ship back home after his lab lost contact with it for some 57 hours. But when the radio man from his laboratory announces that he can hear faint, rhythmic tapping coming from inside the vessel, that brings Quatermass back down to Earth. Fearing that the crewmen may be injured or worse, the professor orders the rocket’s airlock opened, despite the risk of spontaneous combustion when the pressurized atmosphere inside meets the superheated metal of the ship’s outer hull.
What Quatermass finds within the rocket adds a nasty new wrinkle to the mystery of the crew’s 57 incommunicado hours. Of the original three astronauts, only one, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth, who would later play even more thankless roles in The Curse of the Werewolf and The Revenge of Frankenstein), is alive. Stranger still, all that remains of Caroon’s two shipmates are their sealed pressure suits and a few pounds of what might best be described as human jelly. Initially, Caroon is suspected of having murdered his comrades, but Quatermass eventually convinces Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (Dominique is Dead’s Jack Warner) that such a thing is impossible. Even if we disregard Caroon’s obvious ill health and the deep catatonic shock in which he has lain ever since he was rescued, there is simply no way that one man could destroy another so thoroughly as were the other two astronauts. Lomax’s criminal investigation is thus rightly superseded by a scientific one conducted by Quatermass and his colleague, Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood). There is still some dissention in the ranks, however. Briscoe doesn’t like the way Quatermass is running the show, and neither does Caroon’s wife, Julia (Margia Dean, from Mesa of Lost Women and Moro Witch Doctor). Briscoe and Julia both think Victor belongs in a hospital, rather than Quatermass’s private laboratory. It is their opinion that Dr. Q is putting his enormous ego before Caroon’s well-being, and after several days have gone by with no improvement in the astronaut’s condition, they prevail on the professor to transfer him to a completely isolated ward in the nearest hospital.
Meanwhile, some clues have come to light regarding what may have happened while the rocket was out in space and out of contact with mission control. The in-flight camera reveals that, shortly after contact was lost, the ship was hit with a series of strange energy pulses. The first two pulses seem to have been what killed the two dead men, but for some reason, the third pulse only incapacitated Victor Caroon. It isn’t much to go on, but Quatermass and his team will soon have all the answers they want, and then some. Of course, if he knew how those answers would be made manifest, even Quatermass might have preferred to remain in ignorance.
Back in the hospital, Victor is getting sicker. It seems as though something is growing inside his body, changing his tissues to suit its own alien biology. Julia doesn’t grasp the true nature of her husband’s illness, but she’s quite sure of one thing: that Victor would be much better off in another hospital, far away from Bernard Quatermass and his self-serving interference in the ailing astronaut’s treatment. To that end, she hires a private detective to help her sneak Caroon out of his hospital room. The plan backfires, however, when Victor, whose humanity now extends scarcely deeper than his skin, attacks the detective on the elevator ride down to the basement, and kills him. His subsequent attack on Julia, in the front seat of the getaway car, is less lethal, but nearly as traumatic. When Lomax finds her a few hours later (after Quatermass discovers Victor’s escape), she’s still sitting in her car by the side of the street, blubbering about how Victor’s hand has turned into a cactus.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad shorthand description of the transformation that has come over Caroon. Whatever entered the rocket in those pulses of energy has begun slowly turning Victor into something that will ultimately look rather like a thorny octopus made of mold. This creature exhibits two extraordinarily nasty habits. First, it consumes just about any form of animal life that it touches (this is revealed in a most alarming way when the monster breaks into a zoo and systematically kills all the big cats). Second, it tends to drop pieces of itself along its path wherever it goes. Quatermass gets an opportunity to study one of these fragments, and discovers that the situation is even worse than it appears, in that the creature is getting ready to spore. As bad as it is to have one alien fungus-beast roaming around, imagine what a disaster it will be when millions of such creatures start gestating inside every living thing in London!
One of the smartest things Val Guest did in adapting “The Quatermass Experiment” to the big screen was ditching the original ending. The TV version of the story ended with Quatermass learning that the consciousness of the three astronauts still survived in some latent form inside the monster. When the professor confronts the creature in the final scene, he is able to appeal to these vestigial human personalities and convince them to will the monster to die. That is to say, in a denouement that could only appeal to an Englishman, Quatermass literally talks the monster to death!!!! The new climax is both far more exciting and far more plausible, and it is followed by one of the grimmest parting shots of the 1950’s. Having vanquished the monster his project let loose upon the Earth, and thus narrowly averted the destruction of the human race, Quatermass turns to his old lab assistant, and with a steely look in his eyes says, “I need your help. We’re going to start again.”
I can see why Nigel Kneale, who wrote the original teleplay for “The Quatermass Experiment” was so upset with the changes Val Guest wrought on his story, but everything I’ve heard about the original version leads me to believe Guest’s instincts led him in the right direction. In his hands, Bernard Quatermass becomes one of the most fascinating anti-heroes in the annals of science fiction, and if you ask me, I think the casting of Brian Donlevy was a minor stroke of genius. This Quatermass is not far from true fanaticism, and is an almost totally unsympathetic character. Then again, he’s also humanity’s best hope of facing down the threat from the alien fungus, despite the fact that it was his work that got us into that mess in the first place. The message seems to be that hard times call for hard men, and though such people are profoundly dangerous to have around, we’d be even worse off without them. It’s a rather more sophisticated perspective than one usually finds in movies that deal with mad or half-mad science, and in the context of the 1950’s, it’s probably also the most honest assessment of the role the military-scientific-industrial complex plays in modern Western civilization.