Such was my recent enjoyment in writing a review for Roy Ward Baker‘s seminal Quatermass and the Pit (1967), I felt it was only fair to go back to the character’s beginnings with director Val Guest‘s film adaptation of the original BBC series, which became famous on its release for clearing the streets and bars, such was its popularity in the UK.
So, how does Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) (so called to cash in on its ‘X’ certificate, which was new in those days) compare? Well, first up, it unfortunately has American actor Brian Donlevy in the title role – Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale expressed his enormous displeasure at this casting, with Donlevy delivering a performance that was brusque, uncaring and automaton-like, which is not at all in keeping with Professor Quatermass as originally created by Kneale – his scientist was a driven, focused but caring, moral and compassionate man (much more like Andrew Kier, who played him in …Pit, or Sir John Mills, who played him in Quatermass (1979)).
No matter, however – the film has many strengths that have endured outside its lead performance, not least of which is the utterly creepy locked-room mystery at its core. Quatermass, the founder and head of the British Rocket Group, has launched the first manned rocket into space. Shortly after, all contact is lost with the rocket and the three crew: Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), Reichenheim, and Green. The rocket later returns to Earth, crashing into an English field.
Quatermass arrives at the scene, along with the emergency services. Opening the rocket’s access hatch, they find only Carroon inside; there is no sign of the other two crew members. Carroon appears to be in shock, only able to mouth the words ‘Help me’. He is taken to hospital while Quatermass investigates what happened to the rocket and its two missing crew – and it quickly becomes evident that Carroon has been altered by something he encountered in space; he can absorb any living thing with which he comes in contact…Quatermass realizes that the rapidly mutating Carroon creature is on the verge of sporing, which will threaten all of humanity. The clock is ticking…
The screenplay, written by Richard Landau and Guest, presents a heavily compressed version of the events of the original television serial. It was the first Hammer production to attract the attention of a major distributor in the US, in this case United Artists, which distributed the film under the title The Creeping Unknown.
It is a remarkably successful adaptation – Wordsworth is excellent as the plague astronaut, desperate to save himself from what is consuming him. And look out for a performance from a very young Jane Asher, as the little girl who falls into Carroon’s path.
Scary, genuinely creepy and thrilling – so long as you can get past Donlevy.