The Quatermass Xperiment: an outdated science fiction / horror film that still has the power to terrify

Val Guest, “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955)

Filmed well over 60 years ago (at this time of writing), this film of alien-human possession remains a timeless inspiration in its not unsympathetic portrayal of a helpless astronaut overcome¬† by an extraterrestrial infection that turns him into a monster. While we modern Western audiences might laugh at the crude special effects and the naif plot, “The Quatermass Xperiment” was something of a revolution in fusing together genuine Gothic horror and science fiction, and demonstrated that the film-going public had an appetite for science horror films with often morbid themes and plots. Apart from its more dated and hokey sections, the film rockets along at a brisk pace with a tight plot and a brusque set of scientist and police characters working against time to determine the nature of the danger they have to tackle and how to get rid of it.

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), an irascible and obsessively driven rocket scientist, is conducting an experiment that involved sending three men into outer space some months ago. The rocket crashes back on Earth and Quatermass and his team discover that two of the crew have either died or disappeared, and the third man, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), is seriously ill. Caroon is whisked into the care of Quatermass’s colleague Dr Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) who is puzzled by the various changes in Caroon’s biochemistry from the blood samples he takes. Caroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) decides to sneak her husband out of Briscoe’s office and sets off a chain of horrifying incidents culminating in the wipe-out of all animals in a city zoo overnight. Reports of strange sightings in inner London convince Quatermass and the police, led by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), that Caroon is rapidly changing into a more monstrous life-form.

The science is very dodgy indeed – if the film were to be remade, Caroon would be subjected to very strict quarantine procedures undertaken by the military, and enormous secrecy would surround the quarantine, such that it would be done either in an underground laboratory or a facility located on a remote island – and the monster’s nature is deliberately so protean, taking on characteristics of all its victims as it changes and matures, that its transformation (while highly inspirational for later films like John Carpenter’s notorious 1982 flick “The Thing”) stretches plausibility. A monster that feeds on familiar Earth life-forms must not be all that alien after all and the creature conceivably could have hitch-hiked a ride on Caroon’s rocket from Earth before being blasted by bursts of radiation that allowed it to enter the rocket and destroy the crew. The film shows very little of the monster until the very end, using suggestion and artful cinematography, such as portraying night-time scenes from the monster’s point of view, to suggest a horror far beyond what one’s own nightmares can conjure.

While most of the acting, including Donlevy’s performance as Professor Quatermass, is workman-like, Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed Caroon, wracked with physical and mental pain at the transformation he surely knows he is undergoing, is heart-wrenching and elicits much sympathy from this viewer. London in the 1950s – a poor city, post-industrial in parts, with a very socially conservative culture not much changed from Victorian times – is a significant character in its own right in giving the monster plenty of hiding places to fool Quatermass and the police while it grows and changes form. The showdown between Quatermass and the monster at Westminster Abbey is less spectacular than it should be in such a venue, though perhaps having the monster shimmy up Big Ben to bat off RAF planes was considered too derivative of Hollywood sci-fi stereotypes.

Despite having saved planet Earth from a plague of similar gargantuan slime-mould critters, and presumably having been presented with the bill to clean up the snail trail slime left around London, Quatermass vows to continue with his experiments and sends a second rocket into outer space. This attitude may reflects the view, widespread around the world during the 1950s, of scientists as being rather remote from the concerns of the world and obsessed with pursuing their studies and experiments without thought for the consequences of their work. Quatermass’s determination can also be interpreted as defiance in the face of the fear and possible threat of unknown alien forces; after all, the only way one can deal with such forces is to confront them directly. Apart from this, Donlevy’s Quatermass seems a hard-bitten man, more gangster than scientist, and this unsympathetic portrayal contrasts well with Wordsworth’s Caroon who inspires pity.

The authorities’ reaction to news that a fast-growing and changing monster is on the rampage in the British capital can be quite chilling, with London put into lockdown, all electricity cut off in its metropolitan area and information about the monster deliberately withheld from the public. Britain even then was much closer to becoming a police state than many people supposed.

The film offers plenty of tension and terror in the way it builds up to the confrontation between scientist and giant slime-mould with a plot that plays out like a documentary rather than drama. While it surely needs a remake with more credible science, I fear something of the terror and paranoia of the original film will be lost.