Still reeling from the massive success of Cold War infused science fiction, Hammer films clearly saw a gap in the market for a British flavoured take on the paranoid happenings around space travel and nuclear weapons. Adapting Nigel Kneale’s original BBC Quatermass series is an absolute masterstroke by Hammer producer Anthony Hinds and it can be argued that the success of this one film lead to the production of Hammer Horror as we know it today.
The Quatermass Xperiment is clearly proud of its shocking content with it renaming itself to embody its X certificate proudly within the title. Though perhaps not as shocking today as first in 1955, it’s very easy to imagine what it must have felt like with some of the effects and shocks still holding up even after close to sixty years.
Professor Quatermass is in trouble. His last rocket experiment has some how gone wrong and the ship has crashed back to earth. Upon finding the rocket, it appears that two of the crew have gone missing while the other is disturbingly ill with an unknown disease. Brian Donlevy is addictive to watch as the Professor who seems like a rocket science incarnation of Dr House. His fast approach to dialogue rubs off on the rest of the cast and the speeches overlap in true Mercury Theatre style.
The film can sometimes seem like an extended version of Z Cars but what makes it such a compelling watch is Richard Wordsworth’s disturbing performance as the infected astronaut, Victor Carroon. Though the film may try and pretend it’s all about rockets and government secrets, what it’s really about is Carroon’s long and painful change into another creature. From the moment he dramatically falls out of the crashed rocket, the film is instantly about him and his all the more better for it. Never has there been such a drawn out and painful metamorphosis on screen, at least until David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Wordsworth brings a sense of true disturbia to the role and is wholly believable as the victim of Quatermass’ desire for scientific knowledge at all costs.
The scares come best when Carroon is wandering the streets looking for food and a safe haven. His run in with a friendly chemist is one of the many highlights of the film and is brilliant showcase of one of its simple but effective scares. Another scene that stands out is its ode to James Whale’s Frankenstein with Carroon initially finding comfort in the company of a young girl before running on. It’s utterly chilling with his staggering along the waterways and clearly out of control persona. It’s this moment however that we see one final glimpse of Carroon’s humanity brought out by the little girl and the final time he’s truly human.
Hammer couldn’t have been more successful with their first choice of horror film. It’s an affecting, exciting piece of science fiction horror that not only paved the way for dozens of films similar to it but also Hammer’s own brand of horror that eventually came to represent a new golden age in the genre.