a.k.a. The Creeping Unknown.
It Creeps. It Crawls. It Kills!
Soon after the BBC version of The Quatermass Experiment had finished airing in the summer of 1953, Hammer film studios obtained rights to make a movie version and started planning. Prior to this point in Hammer’s history, the studio had primarily made comedies and crime dramas; to market their films in the United States, they often used American actors in starring roles.
Hence Brian Donlevy’s being cast to play a very un-British Bernard Quatermass in this particular film. Quatermass’s creator Nigel Kneale did not like this at all.
In compressing the 3-hour BBC series into an 80-minute film, director Val Guest, who co-authored the revised script, also took other liberties with the story. Kneale didn’t like these either, especially the altered ending.
But we’ll get to that part when we come to it.
This film version begins with what would become a horror-movie trope: a couple necking. Not being American teens, they aren’t parked in a car in some Lover’s Lane, but have made themselves comfortable in a haystack on the farm belonging to the girl’s father. A deafening roar like a jet engine interrupts their kissing and they run like hell for the inadequate shelter of the farmhouse.
The next thing you know, there’s a rocket sticking nose-down into the pasture like a giant lawn-dart.
We meet Quatermass and the key members of his Experimental Rocket Group–Judith Carroon, Dr. Gordon Briscoe*, and Marsh–along with a querulous guy from the government office funding them, as they drive up to the crash site together in a VW minibus.
Their conversation covers the basic info from the first episode of the series: the rocket was missing and out of contact for 56 hours. They don’t go into why an American is heading Britain’s space program, but it’s obvious right away that the character of Quatermass has changed in more ways than his nationality can account for. This is a man who goes ahead and does whatever he decides is right and doesn’t listen to anyone else once he makes that decision. He launched his rocket, the QI, before he received final approval because he got tired of waiting for the bureaucrats to make up their minds.
After the exterior of the rocket has cooled down, the hatch is opened and Judith’s husband Victor emerges to collapse once he’s outside. His only, whispered, words are “Help me” before an ambulance takes him away. He reflexively clenches and unclenches one fist.
Quatermass and his team go into the rocket and find that the other two members of the crew simply aren’t there. A couple of connected-up but empty spacesuits lie on the bunk and floor; Quatermass notices these immediately while the others search the crew compartment and the hatch to the engine section. An onboard camera may have recorded what happened, but it’s been damaged.
Victor is taken back to the institute where the Rocket Group works. Dr. Briscoe examines him. Not only have his skin texture and bone structure changed, his heart rate and metabolism are so altered that the doctor proclaims “He shouldn’t be alive!”
Both Dr. Briscoe and Judith think that Victor should be in a hospital, but Quatermass wants him treated there so they can learn what happened to him. He won’t listen to their reasons, talks over them, and gets his own way.
Judith has brought an armload of roses in with her when she comes to see Victor; he stares at them intensely. A little later on when no one is watching him, he gets out of bed to try and reach the vase on the table–but collapses as soon as he touches them. There are further changes in his skin and after Judith chews her boss out for treating her husband like a lab animal, Quatermass relents enough to let her take Victor to a hospital. But he insists that Victor be kept isolated.
Scotland Yard, meanwhile, is treating the disappearance of the two other crewmen as a missing persons case. Inspector Lomax is introduced while shaving in his office in preparation for a dinner date with his wife; it becomes a running joke throughout the movie–he never gets to finish his shave and never gets that dinner with his wife. The fingerprinting of Victor Carroon and Quatermass’s subsequent delivery of the crew dossiers have already happened by the time Victor is sent to the hospital.
When Lomax returns the files, he shows Quatermass the fingerprints his men took the day before and compares them with Victor’s fingerprints on file–the two are nothing alike. “Not even human,” says Quatermass when he gets a close look at them.
At the rocker crash site, a gelatinous substance is discovered in the crevasses of the crew compartment behind the equipment panels; Dr. Briscoe’s analysis indicates that it is organic and might well be cell tissue. But Quatermass has a hard time accepting that it’s what’s left of the two men.
The film in the damaged rocket camera has been rescued and developed, although the quality is rough, and Quatermass and Briscoe watch it along with the inspector. What they see are brief clips filmed at intervals of the three astronauts in the compartment in their spacesuits, intercut with shots of the instrument panel to show their readings. There is no sound. In a nice little special effect, Victor walks up around the circular wall of the compartment, much like the flight attendant on the space shuttle in 2001.
The last section recorded is the most interesting. There’s a sudden jolt and the camera shakes. Did they hit something? The crewmen’s actions indicate that they were trying to cope with an emergency situation. A panel reading insert shows that the temperature has gone very high. Some sort of wave of bright light passes through the ship, then another. Two of the men collapse, falling in just the places and positions where their empty spacesuits would be found by Quatermass’s team. A third wave of light passes through, and Victor appears to be glowing; he regards his own arm in an attitude of horror as the film ends.
That’s evidence enough to satisfy Lomax that Victor wasn’t responsible for the deaths of his fellow crewmen, and for Quatermass to begin forming his own theory about what happened.
Judith, who hasn’t seen any of this, has grown sick of her boss’s bullying and treatment of her husband, and is forming a plan to get Victor out of the hospital and away somewhere where he can be cared for. She has hired a detective to pose as the new night nurse and, after learning from the hospital desk when the real nurse is supposed to show up for duty, sends her man in in a white medical coat half an hour earlier. The day nurse is happy to get out a little bit early, and the detective has plenty of time to get Victor up and out before his absence is discovered.
But things don’t go quite according to plan. All the time the detective is helping him to dress, Victor is oblivious to the man’s cheerful chat and instead stares hungrily at a small potted cactus on the nightstand. When the detective goes out to push for the elevator, Victor plunges his fist into the cactus–making just the sort of agonized face you would if you punched a cactus. When the detective returns for him, he has tucked his hand inside his jacket like Napoleon.
Unfortunately, the detective gets curious on the way down in the lift, and Victor shows him his newly spiky hand–right in the face. Judith is waiting below at the service door with a car when Victor comes out alone. They drive away.
A short time later, a nurse discovers the body of the detective in the lift. His face is half eaten away and his body shriveled as if it were drained dry.
Victor is just as unresponsive to his wife’s chatter in the car as he was to the late detective’s. Eventually, he raises his cactus-hand to her as well, but doesn’t kill her. He leaves her screaming hysterically in the car while he shambles off into the night.
It’s when Quatermass and Briscoe view the detective’s body and the remains the cactus in similar condition that Quatermass explains his theory. He postulates that there is life in space–not on a planet, but floating around. The rocket encountered it and is using Victor as a carrier so that it can absorb and destroy other life forms as a means of invading Earth. When Judith is found, still in hysterics in her car by the side of the road, she mentions her husband’s cactus-hand; this confirms what Quatermass already believes.
The police initiate a manhunt for Victor.
Victor has in the meantime gone to a chemist’s shop (that’s a drug store if you’re American)–an actual place that still exists in Windsor. There, he starts to pull bottles and jars off the shelves to mix up something in a bowl. Is he trying to make something that will cure him, or will kill him? The chemist interrupts before Victor can finish his mixture, and gets the cactus in his face for his efforts.
When Dr. Briscoe examines this scene, he puts forward another idea: Victor was mixing up something to help speed his transformation into whatever he’s becoming. They find the chemist’s shriveled-up body in a closet.
Victor takes refuge for the night in an abandoned boat on a canal. He’s sobbing and whimpering, perhaps in pain or horror at the thing he’s turning into. There’s something left of the man in there, but how much?
He awakes the next morning, when a little girl wheels a baby carriage up near his boat and plays “tea” with her doll on the bank of the canal. (Jane Asher! She would grow up to date Paul McCartney in the 1960s and later on star in another Nigel Kneale story, The Stone Tape.)
Young Jane is fortunate enough to survive the encounter. Victor declines her offer to have tea with her and her dolly even though she offers him an (imaginary) cake with all the chocolate but he does, however, break the doll’s head as he flees.
The police have been getting reports of Victor sightings from Brighton to Orkney, but they do believe the little girl’s story when they hear it through her mother.
That night at a local zoo park, the animals are restless in their cages (sadly tiny cages) as the zookeeper bids them goodnight and bicycles away. What they know, that the zookeeper doesn’t, is that Victor is hiding in the bushes. We don’t get a good look at him, but his face has gotten more lumpy since the morning. When he emerges from the bushes, his shadow outlines a hunched-up and shambling form, and he leaves a slimy trail as he heads first for the lion’s cage… and we fade to black.
When the police and Quatermass’s team investigate in the morning, it’s an upsetting sight. There’s a desiccated leopard’s body lying in the middle of the gravel path, a little antelope, and more dead animals visible in the enclosure beyond. The poor lion is dead in its cage. It looks like Victor got all the animals except for one lucky baboon and a couple of birds.
Dr. Briscoe notices the slime trail on the ground and traces it back to the place in the bushes where Victor was hiding, and where Victor left a disgusting blobby remnant of his new self. The doctor heads back to the lab with this and puts it into a glass container. It looks something like a large, overdone omelet, pulsating slightly. Believing that the thing hasn’t killed enough animals yet, he and Quatermass put some mice in with it; it absorbs all but one in under 12 minutes and grows a bit bigger. From this, they draw some conclusions about the Victor-monster’s reproductive process.
Another sighting. This time it’s a drunken bag-lady named Rosie. She’s well enough known to the local London Metropolitan police that they already know her full name and her “address” at the Salvation Army before she reports what she’s seen. The police take it at first for one of her usual hallucinations, until they hear about a slimy horror climbing straight up a 30-foot brick wall. They phone Scotland Yard. When Rosie realizes that the thing she’s seen was real and not one of her “gin-goblins,” she faints.
When Quatermass and Briscoe hear about this report, they leave the baby blob unattended in the lab, with that one poor mouse still in the container with it. They also carelessly leave a Bunsen Burner with its flame on.
While they’re out with the police examining the slime trail going up the wall, Little Blobby finishes off the last mouse and breaks open its container to go after more in their cage across the room. There’s a pretty cool shot of it pressing one of its pseudo-pods up against the camera lens as it reaches for the cage, but it doesn’t have the strength to get at them and when Quatermass and Briscoe return, they find it sprawled on the floor, much larger than when they left it.
The British Army now joins the search for what used to be Victor Carroon now he’s become a fully fledged monster.
Well, we all know what monsters are most naturally attracted to. That’s right: national landmarks. King Kong climbed the Empire State Building. Godzilla knocks down Tokyo Tower. The Ymir fell off the Colosseum in Rome and that giant, 5-legged octopus (pentapus?) clung to the Golden Gate Bridge. Even right here in London, Gorgo’s Mom and a giant ape named Konga went for Big Ben. Victor’s choice is Westminster Abbey. And it really is the Abbey from the outside; inside, it’s a set and matte shots.
A BBC crew are about to do a live broadcast about the restoration of the Abbey, when the technical crew in a van outside testing the cameras see a group inside standing around the body of a dead man. One of the camera crew (Gordon Jackson, long before Upstairs, Downstairs) runs inside to see what’s going on. As he leaps over the multitude of cables leading into the Abbey, he doesn’t notice the trail of slime on the doorstep.
Inside the Abbey, he and the viewers learn that the man fell from the scaffolding, but was dead before he fell. No one looks up into the scaffolding, though, and the show goes on. It isn’t until the man is back in the van and directs one of the cameras to pan up into the Gothic arches overhead that we see what’s up in the scaffolding.
The thing that Victor’s become looks something like an enormous prickly octopus / tarantula. It’s really pretty good as long the camera doesn’t go in for close-ups on it and it doesn’t move too much and reveal its essential puppety nature.
The camera crew in the van are still staring at this thing in horror when Quatermass, Lomax, et al arrive. They know they have to destroy it before it spreads and kills again.
It’s when his attention is drawn to the metal scaffolding that the creature is clinging to that Quatermass gets his idea. Power cables are connected up to the base of the metal structure, and all of London’s electricity is diverted to the Abbey to fry the monster to a crisp. As it goes up in flames, there is just a touch of a human voice in its shrieks, reminding us that this was a man just a little while ago.
After he views the body, Quatermass strides out of the Abbey. His last words are “Going to start again…” He’s not daunted by this little set-back. His rocket program will go on.
The film ends with the QII taking off and the promise of a sequel.
Hammer did make a sequel, based on the BBC’s Quatermass II series, as well as a pseudo-Quatermass movie I’ll be writing about later. This successful foray into horror and science fiction led the studio to consider making their own versions of the classics Frankenstein and Dracula, hiring a couple of obscure British actors named Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to star, and by the end of the decade Hammer was the horror film studio.
The one person who wasn’t happy was Nigel Kneale. He hated Val Guest’s changes to his original story, especially that last one. In the script of the TV version, Quatermass talks to the Victor-monster, reaches what’s left of the man inside it, and brings him back into his humanity. It is a more esoteric idea, but one Guest is unapologetic about changing for his film.
In addition to Guest’s commentary, the disc also has a feature about comparing versions. I was excited when I thought that meant it would compare the TV and film versions of the story, but it’s about the differences between the film as it was released in the UK and in the States. Little bits here and there were clipped out so the U.S. audience didn’t see them, and the alternate title was created. At the time of the film’s release, Quatermass was unknown in the States and that X in the title, referring to the British Censor’s Certificate X rating (viewers over 18 only), would have been meaningless.
*I blame the poor-quality visuals of the television version; I didn’t realize that Judith’s boyfriend Gordon and Dr. Briscoe were the same person until I watched this movie. In the movie, there’s no hint that Judith and Gordon have had any sort of romance before her husband was shot into space.