Wednesday, February 23, 2022


The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown) (1955) d. Val Guest (UK) (82 min)

After Professor Quatermass’ (Brian Donlevy) experimental Q1 rocket crashes in a field in the English countryside, it is discovered that two of the crew have vanished and the third, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), is catatonic and undergoing inexplicable metabolic changes (or “meTABolic,” as Donlevy pronounces it). Dismissing all other concerns, Quatermass searches for answers to uncover the scientific truths, while Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) and Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) attempt to help her mutating husband.

Both extraordinarily influential in its subject matter and atmosphere, the first of the Quatermass features served as the launching pad for Hammer Films’ domination of the horror scene in the late 1950s and ’60s. With its origins as a hugely successful six-episode BBC miniseries by Nigel Kneale and expertly condensed for the screen by director Guest and busy TV scribe Richard H. Landau (Frankenstein 1970), this terrific cautionary sci-fi tale is tinged with subtle examinations of what it means to be human.

Guest, who had directed Hammer’s first color film (The Men of Sherwood Forest) the year prior and would go on to direct numerous other genre efforts, including The Abominable Snowman, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale, assembles a wonderfully gifted cast of skilled British character actors, with fading American star Donlevy (Beau Geste, The Glass Key) imported as a part of the contract with producer Robert Lippert to shore up North American interests.

Despite Kneale’s outspoken feelings to the contrary, Donlevy is absolutely terrific, imbuing the scientific intellectual with the same fierce dedication and ruthlessness that Peter Cushing would later bring to the Hammer Frankenstein series. His Quatermass is gruff and no-nonsense, bullying, conniving, concerned only with the knowledge that can be uncovered. (“There’s no room for personal feelings in science!”) Barking orders like a field commander and reversing his own opinions without apology or hesitation (as in the case of whether or not to open the rocket door), the one-time Oscar nominee commands the screen from start to finish (all while struggling with serious bouts of alcoholism, according to Guest).

As droll police inspector Lomax, Jack Warner has some of the best lines of dialogue, such as when he tells his wife, with regard to whether he’ll be home for dinner, “Cook and cross your fingers.” That same year, Warner began his epic 432-episode run as the titular Dixon of Dock Green, endearing himself to millions of BBC TV viewers for over two decades. Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) repeats his turn from the original BBC version as a TV producer shooting at Westminster Abbey.

Fourth-billed character actress Thora Hird is utterly delightful as perpetually pickled street bum Rosie ("It's me legs!") who ends up providing information key to tracking down the horrific shape-shifting creature, while King-Wood and Maurice Kaufmann provide able support as Dr. Briscoe and Quatermass’ assistant Marsh, respectively. (In an amusing stroke of economy, the very small team of Quatermass, Briscoe, and Marsh do pretty much EVERYTHING, from scientific lab work to investigating leads to medical care for Carroon.)

Then there is Wordsworth’s mute, heart-wrenching performance as the man who is becoming a monster, invoking sympathy and horror simultaneously – comparisons between his work here and Karloff'’s in Frankenstein are entirely merited, pointed up all the more by a similar encounter with a small child (an unbilled Jane Asher). Less successful is Dean as Mrs. Carroon. While the former Miss California (and girlfriend of Twentieth Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras, in case anyone was wondering how she got the job) manages to provide a pretty face and scream impressively when the occasion calls for it, her dull and lifeless vocal delivery drags down the proceedings anytime she opens her mouth.

Behind the scenes are several architects of the studio’s renowned legacy. In addition to producer (and son of Will “Hammer” Hinds, co-founder of the studio) Anthony Hinds, we have editor James Needs, makeup man Phil Leakey, composer James Bernard, and conductor John Hollingsworth working their collective magic, with cinematographer Walter J. Harvey and special effects wiz Les Bowie conspiring to create some memorable visuals, such as the crashed rocket and slime trails going straight up buildings, as well as the mournful sight of Carroon ambling across the haunted English landscape.

There are scores of other wonderful highlights: The recovered in-flight camera footage of the astronauts working in zero gravity, complete with blackouts when mysterious cosmic rays hit that help heighten the suspense as we wonder what will be revealed when the film resumes (a technique still practiced today). The discovery of the jelly-like substance in the engines, which is later revealed to possess human DNA (i.e. Carroon’s shipmates, Green and Reichenheim). Carroon’s inner torment before unleashing spiny-limbed violence on humans (poor chemist!), plants (poor cactus!), and animals (poor lions!)

Granted, the Westminster Abbey finale, where we see the tentacled big beastie in all its glory, is not quite as grand as one might hope, looking for all the world like the pieces of tripe animated by strings and wires that it is. The sequence doesn’t completely undo all that has gone before, but it definitely activates a different “entertainment” section of the viewer’s brain.

Rather than downplay the British Board of Film Censors’ “X” certificate (for adults) that the film was assured of receiving, Hinds decided to embrace the notoriety, even going so far as to misspell the title, implying that this new version would be even more horrific than the beloved small-screen original. The gamble paid off, with queues around the block. Since the Quatermass name had no brand recognition for the U.S. market, Lippert retitled it The Creeping Unknown (as well as clipping a few minutes off the running time).

In addition to the scores of hits that came in its wake, Hammer released two other big-screen adaptations of Kneale teleplays, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space) the following year with Donlevy reprising his role, and 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth), with Andrew Keir taking over. While it was Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that transformed the studio into a worldwide sensation, there’s no denying the influence that Quatermass’ success had for Hammer. It’s entirely possible that without this crucial film at this crucial time, there might never have been a Gothic revival such as we have come to know it.


Audio Commentary by director Val Guest and Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn
On-camera interview with director John Carpenter
The Quatermass Xperiment: From Reality to Fiction Featurette
The Quatermass Xperiment: Comparing the Versions with film critic Glenn Erickson
On-camera Val Guest interview by Marcus Hearn
"Trailers From Hell" with Ernest Dickerson
Alternate Main Title
Original Theatrical Trailer


Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat and I sat down this week to talk about the film on the YouTubes! Check out our conversation HERE:

The Quatermass Xperiment is available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and can be ordered HERE:



  1. A British institution? I think so. I'd say that about both Quatermass AND Kneale. Lovely stuff :-)