The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

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The first of three films from Hammer Studios centered on the arrogant, insufferable Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), The Quatermass Xperiment is also the darkest and most cynical. Quatermass cares about nothing other than his scientific inquiries; he has no concern what might result from his ruthless will to know at all costs. For example, Xperiment begins with the sudden falling to earth of a rocket sent into space by Quatermass without clearance from his superiors, with no thought about the welfare of the crew and with only one goal in mind, to learn what is “out there.”

Only one of the crew, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), survives and he is so traumatized that he cannot tell anyone what happened. The simple technical problem of why the rocket failed soon gives way to a more troubling question: what happened to the other crewmen who have disappeared without a trace?

That disappearance is never fully explained, but meanwhile the still speechless Carroon is literally shriveling up. He seems to have a simultaneous attraction to and revulsion from any form of life, including his wife, whom he violently rejects when she tries to help him. We eventually realize that his violence is the last expression of his humanity as he flees any kind of human contact in an effort to resist an overpowering drive to survive, produced by an alien force acquired in space.

Quatermass and his associates eventually realize that Carroon is transforming into something completely unknown (and repulsive). Their explanation is never fully cogent, but it opens the door to the hideous spectacle of Carroon gradually losing human shape as he goes on a murderous rampage and turns into a throbbing, gelatinous mass that consumes just about anything living in order to reproduce ad infinitum.

Aided by the dark, dank black-and-white cinematography and Hammer’s imaginative art department, the slimy, slithering alien life form Carroon becomes is palpably revolting. Perhaps because the creature’s origins and transformation are never fully articulated, leaving much to our imagination, the gross details and the frenzy of the action override the risible situation. This is science fiction as horror fantasy, not an effort to speculate about the future. Indeed, unbridled “science” is implicitly the problem and the film ends on a dumbfounded note as Quatermass walks away from the carnage his experiment has caused, determined to launch another rocket at the first opportunity.

How accurate it is to think of scientists as monsters with a slide rule is a matter of opinion. Given that the film was released in the shadow of Hiroshima and shortly before the first manned space flights, Quatermass’s pitiless arrogance no doubt coincided with public fears. Such a characterization demonstrated a good deal of commercial savvy on Hammer’s part, regardless of its accuracy. We might know better now, but in 1955 it was anyone’s guess what the lust for knowledge might bring back from outer space.