Hammer Horror is perhaps mostly closely associated with the Dracula and Frankenstein films, but the studio first explored the horror genre with The Quatermass Xperiment. Although somewhat hampered by the odd choice of leading man, director Val Guest gives both a tense, fast moving adaption of the hit BBC TV serial (the “Xperiment” was presumably changed by Hammer to sell it as an "X" rated film), while keeping the themes of the original intact. The film can also be counted as a very early example of the subgenre known as Body Horror.
Professor Bernard Quatermass, the head of the British Rocket Group, has just sent the country’s first manned rocket into space. However, disaster strikes as all contact with the three crew members is lost, and the rocket crashes back to earth. Two of the crew have disappeared, and the one remaining survivor, Victor Carroon, is in shock, unable to speak, only mouth the words “Help me”. While in hospital, Caroon starts to undergo horrifying changes, and finds he needs to absorb living things in order to survive. Quatermass soon realises that Caroon, or whatever it is that he has become, will not stop growing, and the next stage of his transformation will threaten the entire planet.
Like many low budget European films, The Quatermass Xperiment was given a Hollywood star whose career had hit a lull, brought in for cheap to help sell the film to the American market. This leaves The Quatermass Xperiment with it's only serious flaw, Irish born Brian Donlevy, who had made a name for himself playing tough guys and gangsters, particularly in groundbreaking examples of Film Noir such as Kiss of Death and The Big Combo. Given this background, it is perhaps not surprising that he seems a little bit out of place in an English Sci-Fi movie. That said, while he lacks credibility playing a man of science, his tough guy persona gives the movie Quatermass a headstrong decisiveness and a refusal to be bullied or brushed aside. This Quatermass is a leader, a man of action, coupled with an almost reckless arrogance, a character that is tough to like, not least because he seems unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, but who is always unpredictable and interesting.
Far more sympathetic is Richard Wordsworth as the tragic surviving astronaut Carroon. The character stays mute throughout so the anger and despair we see him go through as he loses control of his mind and body is portrayed largely through facial expressions and inarticulate grunts, something that puts him in the same realm as the Boris Karloff’s heartrending take on Frankenstein’s monster. There is also a more overt echo of this, whether it is a conscious one or not, in the scene where Carroon encounters a small girl out playing by herself. Although there is a different outcome here, both scenes are symbolic of the monster's struggle with their intrinsic humanity, and like Frankenstein's monster, Carroon's anguish is not self inflicted, being the victim of a scientists, albeit well meaning, plans gone wrong. This sort of approach would come to be termed Body Horror, and explored many years later by the likes of David Cronenberg, with films such as Shivers, Rabid, and his reworking of The Fly.
The Quatermass Xperiment was the first attempt at a sci-fi / horror film by director Val Guest. He would go on to helm other genre classics such as this film's sequel, Quatermass 2, and The Day The Earth Caught Fire (as well as a long and eclectic career taking in everything from thrillers, comedies and numerous TV shows). If there is a common thread to his approach with these three films, it is to keep the fantastic story rooted in reality, helped by an unflashy, almost documentary approach to shooting scenes, as well as frequent use of actual locations rather than studio backdrops. The screenplay (co-written by Guest, based on Nigel Kneale's original TV scripts) also shows the effects of the events on ordinary people as much as the scientists, military men and government officials.
The film is also fascinating when placed into a historical context, being released at a time when Britain was still wrestling with the mix of World War Two euphoria, Cold War feelings of potential apocalyptic doom, and the realisation that with the collapse of the British Empire, the country was no longer the global colossus that it had been. This was coupled with the clash of the old and new, that Quatermass with his relentless charge to the future and insistence on blasting rockets into outer space represents the latter half of. This insistence is not dulled by the events of the film however, and in the final scenes, we see Quatermass walking off alone into the distance, followed, without any dramatic music, by the final shot of another rocket being launched. Progress, it seems, will not be stopped.