Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

By Orrin Grey

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). Directed by: Val Guest. Starring: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is a personal favorite of mine, ever since I first caught it as part of Monster Awareness Month back in 2011. It’s my favorite of the Hammer films of Nigel Kneale, all of which number among my favorite Hammer films. So, that’s a pretty big endorsement.

There’s a lot to love in The Quatermass Xperiment, from the black-and-white cinematography to the 1950s rocket ships to the astronaut’s cactus arm to the final reveal of the monster at the end, but for me, the best part of this great movie is Brian Donlevy’s turn as Quatermass. Word has it that Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale didn’t like the direction that they took his character in this (and the follow-up, Quatermass 2), but I could watch Brian Donlevy’s grouchy Quatermass bark orders at people all day. (He even has an early “There’s no crying in baseball” scene, when he tells the astronaut’s distraught wife that “there’s no room for personal feelings in science!”)

The story concerns the first rocket ship sent into deep space, where it encounters “some fantastic, invisible force” (prefiguring the disembodied Ogdru-Hem from Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, and especially the titular creature from The Conqueror Worm). The monster consumes two of the astronauts completely – leaving only empty suits – and enters the body of the third, who gradually undergoes a startling transformation, drawing the life from whatever he touches. Particularly striking moments include his absorbing a cactus, winding up with a cactus arm, and a scene in which he has consumed the life force of most of a zoo.

Perhaps the best non-Brian Donlevy part of The Quatermass Xperiment – so-called to take advantage of the X certification that it received from the British Board of Film Censors and called The Creeping Unknown in the U.S – is the final reveal of the ultimate form of the invisible, bodiless space vampire squid after it has finished absorbing all the various plant and animal life that it has encountered. The reveal, which is handled by a camera switch during a BBC broadcast about fixing up Westminster Abbey, shows a particularly grotesque octopus monster that remains one of my favorite creatures from horror cinema. It’s made all the more effective with intercuts of the eyes of an actual octopus, handled deftly enough that they feel very much a part of the larger creature.

The storyline of The Quatermass Xperiment has many of the same paranoia elements that would define much of the sci-fi horror output of the era. It echoes the 1951 The Thing from Another World and many others with its prediction that the creature, if left unchecked, could eventually consume all life on earth. But perhaps the most spine-tingling moment of the movie comes after the threat has been defeated. The film closes with Quatermass curtly telling one of his subordinates, “I’m going to start it again,” and walking down a darkened street, with a cut to a shot of another rocket taking off. While the theme of the inevitable march of progress, no matter the cost or risk, has been portrayed many times before and since, it has never felt more chilling than in those few shots.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we face an invasion from a very different quarter.