The first manned rocket into space, the Q1, has been out of contact with the control center at the British Experimental Rocket Group for a great length of time and returns to Earth, crashing into the English countryside. As the local authorities cordon off the area, Professor Quatermass, the gruff and domineering director of the project and designer of the rocket, arrives with Dr. Gordon Briscoe and Judith Carroon, the wife of one of the astronauts. Taking charge of the scene, Quatermass orders the rocket cooled with fire hoses as he remotely opens the craft. When opened, a lone crew member, Victor Carroon, crawls out and collapses in extreme pain and unable to reveal what happened to his companions. Inside the rocket, they find the remaining two crew member’s spacesuits still assembled, but empty with no trace of the men.
Scotland Yard, in the personage of Inspector Lomax, is charged with investigating the missing crewmen and sends his subordinate to question and fingerprint Carroon at Quatermass’ facility. Angry with what he considers interference by the police, Quatermass goes to see Lomax and provides him with the files on all three crewmembers, including their fingerprints. He also tells Lomax the fate of the missing crew members is a matter for science, not the police, and he is the most qualified of the two to investigate.
At the medical clinic, Gordon shows Quatermass the changes in skin texture and appearance that Carroon is undergoing. He is unable to explain the physical changes or Carroon’s vegetative state and lack of response to stimuli. Judith accuses Quatermass of not being concerned with Victor’s well-being but only wanting to know what happened onboard the rocket. She wants him placed in a hospital and Gordon agrees with her. Needing the information Carroon possesses about the fate of the crew, Quatermass opposes the idea, pointing out that Gordon’s superior knowledge of space and its effects on the body make him the best person to treat Carroon and Gordon relents.
Technicians working on the rocket discover a strange jelly-like material inside and collect samples for analysis. Gordon’s analysis identifies the substance as organic matter composed of human cells and is the remains of the missing crewman. This discovery, coupled with the strange changes in Carroon’s bone structure and skin compels Gordon to insist that they transfer Victor to a hospital, to Judith’s relief. Angry, Quatermass orders the transfer but insists he is held in quarantine, preventing Judith from having contact with him.
Desperate to help Victor, and distrusting Quatermass, Judith hires a private detective to smuggle him from the hospital. Posing as an orderly, he gains access to Victor’s room and gets him dressed. When the detective leaves to ensure the path to the elevator is clear, Victor spots a potted cactus in his room and unsuccessfully fights an irresistible urge to smash his hand into the plant. Returning to the room, the detective helps Victor into the elevator and notices he’s hiding his hand in his jacket. Curious as to what he’s hiding, the detective grabs his arm, and Victor pulls it out, revealing that his hand is now a mutated cross between a hand and a cactus. Victor clubs the detective in the head, killing him, and exits the elevator on the ground floor. Judith is waiting for him and quickly helps him into her car, and they flee from the area.
During the drive, Judith, concerned by the peculiar way Victor is acting, pulls the car over. She glimpses his mutating hand and hysterically screams as he escapes from the vehicle and flees into the city. While he wanders through London, a nurse at the hospital finds the body of the detective in the elevator with the skin and bone dissolved on his face where Carroon hit him.
Believing an alien entity entered the rocket and infected Carroon, mutating him, Quatermass initiates a citywide manhunt to find him. In a short period, numerous reports begin to pour in from all over the region. Carroon’s second victim, a druggist, is soon found and they discover he ingested several of the chemicals from the shop that may help in speeding up his rate of mutation. With his body rapidly mutating and needing food, Carroon next strikes at a zoo, devouring many of the caged animals.
Investigating the carnage in the morning, Gordon discovers a slime trail that leads up a wall and finds a small fragment of the creature that is still alive. Taking it to his lab for further study, he is astonished as it grows to 10 times its size, devouring lab mice placed in its container. The creature manages to escape from its glass cage but dies before it can reach more mice. Gordon examines the tentacled remains and discovers millions of spores. The spores, once emitted, would fill the air and begin to feed on any organic tissue they contacted. He calculates that the creature that infected Carroon will start to reproduce in approximately two hours. If it is not found and stopped before this, the spores will spread across London, creating millions of creatures that would, in turn, emit spores and eventually wipe out humanity.
Carroon, now a giant tentacled blob, is discovered resting on scaffolding by a television crew preparing to do a live broadcast of the renovations at Westminster Abbey. Alerted to the discovery, Quatermass arrives with Lomax to take charge and orders that electrical wires be attached to the scaffolding. Determined to prevent the alien lifeform from reproducing, Quatermass has the cities entire power supply diverted to electrocute it. The city suffers a blackout as the electrocuted creature bursts into flames, ending the threat. Undaunted by the nearly catastrophic results of his exploration of space, Quatermass heads back to his facility determined to start again and send up another rocket into space.
The Quatermass Xperiment was based on a popular six-part 3 hour BBC television serial scripted by Nigel Kneale that aired in 1953. Writer Richard Landau was brought in to condense the narrative to the film version’s 82-minute runtime, less than half of the series’ length. As a result, the truncated cinematic version simplified or eliminated entire storylines or characters. One of the biggest changes was the ending. In the televised serial, Quatermass confronts the alien entity in Westminster Abbey and manages to persuade the residual humanity of Carroon to resist absorption into the being and destroy itself to save humanity.
Despite the changes to the ending, the film still retained Kneale’s plot points of Carroon still maintaining some vestige of his humanity as he mutated. This point is illustrated when he restrains himself from harming his wife in the car and again later when he encounters a young girl playing with a doll by the river. In both instances, you see the struggle of Carroon fighting off the alien urge kill and feed. The same emotions are again evident when he fails to control the alien influence and kills the pharmacist, a death not mirrored in the television serial.
Kneale was not happy with the changes in his story that accentuated the horror aspects but was more displeased with the characterization of Quatermass and Brian Donlevy’s performance. In Kneale’s story, the character was the prototypical English professor who was confident and sure of himself at the outset but gradually began to have doubts as the responsibility of bringing a destructive force to Earth began to weigh on him. This characterization differed significantly from the bullying, and arrogant Quatermass presented in the film who never once doubted himself or the infallibility of his judgment. Even at the end, after narrowly averting disaster, he coolly leaves Westminster Abbey determined to launch another rocket, his faith in himself and his beliefs unshaken.
Despite Kneale’s objections, director Val Guest believed that Donlevy’s no nonsense performance of Quatermass was a great asset to the film and helped the audience accept the events unfolding on the screen. In Guest’s mind, if a down to earth man, firmly grounded in scientific fact and reasoning, believed in the threat, then the audience would as well. Regardless of the changes, the film was a financial success and one of the biggest hits of the year. As the name Quatermass was unknown in the United States, the film received the new title The Creeping Unknown for its American release in 1956.
Running Time: 82 minutes
Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, Thora Hird, Gordon Jackson, David King-Wood, Harold Lang, Lionel Jeffries, Sam Kydd, Richard Wordsworth
Producer – Anthony Hinds; Director – Val Guest; Screenplay – Richard Landau, Val Guest; Based on BBC Television play by – Nigel Kneale; Music Composer – James Bernard; Conducted by – John Hollingsworth; Special Effects – Les Bowie; Makeup – Phil Leakey