[Digging Up The Dead] Revisiting 'The Quatermass Xperiment' And The Rise of Hammer Horror

In the 1950s the Cold War was deepening, and the space race was in full swing, so it’s no surprise that the entertainment industry took notice and started cranking out more and more science fiction and horror films to cash in on those hot-button issues. Popular examples include The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Blob, the latter of which is arguably derivative of a British film that was responsible for launching the iconic horror house, Hammer. That British film was The Quatermass Xperiment, and I decided to see how this Fifties classic holds up today.

The brilliance of the story is that it keeps the inciting incident vague enough that it is a story that could still work today, though it is fairly typical science-fiction horror fare: a manned rocket on a mission in outer space loses contact with the earth. Upon the rocket’s return there is only one survivor, Victor, and he is suffering badly from whatever happened on the voyage. Quatermass, the gruff American in charge of the space program, wants to figure out what happened, as does local law enforcement, who may also be looking for someone to blame. It eventually becomes apparent that the ship encountered some form of alien life, and it merged with Victor, creating some new kind of creature. Victor escapes and is searching for food to fuel his new physiology and to give it the energy to reproduce, while the authorities are doing all they can to find him and stop him before he destroys humanity itself.

The makeup and special effects in The Quatermass Xperiment were quite good for the time, and some of them even hold up by modern standards. The makeup and body effects used on Victor prior to him becoming a full-on alien blob are wonderful. The changing skin, with it’s pulled tight, burned appearance looked completely real. The morphed arm, with all it’s disfigurement, looked great, and was shot and captured in a such a way as to make it seem to be Victor’s actual appendage and not just a prop, which I appreciated. The alien blob and the tentacle effects don’t hold up quite as well but given that this movie is from the Fifties, they are pretty decent.

Where this movie really shines is in the performances, and I think that was a key factor in its success. Brian Donlevy plays the titular Quatermass, and his performance is perfect. Quatermass is an American obsessed with his program and the greater ideals it is meant to serve, and he is willing to disregard everything else to that end. Donlevy nails this, coming off as gruff and single minded, even as the stakes raise and tragedies compound. Despite having almost no discernable dialog, Richard Wordsworth delivers one hell of a performance as Victor. Victor is going through painful bodily changes and has been amalgamated with an alien, and Wordsworth does a spectacular job of capturing the anguish Victor is experiencing.

Beyond that, his physicality and movements feel completely real, which is quite a feat as he has to constantly stumble and move like someone who is trying to walk away from the world’s worst car wreck. Jack Warner plays Inspector Lomax, and he is exactly what one would expect from a British investigator as he oozes genteel authority and remains composed under ever worsening circumstances. Lastly, Margie Dean plays Judith Carroon, Victor’s wife, and while her role is more subdued, it is profoundly important. Judith exists in this movie to provide the conscious and human emotional element to the story, and Dean’s emotional performance as a woman who is furious at Quatermass for what has happened to her husband, and who just wants her husband home and well, is exactly what is needed.

While The Quatermass Xperiment is tame by most horror standards, it’s a great example of the space films of 1950s and will forever be historically significant for launching Hammer Horror. The movie has an engrossing story, notable effects, and great performances. If you’re looking to check out a classic that may have flown under your radar, give this one a try, it definitely worth a watch.