When you think about the origins of Hammer Films, your naturally brain naturally drifts to images of Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein staring intently from around a set of fluffy mutton chops at his latest creation or Christopher Lee’s Dracula fixing his bloodshot eyes upon the creamy neck of a seduced victim – but decades before that Hammer was churning out pulpy thrillers and dramas like nobody’s business, so what changed?
While the antisocial antics of the Baron and the Count certainly put the English studio on the map, what actually started the ball rolling was an adaptation of a six part BBC science fiction drama that made the powers that be realise that scaring the shit out of audiences may actually be the way to go and the name that forged that path to a game-changing legacy was Quatermass…
Somewhere in England, contact is reestablished with the missing American/British mission to launch a manned rocket into space when it suddenly renters Earth’s atmosphere and rudely plows itself into a field. Authorities are called and quickly to the scene arrives the notoriously terse Professor Bernard Quatermass, the man not only in charge of the whole mission, but also responsible for launching the rocket before getting official permission; a particularly controversial decision that prompts angry questioning by the flustered Minister of Defence. However, upon hearing faint knocking from inside the rocket, all attempts are made to rescue the three man crew, but upon gaining entrance to the super hot craft, Quatermass and his entourage find that only one man, a catatonic Carroon, has survived with no trace of the other men save some empty space suits.
Looking about as healthy as Keith Richards’ internal organs, Carroon is taken to hospital and placed under strict guard under Quatermass’ typically blunt orders, but the astronaut’s panicking wife concocts a plan to bust him out and go on the run – however, this predictably ends in disaster when her husband reveals that his out of this world adventures have caused him to start to mutate into and amorphous blob creature with a spikey, cactus-shaped arm which leaves one man dead, the wife catatonic and Carroon free to roam around London while his DNA continues to to the amorphous blob mambo.
A grim Quatermass (usually his baseline emotion at the best of times) agonizes over all the available data as this introduction of an alien lifeform to our world could prove disastrous for mankind, but it’s a chance sighting of the creature at Westminster Abbey that gives the gruff Professor his best chance and bring an end to this experiment once and for all.
In many ways The Quatermass Xperiment is the quintessential British sci-fi. While a lot of American fare saw simplistic scenarios such as creatures caused by atomic growth or alien invasions by stuntmen in elaborate rubber costumes, the brainchild of Nigel Keane would instead break a lot of the established norms associated with 50’s space stuff. While accepted look of a hero (be it soldier, scientist or teenager) would usually be a clean-cut, lantern-jawed manly man, Quatermass’ title character is a grumpy, bullshit-intolerent, middle-aged obsessive who has zero patience for anyone brave enough to throw their opinion in the vague direction of his person. In many ways, you could even argue that Quatermass, with his near-myopic view of how fast mankind should be conquering the galaxy’s mysteries, is something of a threat himself, determined to push the frontiers of man’s domain until it violently pushes back. It’s well set up that the scowling boffin fast-tracked the rocket flight before getting full permission to do so and is utterly disinterested in taking any responsibility for anything that happens afterward, but what separates Brian Donlevy’s driven creation from your average science nut is that when the cosmic shit hits the fan, he’s decent enough to roll up his sleeves and wade in when action needs to be taken – assuming everyone follows his orders, of course. It’s this juxtaposition of emotions that make the character so intriguing as he’s a man who is openly willing to coldly sacrifice the lives of three astronauts in the name of science but who will also train that keen intellect and tirelessly work to clean up his own mess. Never is this more evident than in the climax when, after the threat has been vanquished, he abruptly leaves the scene, refusing to answer anyones questions until his assistant equires what is he going to do now. “Start again.” He replies simply, with a haunted look, knowing full well he will continue hurling men into the void in the name of progress.
Having such a complicated man at the center of the story requires an equally complicated threat and instead of a straight forward monster-on-the-rampage, or some kind of alien conspiracy, The Quatermass Xperiment features a slow burn threat that sees Carroon’s surviving astronaut undergo an insidiously slow full body lift as his form gradually breaks down to that of a squidgy blob that either crunches skull with a club-like cactus arm or absorbs people like The Blob. It’s this progressive transformation that stands out as having an incredibly influential effect on body horror that takes in everything from The Incredible Melting Man (essentially a loose remake) to such sci-fi titans as The Thing, The Fly and a similar affliction performed on Michael Rooker in Slither.
Even though the movie features some 50’s style pacing and a final creature that, despite being quite well realised, still looks distractingly like a giant testicle coated in a mass of dicks, it uses its deliberate tone to slowly unravel itself to the audience exactly what’s going on to tense effect.
It was the snowball that caused an avalanche as its success not only spawned two more movies, but also gave Hammer the idea to produce scarier fare. Carroon’s emaciated visage is genuinely creepy and a scene where he’s approached by a little girl playing alone on the docks (1950’s parenting FTW) carries serious 1931 Frankenstein vibes and less than two years later, among other, similarly intelligent sci-fi fare, The Curse Of Frankenstein cemented the Hammer style as we know it.
Lets call it the Quatermass effect.