ABCs of Horror 2: “Q” is for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror movies from every letter of the alphabet. Only criterion: The films chosen cannot have been used in Century of Terror of 2019, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of each year from 1920 to 2019, nor the first ABCs of Horror project of the last year. With many big hitters on the sidelines, which movies will we pick?
At the dawn of the 1950s, the American film industry was mired in what was perhaps its longest drought of true horror cinema, a real low point for the genre. Studios assumed at the time that postwar audiences weren’t interested in the old monster movies and mad doctor stories that Universal had so easily proliferated during most of the 1940s, and instead had desire for more “modern” tales that could reflect, on some level, the changed world that now existed in the nuclear age. Ultimately, it was the nascent sci-fi genre that would give horror a return to theaters, via films like The thing from another world Where Man from Planet X in 1951, but the first half of the decade is still pretty wasteland of horror, notable only for the rise of the movie “giant monster” via people like Godzilla and Them!. It wouldn’t be until the second half of the decade that more classic horror would return to center stageâ¦ and the United States wouldn’t be leading the charge.
Across the pond, it was Britain’s Hammer Film Productions that ultimately spearheaded what has turned into a global horror revival, as they embraced the spirit of the era by bringing colorful life back to old monsters, making Frankenstein or Dracula’s monster creepy again. in a new era of plunging necklines and grisly splashes of Eastmancolor blood. But before Frankenstein’s Curse Where Dracula’s Horror, there was The Quatermass experience. This was the true genesis of what would quickly merge into “Hammer Horror,” an atmospheric blend of body horror and sci-fi that embraced these newly “modern” postwar sensibilities while also laying the groundwork for many sci-fi horrors to come. No less than John Carpenter went on to say that the film “had a huge, huge impact on me” – an impact that can clearly be seen in his remake of The thing almost 30 years later. Today, The Quatermass experience has more or less slipped out of cultural consciousness, but you can see its offspring everywhere.
The Quatermass experience is, at its core, a bizarre fusion of sci-fi parable, film noir, police procedure, and ‘monster on the loose’ cooler, which begins when the first manned rocket crew launched into space undergoes a mysterious phenomenon and crashes to Earth. With two crew members missing and the only living soul on board rendered catatonic, the film is initially presented as a mystery … until the only surviving crew member Carroon (Richard Wordsworth, in an empathetic, haunted performance that evokes Karloff’s monster) begins to slowly transform into something that is not of this world. Wordsworth truly expresses the silent horror of this process, his face becoming a portal of emaciated and hollow despair, as if he vaguely understands that his conscience will be stripped, bit by bit, and replaced by alien cunning.
The titular “Quatermass”, meanwhile, is the name of an American professor (Brian Donlevy) who speaks more like a tough film noir than an academic as he oversees the program and the subsequent attempt to medically save Carroon. The efforts are in vain, of course – the monster ends up rampaging through the streets as we all knew he would, but the emphasis on Quatermass is intriguing in how he describes him as not “the man.” of progress “that he claims to be, but as an indifferent, methodical and ultimately contemptible researcher who cares more about the discoveries to be made (and probably the fame that goes with them) than the well-being of his own crew. It looks almost tyrannical, brutally efficient and often logical, yet devoid of human sentiment, culminating in what is perhaps the film’s scariest moment as Quatermass declares his intention to send more men into the space. immediately after destroying the monster, its last crew member became. It’s impossible to watch Quatermass and not see a rebuke of the occasional misanthropy from business and science – he’s the villain of the movie just as much as the alien who turns people and animals into parched shells.
The ideas of The Quatermass experience was going to be widely co-opted in American sci-fi horror films of the late 1950s, such as Creeping terror (Quatermass was itself titled The crawling stranger in the United States) and especially Night of the Blood Beast, which is essentially a much lower quality version of the same story. In the end, it also seems like a clear inspiration for The incredible fondant man and The blob, for the thing that was once Carroon has become a quivering mass of tendrils and slime. Notably, it bears little resemblance to the spooky, color-enhanced classic Gothic horrors that Hammer would bring onto the international stage a few years later, but without the success of Quatermass (which has had several sequels), one wonders if we would have ever seen Christopher Lee as Dracula or Peter Cushing as Dr Frankenstein. The horror landscape could have been fundamentally altered, had it not been for this black-tinted story of a mutant astronaut on the loose. It is the legacy of Quatermass, the launch pad for the golden age of British horror.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on twitter for more writing for film and television.