No great secret here: I am a fan of the work of HP Lovecraft. That’s an easy thing to say these days I guess, if you want to get some kind of credibility in the horror genre, but I find it easy to weed out the real fans. The Fake Ones are all about tossing the name of Cthulhu around, while qualifying his work with a disclaimer that distances themselves from him. “I really love his stuff, but he was so racist …”. It’s the kind of surface-level thinking that shows in “Lovecraftian” fiction peppered throughout the Amazon .99c specials. Throw in The Elder Gods, some tentacles, Cthulhu, and hey presto, a Lovecraft pastiche. Very few people actually get the work of Lovecraft, they only get the pop culture tropes, then hit a brick wall. Fewer still moviemakers get it, but there have been some. There’s an article in me someday that will list my top 5 Lovecraftian movies, but this is a review of 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, renamed The Creeping Unknown for the US market, a much more fitting title, I feel.
Although the movie is based on the BBC serial of the same name, written by Nigel Kneale, this version was pared down for the movie version by writers Richard Landau, and Val Guest. I won’t bore you with the details, so here is the Wikipedia link if you want to go there yourself. There’s no indication that I can see where either Kneale, Landau, or Guest consciously wanted to emulate Lovecraft, but the end result is as close to a Lovecraftian-themed story as one could hope for, without sliding into homage territory. The story is relatively straightforward: a space rocket crashes back to Earth; two its three crew are missing, and the survivor is suffering from a sickness that renders him silent and almost catatonic, while simultaneously ravaging his skin. The rocket programme is headed up by Professor Bernard Quatermass, who seeks to prevent a potentially world ending disaster.
One of the earliest movies from Hammer Studios, this one in particular shows a lot of polish in execution and stands up as a terrific example of 1950s horror movies. Growing up in the UK in the 70s as I did, the culture didn’t particularly change a lot from the post war period, mostly due to the constant reruns of old movies on TV – Britain remained a working class, kitchen sink culture even up through the mid-to-late 70s, a stark contrast to the constantly morphing reinvention of the United States. The reason I even mention this is because while watching The Quatermass Xperiment last night, the scenes of 1950s life and culture really hit me head on from being immersed in it via the movies and TV of my childhood, and I really appreciated watching this movie in particular with the fresh take on it I’ve gained from adulthood.
A number of things strike me about this movie. With British movies of the time not known for big budgets, the production values are very consistent with contemporary US movies like Them! And the character work is very reminiscent of stateside work also – the biggest difference I can think of is the writing and portrayal of Quatermass himself. Departing from the US sci-fi horror model, the scientist-protagonist Quatermass is a fairly abrasive character, with none of the wise, friendly manner of his US cousins. Played with cold command by Brian Donlevy, Quatermass’s natural state is arrogance and dismissiveness to all and sundry – it’s over the top, but I liked it, and appreciate how different that would have been for audiences at the time. In addition, I can’t help but feel that if it wasn’t for both this movie and its 1957 sequel, Quatermass II (also starring Donlevy in the title role), there would have been no Dr. Who. Both of the Peter Cushing cinematic versions of Dr. Who in the 1960s have a lot of DNA from the preceding two Quatermass movies.
Another observation here is the excellent work by Richard Wordsworth as the doomed surviving astronaut. He goes through all of his scenes with a tortured grimace that captures a tragic, knowing loss of self that becomes all too poignant given the movie’s third act.
It’s through the third act that the movie finally slips into Lovecraft territory, but not before it also provides some food for thought in scenes that appear to have directly influenced John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, another entry in my list of top Lovecraftian movies – though one could easily make the case that Kneale himself was directly influenced by John W. Campbell’s seminal short story Who Goes There, which was adapted as The Thing cinematically.
It’s this connection to the Campbell story that takes me circularly back to Lovecraft: could Campbell have written his story without the influence of Lovecraft’s work? By the time Campbell published his story in Astounding Science Fiction, HP Lovecraft had already made a name for himself writing of the dangers of the interstellar voids, and the things lurking in that darkness, in Weird Tales. All of Lovecraft’s best known work was published the year before Campbell’s story saw print.
I was riveted watching The Quatermass Xperiment last night, I must admit – partially due to nostalgia, partially because of my love for Lovecraft, but it’s also a fine example of classic sci-fi horror that came from a time when flashy technique didn’t fight for attention over story and character. One might choose to see these movies through the lens of today, in the same way that Lovecraft can be easily demonized using the culture of today as a yardstick, but doing so ignores historical context, ignores the evolution of us. I choose not to do that – but I also choose not to be a slave to the past either: if there’s one movie from that era that could be remade with the right talent involved, this movie would be my choice (cinematically, that is. In 2005, the BBC did in fact remake it, starring future Dr. Who David Tennant). What The Quatermass Xperiment is missing is that sense of humanity, identity, the fear of it being submerged under a tidal wave of alien otherness. Wordsworth certainly conveys a lot of that potential, but I suspect it’s more because of his interpretation of the role rather than the subtleties of the script. I recommend watching this if you’re able to do so without a sense of post-modern irony.
© Andrew Hope, 2017