Throwback Thursday: X Marks the Spot in The Quatermass Xperiment

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

The 1950s were an interesting time in cinema. After the harshness of the second world war, we started to see the flowering of science fiction on the big screen. Sure there had been fantastical films before, but the major focus of the film studios were on melodramas, westerns, and war films. With the fear of the atomic bomb and its devastating effects, the Japanese created Godzilla to address how their culture was impacted. Even the United States got into the “creatures-mutated-by-radiation” trend with a slew of movies that grew spiders, ants, and a ton of other animals into unusual sizes. With that fear, however, a bigger fear started to insinuate itself into our consciousness. The red fear, the fear of the unknown, and the fear of the other. The same fear, just manifested in different ways. The British took this fear of the unknown and instead of looking sideways looked primarily up. Nowhere is this more clear than in 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment.

British and American lobby posters

Both the British and American lobby posters

Based on a BBC television miniseries, Quatermass looked to the stars and set up a plot of a crash-landed spaceship where two out of the three crewmen have disappeared. It’s a locked-door mystery that Professor Bernard Quatermass must get to the bottom of, or our whole world will be destroyed. Set in Britain, the movie compresses six half-hour episodes to a terse 82 minutes. Filling in for the British Reginald Tate, American Brian Donlevy fills in the shoes of Quatermass, giving him a very abrupt, no-nonsense personality. If this were made today, he’d probably be played as a military blowhard who ends up dying in the middle of the film because he didn’t listen to others. In 1955, he’s the lead.

Black and white screenshot of the ship with people surrounding it

Also important to note, the ship is completely intact.

Besides being condensed for the screen, it’s also interesting to note that the film dropped the “E” from “Experiment” in the title to highlight the edginess of the material and to take full advantage of the new British “X” rating where no one under 16 would be permitted to see it. This helped in Britain, but in America, we didn’t have that rating so it was just a unique way to spell it. (This was decades before the ’90s “X’ed” everything to make it edgy.) The film was renamed in the United States a number of times and is probably more well known as The Creeping Unknown.

While all of that is interesting to know, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What makes this film standout and worth my very important geek time?” Well, film loving geek, I’ll tell ya. It’s fun to watch Quatermass running around, barking orders, and not listening to his advisors until it’s almost too late. Also, the creature effects are products of their time (slightly hokey, and on a string), but almost believable. The acting of the time is different from modern acting, but there are some standouts that transcend the melodramatic. Besides the minimalist makeup on the surviving astronaut (Richard Wordsworth), it’s a treat to watch this man slowly morph into something “other” solely based on how he carries his body. Wordsworth should actually rank up there with Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi in regards to how he portrays a sympathetic monster if cinema history were fair.

Richard Wordsworth showing some physical signs of morphing into something else.

At least he didn’t go blind.

It’s enjoyable to see how far we’ve come in our science fiction and fantasy films, watching through the decades as our ideas of the bad guy have evolved, along with acting styles, and even societal norms. At the time, this film was almost risqué; now, it could play on daytime TV and no one would bat an eye. The kids might skip it because it’s not in color, but that’s just bad parenting. Don’t be a bad parent. Introduce your kids, and yourself, to a fun film from the bygone days of innocence.

The monster hanging on the church ceiling

Sometimes a monster just wants to hang out in church.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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