The Creeping Unknown (1955)

THE CREEPING UNKNOWN (1955)
(a.k.a. THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT)
Article #168 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing date: 8-31-2001
Posting date: 1-14-2002

When a rocket returning from outer space crashes into the earth, two of the astronauts have vanished while one has contracted a strange illness. Dr. Quatermass tries to solve the mystery.

Though general opinion tends to choose either QUATERMASS 2 or QUATERMASS AND THE PIT as the best in the series, I have to opt for this one, which is partially nostalgia, as it was the only one I saw as a kid. However, it still holds up well, and every time I watch it I find myself totally caught up in the proceedings. There are several reasons; I think the story by Nigel Kneale is tense, exciting and intelligent, for one thing. Then there’s Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the surviving astronaut Victor Caroon, which is powerfully convincing in its depiction of a man going through a painful and truly inhuman transformation. Then there’s the taut direction of Val Guest, especially in the opening sequences when the firemen, police, and onlookers are at the site of the rocket crash; I’m always fascinated at how well this scene moves, and how it sets the atmosphere of tension that permeates the whole film. Then there’s the fine cast of character actors that fill out the film; the only name I recognize right offhand is Lionel Jeffries, but they all do a good job. And finally, there’s Brian Donlevy; from what I hear, Kneale didn’t care for him, and he had a drinking problem, but in this role I can’t take my eyes off of him. His Quatermass is not a likeable character, but he is an imposing presence and a force to be reckoned with, and you can’t help but respect him. He provides the movie with my favorite moment…

SPOILER

…at the very end of the movie, as he leaves the cathedral without saying a word to anyone, until the last person he meets asks him what he’s going to do now, and he reveals he plans to build another rocket, and walks off into the darkness. For me, this is one of the most chillingly powerful moments in science fiction cinema, and as a character, Quatermass is a far cry from the rather bland scientists that permeated much of the American science fiction cinema of the period.

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