Val Guest's The Quatermass Xperiment (U.S. title: The Creeping Unknown) was among the very earliest successful motion picture adaptations of a television original. Based on a 1953 six-part BBC drama authored by Nigel Kneale, it arrived on screen in England in the same year that Delbert Mann's Marty (based on Paddy Chayefsky's television drama) was released in America. The Quatermass Xperiment simplified several of the ideas from Kneale's original story and compressed a lot of the action, but otherwise was years ahead of its time as one of the 1950's most uncompromisingly adult-oriented science fiction films. Hammer Films assigned the movie to director Val Guest, who had previously been pegged as a specialist in comedy and was eager to prove his skills in another genre. Guest revised Landau's screenplay after American star Brian Donlevy was cast in the role of Quatermass, and decided to take a new and novel approach to the film -- he chose to emphasize the realistic, factual scientific side of the story along with the manhunt, shooting it almost in the manner of a newsreel. He correctly reasoned that a cool, low-key "science fact" film would make a refreshing change from what he regarded as the overheated, over-the-top science fiction coming from America. (Curiously, producer Ivan Tors and director Curt Siodmak in America had taken a somewhat similar approach the year before with The Magnetic Monster, but, in fairness, Guest likely had never heard of that movie at the time). In the process, he also created the distant antecedent to The X-Files, mixing the science and detective genres into a whole that came off more substantial than the sum of those parts. In an example of genuine irony, the producers actually asked for an "X" rating (meaning that it was unsuitable for children) from the British Board of Film Censors, and submitted the script in advance in order to get it -- most studios would have done their best to avoid an "X" rating, in order to bring in as many young filmgoers as possible, but Hammer invited and exploited the "X" rating within the title The Quatermass Xperiment and actually boosted their audience among adult filmgoers. All of this outraged original author Kneale (who also couldn't abide Donlevy's portrayal of Quatermass, or the changes made to the character to make it fit the actor's attributes), but it made for an immensely successful film, both at home and abroad, especially in America, where the movie, released in slightly shortened form as The Creeping Unknown, became an unexpectedly large hit for United Artists. The movie is filled with disturbing, jarringly realistic hand-held camera work, and also utilizes enough actual locations to successfully achieve Guest's goal of a documentary-style thriller. It is made doubly suspenseful and horrific with its depiction of the slow transmutation of Caroon, and its teasing (and mostly, but not entirely) off-camera hints about the final shape of the creature, until the last five minutes of the film. Audiences were so successfully pulled into the movie's mood of suspense and paranoia, and its documentary-style realism, that the denouement ended up as a pounding, spellbinding conclusion. In the late 1980's, the first theatrical showing of The Quatermass Xperiment in New York City in 40-plus years resulted in three days of around-the-block lines and full-capacity crowds at New York's Film Forum, and its subsequent release on videocassette and laserdisc. In the years leading up to that rediscovery, the plot-line of this film also served as the inspiration, if not the actual model, for such varied thrillers as X-The Unknown (a blatant attempt to "fake" Quatermass movie, though a fine film in its own right) and Lifeforce, though it is The X-Files that comes closest to The Quatermass Xperiment's mix of paranoia, horror, mystery, and science fiction elements.
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A rocket crash-lands in England after a flight of more than 57 hours into deep space. The design of Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), a forceful, misanthropic American scientist, the Q-1 had three astronauts aboard when it left Earth, but only one of them, engineer Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), is on board upon landing, and he is in a near-comatose state. Even more baffling, the spacesuits of the other two men are still aboard the wrecked ship and are still interlocked, as though they were in them when whatever transpired. Quatermass's investigation is complicated by the presence of Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) of Scotland Yard, who is treating the disappearance of the two men as a potential murder case, and by Caroon's wife Judith (Margia Dean), who blames the scientist for what has happened to her husband. An on-board camera, although damaged, shows an encounter with some form of energy that invaded the ship and attacked the crew, seemingly killing the other two astronauts and rendering Caroon unconscious. Caroon's condition keeps worsening -- Quatermass's medical expert, Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood), is alarmed by the man's impossible heart- and pulse-rate, his degenerating skin and apparent changes in his bone and facial structure. Judith Caroon tries to spirit her husband out of the hospital where he's being cared for, not knowing that something horrific is happening to him. Quatermass and Briscoe soon realize that Caroon is little more than the shell of a man, masking an invading alien life form that can literally draw the life out of any living thing that it touches. The manhunt turns into a fight for survival as the creature continues to kill and mutate, threatening to release spores into the air and spread itself by the millions throughout the Earth.