The Quatermass Experiment is exactly the sort of cheap, low-budget, 1950s, sci-fi B-movie that is impossible not to be charmed by at least a little, especially when done by a production company as consummately likeable as Hammer, they of countless Dracula films and the greatest purveyors of 50s and 60s British schlock-horror. The cheapness of the film is visible throughout, with plenty of goofs and continuity errors that you’ll spot even if you’re not a pedant explicitly looking for them; the main monster is clearly just tripe; and everything else, from the acting and dialogue to the sets and camerawork, is as basic and stripped back as it can be. This austerity is also prevalent in the storytelling, and The Quatermass Experiment is a prime example of how valuable and entertaining economical direction can be in a film when done well, with all the necessary action and events to explain the whole story contained in just one 80-minute-or-less bloc.
Despite its simplicity, the story, like much of the science-fiction of the 1950s, hides fears about nuclear Armageddon and the ethics of science in a nuclear, weapons-research dominated age. Here, Dr. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) illegally authorises a spaceship launch which disastrously crashes back down in the UK with two of the three crewmembers having completely disappeared and the other in a state of shock. The survivor is then taken to hospital where we quickly discover he’s been infected by some alien organism which inevitably is highly dangerous and wants to kill things. There’s a mad dash through London as the astronaut turns into a monster and goes on the rampage.
Throughout there are illusions to Frankenstein, including even a scene where the monster meets a small girl by a body of water. The Quatermass Experiment centres around the same idea as Mary Shelley’s classic, that notion of whether man has the right to play God in the name of scientific progress. With the Cold War in full gear and nuclear paranoia rife throughout the world, the parallels here are clear: the vicious alien lifeform can be seen either as a manifestation of the fear of nuclear Armageddon or the fear of Communist invasion. What’s interesting about the film is the uniquely British tack it handles this fear with; all the main characters simply stay calm and keep a stiff upper lip, making themselves a nice cuppa whenever there’s a break from the action, as if to say “this nuclear stuff will all blow over tomorrow morning,” presumably with the fallout blowing onto Wales.
Whilst easy to read Cold War parallels into The Quatermass Experiment, the film is, at the end of the day, a film about a monster on the run. It is fast-paced and simply filmed, with most of the framing and camerawork functioning at the most very basic level, although there are a few interesting devices used, such as creepy, grainy, TV footage reel recovered from the spaceship that is eerily effective. At only about 80 minutes long, The Quatermass Experiment doesn’t have much of an opportunity to become boring, and it doesn’t, remaining entertaining and solid throughout, if not at all spectacular.