The British-American Rocket Group, headed by Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) launches a manned rocket into space, and all contact with it is lost. On board are Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), and two other astronauts named Reichenheim and Green. Then, the rocket crashes in a country field. Quatermass and his assistant Marsh (Maurice Kaufmann) investigate with Carrroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean), Doctor Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood), and the irritating Ministry official Blake (Lionel Jeffries). When the rocket is opened, Carroon stumbles out in shock, saying, “Help me!” The other two are gone, leaving only empty spacesuits.
Carroon is taken to Briscoe’s lab to be examined. He is mute and immobile, but alert with frightening eyes. There is a disfigured area on his shoulder and apparent changes to the bones of his face. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) investigates the disappearance of the other men, fingerprinting Carroon and finding that the prints are unhuman. At his wife’s insistence, Carroon is transferred to a hospital under guard. Marsh develops the film from the ship. Something seems to impact the ship, the atmosphere wavers, and the men seem frightened. They collapse, Carroon last.
Quatermass and Briscoe think something living in outer space entered the ship, dissolved Reichenheim and Green in their spacesuits, and is now transforming Carroon. Carroon’s wife hires a private investigator named Christie (Harold Lang) to bust her husband out of the hospital. In the process, Carroon smashes a potted cactus, which fuses to his flesh. He kills Christie and absorbs his life-force, then disappears into the night. His wife is traumatized.
Inspector Lomax calls for a manhunt. Carroon breaks into a chemist’s shop, absorbs the chemist, and steals chemicals. He hides on a river barge and, struggling against himself, leaves a little girl (a very young Jane Asher) alone, then he hides in the zoo. In the morning, animal carcasses are found and a small but living piece that was Carroon. The predatory creature that has taken over his body seems ready to produce spores. The piece of Carroon breaks out of its glass cage but dies of starvation. They find the much bigger creature on a scaffolding in Westminster Abbey. Quatermass orders it electrocuted before it can release spores. Another rocket is sent into space.
The movie was produced by Hammer Films, based on the 1953 BBC series entitled the Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale. The film was produced by Anthony Hinds and directed by Val Guest. It was a major success for Hammer Films and put them on the map. The screenplay was written by Richard Landau. In the highly successful TV serial, Quatermass convinces the creature to suicide for the good of humanity. In the movie, he kills it. It was filmed like a newsreel to make it seem more realistic. The music was by James Bernard, a Hammer stalwart. The E in Experiment was dropped to emphasize the x-rated gore.
United Artists released the film in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown. It spawned two sequels. Richard Wordsworth’s performance was riveting. The anguish of the hunted human and the feral creature’s malevolence fought for control of his face. Later, he starred in a one-person show about his great-great-grandfather, the poet William Wordsworth. Margia Dean was the girlfriend of 20th Century Fox’s president Spyros Skouras, but he didn’t want her in an American movie. Her American accent clashed so much that she was dubbed in post-production. Director Val Guest didn’t like SF, but he created a news film style with hand-held cameras and detailed storyboards that gave the story verisimilitude.
Makeup artist Phil Leaky was key to the success of the film. James Bernard’s music predated his similar score for Psycho. He went on to score 23 movies for Hammer Films. A nine-year-old boy died watching the film in Illinois, which incident was listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the only case of someone dying of fright watching a horror movie. It received rave reviews from Stephen King and John Carpenter. The little girl (Jane Asher) trying to befriend the transmogrified monster is reminiscent of Maria and the Frankenstein monster.