Out in the middle of the English countryside, and a young couple are laughing and enjoying each other's company. They lie down next to a haystack and fall into each other's arms, but what's that noise? It sounds at first like a jet engine, but as it gets louder they begin to panic and head for the shelter of the woman's cottage. As they reach the building, an almighty crash is heard and the woman's father goes out to investigate brandishing a shotgun, only to find a huge space rocket with its nose plunged deep into the ground. An hour later, and a crowd has gathered, and so have the fire brigade, the police and an ambulance. There's one man on the way who has a better idea of what's going on than anyone else, however: a certain Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy)...
Before Doctor Who arrived on the scene, Nigel Kneale's creation Professor Bernard Quatermass was the main man in British television science fiction thanks to three sensationally popular serials on the BBC, all of which were adapted into films by Hammer studios. However, Kneale didn't write the script for this, the first of the films in the short series (spelled "Xperiment" to emphasise the then-new X certificate), that honour went to director Val Guest and Richard Landau, and so there were a few changes made, not only to cut the story down to feature length, but also in the incarnation of the main character.
No longer was Quatermass a British boffin, nope, he was now a harsh-talking American who inexplicably is heading the United Kingdom space exploration team, and with that alteration, and thanks to Donlevy's abrasiveness, the film has a more severe, blatant feeling than the more thoughtful television version. Not that it harms the story any, as Quatermass's blind devotion to science no matter what the cost conjures a panicky, out of control tone to the proceedings. In fact, the Professor is often sidelined by the other characters such as the police Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner sharing top billing) who has a determination of his own.
As it is his pet project, Quatermass is not happy about bringing in anyone into the investigation apart from, well, apart from himself really. The night of the rocket's "landing" the hatch was opened and only one man, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), emerged - not so much emerged as tumbled out, to be honest. So what happened to the other two astronauts? The mystery is well sustained, as various clues crop up; Caroon is in no shape to tell anyone what went on up there, and his only word in the whole film is a whispered "help" which we, the audience, never hear.
Wordsworth gives the best performance, a haunted, pathetic study in unease as he goes from lying in his hospital bed to wandering the streets on the lookout for food. But he's not going to snack in the conventional manner, whatever occurred up there has altered his metabolism and the only way he can gain sustenance is by draining life from other living things, leaving a trail of shrivelled corpses in his path (as well a trail of slime). There are still effective scenes of creepiness, such as Quatermass and his crew viewing the footage taken by the rocket's camera, or Caroon, his arm turned into a cactus, being approached by an innocent little girl (a young Jane Asher) at the river side. And of course, if it wasn't for this film, Hammer wouldn't have set out on its lucrative domination of the British horror film. Music by James Bernard.