Q: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

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Like a lot of Americans, I was introduced to this movie as Five Million Years to Earth, because Warner Brothers/Seven Arts didn’t want to face a bunch of palookas moaning wut the hail is a quartermess? Probably wise, but said palookas were likely still not ready for one of the best science-fiction horror movies of all time.

A bunch of workers on a London subway extension uncover some skulls buried in the clay, and as is the law, all work must stop as anthropologist Dr. Roney (James Donald) and his assistant Barbara (Barbara Shelley) begin excavating the remarkable find – Roney estimates the age of the skulls at five million years, possibly the oldest ancestor of man yet. Then a sort of metallic wall is unearthed, and there is a very real possibility that they’ve found an unexploded bomb from the Blitz.

Meanwhile, our old pal Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir, this time) is receiving the bad news that his British Rocket Group is being co-opted by the military, in the person of Colonel Breen (Julian Glover). On their way back to Rocket Group, the Colonel is called upon to advise about this thing in the clay (which is a very clever way to get Quatermass involved, I must say).

As the soldiers uncover more of the object, it becomes plain that it is something novel; the magnetic stethoscopes of the bomb specialist will not stick, so it isn’t steel. Blowtorches have no effect. And in one recess, a completely intact skull is found, which means the object has been down there as long as the skulls – five million years.

Under Barbara’s insistence, Quatermass begins to piece together the odd history of that part of London, named Hob’s End – Hob, of course, being another name for the devil. It is infamous for sightings of strange, goblin-like creatures and visitations of Old Scratch. When the entire object is uncovered, it is obvious that it is not, as Colonel Breen insists, some sort of Nazi Propaganda weapon, but a spacecraft. Especially when a sealed chamber of the craft opens to reveal four dead insectoid creatures, preserved in some sort of unnatural ice, and now decaying rapidly.

The upshot is the creatures are probably Martians, and faced with the death of their planet five million years before, began experimenting on the apes of Earth to create a lifeform that would carry on their way of life. Fortunately, we evolved past the hivemind state the Martians wanted, but buried racial memories translated the insects into horned demons. A further problem is that spacecraft is actually alive, and is waking up and reinforcing the hivemind – which insists that any living being not a part of the hivemind must be destroyed.

Nigel Kneale wrote some of the most thoughtful science fiction/horror stories for the BBC back in the day, and I think most acknowledge Quatermass and the Pit as his masterpiece. It’s hard to explain what a thunderbolt this movie was, with its effortless blending of the two genres, because so much of it has been co-opted in the following years. The most blatant – and loving – example is John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which he wrote under the nom de plume Martin Quatermass. To that you can add the magnificent mess that is Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (whose source novel was far more Lovecraftian)

Kneale was the most satisfied with this film of his work (and rightfully so), and Andrew Keir – since this was my first Quatermass movie, Andrew Keir was Quatermass, as far as I was concerned. Imagine my surprise when I finally caught up with the first two movies, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 (or, thanks to the palookas, The Creeping Unknown and Enemy from Space) and got Brian Donlevy. Donlevy was cast to sell the movies in America, and Kneale hated him. A brusque and domineering version of the character, I cannot imagine Donlevy in this movie. When the Minister tells Quatermass that the object is now exclusively under the command of Colonel Breen, Donlevy would have thrown his badge at him and resigned from the force.

I used to have the original BBC serial on a double VHS set from Sinister Cinema, with Andre Morell playing Quatermass. I really like Morell, but for some reason he turned down the film version. And as I said earlier, I love Keir in the role.

If you’ve not yet seen Quatermass and the Pit (or Five Million Years to Earth, you palooka), you owe it to yourself to remedy that. Highest possible recommendation.

Every halfway-reasonably priced disc for Quatermass and the Pit is only playable on Region 2/B players. But if you have three and half hours, here’s that original TV serial:

 

1 Comment

  1. […] with a Hammer film. Now, you could argue that I was just there a couple of letters ago, with Quatermass and the Pit, but I would have to answer that was not really a Hammer flick because Michael Ripper wasn’t […]


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