*****SPACESHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
When I was a kid, there was a cool little sci-fi/horror flick I used to catch on TV all the time. The movie, known here in the States as “Five Million Years to Earth,” concerned London subway excavators who stumble upon a five million year-old Martian spaceship, unwittingly unleashing a deadly alien poltergeist attack–a phenomenon only understood by a handful of scientists, who are stymied by military/government officials. I knew from Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (staple reading in my preteen years) that the movie was known in its native Great Britain as “Quatermass and the Pit” (1967). Unfortunately, North Americans were generally ignorant of the “Quatermass” serials, which have aired in the UK from the 1950s onward, being periodically revived every now and then with different actors playing the title character, Professor Bernard Quatermass. Quatermass led the British Rocket Programme, and was a predecessor for future supernatural/sci-fi investigators such as Fox Mulder (“The X-Files”) and Carl Kolchak (“The Night Stalker”).
Note: Despite hearing his name mentioned throughout the movie, my young brain would often misread the main character’s last name as Quarter-mass, not Quater-mass.
The Hammer feature film of “Quatermass and the Pit” was based on a same-named six-part serial airing in late 1958 and early 1959, both of which were written by screenwriter Nigel Kneale. The serial starred Andre Morrell in the title role of Bernard Quatermass, while the film version would star Andrew Keir. Sadly, I’ve not yet seen the original serial (or any of the other “Quatermass” serials), though I understand from research that the movie, directed by Roy Ward Baker (“A Night to Remember”), is a solid abridgment.
Note: Several of the Quatermass serials were adapted into feature films. “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955), released in the US as “The Creeping Unknown,” was adapted from 1953’s “The Quatermass Experiment” TV serial. Others included “Quatermass 2” (1957–also known by its US title; “Enemy From Space”), and most recently, the Mark Gatiss (“Doctor Who,” “Sherlock”) produced remake of “The Quatermass Experiment” from 2005, starring Jason Flemying as Quatermass and Doctor Who star David Tennant as Dr. Gordon Briscoe. As a fan of Gatiss’ other works (including his 2007 miniseries’ “Jekyll,” and 2020’s “Dracula”) I need to take a look at his “Quatermass” remake someday.
“Quatermass and the Pit” was one of a handful of films I used to try and catch every year in broadcast (pre-VCR, pre-DVDs, pre-streaming), as it usually aired around Halloween on local TV stations. Halloween was a perfect season for this eerie flick, which, in some ways, borrows inspiration from H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds”, though Kneale’s long-dead Martians invaded our Earth by proxy; seeding its native lifeforms (ancient humans) with accelerated intelligence and aggression, as well as a carefully planted racial memory of their horned, insect-like Martian masters. These horned creatures were remembered by our ancestors as ‘demons’ (a little bit of Arthur Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” thrown in as well).
Without further ado, let’s get down into the pit…
“Quatermass and the Pit.”
The movie opens in London, with excavators digging into the earth and mud beneath “Hobb’s Lane” to extend a subway line, when they come across what appears to be a primitive human skull. Driving a pick axe into a wall of reveals a hollow are filled with several more such skeletons. Work on the Hobb’s Lane station is temporarily halted, while wry anthropologist Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald) and his dedicated assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) work through the muck, clearing out bones and other specimens found at the site.
Note: The cluttered, workmanlike environment of the Hobb’s Lane digging site feels very authentic, as the improvised extension cables, lights, mud, and the sounds of tools immediately establishes an appropriately noisy, claustrophobic atmosphere. Kudos to director Roy Ward Baker, who brought a similar authenticity to his 1958 RMS Titanic movie, “A Night To Remember” (based on the famed book by Walter Lord). “A Night To Remember” was the definitive film on the Titanic disaster until the 1997 James Cameron film “Titanic” came along and shattered world box office records as well as outdated depictions of the famed luxury liner’s 1912 sinking. Cameron’s version incorporated new forensic details of the disaster, acquired after the wreckage was discovered on the Atlantic Ocean floor in 1985.
Enter the film’s hero, Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), a scientific jack of many trades, as well as head of the British Rocket Programme. The scientifically progressive Quatermass is very curious if the skeletons might be of extraterrestrial origin. Roney and Barbara assure him that the skeletons and skulls are certainly terrestrial, but something is very unusual about their skull sizes. Leaving the pit to explore the area around Hobb’s Lane, Barbara and Quatermass are escorted by an obliging policeman to a condemned building across the street–one full of scratches on the inside walls. The burly policemen himself soon becomes inexplicably terrified of the place, and is forced to leave. Something very strange is afoot at Hobb’s Lane. Barbara also notes that Hobb’s Lane was once spelled Hob–an old nickname for the devil.
Note: Quatermass is a clear forerunner of other supernatural investigators, like Fox Mulder of “The X-Files,” or “The Night Stalker” hero, Carl Kolchak. Like those unofficial descendants of his, Quatermass is affable but opinionated, as well as extremely tenacious–causing him to occasionally bend a rule or ruffle a few feathers in pursuit of the truth.
Eventually, Roney puts together a clay figure based on the anatomy of the skeletons and skulls, and determines that these short, early hominids had huge heads–denoting unusually high brain capacity for primitive forebears of Homo sapiens. A makeshift press conference on the findings is prepared by Roney, who isn’t terribly skilled at public relations (his only interest is science, not reporters). Quatermass begins to suspect that these early ancestors were, perhaps, genetically modified…but by whom? An answer to that question is soon hinted at when an excavator discovers what appears to be a very large, bluish-gray pipe beneath the mud. The assembled press immediately begins to fear that it might be an undetonated bomb carried by a German V-2 rocket during World War 2. The military is immediately called in…
Quatermass and the team are soon summoned by the Minister (Edwin Richfield) who proceeds to tear into Quatermass and his team for their rash decision to alert the press about the findings at the site, including the ‘German missile.’ The Minister informs Quatermass he will have to coordinate all future findings at the site with his new military liaison Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who, despite making outward overtures of friendship (including an offer of dinner) projects an iciness that betrays his words. Roney quietly mutters to Quatermass that he despises men like Breen, while the professor does his best to take Breen at his word, telling the colonel that he, too, would like them to get along.
Note: Having met Julian Glover–a very warm, kindly man in person–it amuses me at how well he plays such contemptible bastards as Colonel Breen (see: General Veers, in “The Empire Strikes Back” Aristotle Kristatos in “For Your Eyes Only,” and many others…).
Back at the digging site, the metal pipe is revealed to be something else indeed. When fully unearthed and hosed off, it is revealed to be a large, blue-gray metal ‘vessel’ of some kind–with no windows, hatches, or other obvious means of entry. Furthermore, the ‘metal’ on its surface is entirely non-magnetic. Touching metal along its surface without gloves produces an effect like frostbite, despite a lack of cold. There are also markings on the back which resemble ancient symbols for black magic. Despite his own curiosity, Quatermass is concerned with Breen’s men using blowtorches and other potentially harmful means with which to penetrate the surface.
Eventually, they decide to take a specialized drill, with a bit much harder than diamond, to bore through it. The civilian drill operator, a man named Sladden (Duncan Lamont), takes the whole business in stride. With Breen’s permission, Sladden begins using his drill on the object, and an immediate psionic reaction is felt by everyone in the pit–sympathetic vibrations and a high-pitched whirring sound painfully sets everyone’s teeth on edge. After a few painful and loud moments, the drilling is stopped, as the outside generator itself is strained. A soldier sent to the rear of the craft runs away screaming in fear, due to a hallucination he experienced of a “hideous dwarf.” Barbara “saw” it as well, though she was not as terrified. Roney returns to the vessel’s aft section to see what the commotion was about, and he notices something very curious … a melted hole has appeared; a hole that was nowhere near the drilling site. Soon, the entire aft end of the vessels begins to simply crack and melt away…
As the rear wall of the craft rapidly disappears, Roney, Breen and Quatermass are stunned by the sight of what appears to be giant green locusts, with horns atop of their pointed heads. The creatures are suspended in fragile crystalline hives which begin to shatter like so many shards of sugar-glass. Exposed to Earth’s atmosphere for the first time since their presumed landing, the large, long-dead creatures immediately begin to decay; “Making up for lost time,” says Quatermass. The fast-decaying corpses reek of rotting fish, and are hurriedly removed from the capsule and photographed by Barbara, while they are still recognizable. The stench becomes nearly overpowering as the creatures are quickly covered in layers of foul green goo–their decrepitude continuing unabated.
Note: When I saw this movie as a kid, the locust creatures looked like every insect fear I ever had rolled into one. Quatermass’s description of their stench (“rotting fish”) was so vivid I could almost smell it through my parents’ old Zenith TV. The creatures also reminded me of a popular game at the time called “Cooties”, which involved plastic bug-like toys, and the equally insect-like “Zanti Misfits,” from the same-named 1963 episode of “The Outer Limits.”
With the corpses removed, and covered in an immediate preservative to keep them from further rotting, Quatermass orders them back to the laboratory for analysis. Confronted by this extraordinary discovery, Quatermass is convinced these creatures are that very word overly-used to describe extraterrestrials– Martians. These creatures fled their dying home world to leave behind a genetically modified race of native ape-like creatures (early humans) as their “proxy colony” here on Earth. Quatermass, inspired by Barbara’s shared vision with the screaming soldier, believes these Martians–given their horns and monstrous appearance–may also have spawned old legends of horned demons and gargoyles in cave paintings, statuary, artworks and other lore. Later, we see Quatermass and Barbara going to a local translator who reads an ancient Latin text about past demonic manifestations at Hobb’s lane.
A fantastically stubborn Breen has had quite enough speculation; he maintains the craft was a Hitler-era propaganda weapon–filled with ‘fairground mermaid’ corpses and skeletons–to scare Londoners into believing the very thing that Quatermass and his team believe now; that the craft is an invading Martian spaceship of some kind. Flabbergasted by Breen’s intransigence, Quatermass returns to his lab to continue his studies of the Martian corpses, whose decay has been temporarily halted.
Later, after the excavation site is shut down for the night, a lone guard allows the civilian drill bit operator Sladden to reenter the pit and clean up after his earlier work. Barbara, feeling a kind of sixth sense regarding the discovery, also asks the guard if she can retrieve some equipment she’d left behind. The guard allows her in, and she immediately follows Sladden. With the lights turned down for the evening, Sladden begins to feel strange–as if something were taking over his mind. Objects within the excavation site begin to fly through the air at random, as a gust of wind blows through the pit. Barbara notices Sladden, apparently walking up the stairs against his will, onto the surface streets above. Following Sladden, Barbara notices a gusty wind seems to surround and follow the poor man whoever he goes, as his mental state rapidly decays–much like the screaming soldier earlier that day. Eventually, Sladden finds refuge in a church, where the parson believes he is possessed by evil spirits. Quatermass and Barbara eventually find the spent drill operator and try to question him. The almost catatonic Sladden speaks cryptically of flying creatures committing mass murder under a dark brown sky. Quatermass believes Sladden is describing a civil war that took place on the planet Mars–five million years ago.
Note: It’s very easy to see why the movie was retitled “Five Million Years to Earth” for its North American release, since it’s often repeated throughout the movie that the exodus from Mars to Earth took place five million years ago, when the dying Martian civilization was still viable enough world to launch traces of itself into space. The title of “Quatermass and the Pit” would be meaningless to American audiences, who were generally not familiar with the BBC serial on which it was based.
Eventually, Quatermass realizes that Sladden was seeing a Martian genocide–from the perspective of Mars itself. Somehow the discovery in the pit has awakened a race memory in human beings, particularly humans who are in close proximity to the spaceship at certain moments. To test his theory of humans being Martian experiments for a proxy colony, he contracts a lab team with a specialized apparatus to record subconscious visual representations of subconscious thoughts directly onto videotape. Curiously failing to pick up any signals from Dr. Roney in the lab (a subtly foreshadowing moment), they take the mind-reading apparatus to the pit…
Note: Duncan Lamont (1918-1978) gives a terrific performance as the possessed drill operator Sladden; seen throughout most of the movie as a genial, laidback sort of guy. It is genuinely unsettling to see such a pained look in his face as he tries to find words to fit the Martian genocide he’s witnessing from rekindled race memory.
Once again, the apparatus fails to record anything, but Quatermass notices that Barbara seems to have a special psychic affinity with the forces at work in the pit, which are now stirring unearthly gusts of telekinetic winds, and she volunteers to try the device. With the headband secured, the technician immediately picks up a signal on his television monitor; a static-filled series of images showing what appears to be the Martian insects, marching in unison. Barbara slowly becomes hysterical as the power of her visions–as well as the ‘winds’ blowing random objects all about the pit–begin to overpower her. She is immediately disconnected from the device.
Note: Another fine performance from actress Barbara Shelley as Barbara Judd (though memorizing her character’s name probably wasn’t a stretch…). Like Duncan Lamont’s Sladden, she also conveys a very convincing reversion to a more primal emotional state. Shelley also appeared in the 1960 classic horror film, “Village of the Damned” (1960). Sadly, the actress only recently passed away after contracting and recovering from COVID-19. The disease itself didn’t kill her, but it left her in a weakened physical state, and she died from underlying health complications shortly afterward. Barbara Shelley passed away in January of 2021 at age 88.
Later, in the Minister’s office, the lights are turned low as the Minister, Col. Breen and the others view the static-filled, black-and-white images gleaned from Barbara’s subconscious during the visit to the pit earlier. They see hundreds of the locust-like Martians, bouncing in unison, almost like a march, as they proceed to annihilate swaths of their fellow Martians in pursuit of racial purity–seeking only the best of their kind for use in engineering their newfound human proxy colony on Earth. After the dramatic presentation, Quatermass somberly tells them that what they’ve just witnessed was an ethnic cleansing that took place on the planet Mars five million years ago.
The Minister is nearly convinced until Col. Breen chimes in. To Quatermass’s disgust, Breen reiterates his theory that Barbara’s ‘evidence’ was manufactured, and that the spaceship must still be some kind of advanced German propaganda machine used to terrify Londoners during the war. Choosing to believe Breen’s far less convincing story rather than accept the truth about humankind’s alien origins, the Minister calls 10 Downing Street to tell them it was all just a terrible German hoax. Col. Breen announces he plans to hold a full press conference at the site, debunking all of the scientists’ findings at the pit, despite the inexplicably strange forces there he has experienced himself.
Note: I have to admit, one of the few visuals that really doesn’t hold up in this otherwise handsomely-made film is the ‘race memory’ flashbacks of the Martian ethnic purge from five million years ago. The dozens of miniature Martians bobbing weightlessly up and down in grainy monochrome video images look like bad children’s puppet theater. Not even kidding. They look astonishingly amateurish for a film which boasted such high production value in so many areas. I realize one should grade on a curve with a 55 year-old sci-fi movie, and I only call attention to the sequence as it stands out like a smashed thumb.
The following day at Breen’s scheduled press event, things slowly begin to unravel, with the telekinetic breezes kicking up, and TV live feeds suddenly cutting out, as the independently-generated electricity into the pit is mysteriously shorted. Soon, the Martian spaceship begins to glow, as veiny patterns can be seen in its translucent living surface. As the crowd begins to panic and flee, Col. Breen is transfixed by the bright blue spacecraft and refuses to move. Quatermass tries to budge the colonel, guessing the glow could be radioactive, but the blank-eyed Breen is as stubborn under possession as he is in his right mind. After Quatermass and the rest of the attendees are forced to flee, we see cutaway shots of Breen, slowing frying himself to death while basking in the spaceship’s persistent radioactivity…
Note: Occasional images of visceral gore, like Col. Breen’s slow-burning face, the frostbitten fingers of the excavators who touched the spaceship barehanded and particularly the gooey, rotting Martian corpses all seem carefully planted throughout the movie to remind us that we are watching a Hammer film, not the original BBC TV serial. Hammer was a British film company famous (infamous?) for their decades of luxe color horror movies (c. 1957-1974), including their far-bloodier takes on Universal’s classic Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and Mummy flicks.
Outside, in the streets above the Hobb’s Lane pit, the crowds begin to act very strangely as gusts of unnatural wind blow everywhere. Soon, we see some of the crowd begin to turn on other members of the crowd–all under the will of the long dead Martian leader, whose shimmering ‘ghost’ looms large in the night sky overhead–directing the humans below to carry out a new phase of carnage on its behalf. As groups of people in the street begin to inexplicably turn on each other, Quatermass finds Barbara, who, because of her previous inclination, is strongly feeling the Martian’s compulsion. Distastefully, Quatermass resorts to punching the young woman into unconsciousness to temporarily break the Martian overlord’s hold on her mind.
Note: When I was a little kid, that large shimmering Martian ‘ghost’ over the streets of London was truly terrifying; it’s one of the main images from the film I’ve never forgotten, along with the sight of the rotting Martian corpses–which might’ve also turned me off from eating fresh fish in those days.
Running into Roney, Quatermass himself begins to feel the effects of the Martian directive working on his own mind, as he clumsily tries to kill Roney, who shakes the professor into remembering his name. Feeling his grip on reality weakening under the Martian overlord influence, Quatermass notices that Roney, who failed to yield an image from his racial memory onto the recorder earlier, appears to be immune to the Martian’s signal. Of course, Quatermass realizes–some humans would be naturally immune to the Martian’s tapping into our ancestral minds. With Roney as the key, they somehow (?) conclude that the only way to stop the Martian overlord’s signal on the crowd below is to ground the energy from the overhead apparition and short it out…
Note: Don’t ask, because I have no idea how Quatermass and Roney figured out they had to ground the energy from the Martian “spirit in the sky” (cue Norman Greenbaum). Perhaps it was one of those ideas that was allowed more breathing room in the original six-part serial than this admittedly truncated 98 minute version. All I know is that this ‘solution’ of theirs seem to come from nowhere. Either way, it makes for an exciting, if illogical, climax.
Over Quatermass’s initial objection, Roney climbs the construction scaffolding and rides one of the large cranes directly into the shimmering Martian ghost–hoping that the metal crane’s connection to the metal scaffolding will ground the energy of the specter. Roney realizes it will electrocute him in the process, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. We ride in the crane along with Roney, as he’s drawn directly into the demonic face of humanity’s ancient interloper. The crane strikes the Martian, and the contact creates a brief electrocuting flash, causing the image to quickly disappear. The noble Dr. Roney is killed, but this traumatized corner of London is safe for the time being.
Note: The wryly sardonic, likable Dr. Matthew Roney (1917-1993) is well-played by James Donald. Donald, like his costar Andrew Keir (1926-1997), is a native Scotsman. Keir hailed from Shotts, while Donald hailed from Aberdeen. Though he was nearly a decade older than Keir, Donald was the more younger-looking of the two actors.
With Roney gone, a shaken Quatermass revives the unconscious Barbara and takes her from the shambles left in the wake of the evil Martian’s destructive impulses. The end credits begin to play over the images of Barbara and Quatermass walking off together… survivors of a very different kind of Martian invasion.
Colonel Breen’s Not Such a Bad Chap…
Attending the annual Los Angeles Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention in February of 2016, I had the chance to meet with longtime actor Julian Glover, who has many high profile credits to his name, including several appearances on “Doctor Who,” feature roles in “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” as well as the role of Quatermass’ obstinate military antagonist, Colonel Breen, in “Quatermass and the Pit.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance or foresight to discuss that particular role with him when we met, we did enjoy a brief chat about his role as “Scaroth” in the classic 1979 Doctor Who serial, “City of Death.”
I remember him looking at a picture of his younger self in the role, and he jokingly winced, “Oh, I was so young…take it away.” We then briefly chatted about his playing the duplicitous, Nazi-sympathizing “Walter Donovan” in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), my personal favorite of the Indiana Jones films to date. Later, after I went up to our hotel room to crash for the night, my wife told me she shared an elevator ride and a brief chat with Glover. Before they went their separate ways, he smiled, and wished her a nice evening; a true gentleman–nothing at all like the sinister roles he’s played to date.
Summing It Up.
While not quite a game-changing sci-fi/horror classic like Ridley Scott’s “ALIEN” or John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “Quatermass and the Pit” could rest comfortably on the same shelf as “Them!” (1954) or “The Blob” (1958). The movie combines elements of sci-fi classic novels like “War of the Worlds” and “Childhood’s End,” while laying the groundwork for future fictional investigators of the paranormal. Screenwriter Nigel Kneale smartly adapts his own 1950s serial, and Roy Ward Baker’s handsome direction gives the film an atmospheric and unnerving vibe. Andrew Keir does a solid job as Professor Quatermass, and he is well-supported by an able cast, including James Donald, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover and Duncan Lamont (his nervous breakdown after his Martian possession is downright unsettling to watch–even today).
While many of the special effects still do the trick, there are also a few that don’t, though the actors and the atmosphere ably support some of the weaker visuals–after all, the film is 55 years old. My greatest issue is with the rushed final moments; it’s not clear exactly how Dr. Roney concludes the energy of the Martian ghost must be electrically grounded in order to stop it, but in the chaos of the moment, such technobabble is easily hand-waved away, and Roney’s sacrifice provides an anchor of gravitas for the finale.
“Quatermass and the Pit” offers multiple sci-fi/horror ideas within its compact running time –panspermia, ancient Martian life, demonology folklore, spiritual possession, and even poltergeist hauntings. While the pacing may be considered a bit too slow and measured for modern audiences, those with a little patience will be nicely rewarded with a few old-fashioned scares.
Where To Watch/Be Safe.
Unfortunately, this is a difficult title to find on streaming services, though I did manage to locate it currently streaming at Chilimovie.com. For those seeking a hard copy, the restored 2019 BluRay can be ordered via Amazon.com (prices vary between $25-$28). Worth a look for fans of vintage UK horror/sci-fi. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 930,000 (over 5.8 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please continue to wear masks (N-95/KN-95 masks are optimal), practice safe-distancing and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available everywhere).
Take care and be safe!