Professor Bernard Quatermass is perhaps not as well-known a character to horror and sci-fi fans as, say, Indiana Jones or Van Helsing. He’s the sort of heroic scientist archetype we don’t often see, the horror genre usually preferring its scientists mad when it has any at all. But he is still a character whose influence is felt among today’s masters. John Carpenter wrote his underrated Prince of Darkness under the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass.”
Quatermass was the creation of British writer Nigel Kneale in the 1950’s. Kneale had adapted George Orwell’s 1984 for BBC television in 1954, and was offered Doctor Who at that series’ inception but turned it down.
Quatermass and the Pit was the third Quatermass movie released theatrically, and was in fact a remake of an earlier BBC miniseries version from the 50’s. The movie was retitled Five Million Years to Earth for its 1968 American release, where, in the prehistoric days before 24-hour digital cable, it became a staple of late night TV. That’s where I discovered it as a kid. Of the three movies, Quatermass and the Pit probably has the most impressive talent pool working on it, both in front of and behind the camera. Quatermass is played with both stoicism and sensitivity by Hammer regular Andrew Keir. In his tweed jackets and pointed grey beard, Kier is every inch the professor; you look at him and immediately think, “Here’s a man who will save the world with his brains, not the gung-ho heroics of a Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise.” He’s just not the kind of leading man you’d ever see in a Hollywood movie these days.
Director Roy Ward Baker had done A Night to Remember, a moment-by-moment account of the sinking of the Titanic. (Unlike James Cameron’s romanticized film, Baker’s is completely straightforward about depicting the event unsentimentally; it is to the Titanic sinking what United 93 is to 9/11.)
The Quatermass stories were inspired not only by the Cold War fears of the 1950’s but by the residual psychic scars all of British society felt following World War II. Quatermass and the Pit is the story that most explicitly reflects memories of the Blitz and the terror it inspired in a country that had barely had time to recover from the previous devastating war. When we first see Quatermass in this movie, he’s arguing with the Home Office over his “experimental rocket group,” which he formed for peaceful purposes to explore the moon and Mars, but which the military wants to take over to develop the “ultimate weapon” to “police the world.” “I’ll fight this right at top level,” Quatermass growls, only to be calmly told, “I wouldn’t. It came from there.” This is the professor’s familiar territory: fighting bureaucratic idiots who want to pervert knowledge toward evil ends.
The story involves the discovery of an alien vessel in a tube station called Hobbs End undergoing renovation. First several previously undiscovered hominid skeletons are found, bringing in Roney (The Great Escape’s James Donald), an anthropologist. Then the ship itself is dug out from the clay. We know, of course, that it’s a spaceship, because that’s what we expect to see in a movie like this. The arrogant Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), Quatermass’ nemesis, naturally believes it’s an old top-secret German V-Weapon. But since it’s impervious to cutting torches and diamond drills, it’s obvious Breen hasn’t seen the right sci-fi/horror movies.
After setting up the expected conflict between benevolent science (remember how unusual that was at the time) and malevolent or simply stupid government, the story deftly weaves in elements closer to horror than sci-fi. The neighborhood of Hobbs End has had reports of eerie, ghostly sightings going back to the 14th century. A policeman who escorts Quatermass into a series of bombed out houses across the street from the tube station is spooked within minutes. Even the street name has been changed from its original spelling: Hob’s End. Hob is an old nickname for the Devil.
Insect-like alien cadavers are eventually discovered within the vessel. At about the same time, more people begin having terrifying visions of the creatures. Quatermass and Roney do the usual experiments we see in old movies like this, full of machines that go ping and make woo-woo noises when their knobs are turned.
They determine that the aliens were an ancient race of Martians who tried to colonize the Earth when they knew their civilization was dying, by capturing and selectively breeding early apes to make the first hominids. But something must have gone wrong, leading to a horrific purge of “undesirables” (another remnant of WWII inspiration from the Nazi atrocities). The visions people are having are suppressed race memories of this purge, coming to the fore due to the reactivation of the vessel in the subway. Quatermass tries to warn the government. No one listens. Hell breaks loose.
Though it contains a lot of story ideas that seem quaint and old-hat by today’s standards, the movie makes them work because it follows these ideas with complete confidence, and because Kneale’s screenwriting — perfected over many years’ of working in the high-pressure cooker of live radio and TV — is so amazingly efficient. There is literally no padding at all in this movie, not one scene that doesn’t serve to advance the story. Everything just goes click, click, click into place. No irrelevant tangents are pursued. Popular Hammer leading lady Barbara Shelley appears as Miss Judd, Roney’s secretary, who also becomes Quatermass’ Girl Friday. Though she gives a cast led by older men its necessary young beauty, there is never any bogus romantic subplot concocted for her; she never even dresses sexy. She works to help the male scientists solve the crisis as one of their peers.
The movie’s last act is a minor masterpiece of apocalyptic imagery, especially by the FX standards of having to do everything with models and camerawork rather than CGI. Buildings collapse, normal people become blank-faced mobs of killers, trash flies through the air as if in a hurricane, and the spectral image of a giant Martian hovers in the sky like a malevolent god watching the destruction it’s wreaking. As the sentient spaceship awakens latent Martian memories in the London public, the scenes do have something of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers feel to them. But they’re almost more effective, because we know these people haven’t been replaced by podly imitations. They’re who they’ve always been, and in fact were completely normal only minutes before, until the spacecraft awoke “something that’s in all of us.”
The final scenes, in contrast to movies today (I’m thinking of the “everything’s fine, how about that!” finale of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds in particular), don’t offer much comfort. Though one character heroically sacrifices himself to save the day, we still end on images of destruction, of once-bustling streets reduced to rubble as they had been in the Blitz. There are no redemptive hugs, no courageous poses from our heroes. We simply see Quatermass and Miss Judd sitting on the wreckage of a building, exhausted and spent from their ordeal, as the credits roll. By channeling society’s fears through science fiction and horror, Nigel Kneale didn’t so much provide catharsis as remind us that, to a nation that has stared its own near-destruction in the face, some horrors never go away.
Technical note: The out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD from 1998, featuring a decent if often grainy non-anamorphic 1.66:1 picture, is now going for upwards of $50 on the collector’s market. I think the time is right for a top-notch re-release of this movie, preferably including commentary, and the complete run of the radio series Quatermass Memoirs from 1996, with Kier reprising his role after almost 30 years (he died in 1997). If Anchor Bay has lost the rights, this title would be an ideal fit for a company like Blue Underground or even — dare I say it — Criterion.