Hammer Sci-Fi: Quatermass & the Pit aka Five Million Years to Earth (1967)

Written by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover
US Release Feb. 16, 1968
RT 97 min.
Home Video Anchor Bay
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)


Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

A decade after Professor Bernard Quatermass appeared in two Hammer Films (The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2), he returned in Quatermass & the Pit.  He looked like a different man, though, and the movie looked like a different movie.  That sounds silly, I know.  Andrew Kier replaced Brian Donlevy as the titular character, so, obviously, he was a different man.  But ten years had also passed and Hammer (as well as movies in general) had changed, so the look and feel of the third movie is very, very different from the first two.

Not much has changed with the character of Quatermass at the beginning of Quatermass & the Pit.  He’s still fighting with the military about rockets and moon bases.  With Kier’s performance, though, Quatermass is a kinder, gentler man.  He’s less impatient with those who aren’t as smart as he is and loses his temper only a couple of times in the heat of the moment, his frustration directed at situations, not people.  He’s contacted by anthropologist Dr. Mathew Roney (James Donald) as a “second opinion” when skeletons and what looks like “a buried pipe” are uncovered during construction of the underground at Hobb’s End.

Roney theorizes the bones are proof that man walked the earth five million years ago, which is much earlier than previously believed.  The possibility that the container they continue to unearth is a bomb is quickly dismissed.  It’s a container; they think some of the skeletons came from inside.  Pretty quickly, you can tell it’s a spaceship that crashed many years ago.  But the situation is much more complicated than that.  Quatermass has a way of connecting all the dots and he soon determines it came from Mars when the planet’s locust-like inhabitants tried to take over Earth.

The threat crosses over from science fiction to a Lovecraftian kind of horror when Quatermass makes connections between periodic disturbances in the area over the years and sightings of demons.  It’s even suggested that magic and witchcraft came from the aliens.  Early on in the movie, before we’ve really seen evidence of such, Quatermass insists that the entire thing is evil.  By the end, though, he’s right.  Isn’t he always?  The spacecraft draws energy from modern technology and makes psychic connections with people that unleash dormant telekinetic powers.

The location erupts in chaos as buildings crumble and human zombies hunt and kill those who are immune.  The image of a giant horned alien/demon appears in the sky amid the smoke and flames.  There’s an additional aspect of shared memories or consciousness between us and them.  Earlier, Quatermass and Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) donned an electronic helmet that allowed them to tap into visions of a Martian army marching as part of some kind of genocide happening on their planet.  (Quatermass draws a lot of conclusions from a lot of different things so that we don’t have to do it ourselves.)

It’s interesting that I can summarize Quatermass & the Pit as succinctly as I have.  Perhaps there’s not really as much going on as there was in the previous movies, especially Quatermass 2.  But there’s no doubt it’s on a much larger scale.  Everything about the third movie looks bigger and more… crowded.  Instead of crisp black and white imagery, there’s a dark, muddy color that tends to wash out the picture.  It’s also more claustrophobic, not only in the confined excavation site, but also on the street where buildings tower around the opening.

It all moves at a frantic pace, representing the evolution of audience taste.  In the mid-to-late 1960s, we were already headed toward so many of the big-budget blockbusters that would become more popular (and financially successful) than the more quiet, introspective sci-fi dramas of the decade before.  At times, Quatermass & the Pit threatens to spin out of control, but director Roy Ward Baker does a remarkable job of juggling the action and mystery, keeping things light in a movie that introduces almost too many heavy ideas.

The movie does a good job of presenting a foil to Quatermass in the form of Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who insists the entire phenomena stems from a German scare tactic during World War II.  It’s also an early example of the trope where, against all evidence otherwise, the government wants to reopen the site instead of take precautions to keep the public safe.  Roney and Quatermass fight this in a clever way: they leak information to the press that, while creating a mild public panic, also keeps the area cordoned while they continue the investigation.

Wow, there’s a lot going on in Quatermass & the Pit.  Several times, I told myself to stop thinking about it so hard and just remember it’s a simple good vs. evil story.  Easier said than done, though.  The movie engages and stimulates thought on many different levels.  It’s difficult not to ponder the issues it raises.  But we are talking about entertainment here, and it delivers, particularly in its suspenseful climax when Dr. Roney finds himself steering a huge iron crane into the epicenter of the chaos as Quatermass punches Barbara in the face to wake her from alien possession.

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