Perhaps it would help if I started with a minor digression on the Quatermass movies.
Now I’ve written extensively about them over the years — for example, in these essays at IRoSF and Clarkesworld — and have reviewed both the TV and Movie versions of Quatermass 2 (1957) and Hammer’s version of the first serial for this site. But, curiously enough, I first learned about them from my Father.
He was one of those who grew up during the Depression when movie tickets were cheap and one of the few forms of entertainment the average guy could afford, and he had a love for horror, science fiction and the classic movie serials he’d seen as a kid.
And two of the films he’d loved — and which he told me about years before they were ever available anywhere in the U.S. on TV or videotape — were The Quatermass Xperiment and its sequel which was called The Enemy From Space here in the U.S.
But it came as a real shock to him when his smug movie-loving son revealed to him that the film known here as Five Million Years to Earth was in fact the third film in the Quatermass trilogy!
Now it isn’t that hard to see why he’d never noticed this seemingly obvious fact: after all, the movie posters made no reference to the earlier films. Nor did they even mention Quatermass’ name. Nor did Brian Donlevy return as Quatermass (much to the joy of British fans!). Andrew Keir, who plays the legendary Professor this time around, barely even appears on the stunning American posters where Barbara Shelley’s screaming face dominates.
In fact, Keir doesn’t even get first billing, and James Donald’s paleontologist, Dr. Roney, plays a far larger role in the film.
And, yes, when you look at the way the story is told, he is the real hero.
It is also by far the most complex film of the three: the excavations for a new subway station at Hobbs End in London unexpectedly turn up the bones of a primitive apeman. Dr. Roney tries to halt the project until he’s had a chance to do a thorough dig, but no one will listen until they find what appears to be an unexploded bomb.
Meanwhile, Quatermass’ private British Rocketry Group faces a Military takeover by Colonel Breen (played by Julian Glover who has long been a personal favorite because of his role as Count Scarlatti on Doctor Who). The two are on their way to lunch to discuss things when Breen detours to have a look at the supposed bomb.
But it is clearly something far stranger, with ties to the various weird happenings at Hobbs End over the centuries…
I’ve seen the original BBC serial, and it is always interesting to compare these to their Hammer counterparts. Now the most obvious difference is that, with Six Forty-Five minute episodes to play with, not only does Quatermass play a much larger and more central part, but Colonel Breen is a far more sympathetic character, one who is more interested in working with Quatermass, even if he ends up opposing him later in the story.
Visually, however, this version of the Martian ship is just incredible: sleek, angular and modern with a somewhat insect-like design. In the original the ship was just a big cylinder, although it was quite impressive — on a live TV broadcast! — that they unearthed it on camera, in a large, mud-filled set.
Still, the sets used for the excavation here are fairly large and look quite real, even if most of the excavation does take place offscreen.
The Martian creatures are as good or better than those in the serial, although what really impressed me this time around was how well the film conveys their sudden and quite rapid decay once their long dead bodies get exposed to the air. They do not immediately break down and turn to slime, but instead you can see a progressive softening of their features, a drastic color change, and a bit of slime as they break up despites Roney’s attempts to handle them carefully.
Now a lot of people would argue that what makes Quatermass and the Pit a great classic is the incredible climax, when [Spoiler] the Martian ship powers up and unleashes a devastating telekinetic storm on London.
And it is an absolutely incredible climax, with a lot of practical effects, frenzied extras, a few truly chilling moments, and a huge visual effect which is so memorable that one almost doesn’t notice that it looks a bit primitive. It is one of those legendary movie sequences which inspired a generation of filmmakers like Tobe Hooper, James Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon.
But I have to admit that I really appreciate all the little moments of character, when the minor players are given a bit of personality. Like the policeman showing them the abandoned building so haunted no one can live in it, who dismisses all the ghost stories with scorn — but is clearly frightened when he goes in the building, or the cocksure expert brought in to drill into the Martian ship’s hull.
However, when anyone starts telling us why some film is a great classic, we should be a bit skeptical anyway. A truly great film is great in so many different ways it is easy to miss most of them — or even some of the most important ones.
And, more than anything else remember that, at a time when Science Fiction films had suddenly become few and far between, when no one seemed to know what to do with Science Fiction, let alone how to make a great Science Fiction film, Hammer made this stunning classic. Their bravura classic boldly combined horror and science fiction, while telling a complex story where even the minor characters had a surprising amount of life. What’s more, they did something Hollywood stopped doing a long time ago, making an action packed film whose male leads were both middle-aged and decidedly non-buff.
Oh, why can’t we get films like this anymore?
I’d love to take the writers out there who are turning out all these second rate superhero and horror films these days and force them to watch this film over and over and over again until they learned from it.
But, honestly, I doubt if that would help…