Buggin’ Out

TCM’s spotlight on Hammer Horror this month gives me the opportunity to give a special shout-out to one of my personal favorites: Five Million Years to Earth (aka: Quatermass and the Pit, 1967). It screens later this month on TCM (Friday evening, October 22nd). I first saw it as a kid back in the seventies in a creaky and dilapidated auditorium that was constructed in the late 1800′s atop a steep hill adjacent the mountains – a favorite spot for star-gazing and hopeful U.F.O. sightings. Inside the auditorium the uncomfortable wooden chairs were falling apart and there was no air-conditioning or cooling system to grant us a reprieve from the lingering summer heat. The cavernous ceiling was so porous that pigeons and bats could be heard and seen flying about the rafters. Adding to all this awesomeness was the fact that I was watching a 35mm print of a film that was about the scare the pants off of me and create a long-lasting impression. 

The perfect venue to see a film where an alien ship causes mud to seep through the floorboards.

Five Million Years to Earth had themes and moments that would resurface later in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), and even Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  It had intriguing ideas about human evolution being linked to alien life forms, physical and visceral horror aplenty, and mysterious, pent-up powers being unleashed by an archeological discovery from the past. This is the same way of saying that here was a film that was, respectively, smart, scary, and fun – all in one.

It all starts in London Transport’s underground station at Hobb’s End as workers are doing maintenance work on a subway line. Strange skulls with ominous “mashers” are found in the mud, spurring sensationalistic headlines in the papers of “Underground Ape Men.” Six man-like skeletons are subsequently found that Doctor Roney (James Donald) speculates as dating back five million years. Tensions immediately rise with the discovery of something else: a metallic-like substance amidst the bones that spurs fears of an unexploded bomb. Now the military is brought in, much to Roney’s academic chagrin; “that’s right, tear it all up,” he says as they march on by and toss buried bones aside with the nonchalance of a sloppy diner dropping BBQ’d wings on the floor. What they uncover is far bigger than a bomb and prescient of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey; a discovery that now becomes a full-blown Government Project that summons our hero to the scene: leading scientific innovator Professor Quatermass.

A small digression: The character of Professor Bernard Quatermass was a Sherlock Holmes-like creation by Nigel Kneale for BBC Television who first appeared in The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and was last seen in a 2005 remake of same. Britain’s first television hero also enjoyed a print, radio, and film career spanning fifty years. The Quatermass films form a popular trilogy, with Brian Donlevy in the starring role for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955),  directed by Val Guest. This became Hammer’s highest-grossing film up to that point in time and spurred Hammer’s interest in more Quatermass gold, so they followed it up with Quatermass 2 (1957), also directed by Guest and starring Donlevy. According to various reports, Kneale was never very happy with Donlevy’s performance and was probably relieved to see Andrew Keir take the role when – finally (ten years later) director Roy Ward Baker helmed Quatermass and the Pit. The Guardian later (much later: 1997) shared this enthusiasm stating that “Keir also made many films… most gratifyingly, perhaps, the move version of Quatermass and the Pit, when he finally replaced the absurdly miscast Brian Donlevy.”

Not everyone was a fan of Baker’s take on Quatermass. Here’s what Phil Hardy of The Overlook Film Encyclopedia for Science Fiction has to say:

The first of the films to be scripted by Kneale without any interference, it lacks the intensity of Quatermass II; in its place Kneale offers a mix of scientific and occult speculation that needed more screen time than was available. Moreover, Baker’s direction is limp, over-relying on close-ups for dramatic effect. Accordingly, the definitive version remains the 1959 teleseries.

Everyone’s certainly entitled to their opinion but, personally, I side up with Jonathan Rigby from this excerpt of his book, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema:

The sheer breadth of Kneale’s imaginings is extraordinary. Through his horned, gargoyle-faced Martians and their centuries-old “hauntings”, he explains the whole field of superstition and demonology. And through their termite-like penchant for what Quatermass calls “ritual slaughter to preserve a fixed society, to rid it of mutations,” Kneale pretty much wraps up the human condition itself, with its sorry litany of intolerance, racism, ethnic cleansing and war.

Which is to say, here’s a movie that dares to speculate on how humans can do such inhumane things to each other as was seen during the Holocaust or Rwanda. It also (ambitiously) attempts to explain poltergeists and demonic possession as “phenomena that were badly observed and wrongly explained.” Michael Weldon weighs in on the Quatermass trilogy too in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film:

Hammer made two excellent features about the superscientist in the ’50′s (The Creeping Unknown in ’56 and Enemy from Space in ’57 – U.S. titles). Andrew Kier stars in this, the best of the series and one of the better science-fiction movies ever made.

“One of the better science-fiction movies”… EVER… made? Looking at it now it’s not without flaws. It lacks Stanley Kubrick’s attention to physical details or Ridley Scott’s amped-up pacing. It’s certainly front-loaded with far more exposition than Steven Spielberg would ever permit, and modern audiences might find the first half a bit too talky. But when the alien “ghosts” are awakened and the drill operator finds himself being attacked by zero-gravity objects, followed by chilling scenes of exploding tiles, crumbling buildings, and mobs murdering anyone who is “different” – it is then that I easily flash back to that frightened kid who was blown over by scenes of unfolding apocalyptic craziness, still reeling with radical ideas of humans as a byproduct of some martian colonization attempt. It also makes me want to echo Weldon’s claims for this films greatness with a “Hell, yeah!”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CloWTPAjk-Q]

Further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quatermass#In_film

http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article.jsp?cid=88135&mainArticleId=339818

24 Responses Buggin’ Out
Posted By BBCWiHi : October 4, 2010 3:14 am

So stoked for this. Thank you, TCM, for reminding me each and every October why I love ya.

Posted By BBCWiHi : October 4, 2010 3:14 am

So stoked for this. Thank you, TCM, for reminding me each and every October why I love ya.

Posted By john august smith : October 4, 2010 10:10 am

I agree with you, I too saw it as a kid and never forgot it. I look forward to seeing it again!

Posted By john august smith : October 4, 2010 10:10 am

I agree with you, I too saw it as a kid and never forgot it. I look forward to seeing it again!

Posted By John : October 4, 2010 12:58 pm

This is a great science fiction thriller, and has some great concepts & ideas that films with much larger budgets didn’t tackle!

Posted By John : October 4, 2010 12:58 pm

This is a great science fiction thriller, and has some great concepts & ideas that films with much larger budgets didn’t tackle!

Posted By Garry : October 4, 2010 9:21 pm

OMG, one of my absolute favorites. I LOVE the image of the giant Martian face floating in the sky over London. I hope it’s showing at a time I can stay awake to watch.

Posted By Garry : October 4, 2010 9:21 pm

OMG, one of my absolute favorites. I LOVE the image of the giant Martian face floating in the sky over London. I hope it’s showing at a time I can stay awake to watch.

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : October 4, 2010 10:19 pm

Dear Keelsetter, Thanks for the thoughts on Quater and the evolutionary masses! That first photo looks a lot like the Chataqua Hall by the Flatirons in Boulder, CO.! wow. I recall a funky film “palace” in Poquoson, VA. back in the mid 60′s complete with rowdy (perhaps inbred) crowds and uncouth decor! Cool.

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : October 4, 2010 10:19 pm

Dear Keelsetter, Thanks for the thoughts on Quater and the evolutionary masses! That first photo looks a lot like the Chataqua Hall by the Flatirons in Boulder, CO.! wow. I recall a funky film “palace” in Poquoson, VA. back in the mid 60′s complete with rowdy (perhaps inbred) crowds and uncouth decor! Cool.

Posted By karl roussell : October 5, 2010 12:07 am

I agree, certainly one of the better sc fi flims of the 60′s. Of couse its from the British not the Americans. The story is fantastic however lets face it the scenes on Mars was pretty terrible, it kind of hurts the purpose of the flim. Still I’ll always watch it when it comes on tcm.

Posted By karl roussell : October 5, 2010 12:07 am

I agree, certainly one of the better sc fi flims of the 60′s. Of couse its from the British not the Americans. The story is fantastic however lets face it the scenes on Mars was pretty terrible, it kind of hurts the purpose of the flim. Still I’ll always watch it when it comes on tcm.

Posted By keelsetter : October 5, 2010 1:50 am

Good eye, Wilbur! That is, indeed, Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium. When I saw FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH there it was in a pretty bad state of disrepair. Many years later it would undergo a much needed renovation. They also did something kind of strange by swapping out the 35mm projectors for 16mm ones, which suited the ensuing silent film series quite well. That silent film series program is still going strong, albeit now most of the titles are digitally projected. Another film I remember seeing projected there in 35mm when I was a kid was SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. That opened my eyes to stuff that, for me at the time, anyway, was as strange as Martians taking over the world.

Posted By keelsetter : October 5, 2010 1:50 am

Good eye, Wilbur! That is, indeed, Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium. When I saw FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH there it was in a pretty bad state of disrepair. Many years later it would undergo a much needed renovation. They also did something kind of strange by swapping out the 35mm projectors for 16mm ones, which suited the ensuing silent film series quite well. That silent film series program is still going strong, albeit now most of the titles are digitally projected. Another film I remember seeing projected there in 35mm when I was a kid was SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. That opened my eyes to stuff that, for me at the time, anyway, was as strange as Martians taking over the world.

Posted By moirafinnie : October 5, 2010 8:03 am

I just saw this for the first time in the last year and enjoyed the way it toyed with various explanations for so many human (or is it alien?) foibles. The best part of the movie for me were probably the moments when this disturbing event was experienced by the common men-a lowly private, the policeman in the house, the man with the drill, and the people in the pub. They didn’t have the defense of the academicians’ intellectual perspective or the smugness of Julian Glover’s military officer.

*spoiler*spoiler*spoiler

Andrew Keir‘s no-nonsense Scottish man of science was a far livelier Quatermass than poor old Brian Donlevy, but seeing James Donald–an actor so often cast as Mr. Milquetoast–saving our hides from Armageddon, at least for the moment, was really worth sitting through the draggy parts of the movie. I realize that Barbara Shelley was regarded as “The First Leading Lady of British Horror” but could she have changed expression as often as she did her power suits with heels (just the thing to wear in a mudhole)?

Thanks for your take on one of the best of the Hammer films, Keelsetter.

Posted By moirafinnie : October 5, 2010 8:03 am

I just saw this for the first time in the last year and enjoyed the way it toyed with various explanations for so many human (or is it alien?) foibles. The best part of the movie for me were probably the moments when this disturbing event was experienced by the common men-a lowly private, the policeman in the house, the man with the drill, and the people in the pub. They didn’t have the defense of the academicians’ intellectual perspective or the smugness of Julian Glover’s military officer.

*spoiler*spoiler*spoiler

Andrew Keir‘s no-nonsense Scottish man of science was a far livelier Quatermass than poor old Brian Donlevy, but seeing James Donald–an actor so often cast as Mr. Milquetoast–saving our hides from Armageddon, at least for the moment, was really worth sitting through the draggy parts of the movie. I realize that Barbara Shelley was regarded as “The First Leading Lady of British Horror” but could she have changed expression as often as she did her power suits with heels (just the thing to wear in a mudhole)?

Thanks for your take on one of the best of the Hammer films, Keelsetter.

Posted By keelsetter : October 5, 2010 2:23 pm

Karl – I agree that the scenes depicting Martian bug purges don’t play well. If I recall correctly, the filmmakers were inspired by a foosball table (and it shows). On a side note: I couldn’t help but wonder if the mutant baby in ERASERHEAD may have been inspired somehow by those Martians. There did seem to be some kind of resemblance (not that Lynch would ever fess up to it). Although the execution showing Martian purges was lacking, the idea behind it is still quite powerful.

Moira – My biggest problem with Barbara Shelley was (cue Brando/Kurtz impersonation): … the plaid, the plaid! In her defense, I thought her trance-like states while under the thrall of the spaceship were an intriguing combo of eerie and sexy (echoes of a woman under a vampire’s spell).

Posted By keelsetter : October 5, 2010 2:23 pm

Karl – I agree that the scenes depicting Martian bug purges don’t play well. If I recall correctly, the filmmakers were inspired by a foosball table (and it shows). On a side note: I couldn’t help but wonder if the mutant baby in ERASERHEAD may have been inspired somehow by those Martians. There did seem to be some kind of resemblance (not that Lynch would ever fess up to it). Although the execution showing Martian purges was lacking, the idea behind it is still quite powerful.

Moira – My biggest problem with Barbara Shelley was (cue Brando/Kurtz impersonation): … the plaid, the plaid! In her defense, I thought her trance-like states while under the thrall of the spaceship were an intriguing combo of eerie and sexy (echoes of a woman under a vampire’s spell).

Posted By keelsetter : October 8, 2010 2:29 pm

This just in: director Roy Ward Baker passes away at 93. I was about to post the NYT article, but since that writeup doesn’t mention FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH at all, I found something from the UK that is a bit more comprehensive:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/film-obituaries/8051801/Roy-Ward-Baker.html

Posted By keelsetter : October 8, 2010 2:29 pm

This just in: director Roy Ward Baker passes away at 93. I was about to post the NYT article, but since that writeup doesn’t mention FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH at all, I found something from the UK that is a bit more comprehensive:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/film-obituaries/8051801/Roy-Ward-Baker.html

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – It’s not easy being green. : November 18, 2012 5:07 pm
Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – It’s not easy being green. : November 18, 2012 5:07 pm
Posted By Scott : February 9, 2013 1:34 pm

Finally had a chance to watch this. Loved it! Such a great little movie. Thanks for sharing it.

Posted By Scott : February 9, 2013 1:34 pm

Finally had a chance to watch this. Loved it! Such a great little movie. Thanks for sharing it.

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