Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on October 3, 2010
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.
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:
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:
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:
“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!”
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