The unquestioned highlight of the Nigel Kneale scripted Quatermass film series, a triumph of intelligence and imagination that juxtaposes Lovecraftian horror, alien invasion, telekinesis, astral projection and mass psychosis.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (titled FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH in the US) began life as a Rudolph Cartier directed 6½ hour BBC miniseries, broadcast in December 1958 through January 1959. The 98 minute film version under discussion here, made under the auspices of England’s legendary Hammer Films, was the third Quatermass film, following THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT and QUATERMASS 2. It featured Andrew Keir in the title role, replacing Brian Donlevy (who was described by Kneale as “once an excellent comic heavy quite gone to pieces”), and was, like its fellows, slated to be remade, but that project thankfully has yet to materialize.
An excavation in a London subway tunnel, located at Hobb’s End, unearths a bevy of ancient humanoid skeletons. Further digging uncovers what is initially taken as an unexploded bomb, but is revealed to be a fossilized spacecraft.
The middle-aged Professor Quatermass, an authority on all things space-related, is called in to investigate the craft, together with Dr. Roney, a devoted anthropologist. They also investigate the structure above the subway tunnel, a long-abandoned residence known as “Hob’s” Lane—Hob being an old name for the Devil.
Dr. Roney studies the unearthed skeletons with some high-tech scientific equipment, and finds that, contrary to what Quatermass believes, they’re very much of this earth. In the meantime Roney’s assistant Barbara does some research of her own, and discovers that Hob’s End has had a long history of ghostly visitations.
Back at the site of the dig it’s discovered that the spacecraft’s outer shell is impervious to water, steel and even fire. What’s more, the craft emits an ear-splitting whine when a workman attempts to drill into the cockpit. Yet the cockpit is exposed anyway, due to some kind of corrosive agent that eats through the barrier and reveals the craft’s long-dead inhabitants: several perfectly preserved locust-like creatures.
Are these critters, which Quatermass opines to be several million years old, native to the Earth or some other planet? Quatermass focuses his suppositions on Mars, from which the creatures apparently emerged 5 million years earlier. Quatermass further deduces, based on the cache of humanoid skeletons found near the craft, that mankind owes its intelligence to the creatures, who apparently took our simian ancestors on regular expeditions to mars and “altered” them.
This supposition appears to be confirmed by a workman in the spacecraft, who envisions a swarm of the locust creatures–apparently a flashback to life on the Red Planet 5 million years ago. The visions are given concrete form by a machine that transforms brainwaves into TV images. Barbara, who turns out to be psychically endowed, provides the desired images, depicting masses of locust creatures swarming the surface of Mars.
A far more alarming fact is that the 5 million year old alien spacecraft fully retains its unearthly powers, and a full scale media blitz is being planned at the site…
Roy Ward Baker directs this film in unshowy, workmanlike fashion, which turns out to have been the correct choice, as the true selling point is the script by Nigel Kneale. Equally effective are the performances of James Donald as Dr. Roney, Andrew Kier as Quatermass and Barbara Shelley as Roney’s fetching assistant, all pulled off with a cool professionalism that befits the cerebral English accented dialogue.
Kneale provides an ingeniously constructed narrative whose thrills are intellectual in nature, with an audacious (and still largely unprecedented) mixture of horror and science fiction, contained within a detective story format. It might be a bit overly plot-driven, with atmosphere and character development kept to a strict minimum. This is inevitable given that the script was rather severely compressed from the more expansive miniseries version. That compression is especially evident in the final scenes, in which collective hysteria enters the fray, a rather jarring addition that requires some hastily delivered expository dialogue.
Yet the idea of situating the action in a subway tunnel was unique to this version (with the miniseries set in an office building construction site), and a most agreeable addition. Further welcome additions are the copious special effects, which may be primitive by modern standards but are still light years ahead of those of the miniseries, and utilized in an admirably unshowy manner.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH)
Hammer Film Productions
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Producer: Anthony Nelson-Keys
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Editing: Spencer Reeve
Cast: James Donald, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover, Duncan Lamont, Bryan Marshall, Peter Copley, Edwin Richfield, Grant Taylor, Maurice Good, Robert Morris, Sheila Steafel, Hugh Futcher, Hugh Morton, Thomas Heathcote