If you have no idea what this title means, I suggest you stop by for a brief lesson.
Quatermass and the Pit is an early sequel that outperforms the original as well as presenting favorable depictions of scientists. It’s a thoughtful attempt to provide a scientific background to supernatural events, while masquerading as a horror film.
In the London Underground, something has been unearthed. It’s 5 million years old and causes much panic. Quatermass (not Quartermass, as many often misinterpret) is sent in to investigate. There’s much horror and panic in the trailer, but not much on the plot. To find out more, it’s time to watch Quatermass and the Pit!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the London Underground station of Hobb’s End, some workers expanding the station encounter some ancient bones in the mud and call in specialist Dr. Roney (James Donald). He and his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) realize the bones are a huge scientific find, being easily five million years old. However, they must stop excavating when they discover a casing of some kind, which everyone assumes to be a bomb. The military comes in, led by Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) to investigate.
Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) joins Breen grudgingly, upset that Breen has taken control of experimental rocket group. Breen believes the device to be a leftover German V-rocket or plane from World War II, but Quatermass disagrees. Investigating the area, Quatermass discovers that Hobb’s Lane used to be called “Hob’s” lane, which happens to be another name for the devil. Both he and Ms. Judd find out about haunted buildings in the vicinity of the tube station.
Visiting Dr. Roney, Quatermass asks more questions about the unearthed skulls, specifically if they could be alien. Roney says they aren’t, but can’t explain the intact skull found underneath the strange vehicle, especially if it’s a crashed ship from WW2. After unearthing the vessel, it appears to be a large ship of some kind. It’s body is non-magnetic, can’t be cut or burned, and seems to give bare skin minor frostbite. Inside they discover a cabalistic symbol as used in witchcraft. One of the infantryman has a fright, seeing a ghostly image while working inside the vehicle.
Meanwhile, Ms. Judd unearths old newspapers describing odd ethereal occurrences in Hobb’s Lane dating back to 1793, and then 1341. A consultation with a priest confirms writings that date back even earlier. Breen hires a drill operator, Sladden (Duncan Lamont), with a special Borazon bit that should cut through the hull. The drilling causes tremors that set everybody’s anxiety off, plus giving everyone in the vicinity a minor psychic vision. Quatermass returns and notices a small hole burned where the drill was, but not actually from the drill. The wall dissolves revealing a chamber with three locust-like aliens, complete with horns. Quatermass speculates that they are Martians and their visage inspired local stories of devils.
The quickly degrading corpses are examined by Roney who theorizes with Quatermass that it’s possible the aliens experimented on the proto-humans, whose skulls they found, giving them larger than normal heads. Breen believes a simpler explanation, unwilling to face his fear of the unknown, that the ship is a German propaganda weapon used to make the British believe aliens were invading. When Sladden returns for his tools, he sets off a telekinetic (TK) phenomenon centered on himself, causing items to fly around the cavern psychically. Sladden also claims to have seen, telepathically, visions of the alien beings against a purple sky.
Quatermass returns with an electroencephalogram (EEG)-like device of Roney’s to record the Martian psychic broadcast. This time it centers on Ms. Judd. Quatermass and Roney take the recording to one of the ministers and his cabinet, but Breen convinces them of a simpler reasoning – that the girl was scared and her anxiety was what the machine recorded. Against Quatermass’s urgings, the station is opened to newscrews the next day. During the interview with Breen, who ensures everyone that the station is completely safe, a power cable lands on the craft and overpowers the psychic messaging. People within a large radius are compelled to act out the visions of Martians murdering those that are different.
Quatermass is overcome by the psychic instructions until Roney snaps him out of it. As buildings and streets erupt in explosions, the two men realize that in order to stop the telepathic onslaught they must ground the giant holographic image of the Martian, currently projected over Hobb’s Lane, with metal. Roney climbs a nearby construction crane and causes it to fall into the projection, negating the psychic link, and sacrificing himself. Quatermass and Ms. Judd recover outside a local undertaker, as London burns in the background.
“I tell you, people don’t believe nothing nowadays unless they’ve seen it on the telly.” – Pub Customer
History in the Making
The BBC, and Nigel Kneale, created three one-season programs in 1953, 1955 and 1958 featuring the adventures of British scientist Bernard Quatermass. These stories were then optioned by Hammer Films, renowned for their horror productions, and released to theaters, shortening the overall length to accommodate a normal cinematic runtime. Quatermass and the Pit is the third film in this series, having been released 10 years after part two. The plots of the films involved alien invaders of one kind or another, landing in England, and being repulsed by Quatermass, who is presented as an extremely intelligent and moral scientist.
As an ordinary man caught up in the adventures with aliens, and other mysterious forces, Quatermass seems a precursor to future paranormal investigators like Carl Kolchak, of Kolchak: the Night Stalker or Fox Mulder from The X-Files. While the previous two Quatermass films, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957), concern themselves with alien invasions, Quatermass and the Pit bridged the supernatural with science-fiction, explaining the possibility that hauntings might only be the result of advanced otherworldly technology.
As with Thunderbirds Are Go, which was also based off of a television property, Quatermass and the Pit continued a trend of adapting existing serialized television into a film. While the Thunderbirds film was a new story, the Quatermass films only sought to retell the existing stories. It was a weird adaptation, since the BBC series were all six episodes, each running about 30 minutes, which meant the original stories were about 3 hours long. In turning them into films, the filmmakers had to cut the story in half to about 90 minutes. The norm for moving television to film, like Thunderbirds did, is to give more story and spectacle, not less.
Regardless of the re-shaping of the content, Quatermass and the Pit is an exceptional sci-fi film for its time. Or is it perhaps a horror film? It has qualities of both: the hauntings and mysterious floating objects coupled with the appearance of a mysterious ship with alien beings inside. Having been produced by Hammer Films, the marketing and trailers for this would surely make it seem like more of a horror film. The title card, as shown above, includes a devilishly red skull, often associated with horror elements from Hammer’s films.
Quatermass and the Pit makes an interesting connection, which was also part of the original BBC series when it aired in 1958. It attempts to create a hypothesis that the supernatural occurrences often seen in haunted houses, such as apparitions and the movement of objects by themselves, were the offshoot of latent psychic forces generated by an alien device. The whole film feels like a cross between an HP Lovecraft story and The X-Files, for this reason. And unlike other genre films, Quatermass is not a reactionary sort of protagonist. He is thoughtful and takes his time investigating the disturbances until he’s sure he has the best explanation.
The pacing is slower than other sci-fi films discussed on Sci-Fi Saturdays, lacking a lot of the action of the American films. But the slower pace, sets an ominous and horrific tone that helps unnerve the viewer and keep them off kilter. While the mysterious occurrences are quickly linked to past sightings of demons and ghosts, Quatermass surveys the location with a skeptical and scientific eye, realizing that the advanced nature of the alien ship and its crew, hidden for millennia are to blame. In fact, the Quatermass series may be one of the first sci-fi films to feature the morality of scientists over other characters; a topic I discussed in my article on The Thing From Another World.
Sci-fi films are often filled with scientists that create technology beyond their control, which endangers human life. Or they are presented as characters with a feeble lack of intelligence when faced with intellects from other planets. Quatermass and the Pit shows how a strong scientific mind, with rational thought and strong moral compass can be portrayed as an interesting and likable character. When Quatermass is introduced, he is in a meeting with Colonel Breen regarding the rocket group, which he brought to the government. Quatermass is upset that a “peaceful scientific research” group is now being “perverted” into a military project involving missile bases on the moon.
This sequence not only sets up the animosity between Quatermass and Breen, but also their moral leanings. Later when the spacecraft emits a psychic signal, forcing images of alien slaughter that both Breen and Quatermass experience, the Colonel denies the experience to his superiors, instead sticking by his “simpler” story that the alien device is actually a Nazi propaganda weapon. His behavior contrasts Quatermass’s who initially rejects the idea of the reality of any sort of supernatural occurrences, but later changes his mind when presented with facts that conflict with his world view. A solid step towards presenting science as a methodical approach rather than a reactionary jerk.
The Science in The Fiction
The film takes some time to literally unearth the main plot, as Dr. Roney and his team are digging up fossil pieces that he estimates are five million years old. The process that the film depicts in the excavation is quite realistic. The area is segmented into grids, so that individual paleontologists can work in a small section, being careful not to disturb surrounding areas. It also presents the types of questions that lead scientists to discover things that they might not be expecting. So, the dig appears to be an historic find, but then when the casing of the spaceship is unearthed, the nature of the process is changed. The ship is presumed to have crashed on top of the fossils, since it does not appear to be as old. Later another skull is found, undamaged, underneath the ship. Quatermass and Roney both take note that it is not broken, which would most likely be the case if the ship crashed after the fossils were deposited. This leads them to conclude the ship must be of the same era as the fossils, putting it at five million years also.
Quatermass and the Pit takes its time with the plot as a way to accurately depict the scientific process. This is an important distinction from more action oriented sci-fi fare, where there is science, but it’s never explored. Scientific processes in sci-fi films to date have been more about explaining how a duo-what-a-mijiger does (pseudo-science) versus showing an accurate depiction of the inquiry related to science. The slowness does affect the overall film, but it’s clear early on that it’s not trying to be a flashy type of action/sci-fi film. It’s a thoughtful film concerning itself with the nature of discovery, and contact with other planets. Again, it’s akin to more of a slow-burn horror film in this aspect.
At one point Colonel Breen makes mention that within 10 years they will have manned bases on the Moon (and potentially Mars) so Britain needs to make sure they are part of the force that sets these bases up. Obviously that has not yet happened, even in the early decades of the 21st Century. So why was this included? Space fever gripped everyone at the end of the 1960s, as the race to put a man on the moon stepped into high gear between America and Russia. The film supposes a world where Great Britain is also a player in the space race, or perhaps just going along for the ride. But either way it was probably used to indicate the earthlings lack of space faring-ability, in order to contrast it with the “martians” capability five million years ago.
The Final Frontier
The Quatermass films appear to have been a large touchstone in English pop culture, much like Doctor Who is and was. America never received the television broadcasts, and if the first two films were ever played on this side of the pond, it’s likely it was a limited release. Quatermass and the Pit was released in America, but retitled to the more salacious Five Million Years To Earth. That may be in part to capitalize on the similarity in the name of 20 Million Miles to Earth or One Million Years BC (1966), but more likely the name change was due to Americans not having any idea what a “Quatermass” was. For many years I had misread his name as “Quarter”mass, as that seemed to make more sense. Because, just what the heck is a quater?
In terms of Quatermass and the Pit’s place in the echelon of science-fiction, it serves up one other interesting nugget. It postulates that the aliens experimented on proto-humanoids millions of years previous, returning these “mutants” back to Earth. The Minister of Defense is incensed that someone would hypothesize that aliens made humans what they are today. “You realize what you are implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects.” It is possible to read his indignation from a religious and theological point of view, where is incredulity comes from a place of fear that God is not responsible for humanity. This theme would again be explored the following year in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that film, humanity is helped along on its evolutionary tract several times by an alien consciousness.
If Quatermass and the Pit suffers from anything, it would be the lack of suitable special effects to sell the psychic trauma wrought by the aliens. There are moments of exposition describing what is happening, and only a little black and white faux-video footage from the EEG machine that looks like model locusts in a miniature train set. A remake of this film could really increase the terror and implications of the alien attack. Make sure to keep reading over the next few weeks as Sci-Fi Saturdays wraps up the 1960s with several of the most iconic sci-fi movies ever!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.