Quatermass and the Pit

[a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth]
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
Star: Andrew Keir, James Donald, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover

When digging an extension to the central line, workers discover a collection of skeletons, pre-dating previously known specimens. Archaeologist Dr. Roney (Donald) is called in to investigate, but when further excavation uncover what appears to be an unexploded bomb, the military, in the shape of Colonel Breen (Glover), is called in - by coincidence, he is joined by Professor Quatermass (Keir), with whom the colonel has been crossing swords over the function of a rocket research project. Quatermass suspects what was found isn't a German missile, but an extra-terrestrial craft, for blowtorches and drills can't even nick it, and the history of the area is full of apparitions and hauntings. Finally, a hole is made in a bulkhead, and beyond it are found locust-like creatures; thereafter, some people find themselves seeing visions, which appear to be of ethnic cleansing done by the locusts on their Martian home. The General is unconvinced, and orders the re-opening of the station to the public; the power this provides to the craft triggers a mass outbreak of the alien influence, with those affected re-creating the genocide in the streets of London. Can Roney and Quatermass stop things escalating even further out of control?

One of my all-time favourite Hammer films, it completely creeped me out as a kid - the visions in particular - and has stood the test of time very well, despite some flaky FX, especially the "levitating tools", which are clearly swinging from strings. Otherwise, it's almost perfect SF, thanks mostly to Nigel Kneale's script, which creates a marvellously-spooky atmosphere, even in the little touches, as we gradually find out the truth about the craft and its occupants. Watching it now, I couldn't help notice the strong anti-military stance, with Breen coming over as a real arse; I'm interested in tracking down the TV series version, from almost a decade previously, for comparison. Keir certainly nails the persona of Quatermass, despite the original choice being Kenneth More, who had starred in Baker's A Night to Remember. The supporting cast are almost as good, though Shelley's assistant to Roney is largely kept safely out of harm's way; well, this was the sixties after all... But it's still smart, thoughtful science-fiction, which has rarely been done better, even as we approach its fiftieth anniversary.

[November 2010]

The pit and the pendulum
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