Thursday 23 February 2012

Quatermass And The Pit

The Necropolis Xperiment

Quatermass And The Pit
aka Five Million Years To Earth
1967 UK Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Screening by The Flicker Club at The Vault.

Warning: Spoilers if you’ve never seen this movie but... it’s still worth reading the intro even if spoilers bother you because the location of the screening was just so interesting.

Last weekend I saw one of my favourite movies, featuring one of my favourite fictional characters, screening in what was probably the most unusual but appropriate place that this movie had ever been screened before...

In the Victorian period, getting rid of the dead was such a problem due to overcrowding in cemeterys that people would just dig corpses up, dump or toss them somewhere, and then bury their freshly deceased relative in the leftover plot. This was, to say the least, beyond unhygienic... not to mention deadly dangerous to those who had not yet shuffled of this mortal coil... and so a solution was needed. In 1854, the Victorians built the London Necropolis Railway, building this on big arched bridges to compensate from the fact that they were building this over a swamp. They built two stations in London, right next to each other, on this line: Waterloo Bridge Station (which is now, of course, known as Waterloo Station) and the other was Necropolis Station (or some such, my research here is a little hazy but I’m going by what one of the presenters to Quatermass And The Pit told the audience at the screening).

The dead would be stored (or piled up, if you like) under the arches of Necropolis Station, waiting for the “train of the dead” to whisk them away (in First Class, Second Class and Third Class accommodation for the dead, believe it or not) to the massive Brockwood Cemetery in Surrey. Groovy stuff!

And, of course, it was inside one of these very arches, where the dead would rest in what has to be the ultimate in train station waiting rooms, that we all sat and watched a screening of Quatermass And The Pit as part of The Flicker Club’s season of Hammer at The Vault (The Vault in the Old Vic Tunnels being an entertainment space underneath the former Necropolis Station). After two brilliant introductions by Stephen Jones and a gentleman whose name I can’t appear to find (think it could be Tim Wilson, but whoever it was he was brilliant) the screening began...

Now Quatermass has always been a hero to me. As a kid at the age of 8 or 9, I remember staying awake all night out of fear that Victor Caroon would come and get me after seeing the first movie remake of the first of Nigel Kneale’s four TV Quatermass serials. If you’ve never seen the movies or serials, or even heard of them before for that matter, I should probably give you a little background on them because, as one of the presenters at the screening quite rightly pointed out, without Professor Quatermass paving the way for science fiction/horror that was both truly excellent and immensely popular, you never would have got programmes like Doctor Who on television these days (Quatermass has, in fact, been referenced at least twice in the history of Doctor Who, once in a Sylvester McCoy episode set in the sixties with the daleks and, again, in the David Tennant story Planet Of The Dead, where a scientist is using “Bernards” as a unit of measurement).

I can tell you now that, when I was a little boy, my parents explained to me just how popular Quatermass was in its day. All the kids would be playing in the streets and then... time for Quatermass and the streets would empty and, believe it or not, the pubs would empty out all over Britain and, without exaggeration, the majority of the population of Great Britain would be tuned in to one or other of the three original Quatermass serials... The Quatermass Experiment (changed to The Quatermass Xperiment in its movie remake to exploit the fact that it was one of the first films in the UK to receive the X certificate), Quatermass 2 (the film was quite possibly one of the earliest... but certainly not the earliest, to denote a film by a roman numeral, as is the standard practice nowadays) and Quatermass And The Pit (which is frankly the scariest of the lot)... Kneale wrote a fourth serial which debuted in 1979 and also had a shortened movie version released in foreign cinemas (which included alternate footage and storyline to make sense of the sequences which were cut) but the character was never as popular as it was in the fifties (although the fourth serial, Quatermass aka The Quatermass Conclusion was still damned scary). I even heard that Battersea Power Station ran into trouble keeping Britain alight during at least one of the episodes of the original because so many people were switched on to it. My mum and dad also had a big rubber plant before I was born which they named Victor after the character who turns into an alien plant-like creature at the end of the first movie remake (I think the serial has a more complex ending to it... only two episodes survive of it that I’ve seen... although all the other serials are available)... including a dire remake of the original in 2005 starring Jason Flemyng and David Tennant.

The original serial of Quatermass and the Pit was obviously a lot longer than the subsequent Hammer remake and, therefore, a lot more atmospheric and spookier (in my opinion). It also starred Andre Morrel as the good professor and he did it so wonderfully, in my opinion, that to me he is the one actor who will forever be Quatermass in my mind. The movie version of this one starred Andrew Keir as the professor and Nigel Kneale, who hated Brian Donlevy from the previous two Hammer remakes, has gone on record many times to acknowledge that Keir was his absolute favourite actor in the role... so much so that when he scripted the radio serial The Quatermass Memoirs in 1995, Andrew Keir was brought back to play Quatermass some 28 years after his first time in the role.

Quatermass And The Pit, the movie version, does not, ironically, start off with builders unearthing a skull and then a large spaceship in a builder’s pit (and I have to say that it was a missed opportunity from Hammer to not include Michael Ripper from the original serial in their movie version, since Michael Ripper was in a good number of their movies, of course). Instead, it relocates the action to a tube station where another set of builders, including a blink and you’ll miss him appearance from young Gareth Thomas who would later lead the crew of The Liberator in Blake’s 7, discover the ancient skulls leading to archeologists discovering a “missing link” skeleton in the evolution of man and... well... a spaceship, which has been buried for millions of years. Since the majority of the action takes place in this station, it was particularly appropriate that we should be watching this movie while the odd train would rush noisily overhead as we watched.

The cast is fantastic, including performances by genre favourites and national treasures such as Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover and Sheila Steafal, while the script is... frankly... superb and features what was, at the time, a truly original idea...

You see, the action which takes place at Hobb’s End (Hob being an old name for the devil) has always been associated with scary and supernatural activity when any excavations or earth works have been conducted there in the hundreds and thousands of years that those particular activities have been recorded. This all, I promise, ties into the dead occupants of the spacecraft from Mars (as it turns out) who resemble giant grasshoppers and who have the power to unleash man’s race memory of a time millions of years ago when the martians adapted us genetically and left us to our own devices to interbreed etc. This race memory is still active and will cause us to purge our race, it turns out, once this ancient evil is unleashed. The spooky stuff really gets going when a guy with a specialised kind of drill tries to get into the front chamber of the spaceship with the drill and the sound vibrations start to... unleash something best left... erm... leashed. I should probably point out, at this juncture, that the guy who plays this character, Sladden, in the movie version is the same guy who played the original Victor Caroon in the 1953 TV serial of The Quatermass Experiment... another eerie connection to the past there then ;-)

The movie is very scary and hugely influential, even to this day, as you’ll find references to the Quatermass saga, and to this third story in particular, in a lot of modern movies and novels etc. The idea behind this one, you see, was not that the aliens were coming to get us or, indeed, coming to colonise us or harvest us for food... the premise on this one is much more chilling. It turns out, you see, the aliens were here all along and they were, and still are, us. Something which wows a lot of people when they see the serial or the movie version the first time around.

It’s a beautiful movie to look at too, shot in windscreen format and with some gorgeous colour schemes and camera work. It has to be said though, that in a scene depicting a “martian culling” which has been reconstructed from the brainwaves of one of the central characters, the special effects in the 1967 movie version are, quite surprisingly, not as effective as the ones in the original BBC serial from 1958... no seriously, I know that sounds daft, but they’re just not... they’re laughable, in fact. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the sheer audacity of the yarn on this one and the perfect performances and dialogue make for an absolutely rivetting movie... one which you’ll want to revisit more than once (I know I’ve seen it dozens of times by now). The ending is very deadpan and drab and basically features two shocked and tired characters in the wake of... well, an attack by the devil for all intents and purposes... you’ll have to see it to know more. This ending is very reminiscent in tone to the way quite a few of the Hammer movies from that specific period of their output ended and it suited their MO perfectly that the explanatory “afterword” scene from the original serial is not included (nor is it needed, truth be told) in this remake.

I would heavily recommend this... and indeed all the Quatermass serials and movies... to anyone interested in science fiction and horror as they always manage to be a perfect blending of the genres in an absolutely astonishingly gripping tale. Full marks for The Flicker Club for including this one in their screening.

It’s been rumoured recently that Hammer want to revive the Quatermass character and, while I’m all for doing another version of Quatermass And The Pit, I’m getting mixed feelings about this resurrection process because my understanding is they want to bring the Professor back for some new stories. Now I believe Kneale was very precious about his character when he was alive, and for good reason. I’m not sure if modern producers could pull off original stories featuring the character and, if they did, they would have to have a real humdinger of a story idea and an absolutely first class writer to see it through with anything like the dignity and aplomb that Kneale injected into the character. Still, it might make an interesting Xperiment and it would certainly revive interest in the Professor again, methinks... we shall see what we shall see.


  1. Brilliant place to see such flicks! This "venue" is now on my must-see well as the serial. What has kept me from seeing it before? Thanks for such a complete review.

  2. Hi there.

    Yeah, the UK TV serial is available in the UK in an edition with the Quatermass 2 serial and what's left of the first. I think it had a US release as well... I'll have to check.

    Thanks for reading.