Hammer Films had its first international success in the mid-’50s, thanks to three science-fiction films (The Quatermass Xperiment,X the Unknown,Quatermass II). Still, after The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (’58), the studio was mostly identified with Hammer Horror. The old monsters, like the Mummy and the Werewolf, were reinvigorated with color, blood, and cleavage while Dracula, Frankenstein, and their kith and kin went through sequel after sequel. But science-fiction and Quatermass had not been forgotten.
Though the studio had tried to mount yet another number in the series, with American actor Brian Donlevy as the stalwart rocket scientist, changes in affiliation with American distributors effectively killed the effort until 1967 and Quatermass and the Pit, arguably the very best of the four films in the saga (U.S. title: Five Million Years to Earth). Like its two predecessors, the new film was based on a BBC teleplay by the brilliant and influential Nigel Kneale, who also scripted the movie (with a considerably shorter running time).
Replacing Val Guest as director was Roy Ward Baker, whose 1958 film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, had been both a critical and popular success for another production company. (After Quatermass and the Pit, Baker became a Hammer Horror stalwart, responsible for such titles as Scars of Dracula,The Vampire Lovers,Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, and others.) With a bigger budget and more impressive production values, gone also were Brian Donlevy and black-and-white. The new Professor Quatermass was played by Scottish actor Andrew Keir, with gorgeous color cinematography by Arthur Grant, who’d done similar work for Roger Corman in The Tomb of Ligeia.
Featuring one of the more mind-boggling plots in sci-fi, the third Quatermass film posits the theory (voiced by the Professor and debunked by the military martinets – with predictably disastrous results) that a mysterious device uncovered in the Underground is not an experimental Nazi bomb but a device from another world, probably Mars, sent to Earth five million years before. Not only that, but human evolution has been genetically manipulated by these early visitors from the Angry Red Planet, whose own race performed periodic violent purges of the unfit. With the awakening of the device, the subconscious impulse toward destruction of the weak is again kindled in the human descendants.
Man’s fear of the horned devil, as it turns out, is actually the racial memory of these beings (distant in time and space), a plot concept first imagined in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent novel, Childhood’s End (1953). The only drawback to Quatermass and the Pit is the actual design of the Martians, who are made to look like desiccated grasshoppers. Merely a quibble, given the quality of the production in general.
Nigel Kneale returned to Quatermass one last time in a 1979 four-part BBC miniseries (called Quatermass) which was near-simultaneously edited for international release as a feature film with the title The Quatermass Conclusion. Both are available on DVD; I prefer the miniseries.
Here’s the story: With England in the throes of social upheaval sometime in the not-too-distant future, the retired Quatermass (John Mills) goes looking for his runaway granddaughter. The girl has joined a weird cult called The Planet People, New-Age hippie types who congregate around ancient ruins like Stonehenge invoking planetary assistance from beyond, like the Rapture on acid. The answer arrives in the form of a destructive beam from somewhere beyond – it eradicates everyone within its focus, and the Earth becomes
a Petri dish of sorts.
Though Quatermass dies saving the world, his legacy lives on in science-fiction and popular culture, most obviously in Dr. Who and Torchwood. There have even been two progressive rock bands called Quatermass and Quatermass II. You can’t keep a good name down.