In 1953, the BBC produced their first science fiction program targeted to an adult audience, the Quatermass Experiment. Surrounding the exploits of Professor Bernard Quatermass and the British Experimental Rocket Group who have sent a manned expedition to the stars only to have it return with an alien infestation. The program was immensely popular and even today is renowned as instrumental in the formation of modern British science fiction. Four follow-up TV programs were produced and two feature films were released by Hammer Film Productions.
Quatermass and the Pit follows a rather shaken and distraught Bernard Quatermass who has been saddled with a military aid by the British government in an attempt to reign in his experimental group. Played by Julian Glover (familiar to Doctor Who fans as King Richard in the Crusades and later as Scaroth/Count Scarlioni in Douglas Adams’ City of Death), Colonel Breen is an amiable type of fellow who comes off as reasonable and friendly. It seems that Breen recognizes that his attachment to Quatermass is unwanted, but that’s no reason for it to be a chore.
Meanwhile, an attempted expansion of the British rail near Hobbs End, an area surrounded by ghost stories and tales of supernatural, has revealed a pair of human skulls in the wet earth. Palaeontologist Doctor Roney and his assistant Barbara discover that it is hardly a singular find and is actually a remarkable collection of nearly intact human remains that predate the earliest theorized period of man. What’s more, they are unlike any human remains ever discovered and appear to be mutations. When a solid structure housing the remains is revealed, however, the excavation is taken out of Roney’s hands and a bomb disposal squad is called in.
Breen and Quatermass are derailed to the Hobbs End excavation site to look at what appears to be an unexploded bomb. Quatermass recognizes what the structure is almost at once, however. It is a perfectly preserved rocket of alien design… over five million years old!
While this is the second Hammer Film version of Quatermass, Andrew Keir is one in a long series of actors to play the part. While the character has come across as rather staid and sterile as portrayed by other actors, Kier’s performance is so human and emotional that he draws the viewer in with his facial expressions ands vocalizations. Quatermass is a tough role as he is essentially a bold and stubborn scientist thrust into unlikely situations again and again. He’s not exactly an adventurer but he certainly rises to the challenge. James Donald as Doctor Roney perfectly counters Kier’s rather shaken disposition and his belief in Bernard’s brilliance raises Quatermass to somewhat heroic status.
An exploration of the craft using drilling equipment causes anyone present to nearly lose their mind from the reverberations. Afterward, a hidden compartment filled with a number of massive creatures resembling large bugs reveals itself. Quatermass theorizes that these are the crew, safely preserved for millions of years. An analysis reveals that they are unlike anything ever seen before on the planet.
Bernard and Barbara, Roney’s assistant, investigate a destitute house opposite the excavation site where strange events have been noted by the locals. It all seems to tie together to the find and a deeper investigation hints at black magic and demonic apparitions. But what could any of this have to do with a weird unearthed artifact, mutant skeletons older than humanity and mummified giant insects?
The film takes a turn when it is revealed that the craft evokes psychic reactions in specific individuals. It just so happens that Roney and Barbara are investigating the mind’s ability to store information and their apparatus is easily combined with a recording system to make a film of an experience of five million years old. The film is a terrifying revelation of a Martian ethnic cleansing of the hive (called ‘the great hunt’). The mutations and variations of the Martian race were hunted and killed, a revelation made all the more chilling when it is revealed that the human remains in the pit are thought to bed human experiments that were rejected and brought back to Earth millions of years ago.
Of course the government thinks that Quatermass is out of his mind at first and they go out of their way to discredit him in the press, which only makes him more determined to discover what happened at Hobbs End and how to prevent it from causing more destruction. What follows is a cross between a riot and mind control that is both startling and horrific all at once. Then a giant glowing devil’s head image appears hovering over London like something from a Bosch painting.
Nigel Kneale was a staple of BBC sci-fi TV back in the day. Moving from the Quatermass serials to an adaption of George Orwell’s 1984 and later the Stone Tape, he blew the minds of the viewing public with the Year of the Sex Olympics which predated the advent of reality television. Many more well versed than I have sung the praises of Nigel Kneale, but his inventive scripts are made all the more spectacular by his ability to tap into the human psyche and reveal our deepest unknown fears.
Before the Quatermass Experiment, science fiction drama on TV was mainly of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers variety in which bold heroes faces bug-eyed monsters. Kneale’s Quatermass series delved into the dark void of space and found horror unlike anything we had ever seen. His work is a landmark in fiction and set the high water mark for those who came after him.
Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks gladly viewed some of their work on their time as production team members of Doctor Who as an homage to Kneale’s work. Aside from the two Hammer films, a BBC production of the Quatermass Experiment was screened in 2005 starring Mark Gatiss and David Tennant in supporting roles while Jason Flemyng played the latest iteration of Professor Bernard Quatermass.
Personally, I prefer the original Quatermass TV programs, but much of it is sadly lost. The two Hammer films are worthy productions, though and are full of fantastic performances and excellent special effects. They are also far shorter than the multi-part BBC programs and told in a far snappier pace. Roy Ward Baker (an alum of the Hammer Dracula film franchise) does a great job of modernizing and streamlining Kneale’s work without losing its impact in the process.
This film comes highly recommended.