TW remembers Quatermass and the Pit

By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues

copyright Hammer

Hammer Horror tackled every story possible to scare the life out us and in 1967 they ventured into science fiction territory and brought Professor Bernard Quatermass to the big screen. It was a perfect mix for Hammer as it incorporated elements of black magic and science fiction…

In Hob’s Lane, the old name for the Devil, a skull and skeleton are found, both of which predate human history. But when a strange craft is also unearthed Quatermass is called in. This craft defies all known attempts to open it and strange markings are found which form pentagrams. Further investigations reveal that the entire area is riddled with stories of ghosts and strange happenings. Claw marks are found on walls and the locals are wary of the place. The remains turn out to be both a primitive human skull and the body of an insect-like alien, aliens that may have a bigger connection to humanity than was first thought.

Quartermass links a volunteer to a machine which shows images of the aliens in full force as they cleanse Martian hives of any of their species that doesn’t fit the society anymore via mass slaughter. It turns out they took primitive humans from the Earth and augmented them to better serve their species. Hampered by the military and the government, Quatermass knows this thing is dangerous but is powerless to stop a press conference in the cavern where the ship was found which results in a new Martian cleansing as psychic energy floods the area, turning humans into killers and tears the area to the ground. As the image of the Devil himself rears above London, people start killing and Quatermass falls victim to the mass hysteria, can anyone save the planet?

This was originally a radio broadcast series written by Nigel Kneale and was part of a trilogy that included the Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass 2. Here, the aliens are part of our legends of black magic, the Devil and poltergeists. People report sightings of ghosts and goblins and the impact on their mental stability is well played through two scenes, one featuring a sweating policeman in a haunted house from which the previous family fled and a workman who witnesses the creatures for himself. This combination of black magic and aliens has been used to great effect in Doctor Who – most notably, Image of the Fendahl, The Daemons, which remains one of the most loved Who stories and The Awakening. Each uses the premise that human evolution has been interfered with by alien intervention leading to our myths and legends about the Devil. But instead of the Doctor, Bernard Quatermass is left to fight the battle against a force that uses our primal fears as a weapon to manifest into an unstoppable psychic force.

In the climatic scene where the full power of the alien ship is unleashed and the mass murders begin, Hammer went all out and the results are electrifying. Whole streets begin to crumble as buildings are torn down, the streets split apart as something forces itself up from below. Fierce winds storm through the city as hapless victims are torn apart on the streets by blank faced crowds who stand amid the burning landscape. The city is descending into meltdown and no-one can stand against the psychic force as it compels murder and destruction to pave the way for a new Martian colony. And then, from nowhere, a giant image of the Devil himself appears in the sky. Hell itself is rising.

In reality it was one of the horned Martian creatures, manifesting itself a new body from the chaos of the mental energy it had released through the populace. These images stand the test of time and remain some of Hammer’s most iconic. The huge ghostly white Martian creature blankly gazing over its new realm scared the life out of me as a child and the movie does a great job of meshing ghost stories with the alien culture. And given this alien threat cannot be harmed physically as it exists as an invisible force only serves to make the audience believe that there is no hope, no salvation. And with Quatermass affected, Hell on Earth has really arrived. The salvation lay in our own myths that iron was a defence against supernatural forces, something also used in the Daemons, and the scientist character, Doctor Roney, a friend of Quatermass’s and the only one who believes that he is right, climbs a crane and swings it into the Devil, short circuiting it and cancelling out its power.

Andrew Kier played the good professor but didn’t really enjoy this movie as he believed director Roy Ward Baker, known for his experience with technically demanding movies such as A Night to Remember, had wanted actor Kenneth Baker for the role. This was something Roy later denied, claiming Kenneth Baker would not be suitable for the role of Quatermass, praising Kier’s performance. Kier, who had also appeared as a rebel leader Tyler in the Peter Cushing big screen adaption of Dalek Invasion of Earth, played the role with fervour and conviction making him the perfect choice. Other cast members included Barbara Shelley who later appeared in Planet of Fire, a fifth Doctor story and Julian Glover who would also appear twice in Doctor Who and go on to not only Star Wars but Indiana Jones and, more recently, Game of Thrones.

This movie was also filmed at MGM in Borehamwood – where they now film EastEnders – instead of the usual Associated British Studios, but this was down to lack of space at the time. Quatermass and the Pit received good reviews and was successful enough to warrant Hammer announcing a second Quatermass movie but this was never to materialize. This is a classic movie quite rightly regarded as a gem in the Hammer crown and, as a footnote, the character of Quatermass would become part of Doctor Who lore when he’s mentioned by name in the story Remembrance of the Daleks starring Sylvester McCoy.

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