DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 1

I’ve been meaning to review the 1967 Hammer film version of this story, aka Five Million Miles to Earth, since last October; that was the one I grew up with on late-night television and affectionately refer to as Giant Fascist Grasshoppers from Mars. But I’ve just ordered and received the original versions of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass teleplays, which aired on the BBC in the 1950s. I’d never seen more than fragments of them before the package arrived from the UK last week.

Quatermass & the Pit is actually the third in the set; it aired in six episodes from December 1958 through January 1959. But it’s my favorite so I’m doing it first. I’ll compare it to the later film version when I get to the end.

Episode 1: The Halfmen

Our story begins on a construction site in Knightsbridge, London, on a street which two different signs (one new and the other very old) alternately tell us is Hobbs or Hobs Lane. A big, deep pit is being excavated under the former foundations of some old row houses, when a truck driver notices something that’s been dug up in the latest scoop of spoils: a damaged human skull. When the workmen examine it more closely, they realize that it’s actually a fossil and has been “down there a long time.” One of the men adds that he’s never liked working in this place.

A newspaper placard informs us that “3 More Bodies!” have been discovered.

We now go to the Nicklin Institute of Research in Natural History, where well-known Canadian paleontologist Dr. Matthew Roney is about to hold a press conference. Dr. Roney wants the press and the general public on his side so he can keep his archaeological dig open long enough to finish his work there properly; the owners of the construction site want him and his team out as soon as possible.

Barbara Judd, Dr. Roney, and Ape-manDr. Roney believes that the skeletal remains found on the site are of great scientific importance. They are dated at 3 to 5 million years old, much, much earlier than hominids have previously been believed to exist.

His assistant Barbara Judd brings out a clay model she’s reconstructed from the bones they’ve recovered so far: the figure is small and ape-faced, but it stands upright and has a remarkably large brain.
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DVD Review: The Stone Tape

The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale, aired on the BBC on Christmas day 1972 and again the following Halloween, then disappeared into the BBC archives for decades. But it wasn’t forgotten. For many British people around my own age, it’s the equivalent of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or the little Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black around in Trilogy of Terror–the spooky made-for-TV movie you saw once as a child that scared the hell out of you.

Jill and some blobby thingsNigel Kneale is rare among television writers in that he’s famous enough to have his name at the top of the credits. The only other writer of similar standing I can think of would be Richard Matheson.

Kneale is probably best known for his Quatermass series (I really must settle down and write something about Quatermass and the Pit one of these days; I’ve been meaning to since last fall.) What made me buy this DVD from Britain, aside from curiosity regarding a hi-tech ghost story I’d heard so much about but never seen, was the additional attraction that Kneale does commentary on the disk.

This story begins as Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arrives to begin her first day’s work at an enormous neo-Gothic Victorian house that’s in the process of being converted into offices and lab facilities for a team of researchers.

The most interesting thing I learned from the DVD commentary is that, while the interiors are all studio sets, the house used for the exterior shots once belonged to Ada, Lady Lovelace. She was Lord Byron’s daughter but also famous in her own right for her work on Charles Babbage’s theoretical Analytic Engine; she’s credited as the first person to write a computer program and the programming language Ada is named after her. Kneale says he only learned about the house’s history during filming and it’s a coincidence that Jill is a brilliant computer programmer–a remarkable job for a woman in the early 1970s.

As Jill’s tiny car enters the house’s courtyard, it’s nearly crushed between two large lorries backing up in opposite directions. What’s striking about this scene is that even though Jill is leaning on her car’s horn, neither of the lorry drivers nor any of the dozen or so workmen unpacking crates of equipment from other trucks nearby pay the slightest attention. This will become a theme.

Jill moves her car out the way just in time, but she’s badly shaken up by the incident while the other members of the research team arrive.
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DVD Review: The Ash Tree

M.R. James’s story, on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX05.htm, is about a 17th-century gentleman who accuses a woman of witchcraft. Unfortunately for him, the accusation isn’t unfounded and she places a curse on his family that will not only destroy him but also his grandson 50 years later.

James tells his story in chronological order, beginning with the grandfather then going on to the grandson. The BBC version, made for their Ghost Story for Christmas series in 1975, reverses the order. It also makes a slight alteration to the family tree, so that the curse passes from great-uncle to grandnephew.

The television version of The Ash Tree opens in the 1700s just as Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge) returns from his travels in Italy upon his uncle’s death to claim his inheritance. Sir Richard is full of progressive ideas and plans to improve his newly acquired estate. He sketches up a Palladian front for his old manor house, decides on a spot for a Grecian-style temple, and speaks to the vicar about building a family pew in the parish church. At every opportunity, he mentions his pending marriage to one Lady Augusta and the progeny he hopes to have–sometimes both in the same breath.

That Sir Richard’s thoughts go straight from marriage to baby-making is probably not due entirely to his sense of duty in carrying on his family line; this becomes apparent once we meet his lovely fiancee (Lalla Ward).

Sir Richard and Lady Augusta share a premarital kiss.

Together, they are a fast and modern young couple. Lady Augusta rides over unaccompanied to visit her fiance and see her future home. The two laugh over racy books like Tom Jones, hang up nude paintings brought back from Italy in the front hall, and kiss right in front of the servants.

But a strange darkness already overshadows their prospective happiness. As Sir Richard rides around his new estate, he observes dead sheep and cattle in the meadow. The shepherd says that that happens when they’re left out and that animals shut in for the night are safe from “the sickness.”
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DVD Review: The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, written by M.R. James in 1904, is a tale in which his usual type of protagonist, an antiquary scholar, discovers and solves a series of puzzles that lead him to find a horde of gold concealed by a wicked Reformation-era Abbot. But this treasure still has a guardian protecting it.

The plot is similar to A Warning to the Curious, but the mystery to be solved is more complicated and interesting, and the creature who guards the gold more horrible than the angry ghost that protects the buried Anglo-Saxon crown.

In 1974, the BBC presented its Ghost Story for Christmas based on The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Aside from the central mystery leading to the treasure, there’s very little of James’s original tale. I like it, but it’s barely the same story. Hands form a circle for the seance

The BBC’s Treasure of Abbot Thomas begins with a seance–and you know how I enjoy those. The year is 1859. A man with abundant side-whiskers and three ladies in black crinolines and lacy headgear are seated around a table in dim light, attempting to contact the spirit world but having some problem getting through. The man at last announces that his wife, the medium, is unable to reach the spirits due to a “presence hostile to manifestations.”

A moment later, we meet this hostile presence–a young man (a boy, really; he doesn’t look to be more than 20) who obviously thinks that the whole thing is rubbish. This is Peter, Lord Dattering (Paul Lavers). He’s just come into the title following his father’s death. His mother, Lady Dattering, is having a hard time accepting the loss of her husband and Peter believes that these spiritualists are charlatans taking advantage of her grief.

None of these people are in James’s story. At most, there are one or two passing references to a Lord D who owns a chapel. The three characters in James’s story are the antiquarian Reverend Justin Somerton, his comic Cockney manservant, and another clergyman, Mr. Gregory, who comes to Somerton’s aid and hears the story he has to tell about finding the treasure; only Somerton appears in the television version.
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DVD Review: Lost Hearts

“Lost Hearts,” one of M.R. James’s early stories, is a more conventional type of ghost story, in which the dead seek revenge against a wrong done against them. But the ghosts are not the horror here and, for once, the scholarly gentleman is no mere witness nor a victim, but the villain of the piece.

It’s on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX03.htm.

The BBC version filmed for Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve in 1973 begins on a very Dickensian note. We are in the early 1800s–James’s story was set in 1811, but this looks more like the 1830s or ’40s to me. A horse-drawn coach comes riding out of the morning mists; inside is a little boy dressed in a top hat, caped coat, and scarf, and looking like the Artful Dodger. (This same child actor, Simon Gipps-Kent, also played young Pip in a film version of Great Expectations made around the same time; he grew up to be Michael York.) The boy is Stephen, recently orphaned and invited to come and live with a distant cousin.

“Is it much farther?” he asks the coachman in weary tones.

“Not long,” the coachman assures him. “Don’t lose heart.”

As the coach passes by an open field, Stephen sees two raggedly dressed children, a boy and a girl, around his own age. They wave to him; the horse shies.

When the coach arrives at the large, old house, its owner, Mr. Peregrin Abney, is waiting eagerly. He is much older than his young cousin, an elderly man, with long, white hair and spectacles. He greets Stephen with avuncular warmth, shakes the boy’s hand, asks when Stephen’s birthday is–asks it twice. Stephen will be 12 on October 31.

Mr. AbneyAbney seems like just the sort of absent-minded, comical gentleman one might find in a Dickens novel, if more intellectual than the usual Dickens character. He has an interest in the occult and studies books of antiquary spells.

Simon Magnus, for example, wrote that one who performs a certain spell can “fly through the air.”

Mr. Abney then jumps off his library steps, but doesn’t fly. “Not yet.”

A harmless eccentric? No. As we learn more about the type of spells Abney is most interested in, the ones about how to gain immortality, he grows more sinister.
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DVD Review: A Warning to the Curious

Legend has it that three silver crowns were buried somewhere along the East Anglian coast in Anglo-Saxon times to ward off invasion. These three crowns can still be seen on coats of arms around Norfolk and Suffolk. In the 1600s, a silver crown was supposed to have been dug up not far from the coast but its finders, more interested in silver than in priceless historical artifacts, promptly melted it down. A second crown is said to have been lost to the sea due to erosion.

The Three Crowns on a Coat of Arms M.R. James uses this legend as the basis for “A Warning to the Curious,” written in 1925, and builds a ghost story upon it. Two friends are staying at an inn at the seaside town of Seaburgh when a third guest at the inn, a man named Paxton, approaches them and tell them how he has traced the location of the third silver crown and actually dug it up. Now he wants to put it back. “I’ve never been alone since I touched it.”

The remaining crown has been guarded by a local family named Ager since time immemorial; the last, William Ager, died some years ago but continues to take his duty seriously even after death. With the aid of his two new friends, Paxton puts the crown back, but that doesn’t mean he’s been forgiven.
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DVD Review: The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral

Continuing with my reviews of the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas based on the stories of M.R. James, I’m going to look at “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.”

The story, written in 1911, is online at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/24086/.

Short summary: A first-person narrator—presumably James himself, since he did this kind of work in real life—is cataloging the collection in the Barchester Cathedral library when he discovers a box containing the diary and other effects belonging to an Archdeacon Haynes, who died under mysterious and grisly circumstances in the early 1800s. Excerpts from Haynes’s diary indicate that he deserved what he got.

The city of Barchester and its cathedral are fictitious, created by Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope but used as a setting by later writers as well, much like Lovecraft’s Arkham.

Dr. Black and the Librarian The BBC version is a faithful adaptation of James’s story, with only a few small alterations. Barchester Cathedral is here played by Norwich Cathedral, which adds a level of realism to the scenes set in and around it.

The James-narrator is replaced by Clive Swift as Dr. Black. Most of the story is shown in flashback, but Black and the librarian who shows him the box containing the diary provide a framing story, popping in at intervals and adding narrative comments on what they’ve read. Events concerning Archdeacon Haynes are moved from the early 1800s to the later end of 19th century.
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DVD Review: Whistle, and I’ll Come To You

From the 1960s, the BBC presented a television series on Christmas Eve titled A Ghost Story for Christmas. Just recently, I picked up a set of episodes from this series on DVD, most of them based more-or-less faithfully on the short stories of Montague Rhodes James.

M.R. James, who was a Cambridge professor, biblical scholar, antiquarian, and historian, had his own tradition of reading his latest story aloud to friends or students on Christmas Eve. Many of his best ghost stories involve scholarly men like himself who accidentally stumble across some inexplicable horror–some, like the museum curator in The Mezzotint are merely witnesses and survive their brush with the supernatural while others, like poor Mr. Wraxall in Count Magnus, are not so fortunate.

The first of these I’m going to look at is one of my favorites, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. It’s on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX08.htm.

Written in 1903, Oh, Whistle concerns a professor who doesn’t believe at all in the supernatural until he takes a vacation at a seaside inn; there, he finds an ancient tin whistle in the ruins of a Templar preceptory and blows into it, summoning up an entity that forms a body for itself from the sheets of the spare bed in his room. After his encounter with this creature, “the Professor’s views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be.”

This story has been adapted twice by the BBC, once in 1968 for the show that led to A Ghost Story for Christmas and again in 2010. Both versions dropped the “Oh” and “My Lad” from the beginning and end of the original title (which, by the way, is a quotation from a song by Robert Burns).

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