BluRay Review: The Quatermass Xperiment

a.k.a. The Creeping Unknown.

It Creeps. It Crawls. It Kills!

Soon after the BBC version of The Quatermass Experiment had finished airing in the summer of 1953, Hammer film studios obtained rights to make a movie version and started planning. Prior to this point in Hammer’s history, the studio had primarily made comedies and crime dramas; to market their films in the United States, they often used American actors in starring roles.

Hence Brian Donlevy’s being cast to play a very un-British Bernard Quatermass in this particular film. Quatermass’s creator Nigel Kneale did not like this at all.

In compressing the 3-hour BBC series into an 80-minute film, director Val Guest, who co-authored the revised script, also took other liberties with the story. Kneale didn’t like these either, especially the altered ending.

But we’ll get to that part when we come to it.

This film version begins with what would become a horror-movie trope: a couple necking. Not being American teens, they aren’t parked in a car in some Lover’s Lane, but have made themselves comfortable in a haystack on the farm belonging to the girl’s father. A deafening roar like a jet engine interrupts their kissing and they run like hell for the inadequate shelter of the farmhouse.

The next thing you know, there’s a rocket sticking nose-down into the pasture like a giant lawn-dart. The QI Rocket

We meet Quatermass and the key members of his Experimental Rocket Group–Judith Carroon, Dr. Gordon Briscoe*, and Marsh–along with a querulous guy from the government office funding them, as they drive up to the crash site together in a VW minibus.

Their conversation covers the basic info from the first episode of the series: the rocket was missing and out of contact for 56 hours. They don’t go into why an American is heading Britain’s space program, but it’s obvious right away that the character of Quatermass has changed in more ways than his nationality can account for. This is a man who goes ahead and does whatever he decides is right and doesn’t listen to anyone else once he makes that decision. He launched his rocket, the QI, before he received final approval because he got tired of waiting for the bureaucrats to make up their minds.

After the exterior of the rocket has cooled down, the hatch is opened and Judith’s husband Victor emerges to collapse once he’s outside. His only, whispered, words are “Help me” before an ambulance takes him away. He reflexively clenches and unclenches one fist.
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DVD Review: The Quatermass Experiment

This is the very first of the Quatermass stories. It aired on the BBC in July and August of 1953 and introduces us to Professor Quatermass and the adventures of his Experimental Rocket Group.

Unfortunately, only the first two episodes of the original series survive. The DVD features a copy of the script so you can see how this version of Nigel Kneale’s story turned out, but I’ve also watched the Hammer film version that was made a couple of years later.

First, the two television episodes.

Episode 1: Contact Has Been Established

The episode begins with a voice-over announcer informing the viewers that the first manned rocket into space was launched from Australia one morning. The crew consisted of three men, whom we’ll hear more about later on. Contact with the rocket was suddenly lost and there’s been nothing but silence for more than 50 hours.

We then go to the control room for the British Experimental Rocket Group in the UK, as they discuss the problem with their Australian base. Everyone looks anxious, but one woman on the team seems more upset than the others. The group’s leader–Bernard Quatermass (played by Reginald Tate), although we won’t get his name for awhile yet–speaks comfortingly to her; their conversation establishes that she is Judith Carroon (Isabel Dean), married to one of the crewmen aboard the rocket, and a valued mathematician on the team. Judith is worried that one her calculations could have caused this malfunction. Judith Carroon and Prof. Quatermass

Then, to everyone’s relief, they pick up a signal. They aren’t able to contact the crew, but the rocket is heading back towards Earth. Judith does some calculations to project where it’s going… and track where it’s been. The rocket should have gone into orbit, but broke away and apparently took up some long, elliptical path. It’s been much farther from Earth than it should’ve been–halfway to the Moon if Judith’s math is correct. Quatermass regains remote control of the rocket to start its descent. It comes down in the London suburbs, about 10 miles from their headquarters.

There follows a long interval with a black screen and suspenseful music, and the next scene opens within the ruins of what was an old lady’s home near Wimbledom Common with a great big rocket sticking up through it. The couple next door have come to investigate; the wife seems to think that they’re faced with a nuclear warhead and wants to get away as fast as they can, although if she were right I don’t think they could get far enough quickly enough for safety.

The old lady and her cat The old lady (Katie Johnson from the Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers) is all right, although she’s trapped on what remains of the upper floor with a yowling cat in a wicker carrier. She’s understandably bewildered and believes the Blitz is recurring (“Have they started again?”) A Bobby arrives to rescue both old lady and cat with a tall ladder. Other emergency services people soon gather, as well as the neighbors and reporters eager to interview anybody they can get to talk to them. Among the latter is James Fullalove from the Gazette, who takes this exciting event as a welcome relief from his usual work on things like the Chelsea Flower Show.

By the time the members of the Rocket Group arrive on the scene, the place has taken on an atmosphere of carnival. One of the team, a man named Marsh, sets up radio equipment as close to the rocket as the heat from the exterior will allow and tries once again to contact the men inside. Judith shushes the crowd; she hears someone tapping. “They’re alive!”
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DVD Review: Five Million Years to Earth

Since I’ve already covered the plot of this story in detail in the 6 episodes of the BBC television version from the 1950s, I won’t go over it again except where there are significant or interesting differences.

This Hammer film version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit was filmed in 1968. It was revised by Kneale himself to cut it down to less than half its original length, but I don’t think he has anything to do with the new, alternative title that was used in the U.S. However, as nonsensical as Five Million Years to Earth is as a title, the first difference I make note of is that, in this version, there really isn’t a Pit either. The deep hole of the Knightsbridge construction site is gone; this time, our story begins in the Hobbs End Underground station, which isn’t very far underground. But the phrase “the Pit” also has certain connotations beyond a simple hole in the ground, suggestive of Hell and demons in keeping with the nature of the creatures discovered buried there. “Quatermass and the Renovated Tube Station” doesn’t evoke that same note of horror.

Ape-man skull At the Hobbs End station, workers are extending the train line when they dig up the fossilized skeletal remains of some hominids. The strange object that Dr. Roney’s team first takes for an unexploded bomb is discovered less than 7 minutes into the film, opening credits included.

Both the fossils and the object are found in the clay in the back wall behind the subway tracks, so there is no sense of remarkable archaeological chronology here–more a sense of surprise that things so close to the surface weren’t dug up ages ago.

Captain Potter of the Bomb Squad (Bryan Marshall) is still too young to have WWII experience. In this version, he’s the one who seeks out Colonel Breen (Julian Glover, who was born in 1935 and is way too young himself to be playing a crusty old WWII vet at this point in his career). After the meeting at the War Office where Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is told that his Rocket Group is about to be handed over to Breen, Breen receives Potter’s phone message and Quatermass comes along with him since the two were intending to thrash the matter out over dinner. This little bomb problem is just a stop on their way… until they get a look at the thing that obviously is no bomb. And when the undamaged skull turns up inside the sleek and shining black hull, Quatermass is drawn into the mystery whether Breen wants him there or not.

Tiny 'pentacle' on the ship's hull

Dr. Roney and Quatermass aren’t previously acquainted, but they bond quickly over their mutual dislike of Col. Breen.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 6

Episode 6: “Hob”

After the power was shut off during the press conference at the end of Part 5, Barbara Judd is the only one who sees the glow inside the spaceship in the darkness before the lights come on again.

The spaceship glows! Professor Quatermass tries to get the crowd of reporters and technical staff to leave, but Colonel Breen and the War Office guy want them to stay… and stay they do until the outer hull of the ship begins to pulse and glow so brightly that everybody can’t help but notice. By then, it’s too late.

Sounds of vibration are heard. Debris starts flying around and all hell breaks loose. People scream and push to get out of the pit. But not everyone is eager to escape. Breen remains, staring at the glowing ship hypnotically. He and a couple of other men just sit down on the ground in front of it, watching it. The reporter Fullalove also remains, snapping photos.

The crowd rushes out into the street, but something more than panic drives them. They seem to be influenced by the ship in the same way that Barbara Judd and the drillman were earlier and they run, guided by some reawakened instinct. They see the world around them as Martian grasshoppers, like themselves. The telekinetic debris accompanies them. Walls of the nearby buildings begin to shake and tumble down. Not just the people who were at the construction site and near the glowing spaceship are affected; it’s spreading around London.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 5

Episode 5: The Wild Hunt

The story picks up shortly after the end of Part 4. Captain Potter and his men find Barbara Judd halfway down the ramp, with an injury on her head from some flying object. She tells them that what she saw hopping past her was one of those giant grasshopper creatures, when in fact the soldiers and the viewer know it was the drillman. Potter goes out to find the drillman, and Barbara goes back to the Nicklin Institute, where she tells Dr. Roney and Professor Quatermass everything that happened.

A gargoyle at the church--does not look like a grasshopper to me. The phone in Roney’s office rings. It’s Captain Potter; he’s located the drillman at the church where he collapsed after his mad, possessed, bunny-hop dash from the construction pit. When Quatermass goes to speak to him, Miss Judd goes along. She wants to see what the drillman looks like now.

Inside the church, the drillman (whose name, by the way is Sladden) is in the care of the vicar who found him in the churchyard. The vicar gives him a huge mug containing just a little cocoa and heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
Sladden drinks his hot cocoa.
The man is no longer possessed by the time Quatermass comes to see him, but asking questions about what happened to him only agitates him again. “They was coming!” he cries out, and some more telekinetic events occur in the vestry.

The vicar is inclined to think that these are signs of a great evil; he’s surprised when Quatermass, a Man of Science, agrees with him.

Sladden says that he couldn’t see anything but those grasshopper-creatures, hundreds and hundreds of them alive and leaping around an alien landscape with a purple sky. He was one of them.

From this, Quatermass concludes that Sladden has seen a vision of life on Mars as it was 5 million years ago. More than that, he has a new idea about the kind of genetic tinkering the Martians did to their ape-men at that time.

To test his hypothesis, he wants the drillman to recreate what he was doing when things started going weird at the pit site. The vicar protectively objects, but Sladden consents. The reporter Fullalove has once again followed Quatermass and is lurking behind the vestry door, eavesdropping on the whole scene.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 4

Episode 4: The Enchanted

Barbara Judd and Dr. Roney in the spaceship. Dr. Roney and Barbara Judd gather up the specimens and rush to get them preserved and sent to the institute for study. Now that the sealed forward section of the spaceship has been breached and filthy modern Earth-air has reached them, they are decaying rapidly. The fishy stink causes more nausea.

Quatermass, examining the forward compartment after the previous occupants have been removed, says that the membranes that make up a network inside resemble magnified nerve endings. These too are rapidly decaying. Apart from the membranes and some remnants of colored liquids, there’s no sign of instrumentation or equipment. Quatermass conjectures that the ship was in some way alive–“The hull itself did the thinking.”

Colonel Breen, incredibly, still believes that the Nazis have something to do with this.

When the colonel finds Fullalove looking around inside the spaceship, he has a hissy fit and has the reporter thrown out. But he doesn’t take away Fullalove’s tiny spy camera. The next morning, the front page of the Gazette has a story about the crashed spaceship with some really cool photos.

Roney has the exoskeleton of one of the creatures in his office. He calls it an arthropod rather than a big grasshopper, and observes that it has 3 hind legs like a tripod. Unlike the ape-men found in and around the vessel, they are definitely not of this Earth.

Professor Quatermass and an old friend from Mars.Quatermass says that it has the face of a gargoyle on a cathedral (not the gargoyles I’ve seen, which tend to be reptilian, but we’ll go along with him for the sake of the story). Both men look at the anthropological mural on the walls of the office, a reproduction of cave paintings that are 30,000 years old; there’s one little figure wearing a horned mask that resembles a gargoyle. Could these images of imps and demons be dim racial memories handed down from humanity’s remote past?

Dr. Roney calls the arthropod creature an “old friend we haven’t seen in awhile.” Considering the creature’s delicate structure and the thinner atmosphere in the sealed-off section of the ship, he and Quatermass eventually come to the conclusion that it must have come from Mars.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 3

Episode 3: Imps and Demons

The young soldier who was hysterical at the end of Part 2 is conveyed into the shack that Dr. Roney uses as an office. He’s still in shock over the thing he saw inside the aft compartment of the mysterious object they’re digging up. Dr. Roney gives him some brandy from a flask he keeps “for emergencies” and Quatermass questions him about what it was he saw.

“Little,” the soldier reports. “Like a dwarf. Crooked.”

Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd reads aloud a very similar description of the Hobbs Lane ghost from a 1927 newspaper article. Has the soldier ever heard of it? No. That was more than 30 years ago and he’s not that old. Capt. Potter sends him home.

The other men in the Bomb Squad carry on with cleaning the object up. The ejected hatch cover is discovered not far from the opening. Quatermass examines this and concludes that it would have to be unscrewed from the inside to open.

But he’s got another intriguing clue to follow up on: the 1927 newspaper articles mention that Hobbs Lane has always had a bad reputation. There were earlier stories of hauntings here, especially in the 1700s.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 2

Episode 2: The Ghosts

The story picks up just where it left off at the end of Part 1.

Is the object discovered in the pit of the Hobbs End construction site by Dr. Roney’s archaeological team more than 5 million years old? Preposterous, says Col. Breen. It can’t be very old–the non-metallic surface isn’t even corroded.

Professor Quatermass tries to scratch the surface with the diamond in his ring and finds it’s harder than diamond. While he’s kneeling down, he observes that there are odd projections on the sides of the hull that he guesses were used to hold external launching components similar to those his own rockets use, and that were ejected in flight.

While his Bomb Squad men have been busy digging out the object, Captain Potter has located the records for WWII bombing raids in the neighborhood and finds that nothing bigger than a few incendiaries landed here.

Most of the people living in Hobbs Lane had moved out before the construction project began, but one elderly couple a few doors down from the open construction pit remain. The local police are evacuating them now in the face of the bomb threat. Before they go, Captain Potter and Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd catch them to ask what they remember about the local bombings.

The abandoned houseThe Chilcots have been in their home since the first World War; Mrs. Chilcot can remember little “sparklers” incendiaries falling, but no large bombs.

What about the house next door? asks Potter, indicating the half-collapsed building between the Chilcots’s home and the construction pit. That looks like it was bomb-damaged.

No, says Mrs. Chilcot, that place was abandoned long before the war. The last occupants left it in 1927 and no one has wanted to live in it since–it has a reputation of being haunted. The story was in all the papers at the time.

The skull inside the shipThe Bomb Squad, in the meantime, has found an opening in the hull. The hatch is missing and the inside of the object is filled with dirt. They begin to clear this out, and almost immediately pull out another hominid skull, this one intact.

Dr. Roney takes charge of this find and carries it into the little shack he’s using as his office to clean it up. As he exalts over the very good condition of this new skull, he starts to say that it must have been protected by being inside the hull… then stops when he realizes the implications. How could such a fragile fossil not have been crushed when that huge thing landed?
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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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