Wednesday, October 22, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 17: Quatermass and The Pit (1967)

Where do we--humans, that is--come from?

Religion has one answer, science has another. Some accept religion's answer and reject science's, some do the opposite. Some accept parts of one answer and reject parts of another. Some try to make both answers fit, others try to label religion's answer as science's and call it a day.

But what if neither answer really was quite right? What if they both really did only have part of the answer and needed to be put together to get the whole?

Suppose humans were created by a higher power, but as a result of controlled evolution. Suppose again that that higher power was not God, but actually something we might call--without much hyperbole--the Devil?

An expansion of the London Underground is being built at Hobbs End, when one of the construction workers discovers a skull amongst the dirt and rocks being borne away from the excavation on a conveyor belt. Initial panic at finding evidence of a murder fades when they realize that the skull is too big and ape-like to be human, and furthermore it appears to be a fossil. However, their plans to just set it aside and continue on are waylaid by discovering an entire skeleton of the same variety.

In fact, the ground under Hobbs End appears to be littered with these humanoid skeletons and so paleontologist Dr. Roney (James Donald) and his assistant Barbara Judd (the magnificent Barbara Shelley) are called in to supervise the extraction of these skeletons, which are surely a hugely valuable find. Dr. Roney gives a press conference announcing that the find is incredibly extraordinary because they've carbon tested the skeletons and they date back to five million years at least, which puts them at a stage of development way beyond previously known humanoids.

Roney unveils a clay model of what the humanoid apes probably looked like, based on the bones. He explains to the press that he needs their help because there's going to be a lot of public pressure to resume operations on the underground. Roney wants the press to emphasize the importance of their find to the public, to convince them that the excavation should be allowed to continue.

Unfortuately for Roney, something else is going to ruin his dig. One of the excavators tells Barbara that she has come across some sort of pipe in her digging. The public works rep that walks over with Barbara is puzzled because there aren't supposed to be any pipes there. However, there is one possibility...

The Army sets up a sign reading "Danger: Unexploded Bomb" as an EOD unit is sent in. Don't worry, we won't be following one of them around for the whole movie. It's assumed that the object is an unexploded bomb from the Blitz. However, when one EOD officer goes to put his magnetic microphone on the object to listen to its innards--it doesn't stick. Holding the mic in place, all he can determine is that the bomb isn't ticking. He's completely flummoxed, though. Roney, already a bit impatient with the EOD team tramping all over his dig, suggests that the EOD officer is too young to have had Wartime experience. The EOD officer, somewhat irritatedly, assures Roney he will be calling in a second opinion.

Said second opinion comes in the form of Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who is currently busy in a meeting with the British Rocket Group. The British Rocket Group, as you would know if you had seen the previous two Quatermass films, is the brainchild of Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir, taking over from Brian Donlevy who played the role in the two preceding films). Quatermass is not happy at having to meet with Breen because the crux of the meeting is that the BRG is to be tasked with developing missile bases that can be placed on the moon. Breen will therefore be working with Quatermass to achieve this and there's no point in Quatermass arguing the point because the order came down from on high.

Breen invites Quatermass to dinner to try and win the scientist over, but he gets the message about Hobbs End and invites Quatermass to join him on a brief detour. Quatermass immediately becomes intrigued by the object that has been partially uncovered, which Breen labels an experimental V-Weapon. The first hole in Breen's explanation shows itself when the EOD team finds another ape skull buried beneath part of the object. Roney is called in and he excitedly extracts it, saying it's even better preserved than the others they've found. Quatermass asks Breen exactly how he thinks a V-Weapon could have landed on top of a fragile fossil without damaging it.

Roney also makes this realization as Barbara is helping him to clean the mud off the skull. How could the thing in the pit be a bomb or a rocket from the last war and be so gingerly nestled amongst fossils? Another curious thing turns up when Breen is going over the civil records of the Blitz in Hobbs End: not only were the only bombs incendiaries, they only did structural damage because the houses on the street were abandoned. Breen says they had been evacuated, but the policeman who brought over the records explains to Quatermass that actually they had been empty years before Hitler had anything to do with their vacancy.

You see, the policeman grew up in the area so he knows that the houses were abandoned because of strange noises and things being seen. The usual ghost stories. The policeman goes to show Barbara and Quatermass one of the houses, warning it's not safe. However, inside the house the combination of a door moving on its own and Barbara's discovery of what look like clawmarks in the walls so terrifies the policeman that he rushes outside, explaining away his panic as succumbing to the heat in the house.

Quatermass tells Breen he wants to stick around for the investigation of the "bomb." That's fine with Breen, who advises the object should be fully uncovered by the next day. And then Barbara observes an old street sign. The street used to be Hob's Lane. As Barbara informs Quatermass, "Hob used to be a nickname for The Devil."

Quatermass goes to visit Roney's lab at a local museum. Roney is currently doing an experiment with some equipment designed to map brain functions, which is currently being used on a volunteer whose cranial dimensions correspond to those of a particular human ancestor. Roney wants to do the same for the Hobbs End apes, but no human he knows of has the same skull dimensions. Quatermass asks Roney if the apes were terrestrial, to which Roney replies that they most definitely were. So if that mystery object was a space vessel, that theoretically rules them out as its passengers.

Heading back to the dig, Quatermass runs into Barbara who has collected a lot of newspaper reports about the incidents at Hobbs End over many decades. All of them refer to a small figure, like a hideous dwarf that could leap through walls. Most of them occurred during construction of the original Hobbs End underground station. Quatermass scoffs at first, but then finds himself intrigued. Following the trail leads them all the way to Latin archives in Westminster Abbey. What they find is that the stories of little ghosts and goblins emerge always at the same time as the ground above the object is disturbed--from charcoal burners uprooting big trees, to a well being dug, to the construction of a station.

Quatermass isn't sure what to do with this information as yet but he returns to the dig site to find that the object has fully uncovered, and it sure as hell looks like a spaceship. Breen has one of the EOD technicians run an acetylene torch on one part of the hull for five minutes--and not only does it not cut through, but the spot isn't even warm to the touch. Quatermass suggests Breen get a borazon drill, which is harder than diamond, and then Quatermass gets a bit smug, pointing out to the skeptical Breen that the material that made this object is every rocket engineers dream: the Germans didn't build something this extraordinary and then forget the recipe.

There's a hollow chamber in the object, but an EOD officer warns Quatermass to wear gloves. Touching the inside with bare hands left several of the EOD techs with something like mild frostbite, even though the hull is not even cold. And inside, Quatermass notices there's a symbol etched into what appears to be a bulkhead separating the hollow chamber from the head of the "rocket." The symbol has six sides, but Quatermass identifies it as a "pentagon" (!) and says it's one of the symbols used in ancient magic. Which would be a pentangle, not a pentagon--and that still doesn't change the fact that the symbol is clearly a hexagon.

I guess nobody noticed that the props department had screwed up until it was too late and they just kept the existing dialogue?

At any rate, Quatermass goes to talk to Barbara, who has just arrived, when there comes a scream from the soldier sent to remove some equipment from the hollow chamber. The man is found cowering in a corner, claiming he saw a figure that came at him and then went through the wall. When he describes it, Barabara recognizes it as the same "hideous dwarf" described for centuries.

Breen gets his borazon drill and its civilian operator, Sladden (Duncan Lamont). The drill is plugged into a generator in case of an explosion, should the other side of the bulkhead be a warhead. As Breen and Quatermass watch, Sladden's drill fails three times to even scratch the bulkhead by the "pentagon." The third time, however, the attempt is accompanied by a loud vibrating whine that makes all three men physically ill. Roney turns up with Barbara and when a shaken Quatermass tells him about the pentagon, Roney loks inside and then calls the others in: there's a hole in the bulkhead where Sladden was drilling.

Sladden points out the hole is way bigger than his drill bit and looks melted, just as the bulkhead mysteriously disintegrates--and Breen, Quatermass, and Roney are confronted by a spectacular sight: three insectoid creatures with horns and toothy grins sitting inside a honeycomb structure.

"We come in peace, put down the can of Raid."
The creatures are clearly dead, but letting the outside air into the sealed chamber causes the creatures and the structures housing them to rapidly decay. Roney sends the soldiers to get empty sandbags and planks and he loads the quickly rotting arthropods onto them and temporarily sprays them with a sealant so they'll hold together until he can get them to the lab. The structures, which Quatermass presumes to be a control apparatus, have completely fallen to powder before Barbara can even get in to photograph the "cockpit." Breen insists that Quatermass is mad to believe that this is an alien vessel, but he's unable to offer a rational explanation.

At the lab, as Roney and Quatermass examine the arthropods, it becomes clear that they are not of earthly origin. The tripod arrangement of their legs suggests that clearly enough and they seem to have been adapted to a planet with much lower gravity and oxygen--perhaps a world that's dead now, but five million years ago had life. Between that and the unmistakable fact that the creatures' very appearance can be seen in gargoyles, cave paintings, and the Judeo-Christian image of The Devil, Quatermass and Roney come to a single conclusion:

What they've found are Martians. What's more, the humanoid apes and the Martians are connected. The Martians, knowing their world was dying, visited Earth and took back specimens of a Pliocene ape. Using any number of technologies they tried to instill their consciousness into the minds of these apes, intending to "colonize" Earth. But they must have been too late, and whatever faculties they passed on became dormant in all but a few of the humans that evolved as a result of their actions. The ship and the ape fossils could be the result of an accident, where they all died after crashing into the swampy area that Hobbs End used to be.

Quatermass tells most of this--minus the guided human evolution part--to the press. His bosses are furious, and hearing his whole theory does nothing to make them happier. Unfortunately, being the man who saved the Earth from two separate alien invasions apparently doesn't give you any sway in London. The government goes with Breen's explanation--the rocket is a German propaganda weapon designed to terrify England with taxidermied hoaxes, to make them think that the Martians have landed. The weapon was just uncovered too late to create the appropriate panic.

Never mind that this explanation actually requires more suspension of disbelief than the ship and the arthropods being of alien origin, it becomes the official story and the ship is declared safe for public viewing over Quatermass's strong objections.

His objections become even stronger when Sladden, returning to retrieve his drill from the dig that night is suddenly overcome with some kind of hallucination that is accompanied by a windstorm that picks up and throws all objects in near proximity to the stricken man. Sladen runs through the streets of London, causing destruction and confusion, until he collapses in a church yard. When Quatermass and Barbara go to see him, we get one of my favorite scenes.

It's my favorite because it relies so much on imagination and line delivery. Sladden describes what he saw--hordes of the Martians, leaping in and out of a dark purple sky. Sladden knew he was one of the Martians. Sladden passes out, exhausted, and the strange psychic windstorm briefly kicks up again. Quatermass realizes that this must be a race memory, a vision of life on Mars. The thing in the pit, after absorbing energy from the electronics around it. can trigger this vision as well as those latent faculties--like telekinesis. But they must have proof of this to stop things from going pear-shaped when the government foolishly allows the public access to the craft.

But even when he does have proof to offer--via rigging Roney's brain scan device to record what the brain sees to record the vision, which turns out to be a race purge of the Martian hives to kill off all those considered "different" and undesirable--the big wigs aren't going to listen. And before you know it, the ship has come alive, a holographic projection of the Devil is floating the sky above Hobbs End, and London is being torn apart by people whose Martian genes have been switched on and sent them on a telekinetic, genocidal rampage to kill any who are immune. And worse, one of those people joining in the rampage is Quatermass himself!

I referred to the climax of Quatermass and The Pit when reviewing Lifeforce with good reason. It's impossible to not see the latter film as taking influence from the former in its climactic destruction of London. And what a climax it is, with unsettling images like a stone-faced mob cornering a terrified man and killing him with telekinetically launched rubble, or the floating image of the Martian in the London sky.

This is one of my all-time favorite films. The whole film is marvelously paced, especially considering it was condensing a 6-part miniseries made up of half hour episodes into a brisk 90-odd minutes. The screenplay largely plays fair with its characters and concept, and it builds to a magnificent--if rather abruptly resolved--climax of destruction. The performances are amazing, with Andrew Keir's Professor Challenger-like Quatermass and Barbara Shelley's quick-witted and inquisitive heroine being particular standouts. James Donald is also compelling as Roney and Julian Glover was clearly having a grand time playing, in his own words, "the obligatory asshole" of the film.

Where the film falters is in the sequence I only briefly alluded to earlier. In a film that largely exists in the "real" world of the time when it was produced, suddenly having a machine that can record visual footage of dreams or visions is completely jarring. Especially given that the only purpose of the machine is to show us a sequence that worked best when it was merely described. The special effects that Hammer could provide on the film's budget would always have been woefully unequipped to portray the Martians in the midst of a telekinetic ethnic cleansing, and the stiff miniature models and obvious kitty litter they toss about are not remotely obscured by covering the black and white image with static. It doesn't even ultimately add anything to the story because it's just one more thing the authorities choose to ignore.

Aside from that misstep, though, this is a wonderful film and I highly recommend it. Especially if you want to see the central conceit of Prometheus done by filmmakers who actually knew what they were doing.

I don't know about you, but I'll take alien locust demons over "huge, albino muscle-twinks" any day of the week.

Thus concludes Day 17. Click the banner to check out what my fellow maniacs chose.

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