Wednesday, September 9, 2009

FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (aka QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) (1967) (shown December, 1991)

Nothing says Christmas like the total destruction of Planet Earth - and that's just what CC revelers were in store for with our final show of 1991.

The history behind the film is more twisty than a pretzel, so stay with me here. British scientist Bernard Quatermass was one of the UK's best-known "science-fictional" characters, second only to Dr. Who among all red-blooded British boys and girls of the 1950s and '60s, although very few books were ever written about him. Screenwriter Nigel Kneale developed the character as a "hero scientist", the head of the British Experimental Rocket Group. He was introduced in the BBC 1955 television serial THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (yes, that IS how it was spelled), followed by the sequels QUATERMASS 2 (1957) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1958-59).

The character and stories proved so popular they were remade for motion pictures, with the THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) (known as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN in the US) followed by QUATERMASS 2 (1957) (known as ENEMY FROM SPACE in the US) and our film under discussion, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) (released in the US under the FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH banner).

Confused yet? Wait, it gets worse - Quatermass as Kneale wrote him was an acerbic, no-nonsense scientist who did not suffer fools gladly, and who could see the outer space horrors being visited on the Earth long before others even dreamed them. Quatermass was very well described and fleshed out in Kneale's writing, but he was played by a different actor each time, with different interpretations. By the time Andrew Keir inherited the role for FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, Quatermass had been played by four other actors, with American actor Brian Donlevy's interpretation of the character being the least well-regarded.

I came into this whole witches' brew completely ignorant of all this. Keir's Quatermass in this film was my first impression of the character, and that's how I always remember him, no matter who plays it now (similar to the argument of "who's the best DOCTOR WHO?"). This was another film I caught up to as a child on TV, and one that (especially the ending) raised the hairs on the back of my neck semi-permanently.

The plot involves a spaceship uncovered in a newly constructed London Underground subway station at Hobb's End. The military think it's a leftover unexploded bomb, but Quatermass knows different. He and fellow scientist Dr. Roney (James Donald) drill into the inside of the ship (after much difficulty), and in doing so release a vibrational force that triggers a race memory in certain people. The ship is found to have come from Mars, back when mankind was still young, and peopled by Martians (who look like giant three-legged crickets with horns) - a number of whose preserved bodies are found in an inner chamber.

Quatermass hopes to get a visual impression of the force that's setting everyone's teeth on edge, and with a new invention of his, is able to record the race memory through Roney's assistant Barbara (Barbara Shelley). The playback shows the genocide of the Martians, the survivors escape to Earth and their enslavement of certain cavemen to their will - those they could not control, they killed.

Showing the recording to the military, Quatermass pleads his case to stop the excavation of Hobb's End and the unknown forces that are still building there. Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) denounces Quatermass as a quack and charlatan and resumes the excavation, inviting the media to watch and record it, with disastrous results. The Martian vibrational force is magnified a thousandfold, spreading out over London and tapping into the minds of humans who have similar brain patterns to the earlier cavemen, and who are now receiving the same orders from a millenia ago - kill anyone who is different and can not be controlled ... including Roney.

The finale shows London rapidly collapsing, as the force spreads out from Hobbs's End, and Quatermass and Roney solving the final piece in the puzzle. Researching the area, they found a history of psychic disturbances, reports of hauntings, etc. Quatermass realizes the name for the area was originally Hob's End ('Hob' being a old term for the Devil). He also theorizes that the race memory of ancient Man has transmuted the horned Martians into our modern conception of the Devil and our accompanying idea of Evil. The force manifests itself as a gigantic horned Martian, growing larger and more powerful by the second, and setting Mankind off on a second genocide.

Dr. Roney, one of the few men unaffected by the force, climbs an iron building crane and swings it into the Martian energy manifestation, but at the cost of his own life. Grounded, the world is saved, and Quatermass and the survivors begin to rebuild their lives.

To get a taste of Red Planet Madness, here's a link to the trailer: A wonderful film all around, it comes with my highest recommendation.

Next Time: We walk like an Egyptian, as 1992 shambles onto the screen courtesy of Boris Karloff as THE MUMMY!

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