A subway excavation reveals something frightening about human genetics…
1967’s Quatermass & the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) is the third in the series, made 10 years after Quatermass 2, this time with color, a different tone and different actor as the professor Q. The plot begins with an excavation in the Underground (subway) tunnels, which uncovers weirdly shaped skulls, but that’s not all. The digging also unearths what seems to be an unexploded WW2 bomb, but it’s not. Scientists James Donald (Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and Barbara Shelley (Hammer horror queen), already working on the finds are joined by the esteemed Prof. Quatermass (Andrew Keir), and while the military resumes its study of the “bomb,” the scientists piece together some news items and urban legends over the centuries that are a bombshell. Information suggests this mystery object is linked to sightings of uncanny creatures and incidents of possession and devilish behaviour.
The military and government officials will have none of this flaky theory, even as they scratch their heads at the object which is huge and clearly not a German propaganda prop, as their theory would have it. The vessel is made of indestructible material which repels all attempts to drill, blast or puncture, causes frostbite to the touch, is engraved with pentagrams and begins an intense skull rattling electronic whine and tremors when disturbed, like the Devil’s dental drill.
When the sealed compartment inside the craft opens (on its own) the hive like structure inside reveals rapidly decomposing devil-horned, locust-like creatures the size of a family dog. Still, the bureaucrats aren’t convinced and make the genius move of inviting a horde of press to see the craft, even after one worker has been thoroughly possessed and driven mad by visions transferred directly from the creatures’ collective consciousness. How does that consciousness transfer from dead aliens, you may ask? The answer is simple, and the whole scary point of the movie: it’s because we are descended from those same aliens, who landed here from Mars millions of years ago to save themselves from extinction and tinkered with our genetics. Whenever disturbed, they activate our shared, innate near-forgotten memories and also their ability to possess us all in order to complete their colonization of the planet.
The film seems to move slow as molasses at the start, mostly unfolding in that tight, dark little labyrinthine set of “Hobbs End” subway station, but as the details add up to something sinister the pace gets moving. It’s thrilling once it gets to the climactic, apocalyptic scenes of mass possession, mob murder and that whole part of London burning and collapsing at that head-splitting soundquake, all overseen by a towering apparition of the demon insect/Martian.
I like how nonchalantly Quatermass is introduced here, entering without fanfare, and has excellent and compelling support from Shelley and Donald. Keir brings depth and gravity to his role, the type who you can believe would only get frazzled with fear (as he does here) if things are truly dire and world-threatening. I like the serious tone of the movie; here nothing is done ironically or campily, everything is presented as believable, horrifying fact and that effect is helped greatly by the acting of Keir, Shelley and (poor) Donald.
So now having run though all 3 Quatermass movies, and heard many different opinions of them, how would I rank them? I enjoyed Q & the Pit’s look, its slow burn, steady buildup, unsettling climax and even more disturbing implications. It’s deep creeps stick with you and on paper it would seem to be the best by far, but I can’t say I liked it more than Quatermass 2’s nonstop action, urgency, weird and haunting imagery and paranoia/conspiracy story. Overall though, it’s a great, entertaining sci-fi/horror trilogy which starts off with an influential and fun chapter then pulls off the rare and impressive feat of having sequels that got better and more expert each time.