The London Underground has played host to some monstrosities in film over the years: cannibals in Death Line and Creep, werewolves in An American Werewolf in London, and Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors.
In Quatermass and the Pit (AKA Five Million Years to Earth) Martians are found beneath the Central Line; one of TFL’s more imaginative excuses. In his third feature, Professor Bernard Quatermass is wonderfully played by British actor Andrew Keir, replacing American star Brian Donlevy. But despite the change in nationality, he’s the same old maverick rocket scientist who doesn’t take any crap, especially not from women. That said, he’s more vulnerable and human this time around, which combines with the colour photography to make this 1967 instalment feel warmer than its predecessors – though the paranoid atmosphere of Quatermass 2 is hard to beat.
Here, writer and Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale’s scientific approach and attention to detail make the picture strangely believable even in its most charmingly old-school moments. Although Julian Glover plays the exact same character as in The Empire Strikes Back (right down to the costume), the film’s methodical sci-fi is more akin to Star Trek. And I’m not talking about Discovery.
Shot at MGM’s large studios at Elstree to accommodate the movie’s scale (just before 2001: A Space Odyssey occupied and ultimately bankrupted the place), Quatermass and the Pit remains a great-looking Hammer horror. That is, great-looking except for the Martian creature; a hilariously fake insectoid that’s somewhere between Zorak from Space Ghost and the Alfa 177 canine from Star Trek. Still, the dialogue keeps things grounded. When asked what humans would do if our planet were facing destruction, James Donald replies: “Nothing, we’d just go on squabbling as usual.” And here we are, 50 years later.
Nigel Kneale (who, incidentally, was married to Judith Kerr of The Tiger Who Came to Tea fame) clearly knew something about people, and was fascinated by what lies beyond us. Nicely directed by Roy Ward Baker, this British sci-fi classic stands the test of time, building to an almighty whirlwind of a climax that tops its predecessor and does justice to an ambitious and varied trilogy. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Quatermass and the Pit, I hope to open a shop called Taters, Mash and the Chips, serving every kind of potato product. Well, most. Sadly Gwyneth Paltrow already dominates the waffle market.