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Saturday, October 22, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 17: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Story and screenplay by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Roy Ward Baker

Andrew Keir:  Professor Bernard Quatermass
James Donald:  Dr. Matthew Roney
Barbara Shelley:  Barbara Judd
Julian Glover:  Colonel Breen

It's time to get British and classy. Hammer Studios (can it really be movie Q where I finally get to a Hammer film this Hubrisween?), the premier name in British horror and science fiction, had found significant success remaking BBC television serials featuring the adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass, a scientist in charge of the (fictitious) British Experimental Rocket Group. When not trying to goose the English space program forward, Quatermass dealt with hostile alien forces on Earth. I reviewed the final Quatermass film during my first HubrisWeen and it's time to go back to that well for the third movie. Next year I'll hit the second one and in 2018 I'll have The Quatermass Xperiment written up for my loyal readers (all six of you).

But for now, a brief plot recap and explanation of why I love these movies as much as I do. Professor Quatermass does everything he can to save humanity when it's outmatched by alien threats that could exterminate all life on Earth (including setting off a nuclear warhead that he's virtually standing on top of in his final film). He's the only person smart and determined enough to defeat the hostile forces, which usually are barely comprehensible. 

In the first film it's extraterrestrial spores riddling the body of an astronaut (who returns from the impossible situation where three people went up into space, only one returned, and the rocket was never opened while in flight). If the astronaut / spore creature reaches the final stage of its life cycle, it will explode and carpet-bomb the Earth with millions of spores, each one capable of infecting a living creature and turning it into a spore factory of its own. Westminster Abbey is the place where Quatermass electrocutes the monster to save manking (though in the BBC version, Quatermass talks to the alien, trying to reach whatever remains of the astronauts that were absorbed into it and the trapped human consciousnesses will the entity to die, which is more awesome and sadly rather less cinematic).

In the second movie, Quatermass discovers that a synthetic food plant is actually a forward base for an alien invasion; they're planning to alter the composition of Earth's atmosphere so they can live here rather than the shaved apes that are currently running the place. The tiny (any possibly fluid-bodied) aliens possess humans in this movie as well, with a subtle mark on the body identifying anyone who has been taken over (this movie was adapted, without crediting Nigel Kneale, for the mythology of The X-Files, incidentally). The invaders are beaten back again--it turns out that just blowing a hole in the roof of the habitation dome helps a lot if oxygen is toxic to the aliens.

Okay, that's a paragraph on each movie, but why do I like them as much as I do? Well, for one thing, they're movies about a badass scientist using rationality as a weapon against much stronger and more formidable opponents. It would not surprise me in the least to find out that the makers of the X-COM games were big Quatermass fans; the same sense of scrambling to catch up to a more prepared and powerful alien race saturates the Quatermass films as well as the various permutations of X-COM that I've played. They're also movies that have ideas at their core other than "blow things up real good". Quatermass is always driven to keep working on the British space program, even though things have gone horribly every time they send a rocket up. In the fourth film, he's convinced that the English government wants to have him killed after another disaster in space; he's stunned that when they finally do contact him (thirty-five years after his previous triumphs) they want to know how he can help.

And that's the thing I love the most about these films--in the rough continuity that they display, things get worse for the protagonist every time, and he never shirks his duty to England and humanity when he hears the call. He goes from being head of the British Experimental Rocket Group in The Quatermass Xperiment to dealing with massive budget cuts to the organization in the second film to working under military control in this movie to being a sad, lonely, embittered crank ashamed of how he's spent his life in the fourth movie. It's unthinkable that an American series would bring its hero so low again and again, and I think it adds to the specific Britishness of these movies to have Quatermass losing prestige and status film by film and still stepping up to triumph every time his very particular services are needed. Sure, James Bond is invincible but he's an action-adventure hero. British science fiction stems from H. G. Wells and John Wyndham, and they had visions of doom and destruction coming to their green and pleasant land.

Then there are the enemies that Quatermass faces--beings of incalculable power, older than the human species and at least partly unguessable to their motives and abilities. In Quatermass Conclusion, nobody in the film or audience ever sees any of the aliens--only what they can do (which involves incinerating crowds of people hypnotically compelled to go to certain sites on Earth; my guess is that the aliens are feeding off the death agonies of everyone who gets killed, but the movie only shows what is happening, not why it is--and the shot of an empty Wembley Stadium covered in a layer of fine grey ash was absolutely haunting). Communication with the antagonists in a Quatermass film is not possible; they want what they want and they'll crush anything in their path to get it. The spore creature is following its biological imperatives; the aliens from the second movie take over human bodies and use them as tools. They don't view any of their mind slaves as anything but useful vehicles. And, as stated earlier, nobody gets so much as a glance at the antagonistic aliens in Quatermass Conclusion. Like the antagonists from the other Quatermass movies, they don't talk to anyone. They just act on humanity and start killing us by the dozens at first and eventually by the thousands.

In America, Quatermass and the Pit was called Five Million Years to Earth; that's a measure of time, not distance, and for a creature or entity to travel that long for whatever it wants on our planet will need to be fought with the mind, not just by crashing a fighter jet into a big spaceship and calling it a day. 

A beat cop (constable?) walks his rounds down an empty urban street at the start of the film, winding up at the Hobbs End stop on the Underground; twenty feet down, a bunch of laborers are working there, expanding the tube station. While going through chunks of earth and clay one of them finds a skull and shovel-flicks it to someone as a prank. One of the other construction workers says it's a fossil and could be worth money, so maybe don't chuck it around like a football (American-type)? Seconds after the guy who spotted the skull says it's really unlikely anything they found would be valuable, another laborer finds a full skeleton standing upright in a section of the artificial cavern wall. 

Well, one skull is a minor discovery, true, but the workers tripped over a major archaeological find. Newsvendors hawk papers with cries of the "Underground Ape-Men". Enough gawkers show up that police are necessary to manage the exceedingly polite crowds, and an archaeological dig is established at the work site (I hope all the laborers are getting paid time off) and based on the remains that have been located so far, the scientists assume there are at least half a dozen prehistoric skeletons to be found. As it turns out, though, British Rail wants to take a couple days' time off rather than the weeks or months that a proper examination would take. And since the preliminary findings suggest that there were roughly humanoid beings walking around five million years ago (almost twice as far back as the current estimates I found on Wikipedia, or several thousand times greater than the age of the universe if you're Mike Pence), that certainly sounds like the kind of thing that transit people should just chill out and let happen rather than bull-rush over it while trying to meet a construction deadline.

There's a pretty boss sculpted likeness of the hypothetical apeman (which I think was made from the clay at the construction site--a great little detail) that Dr. Roney, the head archaeologist, shows off. While he's talking to the press about that, one of the other scientists found a slab of metal in the clay where the city blueprints don't have anything like that recorded. It's not a sewer pipe or part of the Underground, which means that the scientists--all old enough to remember the Blitz--contact the police about their discovery of an unexploded bomb. If that's what it is, I'm sure the laborers are glad nobody found that thing jackhammer-first.

A group of soldiers make their way to the discovery site and learn that the piece of metal doesn't correspond to any of the Luftwaffe weapons they were familiar with--also, the magnetic stethoscope doesn't stick to the "bomb's" casing, so it's made of a non-ferrous metal. There's also no sign of rust or damage to the metal, at least the part that can be seen at this point; the command decision is made to get a couple lower-ranked soldiers over to the artifact with a couple of shovels and get a better look at what they've got. Ironically, Dr. Roney is now acting quite a bit like the British Rail people he'd dealt with earlier--he wants to know how long the soldiers are going to take excavating the bomb from his archaeological dig (which started out as a subway station construction project). The soldier's too young to have any first-hand experience with Nazi bombs so he calls to Colonel Breen, who happens to be in a meeting with Professor Quatermass about how the British Rocket Group is going to be placed under military control. That does make sense, of course, because a rocket that could hit the moon could very easily also hit Moscow. But Quatermass has always been a pacifist and a humanitarian; the idea of constructing weapons of mass destruction appalls him.

The government official politely reminds Professor Quatermass that he might have been the project lead for the Rocket Group since day one, but the funds were never his. They were Her Majesty's, and Her Majesty's government now wants to think of military bases on the Moon, and perhaps even Mars. There is no higher ground than orbit, after all. Quatermass thinks that the freezing black void is a place where humanity's obsession with borders can finally be put to rest. And, y'know, he saved the world twice. I'd listen to him. Quatermass:  "I'll fight this at the top level." Governmental stooge:  "I shouldn't. It came from there." Well, there you have it. Time for Quatermass to pervert his life's work and figure out how to build the better neutron bomb. Or seethe with undisguised loathing as he considers who he'll be working with, and refuse to resign from his position.

Colonel Breen, magnanimous in victory, offers to buy his brand-new colleague dinner at his private club but gets the message about the UXB in the subway station before they can leave. Turns out he was one of the British Army's foremost experts in Nazi rocket-based munitions back in the war, and he's perfectly willing to lend his expertise to the current problem. He and the professor wind up over at Hobbs End to take a look at the site. Doctor Roney looks nervous when the men walk in--I like to think it's because if Quatermass is on the scene, things are going to get lethally serious in a matter of minutes. By the time Colonel Breen is there the device is more or less uncovered, and Quatermass can tell at a glance that it's no V-2 lying there in the clay. Breen says there were lots of oddball things the Nazis cooked up and launched across the English Channel, though, and he's pretty sure it'll wind up being one of them.

An intact hominid skull is found underneath the "bomb", which would suggest that it's been lying in the clay for quite a bit longer than twenty-five years. The soldiers go get Dr. Roney when they find it, rather than just tossing it to the side in a heap. Colonel Breen doesn't read the newspapers, so he's got no idea who the academic is (who is polite enough to thank the soldiers as he extracts the find; there's some bemused smiles from the military men who don't quite know what to make of Roney at this point). Breen doesn't care about whether or not a fossil got damaged back in 1943, but Quatermass ambles off to ask Dr. Roney how a fossil like that could have been preserved so effectively for so long. Roney distractedly answers that it must have been inside the object that they've uncovered, and then realizes there's no way on Earth that thing is an unexploded bomb. 

Colonel Breen, having checked the wartime records for the Hobbs End neighborhood, sees that nothing the size of the underground find is listed as having fallen on the area (I had no idea that there was Blitz damage paperwork, but of course there would be). While Breen keeps working on what he's sure will prove to be a Nazi bomb, a nearby policeman corrects something he overheard--the houses damaged during the Blitz were empty, but not because people were evacuated from them. Rather, nobody was willing to live in the area and they abandoned their homes slightly before the war. Up on the surface for a breath of fresh air, Professor Quatermass and Dr. Roney's assistant Barbara  poke around one of the abandoned buildings; the policeman--who lived in the area from childhood--says that there were hauntings and visions of spectral entities in the houses around Hobbs End, which led to the entire neighborhood being abandoned. While the man talks about how little he believes all the stories of ghosts and spectral visitations he's sweating like a marathon runner and flees the house even as he says it's all nonsense.

Colonel Breen says he's going to stay at the excavation for a few days in lieu of taking over the British Rocket Group. The professor is fine with that, but also wants to observe things at Hobbs End rather than go back to the office. The two part ways, with the colonel also stating that more soldiers will be detailed to the dig site and that the entire missile ought to be out in the open the next day. After Breen is driven off in an Army staff car, Barbara notices an old metal sign on a building that lists the street as "Hob's Lane"; apparently it was renamed at some point in the last eight or ten decades to something more modern and less possessive. As Barbara and a musical sting point out to us, "Hob" is an old nickname for Satan.

Over at Doctor Roney's archaeological lab, there's the expected things (beakers with colored liquids in them, casts of simian skulls) and an unexpected one (a brain scanning machine connected to an oscilloscope). Mr. Johnson is getting his head examined since some of his cranial features match the ape-man skull on one of the lab tables. While Mr. Johnson works on a wooden puzzle, the scanner analyses his brain and builds a reference map to help the archaeologists figure out how the hominids they're studying might have solved problems and whether or not they were capable of higher abstract reasoning. But Quatermass isn't there to hear about skull mapping. He wants an archaeologist's opinion on the skulls that have been turning up in Hobbs End--were they human skulls or did they belong to creatures from another world?

Roney, realizing that Quatermass wants to know if the world is in danger from whatever's in the missile underground, tells him that the skulls found by that artifact are of 100% terrestrial origin. They're old, and weird, and only distantly related to humanity, but they're from Earth instead of Mars or somewhere farther away. Quatermass asks how Dr. Roney can be certain, and the paleoanthropologist says it's because the features fit completely into the known evolutionary record--it can be safely assumed that thinking beings that developed in a different environment with a completely different history would wind up with a skeletal structure so different from anything in Earth's biological record that their non-terrestrial origins would be obvious at a glance. Quatermass has to go back to the site; Dr. Roney apologizes to his guest about how much he loathed Colonel Breen on sight because of the type of person he is. I'm pretty sure Roney didn't expect a smile in return when he said that, but it looks like he's got an ally at the dig site now.

As Professor Quatermass leaves the laboratory, Barbara Judd hands him a file of photocopied old newspaper clippings regarding strange happenings at Hobbs End (or Hob's End, if you go far back enough in the files). It wasn't just before the Second World War that people were seeing strange things in that neighborhood. Also, I was slightly amused at how high-tech "photocopies" seem to be in the world of 1967. At any rate, in the late Thirties, the Twenties and farther back there were different things going on at Hobbs End that triggered a series of hallucinations and waves of fear among the people living there. In the Thirties it was the war and in the Twenties it was the construction of the railway station that was being expanded. Any time something happened that disturbed the nonmagnetic construct buried in the clay, people had visions of a stunted, hideous spectre moving around in Hobbs End.

Meanwhile, back at the dig site, the find has been completely excavated, and...there's no way in hell that's a Nazi weapon. It's very, very obviously some kind of piloted craft and if it really did crash into what was going to be Hobbs End five million years ago, it cannot have been made on Earth. As the soldiers try to figure out a way to get inside the ship, it turns out that it's made of some nonferrous compound that doesn't even get warm when a full-strength welding torch is pointed at part of its hull. According to Colonel Breen, the inside of what he thinks is some kind of super-advanced German weapon was packed with clay that must have been forced inside the craft upon impact with the ground. They haven't been able to get into the sealed compartment at the front of the craft, and there was nothing of interest inside the areas of the ship the soldiers could reach.

Breen's not thrilled to let the professor anywhere near the ship, either because he doesn't want the academic doing anything to it or because there's a genuine risk when unprotected flesh comes into contact with the outer hull--two of the soldiers wound up with mild frostbite by touching the ceramic-metal compound with their bare fingertips. The soldier that was hurt the most by the ship's hull points out that it's not even cold, but it still managed to freeze his skin. To make things more difficult, the floor inside the ship is as smooth as polished ice. And the inside chamber of the ship has a featureless wall dividing the cockpit from the cargo hold; there's some kind of marking on it, which the soldier accompanying Quatermass says should be impossible, since the ship's material was harder than diamond and nobody has been able to even scratch the ship the whole time they were digging it out of the clay and trying to get inside it.

Professor Quatermass identifies the symbol on the alien metal as a "pentacle", but it looks like seven circles of equal size to me. One's in the center and the other six are in a loop around it, sort of like a complicated Venn diagram. At any rate, Quatermass says that telling the colonel about the design will just confuse the poor man, because German warheads didn't have occult glyphs on them. Since he's not a complete tool and because his scientific curiosity has been piqued, Quatermass recommends a "borazon" drill, since it's harder than diamonds. Colonel Breen says he could procure one but a civilian operator would need to be procured with it, since none of the soldiers under his command have any idea how to safely operate one. While he and Quatermass are talking about that, a soldier inside the craft flips out, having seen a stunted and hideous figure appear inside the ship with him before walking out through the wall. Colonel Breen thinks the man just had a claustrophobic episode, but Quatermass tries to actually find out what the man saw. 

Once it becomes clear that the ship has properties both physical and metaphysical that are far beyond human understanding, Quatermass and Barbara leave to do some research; the professor tells Colonel Breen not to drill into the ship until he returns. So it's off to the file cabinets of a local history society to see how far back the apparations have been manifesting in Hob's End. Far enough back that instead of a newspaper photograph, one of the accounts is illustrated with a woodcut, as it turns out. Men digging a well in the neighborhood were terrified by the same stunted and hunched-over figures back in the 1700s or so. Another account refers to "Hob's Lane", and the appearance of several of the spirits rather than just a single one. So it's off to Westminster Abbey, a site that Quatermass visited earlier when destroying the spore creature from his first film.

The vicar at the Abbey has a gigantic old book written in Latin; in that tome there's a reference to visions of evil and strange noises in 1541 (!). The triggering stressor in that case was a charcoal burners' camp setting up; the big old trees they chopped down did the "disturb the alien ship" trick handily. And an internal reference in that book mentions that when Hob's Lane was being overseen by Romans, there were similar sightings of strange and frightening things. Barbara stays with the vicar to get as much detailed information as that man has available while Quatermass goes back to the dig, where it turns out there is a man with a borazon drill setting up to try and gouge his way into the ship. So much for waiting for the professor; when he gets back to the subway station Colonel Breen politely informs him that they're going ahead with the attempt to drill into that blank wall in the craft. The borazon drill works about as well as a stone axe woudl have; it's incapable of even scratching the wall but it does cause a painful ringing noise that upsets everyone in the ship (Colonel Breen's farther away from the drill than Quatermass but he takes it worse than the academic does).

Everyone's still sweating and retching when Barbara and Doctor Roney arrive. And when Roney goes inside the ship Colonel Breen says he's ordered some sandbags to pack around the ship to deaden the sound so they can try one more time to drill into it. Roney spots a hole in the ship's interior wall that wasn't there earlier and the drill operator says that there's no way his rig caused that damage. While Roney, Breen and Quatermass watch the wall fractures and melts (in a crude but impressive animated sequence), exposing some kind of crystalline chamber in the cockpit space of the ship. Once air hits the crystals, they decompose visibly; Dr. Roney takes control of the situation while Breen and Quatermass stare in fascination at the three-legged locustlike beings in crystal chambers. Quatermass can barely bring himself to touch the body of one of the aliens as he and Roney haul it out of the collapsing chamber (one presumes he's having flashbacks to the previous two times he's had to deal with this kind of thing). The creature is visibly rotting even as Roney places it on a plank to be moved elsewhere for whatever study can be made of it.

While Roney and Barbara spray preservatives on the corpses to try and keep at least some fragments of them around as proof they existed, Quatermass and Breen have an argument inside the ship about what exactly it was--despite all the impossible things he's seen in the last day or so, Colonel Breen is still telling himself and everyone else around him that it's got to be some kind of German psychological weapon (and doing so as loudly as it takes to convince himself that it's true). The crystalline structures in the ship disintegrate and waste away to powder even as the men are talking about them; meanwhile, a hastily conducted autopsy on one of the insectile bodies back at Roney's lab only serves to nauseate people instead of bringing about any new information at first.

But while looking through some anthropological studies, Roney does find something concrete--the face of the insect creature, which Quatermass likens to a gargoyle, is found on a cave painting from thirty millenia ago. The long-vanished artist was showing a man in some kind of ritual mask. But what the heck did that painter know about the arthropods buried in crystal and sealed behind impenetrable metal, and how could they have duplicated the look so faithfully? While pondering the design of demons in old woodcuts and thinking about what kind of environment produced the creature whose body they're looking at, Quatermass makes the intuitive leap that a weaker gravity and thinner atmosphere might have resulted in the spindly creature before him. And who's to say that five million years ago the atmosphere on Mars wouldn't have been thick enough to breathe? Unless it's from an unguessably vaster distance away, it certainly looks like the body is the long-dead corpse of a Martian.

Well, word of the find spreads quickly and there's a knot of journalists and bystanders outside the museum where Dr. Roney does his science; the security guards there say that they're going to need to contact the police to maintain order shortly if the crowds don't calm down. And inside the lab, Quatermass and Roney are looking at the unusually large cranium on the five million year old ape-man skull and wondering what the Martians might have done to the creatures they found when they arrived on Earth those thousands of millennia ago. After all, if their metallurgical skills were anything to go on, their race used scientific advances that seem like magic to the 20th century scientists studying their artifacts and bodies. Who's to say they might not have needed just-smart-enough servants to help them with whatever they were doing on Earth and created some out of the knuckle-walking primates they found nearby?

Roney and Quatermass go out for an impromptu press conference to explain their findings, which leads to a huge surge in public interest (I liked the crowd of people pressed up against a car to listen to a newsreader on its radio) and for Bernard Quatermass' summoning to a government building so the Minister of Defense could yell at him. The official military take on the ship and the insect bodies inside it lines up with Colonel Breen's opinions much more than those of the two scientists who examined the ship and corpses most closely. But excited crowds in the streets and news reports about MONSTER INSECTS FROM SPACE don't go well with the Prime Minister. I have to say, if I were Professor Quatermass this meeting is the exact time that I'd start playing the "I, personally, saved all of human civilization from alien interference on two separate occasions and you do not know jack about shit on this subject" card. But the professor is much smoother than I am, and refrains from doing so.

Quatermass' take on the origin of the abnormal apemen is that groups of hominids were kidnapped from the green and teeming Earth, brought to Mars, and altered by conditioning and surgery to become the things that would one day be human beings; there's a racial memory of the gargoyle-faced insects inside everyone because of the birth trauma of the species. This is appalling to the Minister and his stooge (and Colonel Breen), of course; tellingly, they're angry about it on an emotional level rather than looking at it scientifically. Admittedly it's just a working hypothesis from Quatermass, but it makes more sense than Krupp building a fake spaceship and cramming it with instantly dissolving crystals and fake insect corpses. That's utterly impossible, while the professor's theory is merely hugely unlikely. Breen's plenty snotty about Quatermass' press conference here; from his point of view, the professor is an unwitting collaborator with a Third Reich psychological warfare operation a couple decades after it was set off.

Colonel Breen says there's absolutely no risk to the public from the crashed spaceship, which is exactly the kind of thing someone in authority is going to say in the second act of a science-fiction / horror film. So thanks, Breen, for that if for absolutely nothing else. Some poor police officer gets the unenviable task of telling everyone to disperse because the newspapers got the story wrong, and the spaceship with monster bugs in it is merely a crashed German psy-ops weapon. The soldiers that dug out the spacecraft pack up all their gear and drive away in one of those WWII-vintage tarp-covered transport trucks and the press is told that they will be allowed into the dig to take pictures of the "missile" the following day. Which is why the borazon drill operator is there in the dark--thanks to the power being cut off in the disused station--when the shit starts to hit the fan. Barbara goes down into the pit to retrieve a microscope when a thudding noise starts to emanate from the ship; inside it, gravity starts to go null and the driller's equipment floats around. Then in the excavation tools and ladders fly everywhere; the poor man has some kind of fit as he staggers on outside. Newspapers fly around the streets as the wind howls, and that electronic noise starts hammering at the soundtrack even more.

But don't worry--Colonel Breen says there's no danger to the public. The drill operator staggers to a graveyard after a food truck's crockery gets destroyed by a wave of kinetic force in front of him; the shattered plates and teacups follow him down the road, a great example of my favorite horror film trope, "the impossible event that happens anyway" (I really need to find a French or German term for that). The ground ripples and shakes underneath the poor guy at the cemetery and the next morning Barbara and the professor are summoned by a vicar to help the man, who is catatonic with fear and exhaustion inside the graveyard's church. The vicar believes that the driller has been exposed to some great and supernatural evil.

Quatermass presses the guy for knowledge of what happened; while the priest tells him to leave the driller alone, he gets a description of a psychic impression left on the man. A vision of hundreds of inhuman shapes leaping and flying, fighting each other with an aura of total malevolence under a dark brown sky. Once the man finishes his recitation of what he saw, that distorted noise rises up again and objects in the church start moving around telekinetically (sharp-eyed Hammer fans will smile at the cameo appearance of that one big iron candlestick that was in all their historical horrors). The priest wonders why some obscure drill operator from London would wind up getting psionic gifts from the creatures that built the spaceship and Quatermass theorizes that there's nothing inherently special about that guy. Any human being could have been affected by what I guess is some kind of burglar alarm on the spacecraft--trespassing ape-men would be sent away with terrifying hallucinations and other horrible effects on their primitive brains.

Unfortunately the Ministry won't be listening to professor Quatermass any time soon after what they view as the debacle in the gutter press. He sets up operations at Roney's office at his institute, calling in a young electronics wizard named Jerry to set up some video monitors and unspecified electronic equipment to monitor Dr. Roney's brain. It turns out that they only get a blank screen from Roney, which turns out not to be a failure of the equipment so much as  the need for the man to be asleep in order to be monitored. While he's out cold in the laboratory chair Jerry picks up a fuzzy picture of his dreams (fortunately, they aren't the ones where Dr. Roney goes to work naked). Now that they know the equipment works, the scientists kitbash together a brain monitor system in the pit, with Quatermass hooked up to it and sitting right next to the spaceship. The plan is to let him get overwhelmed by the signal that's being emitted by the ship and let everyone else see what information is actually encoded in it. 

The scientists manage to trigger the ship and make it do what it did to the poor driller earlier; Quatermass sits in the middle of the psychic maelstrom as the ship hammers at his brain, and eventually Barbara finds herself susceptible to the visions. She puts the brain-scanning headpiece on and her visions are transmitted to the monitor as heavier and heavier objects start getting lifted in the air by uncontrolled telekinesis. Barbara almost gets lifted up and her head smashed against the tube station's ceiling before the ship's effects cease. Jerry turns out to have seen the alien transmission on the monitor and recorded it for later projection. 

Quatermass calls the Minister, that government stooge from earlier, Colonel Breen and other high-level functionaries to a meeting, where he projects the captured memory to them--it's a racial purge in the Martian hives, where genetic defectives were hunted down by the thousands if not millions and exterminated for being impure. Everyone's stunned into silence by what they've seen, but Colonel Breen just isn't having any of it. He doesn't buy the recorded memory at all, and asking him to accept that the Martian ship is triggering the buried race memory of killing the outsiders is a step past that. Even farther beyond that is the idea that the signal from the ship sets off wild and uncontrollable powers buried in the human psyche; the drill operator, Barbara and Quatermass himself all sat at the center of a telekinetic storm when the ship started doing whatever it was that it was doing.

The Minister declares that it's all just a big hallucination that was either caused by a German psychological weapon or accidentally triggered by it. He's a politician, not a scientist, and decides that he should keep the public quiet and placid rather than in a state of barely restrained panic. The radio, TV and newspaper reporters scheduled to go down into the pit and look at the "German propaganda weapon" will do so as scheduled, and that's that. Again, I wonder why Quatermass doesn't mention the previous two alien invasions that he foiled...

Anyway, the Minister tells Quatermass in no uncertain terms that he's off German Weapon Panic Inducement duty and the various reporters set up their equipment in the excavation. And since every other time a bunch of electronic equipment got used near the crashed ship, the panic inducement went off and people were given uncontrollable psychic powers, there's no reason to expect things going well once the big BBC generator truck cranks up and starts feeding volts to the cameras and mikes down in the tube station. Colonel Breen assures everyone that the ship is utterly safe and Quatermass steps in to cause a scene, accusing the military man of being so terrified of the implications behind the find that he's rationalizing the truth away. Before the government stooge can fire Quatermass from the British Rocket Group, there's a spark and flash from inside the ship and the lights go out in the excavation. One of the electricians setting up the cables in the ship was electrocuted, but inside the ship, unseen by everyone, a small flickering light warms up...

Barbara, the most psychically sensitive, is the first one to notice that the ship is doing something. Quatermass bullies all the reporters outside as a way to keep them safe and as everyone leaves, the ship is shown to have a circulatory system (!) that pumps fresh green blood in its veins. But the scheduled broadcast from Hobbs End goes on anyway, but the signal is lost almost immediately as something odd starts to happen. Quatermass tries to keep everyone away from the ship when the largest event yet happens, with a man in the ship being blasted outside of it among sparks and flame. There's utter panic in the excavation, of course, and some people are trampled in the rush to escape or injured by falling rubble. The reporters stream out into the road and the panic begins in earnest.

The ship starts to manifest its powers, turning stark white with those green veins running through it. The throbbing electronic noises rise in pitch and intensity, and then out in the streets everyone who's susceptible to the alien brainwaves starts to look at the person next to them and judge them as genetically inferior by Martian standards. Telekinetic mayhem spreads over the city as Colonel Breen approaches the ship with a look of total exaltation on his face (Julian Glover's happily willing suicide in this film left a mark on my psyche when I first saw it about twelve or fourteen years ago).

Professor Quatermass isn't immune to the manipulation from the alien ship, but once Dr. Roney gets him isolated from the mob and lets him rest a moment he's able to throw the influence off. It turns out that Roney is one of the tiny percentage of humans who are naturally immune to the Martian influence. Which means that he's a man who might be able to end the chaos if he can figure out exactly how to do that, but plans are in short supply as everyone in London starts to feel their rationality erode.

A huge figure of a Martian insect appears in the sky above London, a psychic projection constructed out of the pain and hatred and fear from everyone in the ship's sphere of influence (and looking more than a little like a silhouette of the horned Satan). And out in the streets, the mobs of Martian-possessed people telekinetically mob a random man and beat him to death with bricks and stones from the buildings. He's most likely another one of the immunes, which are the only ones that could stand against the mental domination from the five-million-year-old ship and its pre-programmed instructions.

As buildings collapse and streets buckle (featuring some really impressive model and miniature work that I didn't know Hammer could pull off), Roney and Quatermass charge off to see what they can do to stop the devastation; the professor is hampered by the need to constantly resist the Martian signal. Dr. Roney figures out that iron could disrupt the psychic image and ground the charge, dissipating it completely. And so the immune man sacrifices his life to move a towering construction crane into the vision, burning it (and himself) out and saving the world.

Other than the "iron is the enemy of supernatural evil" element, introduced about a minute and a half before it gets used to save the day, this movie is a sterling example of creeping dread and rising fear. Things are weird just a little bit at the start, and by the end of the film London's facing collapsed buildings and streets in flames at the hands of Londoners themselves--I'm sure the Blitz imagery wasn't accidental, because what could be more horrifying to a British audience than brainwashing that turns them into the thing they'd fought and bled and sacrificed to defeat a generation before?

The film is crammed with ideas start to finish, and even though it's got a might-as-well-be-magic brain reading monitor I still consider it science fiction. Or a monster movie, where the monster is the reptile brain in everyone watching it, the face of the mob just waiting for a chance to reveal itself and go out to hurt as many people as it can, backed up by everyone else in that mob.

Which, three weeks before the election where America's going to decide if they want a democracy or a strongman who promises to cull the weak and foreign and Other from the nation, is not exactly an image that gives me any comfort.

"I'm going to bite anyone who tries to unlock that door. It's not a crashed German missile, it's a locked door. And it's going to STAY locked down here. Just build the tube station around it."


  1. I think the filmmakers assumed that the audience would be familiar with the "iron vs evil" thing, at least in England--it's pretty traditional.

    This movie scared the hell out of me as a kid, and it still creeps me out now. Really powerful, haunting imagery. I like all the Quatermass movies, but this is still my favorite.

  2. The thing I think I like the best is the foreshadowing about how virtually all the human characters have someone or something they hate on site--Quatermass can't stand Breen from the second they're in contact with each other, which is the mildest form of that Martian-fueled aggression that's going to go off like a bomb in the third act.