Horror Bites - Hopping Mad

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)

The classic Hammer archive is full of what you might consider remakes and new versions of old material, which is particularly true of earlier the Universal properties. But they also had their a hand in adapting TV serials which the BBC had produced several years before. Taking an older story and giving it the full colour big screen treatment might not seem like most creative endeavour but the result is one of their best science fiction releases. It's a bit of a leap from the usual Gothic horror, but they retain a few recognisable elements including cast members from the likes of Dracula Prince of Darkness and director Roy Ward Baker who would go on to make a few of his own vampire features for the studio. This is hardly a big budget adaptation and some of the sequences are laughable, but there's plenty to like. It's story with a lot of atmosphere no matter how ropey things look at times.


In a staple science versus military plot, egos on both sides clash after a suspicious object is dug up by workers on a new subway train station. Maybe they hit the gas mains. Maybe it's just an unexploded bomb from World War 2. Of course we know better. The discovery of prehistoric bones in the tunnel raises a few questions, and so the bomb squad and a team of palaeontologists arrive on the scene. Rocket scientist Dr. Quatermass (Andrew Keir) meanwhile finds his latest plan in the hands of the army, and so he accompanies explosives expert Colonel Breen (a young Julian Glover) to take a look. The potential V-Weapon has no obvious means of propulsion and isn't made of any metal the experts can identify. But the Colonel will hear none of it as you'd expect.

This character drama is a lot of fun, and tensions build as the bones of an undiscovered primate species are uncovered. What do they have to do with spaceship? Sorry I mean the bomb. These fossils were just lucky to survive after the impact, it's easy to explain. Eventually the scientists come up with some ideas about ancient civilisations on Earth (and on other worlds) which is where the biggest leaps in logic appear to explain things. I'd be on Breen's side too if I heard these guys. The reconstructed skin over the fossil bones is about as silly as it looks in most recreations of long dead people, and ideas about their origins get thrown around with little supporting evidence. But the science team are of course on the right path.

The eeriest moments in their investigation come from the visit to nearby buildings in a street called Hobbes End. It was once called Hobb's End - relating it to medieval times and demonic goings on. The locals once believed there was an evil power in the land itself, and records show many strange events and weird visions occurring in the same place. A police officer's recollection of some more recent stories is pretty melodramatic but it really sets the tone. Soon more strange events are linked to the disturbance of this ground through the new tunnel excavation. A few moments using different lighting effects and flying objects to depict unseen forces are great, as are the scenes where the buried craft messes with the minds of those around it.


Eventually all these clues come together linking the ancient remains, the craft, and the effect it's energy has on the teams working at the site. Conveniently the scientists have a crude brain reading device already in use which records what is being seen during these episodes. It has to be said that the silliest moments are when this machine is used to display psychic energy and when people have sudden visions. The engineer hired to drill through the ship's hull has a break down soon after trying, and his rant about the purple skies and leaping aliens is funny every time.

The subsequent attempt to record the mind of Palaeontologist Barbara (Barbara Shelley) as she tries to recreate his experience is just as absurd. Let's just say this is where the budget over steps their ambitions and they bite off more than they can chew. Overall though it's all still pretty spooky and the subterranean energy surge in the climax creates a lot of sinister set pieces in the streets of London. The darker moments as things fall apart are staged well. Any time they try and depict alien life forms it's very, very creaky, but the projection sent out during the finale is just weird and unsettling enough to work. It looks a bit like Batman's signal was swapped out for a giant locust, but it works. The whole story is pretty ridiculous, as are some of the ways the solve all the problems in the third act.

But at the same time you can tell this was written as a straight sci-fi plot to be taken seriously. At least in some parts. The alternate title Five Million Miles to Earth doesn't quite fit despite the B-movie narrative, it's silly but it still has a little class. Breen's endless meddling and the reactions of the top brass are always entertaining. The stuffy sceptical dismissal of so many outlandish claims being made is fun to watch. Often cheap looking but full of charm, it still manages to retain a certain amount of uneasy underground atmosphere. It's well worth seeing for those needing a change from the typical '60s Hammer horror output, or for anyone looking for a far better TV serial adaptation than say the Amicus Dr. Who films made a few years prior to this.

4/5