The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Five Million Years To Earth

25 05 2011

When I was just a wee girl I used to check the TV listings for the local stations that played movies all night long. If I found an intriguing title (anything with ‘damned’ or ‘blood’ in it was a surefire winner) or a cool old horror story or space opera that would be playing on the late late movie, I’d set my alarm and creep downstairs to watch it–usually sitting about two feet from the TV with the sound low so I wouldn’t wake my parents. The Movies That Made Me Weird(er) is a look back at the films that populated my childhood dreamscape.

When this movie was released in the UK (under its original title, Quatermass and the Pit) it received an X-certificate because of all the hardcore anal penetration due to scenes of violence and rioting, and an image of the Devil. There was also concern that the sound of the alien ship might have a deleterious effect on the viewer.

Oh, 1967, how quaint you were.

Anyway, by today’s standards, the violence is tame and bloodless–and the big scary Devil apparition is, quite frankly, hilarious. But Five Million Years To Earth is an arresting, intelligent SF story that’s full of big, interesting ideas and solid performances that eventually overshadow some pretty cheesy visual FX.

The opening titles are done in a style that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who watches The Venture Brothers.


The story opens with the discovery of some hominid fossils during excavations for an extension to the London Underground at Hobb’s End. Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald, who has appeared in several Movies That Made Me Weird(er), including The Great Escape and The Vikings), a smartypants paleontologist, identifies them as the remains of a group of ape men, and deduces that they are over five million years old–much older than any other hominid fossils yet known. Further excavation reveals a smooth, metal object that is assumed to be an unexploded bomb from the war, and a military bomb disposal team is called in to defuse it.

The team has some trouble with the thing, and they call in Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who is accompanied by Dr. Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir, whose thick and luxuriant beard appears to grow all the way down his neck and into his shirt).

Neck. Beard.

Dr. Quatermass, a man of science, has little regard for Breen, your typical narrow-minded, unimaginative representative of The Establishment; Breen, meanwhile, thinks Quatermass is a pain in the ass. Breen also thinks the big metal thing is an old German V-Weapon left over from the war, but when Quatermass and Dr. Roney find another skeleton snuggled up close to the thing (and intact) they theorize that the object must be the same age as the fossils surrounding it, rather than having been dropped onto them in the more recent past. Breen, of course, is unconvinced.

Quatermass starts circling around the idea that the object (and the ape men) must be extraterrestrial, though Roney disagrees. Meanwhile, some dudes try to drill into the thing and one of them freaks out. (The actor who plays this first freaker-outer has sectoral heterochromia iridum; this has nothing to do with the movie, it’s just something I notice every time I watch it.) The decision is made to bring in a stronger drill, so they call up Sladden (Duncan Lamont) and his borazon drill.

Meanwhile, Quatermass is investigating old news acounts of disturbances and weird events in the area around Hobb’s End. He is aided in this by Roney’s assistant, the lovely and capable Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley, a gorgeous redhead with a whiskey voice and a super-cute wardrobe that never gets dirty, no matter how long she hangs out in  the muddy pit.)

I heart this hot bitch. So. Much.

They find a pattern of hauntings and other odd occurrences whenever the ground around the object is disturbed going back for centuries. Barbara notes that the old spelling of the area is actually Hob’s End, and that Hob-with-one-B is an old nickname for the Devil.

Sladden has a go at the object with his borazon drill, in a pretty hilarious scene where he and Quatermass are hunched up superclose to the drill with their faces right next to where the drill bit is sliding around on the slippery weird metal. Quatermass doesn’t even flinch when the drill bit is headed straight for his ocular cavities. He don’t need no stinkin’ goggles!

The wall that Sladden’s trying to drill through has a strange symbol on it that resembles a pentagram, according to Quatermass, but it just looks like a bunch of circles to me. Anyway, they fail to make a hole, but they do elicit some telekinetic activity and a deep vibrating sound that has everyone near the thing making this face:

They take a break from drilling in order to recover from the effects of Terry Gilliam Grimace Syndrome, at which point Roney and Barbara arrive at the excavation site, having been at Roney’s lab goofing around with this dealie he invented that translates the pictures in your head onto a TV screen (all paleontologists do stuff like that, right?) Roney goes inside the object and finds a hole in the wall, though Sladden is absolutely sure it wasn’t made by his drill. In fact, the hole looks like it’s melted through, not drilled. The wall begins to crack and break down as they watch, revealing a sort of crystalline structure housing the corpses of three big locust-looking things.

The corpses are decomposing quickly now that they are exposed to air. They smell horrible, they’re falling apart, and the soldiers on the bomb team are totally squicked out. Not Roney–he gets as excited as a little boy and starts running around and hauling the bodies out so he can get them to his lab. The locust aliens looked pretty sick to me when I was a kid, but to my adult eyes they resemble nothing so much as a failed paper mache sculpture of an ice skater I made in 6th grade art class.

Not pictured: my disappointed art teacher.

At this point in the movie I always find myself becoming quite taken with Dr. Roney–he’s tall, smart, nerdily handsome, and something about his joy at mucking around in guts just makes him super crushable to me. (This is bad news for the good doctor, as I am nearly always taken with the doomed ones.)

What? I think he's cute.

Anyway, there’s a standard Hammer Studios La-BOR-atory scene, with goo and ooze and green stuff and alien organs being weighed and placed in jars of colored liquid and giant alien eyeballs being dissected, at the end of which my new boyfriend Roney and Quatermass conclude that the creatures are of extraterrestrial origin, probably from Mars. They also note the creature’s superficial resemblance to the Devil, horns and all.

Quatermass, frustrated with the military’s insistence on treating the mysterious metal capsule as a thing that doesn’t make weird stuff happen, goes to the press with what he and Roney know about the object. The press reacts in its usual understated manner and the news causes a sensation. The government counters with a big ol’ “Nuh-Uh! It’s Actually A German Propaganda Device, Nothing To See Here, Go Back To Your Homes” strategy and Quatermass gets a stern talking to from a Minister of Parliament who reminds me a little bit of Barnabas Collins without the fangs.

Sneering government flunky.

All personnel, press, and science dudes have been cleared from the excavation site and the area is cordoned off. Sladden, the drill guy, goes to the site to retrieve his gear. Suddenly there’s that droning vibration again, stuff starts flying around, and Sladden bugs the fuck out. Barbara has stopped by to get some of her notes and stuff, and sees Sladden lurching out of the station with this strange, shambling gait and heading for parts unknown with a wild look in his eyes. Barbara gets her stuff and goes to tell Quatermass what she saw.

They track Sladden to a church, and he describes a disturbing vision of himself as one of a swarm of the locust creatures, leaping and cavorting beneath a purple sky. There’s a flurry of telekinetic activity, and then he passes out. Quatermass deduces that Sladden’s vision is of life on Mars, and he gets the idea of using Roney’s Head-Pictures-To-TV thingie in order to get a firsthand look at what was in Sladden’s head. Well, not specifically in Sladden’s head. Poor old Sladden is pretty messed up and not much use to them at this point.

Poor old Sladden.

Our heroes gather at the excavation site with the Head Picture Thingie. Quatermass puts the thing on his head and starts banging on the capsule in an attempt to induce the visions Sladden was having. Stuff flies around and Quatermass gets a little Terry Gilliam Grimace-y, but no visions. Then Barbara comes forward and tells him that she’s seeing something. They put the Thingie on her head and her visions are transmitted to a screen. The Thingie works! Barbara, overcome by the power of the capsule, starts to moan and writhe and levitate and make a bunch of ‘O’ faces while Roney and Quatermass try to keep her from flying away or whatever.

[Remember that “Women will be defiled by invaders from outer space!” bit in the trailer? This is that bit. She is totally making her ‘O’ face and there is totally an implication here, what with the two dudes grabbing on to her and whatnot. I have a theory that since this movie has much less deep decolletage and bouncing boobage than the horror features Shelley was most famous for, her performance in this scene was a way to inject some sexy sex into the movie.]

How Barbara Shelley usually looked in movies.


They show the recording of Barbara’s vision to the weasely government minister and some other official types. Quatermass presents his theory: when Mars was dying, five million years ago, the Martians came to Earth. Since they couldn’t survive here indefinitely, they intervened in the development of ape-like creatures on Earth, enhancing their brains and implanting memories of Martian society as a way of preserving some part of their dying culture. Modern man evolved from these enhanced hominids, and has vestigial bits of Martian stuff still hiding out in his brain, which can manifest as telepathy, telekinesis, etc. The recording of Barbara’s vision, Quatermass further explains, depicts racial purges and genocidal behavior on ancient Mars.

Visions of alien apocalypse.

Breen restates the propaganda weapon theory, and the government flunkies (understandably enough) decide to go with his theory. They also decide to open up the missile to the press and public. This turns out to be a bad call.

During the press event, all the generators and electrical equipment ‘wake up’ the capsule (there’s even a through-a-microscope shot of blood vessels starting to pump inside the ‘skin’ of the missile.) Shit starts to fly around and/or explode and everyone stampedes out into the street, where shit continues to fly around and/or explode, and a full-on riot starts. Underground, Colonel Breen has stayed behind, drawn to the capsule that is clearly not a propaganda weapon. He kneels in front of it and watches as it glows and vibrates and shimmers. Eventually, it burns him up.

Bye bye Breen.

All that vibrating and stuff is wreaking havoc outside. Roney happens upon Quatermass, who has been swept along with a mob, and drags him inside an empty pub. Quatermass, under the influence of the Martian capsule, feels driven to kill Roney. Roney snaps him out of it, and Quatermass tell him it’s because Roney’s “different”. Which he clearly is, because he’s unaffected by the frenzy gripping the local populace. Also because he’s my boyfriend. Outside the pub, they can hear the screams of animals–and people–being slaughtered. The psychic mayhem gets worse, with buildings crumbling and streets buckling. A huge apparition of a Martian/the Devil appears in the sky.

Terrifying apparition?

Roney and Quatermass recall old tales of defeating the Devil with iron and water, and they form a plan to discharge the energy of the apparition into the earth using iron. Roney starts climbing a big building crane, planning to drive it into the thing. As he does this, Quatermass spots Barbara, under the alien influence, standing stiffly in the street, buildings burning around her, entranced by the apparition. This is nice-looking sequence–Barbara’s scarlet ensemble makes her stand out from the darkness and destruction surrounding her. It’s a pretty effect, and it makes my eyeholes happy. Quatermass tries to snap her out of it in a gentlemanly fashion and fails. They struggle, and he knocks her the fuck out–a bit they also thoughtfully included in the trailer, by the way.

Roney’s at the top of the crane, which sustains some kind of structural malfunction. Undeterred, he steers it determinedly into the heart of the devilish apparition, destroying it and sacrificing his life in the process.  Quatermass and Barbara are left to survey the devastated landscape in stunned silence as the credits roll.

My boyfriend saves the world from the cross-eyed Martian Devil Bug. *swoon*

It’s easy to overlook how radical the questions raised by the story, about the nature of evil and the origins of man, would have seemed to the general audience of the day. From a 21st century perspective, where the History Channel has created a whole cottage industry of ‘documentaries’ about ancient aliens and fringe theories about human evolution and whatnot, those ideas feel more like well-worn tropes than a radical rethinking of What It Means To Be Human. Personally, I’ve never had a huge existential problem with the idea that we–or some part of us–might have come from Somewhere Else. Which I guess is why this movie always stayed with me–and made me weirder.

Five Million Years To Earth is widely considered to be one of the best British SF films ever, even with the dated and sometimes comical effects (seriously, that Devil apparition? It’s absurd–though it freaked my shit out when I was a kid.) It is also considered by your humble blogger to be a PRETTY DAMN SWELL movie. Director Roy Ward Baker created a thoughtful and effective film from a screenplay by Nigel Kneale, who created the character of Quatermass. I HIGHLY recommend checking out some of the other Quatermass material, if you are so inclined.

I give Five Million Years To Earth four out of five dead Martian Devil Bugs. It’s out of print for region 1 DVD and unavailable on Netflix, but it IS available via Google Video.

Next up: Prince of Darkness (1987)


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One response

27 03 2014
Brian of Nazareth

Indeed, Quatermass and the Pit WAS a pretty damn swell movie! Scared the bejeebers outta me too when I was an impressionable kid circa 1972. Even as I got older, I looked forward to seeing this flick when I saw it in the TV listings. Try watching the BBC version on YouTube. More fleshed out, and almost as good in the acting department. No Barbara Shelley though. My, what a fine set of acting skills she had! Anyway, I can’t believe you didn’t make a “smoking jacket” joke for the caption under the pic of General Veers… um, Colonel Breen. Still, this was a great review. Quite humorous but also very informative.

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