Quatermass and the Pit / Five Million Miles to Earth (1967) ****

Five million dollars.  That’s roughly the budgetary difference between Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit and Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage. Although the protagonists in the latter face the unexpected, the movie is (as would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) an exercise in awe, in controlled exploration of wonder, whereas Quatermass, lacking the money for special effects, concentrates more on story and human impact. The government funds the experiment in Fantastic Voyage while Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds nothing but obstruction from his superiors.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of stealthy exposition. Virtually every minute brings another development, gradually building tension, stoking fear. The principals – Dr Roney (James Donald), Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the professor – are cleverly kept apart during the early stages. A human skull discovered on a building site for a London Underground station is followed by a skeleton. Palaeontologist Roney determines it is five million years old, older than any previous find.

A metallic object is found nearby. First guess is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But it’s not ticking. And a magnet won’t stick to it. Col Breen (Julian Glover) is called in along with hostile rocket expert Quatermass. They have been locking horns from the outset.

There’s a whole bunch of apparent red herrings, mostly of the demonic variety. The location, historically associated with weird occurrences, is a nickname for the Devil. A pentagram is detected. Touching the object can give you frostbite. Col Breen argues it’s a leftover German propaganda machine from World War Two. A hideous dwarf and other spectral images are sighted. Telekinesis is involved. And tremendous vibrations.

Some people, such as Barbara, have a more receptive brain and can play memories millions of years old that reveal the alien truth. But this is an alien race with genocidal tendencies and able to unleash psychic energy.

The genre requires the scientists to discover an improbable solution which of course they do. Given the miserly budget, the special effects are not remotely in the Fantastic Voyage league. But that hardly matters. The movie coasts home on ideas, marrying sci-fi, the demonic, dormant and institutionalized evil, the militarization of the Moon and the ancient infiltration of Earth by Martians, no mean achievement, and a vivid narrative.

Director Roy Ward Baker (aka Roy Baker) provides many fine cinematic moments as he chisels away at the story, finding clever methods of revealing as much of the aliens as the budget will permit, focusing on very grounded characters, concentrating on conflict, and human emotions, mainlining fear rather than awe, building to an excellent climactic battle between man and monster.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the stars, in part because she is at such a remove from her normal Hammer scream-queen persona, but more importantly because she brings such screen dynamism to the role. It’s refreshing to see her step up, as she carries a significant element of the story. Oddlyenough, although she has as good a movie portfolio as Andrew Keir and is certainly superior to James Donald, the denoted star, in that department, she is only billed third.

While Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967), warm-hearted for an intellectual, and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963), trying to keep a cool head in the middle of inclination to panic, are good, they don’t bring anything we haven’t seen before. Julian Glover (Alfred the Great, 1969) is never anything but imperious and/or irascible, so ideal casting here.

The innovative electronic music was down to Tristram Cary and the unsettling credit sequence deserves some recognition. Nigel Kneale, who originally explored similar ideas for the character on television, came up with the screenplay.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee (The Whip and the Body, 1963)  less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended audience meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

A rare outing for Lee outside of the horror genre, he truly commands the screen, an excellent actor all too often under-rated who holds the picture together. Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Ernest Clark (Masquerade, 1965) provide sterling support. Suzan Farmer (The Crimson Blade, 1963) plays the requisite damsel in distress.  Director Don Sharp (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) was another horror regular responsible for, among others, Curse of the Fly (1965) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the latter reuniting him with Lee.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (1963) but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

CATCH-UP: Christopher Lee was so prolific I have only so far reviewed a fraction of his 1960s output: Beat Girl/Wild for Kicks (1960), Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967). The Devil Rides Out (1968),  The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).  Quite enough to be getting on with if want an idea of this fine actor’s range and ability.

The Viking Queen (1967) ***

Politics, conspiracy, thwarted romance and historical inaccuracy take center stage in this Hammer romp that attempted to create another sex symbol to follow in the footsteps of Ursula Andress (She, 1965) and Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C., 1966) in the shape of Finnish model Carita. Let’s put the dodgy historical elements to one side given Hollywood trampled over history all the time, but the title is a misnomer, the story owing more to British folk heroine Boadicea than anyone who came from longship land.

On his deathbed British tribal king (Wilfred Lawson), against the wishes of powerful Druid chieftain Maelgan (Donald Houston), signs a peace treaty with Roman governor general Justinius (Don Murray) against the wishes of his lieutenant Octavian (Andrew Keir). In different ways, the Druid and Octavian conspire to end the peace. Had new queen Salina (Carita), after falling in love with Justinius, been permitted to marry him that would have created a peaceful bond, but that is also prevented.

There’s a lot more sex and violence than you would have expected for the period, plenty scantily-clad slaves administering to the rich and the Romans, an extended brutal flogging sequence involving Salina, an offscreen rape, a cageful of Roman prisoners dropped into a burning pit, and when the British strap scythes onto the wheels of their chariots it’s a bloodbath. (Quite why the Romans never thought of importing their own chariots, given their popularity in the Colosseum, is never explained.) The chariots, whether in a race or battle, are the best thing about the picture, adding tremendous energy.

It takes quite a while for Salina to take up arms but when she does the film catches fire. She leads from the front, tearing through the Roman legions, and handy too with a sword. Ambushes appear the order of the day so any marching column or peaceful village soon ends up in a spot of bother.

There’s some of “what did the Romans ever do for us” with a snatch of Robin Hood thrown in – Justinius takes from the rich to give to the poor – plus religious fanaticism to stir the pot into a heady brew.  But mostly it’s hokum, if rather plot-heavy. Quite how the Oscar-nominated Don Murray (Advise and Consent, 1962) was talked into this is anybody’s guess. Carita, of course, would have believed she was on a surefire route to stardom but in fact this was her last picture. They two stars don’t really have that much to do and do it well enough. In supporting roles you will spot Patrick Troughton (a BBC Dr Who), Nicola Pagett making her movie debut and Adrienne Corri (Africa – Texas Style, 1967). Director Don Caffey (One Million Years B.C., 1966) is better at action than drama.

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