Released as “Five Million Years To Earth” in North America, I have vivid memories of my brother and I, as children, being terrified by this. The Sunday afternoon screening in the Museum of London free series of films offered a chance to reappraise the quality of this – and to assess whether it has any lasting scare factor.
The room was packed. Yes, there were some giggles at special effects, which must have been state-of-the-art in 1967, but appear tame to our CGI/3D habituated eyes. And yet, there is a genuine spell woven by Hammer and by director Roy Ward Baker that has moments and concepts of great horror.
While doing construction work at a London Tube station, scientists discover skulls that are five million years old. Then, a big blue metal object is found. Is it a bomb? Is it a spaceship? It certainly has strange effects on military experts and civilians.
It turns out that local residents have been getting scared by bumps and visions in the night for a thousand years.
There is a plot strand about the repressive nature of military thinking and I had forgotten the interesting pacifist idealism that underlies the movie. Postwar consciousness is here, with a rather intelligent sub-text about our evolution and survival being at odds with our nobler selves. It makes you think.
The original TV series in the late 1950s featured this as an episode and a remake was made in the late 1970s, but this 1967 version develops the story best.
Interesting questions are asked. Were we helped along as a species? Do our thoughts of evil come from outer space? What are we capable of, good and bad? There are big thoughts in this 97-minute film.
Nigel Kneale’s script is clever and the street scenes take you back in time. You never want to look away. It does not linger or bore you.
Hammer regular Andrew Keir plays Professor Quatermass. The director wanted Kenneth More. The casting of Keir feels perfect. James Donald plays Dr Matthew Roney and Barbara Shelley plays scientist Barbara Judd. Special mentions should go to Julian Glover as Colonel Breen and Duncan Lamont as Sladden. There just isn’t a bad performance, even among the bit players.
The look of it is old-fashioned with the cast looking chunky, compared to the usual waifs we see in modern movies. It’s in colour. The adept technical crew use light and shade, scientific laboratories and the enclosed building site to great effect, giving a sense of movement to the action.
After 43 years, it is still very frightening and made quite a lot of people jump. Discussions afterwards were animated. People who had never seen it said there was much more to it than they had thought there would be.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable treat and I am and will continue to be a great fan of the Quatermass movies and, especially, this one.
The next film in the series will be “The Lavender Hill Mob” on Sunday, January 30th at 2pm at the Museum of London in Docklands at West India Quay. Please, can the Museum of London continue this excellent series?