Folk Horror Tales: Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and Quatermass (1979)
The works of the writer Nigel Kneale have had a long and lasting influence. In the 1950’s, his three Quatermass serials for the BBC, featuring the forthright Professor Bernard Quatermass, were hugely popular dramas that tapped into fears of dehumanization that had arisen with the dawning of the Cold War. Although Kneale would script successful serials in the decades that followed, his name remained closely associated with the original Quatermass trilogy. Two later productions, featuring the Professor in full colour are of particular interest to fans of Folk Horror.
Based on the 1959 series of the same name, Quatermass and the Pit was the last of Hammer Films’ movie versions of Kneale’s stories. It opens with the discovery of a skull during the digging of a new Underground tunnel. The fossil turns out to be a missing link in the evolution of mankind – one which leads to the unearthing of a rather nicely designed spaceship and the discovery that humanity’s development was influenced by long extinct alien insects.
The notion of an object found beneath the earth, which contains ancient secrets, strongly recalls MR James. Kneale added his own recurrent idea of psychic powers coming from unreachable but scientifically comprehensible forces, allowing it to work as a modern day ghost story. The use of vivid colour – a Hammer hallmark at this time – gives the production a hallucinogenic quality that is missing from the original TV series, even if their versions of the alien insects are less convincing. Against this, Andrew Keir is a wonderfully blustering figure of reason as Quatermass. The descent of London into violence at the film’s climax is still unsettling but even that pales by comparison with the Professor’s final story.
Quatermass (1979) sees a now aged Bernard (John Mills) as a despairing figure in a collapsing world. Hippy like youths, the Planet People, are gathering at ancient stone circles where a white light engulfs them. They believe that they are being taken to a better planet, but the Professor suspects that they are being harvested by an alien lifeform. The treatment of the young as a food source could be taken as a satire of the way that we have often abused animals for our own ends
As with much Folk Horror, the series locates its horror in landscape and the relics of the past and ties them to the inhuman and unknowable. Once again, human perceptions prove completely malleable to their environment and our understanding is shown to have a distinct limit. The Planet People’s innocent view of cosmic powers certainly leaves them open to abuse. However the scientists of the piece fare little better. Few of the characters make it past the conclusion.
Kneale generally claimed that the 1979 series marked the end of the Quatermass story. However, he did once make a cryptic reference to the possibility that the Professor survived in another dimension. Which raises the intriguing possibility that, in a universe we can only partly comprehend, perhaps the Planet People were right after all.
Text and photos by Damian Mark Whittle