Horror as Folk: We Are the Martians in Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
After just one month back on, we’re taking another break from the All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set from Severin. Why this time? Because it’s Folk Horror Month at Stray Cat Film Center, where site owner Tyler Unsell and I do our monthly Horror Pod Class live. For those who aren’t familiar, this means that we host a movie, watch it in the theater, and then record the podcast live in front of whoever sticks around after the show.
In order to tie in with Folk Horror Month, we decided to shuffle around our pre-planned schedule and do a folk horror picture. They were already showing my first choice, which would have been Lair of the White Worm, so this month I’m finally forcing everybody to watch Quatermass and the Pit, instead. Hence, I thought it might be a good idea to give a little preview of the month’s festivities and talk about that movie a little bit right here.
For those who haven’t seen it – just go watch Quatermass and the Pit. It is a legitimate classic of the genre and form, and one that is best experienced cold, if such a thing is still possible some half-a-century after it was made. Also, there will be major and inevitable spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t seen it and you happen to be local to the Kansas City area and you’re planning to make it out to the live show at Stray Cat on May 25, just stop reading now and come back afterward.
Still with me? Though Quatermass and the Pit is probably one of the best folk horror movies ever made, it is also very different from the model we’ve come to expect for such things. It’s not set in the past, for starters, but in what was then the modern day. It doesn’t take place in some rural location, but right in the heart of London. Incredibly, these elements don’t dilute the power of the film. Rather, to the credit of Nigel Kneale’s original story and the filmmakers’ adaptation of it, they heighten the eeriness and suggestion of the proceedings.
So, if Quatermass and the Pit flaunts so many of the usual trappings of the folk horror picture, what makes it work so well as one? Simply this: There may be no other movie, before or since, that piles ever bigger ideas, one atop the other, in such staggering profusion. And, though their ultimate explanations are extraterrestrial – in addition to being quite literally in the earth – those ideas are fundamentally folk horror ideas, through and through.
The plot concerns the Central Line extension of the London Underground, which would have been recent news for viewers of the film in 1967. Along the way, workers unearth the remains of prehistoric humanoids at the fictional Hobb’s End station. Further digging finds something even more startling – a structure that may be some sort of unexploded German bomb left over from the Blitz, at least so they initially think.
Because Quatermass and the Pit has been so influential to other media, it’s probably little surprise to readers to discover that the “unexploded bomb” proves actually to be an alien craft, likely hailing from Mars. One that landed some five million years ago – hence the film’s Stateside title, Five Million Years to Earth. For most movies, that would be enough. But this is ultimately just the surface of the cascade of big ideas folded into Quatermass and the Pit like a Russian nesting doll.
Before all is said and done, the downed alien craft has been tied to everything from poltergeist activity – yes, all of it – to human evolution to the very existence of the devil, all before a suitably apocalyptic ending that has to be seen to be believed. If I’m being coy about the specifics, it’s partly to protect some of the magic of the film but more because, frankly, there’s a lot to unpack in the flick’s relatively brief 97-minute running time, and I only have so much space here.
Why does all this work as well as it does? You can chalk a lot of it up to Nigel Kneale. While this may be Kneale’s most famous story, it’s only one of many – and this is only one of its incarnations. This was the third movie starring Kneale’s character Bernard Quatermass produced by Hammer films and, like the previous two, it had originally been a television serial broadcast on the BBC. Each iteration has its proponents and detractors, and I’ll admit that I’ve never seen the television serials, though I’ve watched all of the Hammer Quatermass movies and most everything else that Kneale has ever done.
The other two Quatermass films have less of folk horror in them than this installment, but this is far from the only time Kneale has delved into the subject. Just a year before Hammer’s version of Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale had worked with that production company on The Witches, which was almost my choice for Folk Horror Month, honestly. He’s also done folk horror in at least one episode of the BBC series Beasts (“Baby”), in The Stone Tapes, and even in Halloween 3, which Kneale wrote, though he later had his name removed from the credits.
Like Quatermass and the Pit, several of these deftly mix science fictional conceits with folk horror ones, most notably The Stone Tapes and (perhaps less deftly, but just as boldly) Halloween 3, which both tread on at least some of the same ideas that go into this film. And for my money, few other writers in history have ever mixed bold, pulpy ideas with straight-faced, grownup execution quite as well as Kneale, even at his worst. And those two factors – big, pulpy ideas and surprisingly mature execution – have perhaps never mixed better than in Quatermass and the Pit.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.