Calling Professor Quatermass!

Martian grasshoppers. Genetically modified super-apes. Invisible forces only certain people can see. Quatermass and the Pit (1967) has it all.

 

I love those old Hammer horror films from the 1960s and 1970s: the ones with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, filmed in vivid Technicolor, with some of the most atmospheric set pieces you’ll ever see on screen. Hammer revamped all the traditional gothic horror film monsters, and they weren’t afraid to use gallons of blood in the process (which really pissed off the British censors at the time, even though the gore looks pretty fake by today’s standards). They turned Dr. Frankenstein (portrayed by Peter Cushing) into a psychopathic killer who prefers to get the parts for his monsters fresh (if you know what I mean, and I think you do). They turned Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) into a frothing-at-the-mouth sexual predator who can break mere men in half with his pinky finger. They also cast some of the most beautiful demigoddesses to have ever graced this earth. (Seriously, these ladies make their Victorian costumes look more provocative and exciting than even the skimpiest of modern beach attire.) Whether we are addressing The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), or even The Devil Rides Out (1968), Hammer films are fucking awesome and warrant multiple repeated viewings.

If I had to choose just one Hammer film as my personal favorite, it would not be easy; but surely Quatermass and the Pit (1967, also known as Five Million Years To Earth) would be counted among my Top Five. This is a sequel to an earlier 1955 film called The Quatermass Xperiment and its immediate 1957 successor, Quatermass II. All three movies are theatrical adaptations of TV serials that were originally broadcast on the BBC in the 1950s. These serials were written and created by Nigel Kneale, who is also known for writing The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), The Stone Tape (1972), and the original screenplay for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). Kneale was a fantastic science fiction writer whose work fits rather nicely with the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, and he has been a major inspiration to such horror maestros as John Carpenter and Stephen King, whose Prince of Darkness (1987) and The Tommyknockers (1987) are both directly inspired by Quatermass and the Pit.

The Quatermass films are named for their main character, Professor Bernard Quatermass, a British rocket scientist who contends with various alien forces that seek to wipe out the human race. (In many ways, the original serials also provided a great deal of inspiration for Doctor Who.) Of the trilogy, Quatermass and the Pit is easily the best; and despite being the third film in sequence, it is written in such a way that you don’t have to view either of its predecessors to understand the characters or plot. All you really need to know going in is that it’s about a small British town called Hobb’s End (which should sound familiar to anyone who enjoys John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness). Some subway workers uncover a bunch of weird fossils and an object that looks like an unexploded bomb from the German air raids during World War II. This was not an uncommon problem in England in the 1960s (hell, it’s still a problem today), so panic immediately ensues, and the military is called in to investigate. But it is soon determined that the excavated object is not a bomb after all, and that’s when Professor Quatermass is called in.

Quatermass discovers that the object is actually a spaceship, and that it contains a couple of ancient alien corpses. (The aliens look like man-sized grasshoppers.) The weird fossils that were discovered close to the ship appear to have been primates that the aliens were using as experimental test subjects. Quatermass also learns that Hobb’s End has been subject to all manner of paranormal disturbances since time immemorial; whenever someone disturbs the ground where the spaceship now rests, ghost and hauntings are soon reported throughout the surrounding area. And when a man accidentally scrapes the spaceship with a wrench, it causes all these weird telekinetic phenomena to start happening.

Quatermass figures the aliens are from Mars, and that they came to colonize the Earth before humans evolved. He thinks they planned to transfer their consciousness to the ancient primates they found, so that they could live more comfortably in our ecosystem. But something went wrong, and the aliens all died. Yet the super-apes they created survived, and some people today are actually descended from them. Such people tend to be born with weird psychic abilities, and Quatermass theorizes that this may be where all our legends of magic and witchcraft come from. The aliens even resemble Satan, with tiny horns poking out of their skulls. But there’s just one problem: even though the aliens and their super-apes are dead, the powers they evoked continue to exist in human beings today, and the alien spaceship is still functional. Quatermass fears that if anything is done to disturb the vessel, it could re-awaken the dormant Martian hive consciousness that resides within every person who is descended from the modified apes. And this is exactly what happens when the British government decides to hold a big press conference at the excavation site. Some knucklehead drops some live electrical wiring on the ship, and it wakes up.

Quatermass and the Pit

The awakening of the Hobb’s End spaceship is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen in any horror film. Approximately half the local population is suddenly possessed by the Martian hive mind, which then drives them to murder all their neighbors, co-workers, and families. These people even kill all the animals they encounter as well; there’s one ghoulish moment when we hear them slaughtering a bunch of cats and dogs outside, and it never fails to make my blood run cold. To think that someone can just flip a biological switch and make hundreds of people suddenly murder their own loved ones is scary enough; but the situation is made even scarier by the fact that this is all caused by an accident. The Hobb’s End Massacre is not caused by the aliens (who are all deceased), but by an act of human ignorance that totally could have been prevented (had anyone heeded Quatermass’ warnings).

The heroes end up using a big iron crane to discharge the Martian spaceship’s energy back into the Earth. As in a great deal of folklore, it is the apotropaic power of iron (a substance most sacred to Set) that dispels the forces of evil in the end. But unlike most other science-fiction/horror films from this period, Quatermass and the Pit does not conclude with the male and female survivors hugging and kissing each other like everything’s going to be all right. Here, Professor Quatermass and his friend Dr. Judd (played by Barbara Shelley, my favorite Hammer glamour girl) are left standing alone amidst a sea of urban ruin, not breathing a word to each other. They’re too frightened to even look at each other, much less touch. (Perhaps they fear that doing so might spark up the Martian hive mind again?) They just stare fearfully into the night, forever traumatized by what they’ve seen and experienced. Roll credits!

One sure way to make me want to read a story or watch a film is by telling me, “It’s horror AND science fiction.” Some of my favorite films fall into this category, including Ridley Scott’sAlien (1979) and John Carpenter’sThe Thing (1982). But Nigel Kneale’s work is distinct because it combines science fiction with supernatural horror, using science to plausibly substantiate the paranormal (rather than dispelling it). The genealogical descent of all witches and wizards from Martian-engineered apes is just one example. Another would be the concept behind The Stone Tape, in which Kneale has scientists discovering that “ghosts” are actually residual “recordings” of past events that have been embedded into certain rocks. (This hypothesis is now called “the Stone Tape Theory,” which still carries considerable weight among paranormal researchers today.) And of course, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proposes that the mineral content of Stonehenge is catastrophically dangerous and can actually be weaponized by any corporation with the necessary know-how. As far as I’m concerned at least, Nigel Kneale belongs in the same company as such hard science fiction masters as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

In Quatermass and the Pit, the Christian concept of “the devil” is revealed to be nothing more than a genetic race memory of the Martian colonists who experimented on our primate ancestors. These aliens were not necessarily “evil,” either; they were simply doing what they could to survive. As a Setian, the idea that “Satan was originally something else, and it wasn’t evil” has been a very old recurring theme in my life. And the idea that a sufficiently advanced or “magical” technology can be misused to wreak unspeakable havoc is also familiar, given what I have seen when ill-prepared occultniks fuck around with things like qliphoth or the SimonNecronomicon. Finally, I can identify with the idea of there being a scientific basis for “superstitions” like the use of iron objects to execrate evil spiritual forces. Indeed, Quatermass and the Pit is not only scary, but incredibly thought-provoking for anyone who takes an interest in the esoteric side of life. For Pagans and witches, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

1+

The Amityville Error

Discussing the Amityville Horror, the greatest American paranormal hoax of the 1970s, and its influence on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. 

 

The Amityville Horror began as a hoax concocted by the late George Lutz, which he based on the real life case of Ronald DeFeo. DeFeo murdered his family one night at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island back in 1973, and the Lutz family were the first to move into that address afterwards. They only stayed there for one month, during which they claimed to be harassed by demonic voices, phantom pigs, invisible marching bands, and a mysterious black ooze dripping out of the walls. Neither of these stories has ever been substantiated, but Lutz landed a book deal with author Jay Anson, who novelized the story as The Amityville Horror (Prentice Hall, 1977). This was later adapted into a 1979 film starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. For whatever reason, it became one of the most financially successful films of the 1970s, despite the fact that it was produced by American International Pictures (known best for their cheap drive-in schlock from the 1950s and 1960s), and the fact that it’s boring as shit.

Amityville was so successful, in fact, that it quickly spawned a prequel: Amityville II: The Possession (1982). This second film is ostensibly about the DeFeo family, but it takes so many sickening liberties with their lives that I can’t really endorse watching it. It takes its inspiration from Ronald DeFeo’s murder defense, wherein his lawyer, William Weber, seriously tried to push the claim of “demonic possession” in court. This seems especially tasteless considering that George Lutz and William Weber turned out to be in cahoots with each other at the time. (Not for long, though; Lutz soon tried to sue Weber, as well as several other people, for saying things about him he didn’t like. This guy seems to have spent more time suing people than he ever did working an honest job.) Yet Amityville II was also successful at the box office, which meant another film would soon be following in its wake. So in 1983, Orion Pictures gave us Amityville 3D, which is commonly thought to be even worse than the original Amityville.

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

The thing is, I actually enjoy Amityville 3D quite a bit; in fact, I think it’s the best Amityville film ever made. (Don’t get overly excited now—that isn’t really saying much!) One thing I like about this one is the fact that it isn’t “based on a true story”; it’s completely fictional, and it never claims to be otherwise. Sure, the story is abysmally stupid, and the characters are more two-dimensional than you can possibly imagine. I can’t even remember any of their names; I just remember Tony Roberts plays an asshole skeptic who moves into 112 Ocean Avenue and stubbornly refuses to believe it’s haunted. Never mind the fact that it kills his best friend (Candy Clark) and his daughter (Lori Loughlin). Then he and his ex-wife Tess Harper get help from Dr. Robert Joy to free their daughter’s soul from the house. There’s also a slimy Bug-Eyed Monster living in the basement, and it seems to be responsible for all the weird shit that happens in the house. That’s pretty much the entire plot right there; there’s nothing about the DeFeos or the Lutzes, and nobody connected with the Amityville Horror hoax appears to have collected any royalties from this entry (which automatically makes it better than either of its predecessors, as far as I’m concerned).

Mind you, Amityville 3D is not what I would call a “good” movie by any means. It’s just that it chooses to exploit a silly movie theater gimmick (3D camera photography) instead of a real-life murder case, which I find much more forgivable. Yet there are some things about this film that I truly enjoy. For one thing, it scared me pretty badly when I first saw it as a kid. In a sequence that shamelessly rips off The Omen (1976), Candy Clark’s character discovers a demonic face in the photos she has taken of the 112 Ocean Avenue property. She freaks out and goes to warn Tony Roberts, but then gets harassed by a demon fly while she’s driving in her car. She crashes her vehicle and is then set on fire, and as she dies, she screams one of the most convincing screams of pain I’ve ever heard in any horror flick. Now up until this point in the film, Clark is built up as being the main female lead, so it was really unexpected (not to mention upsetting) to see her get bumped off like that. It’s not an easy scene for me to watch even as an adult, so I have to give the creative team behind Amityville 3D a great deal of credit for scaring me pretty good.

The Amityville House in 1973

The infamous Amityville house (112 Ocean Avenue) in 1973.

Robert Joy’s character is a parapsychologist who works at some nameless university or institute somewhere, and who is both a “believer” and a “skeptic” at once. He clearly believes in the paranormal, but he’s slow to accept any particular claims about it without sufficient evidence. He was likely only written into the film to make it feel more like 1982’s Poltergeist (which features a number of similar characters), but I enjoy his presence all the same. The other characters are either too quick to believe whatever wild-eyed crap they hear (like Candy Clark and Tess Harper), too quick to dismiss it (like Tony Roberts), or too quick to fuck around with it (like Lori Loughlin and her teenage friends). Of course, the believers turn out to be right about everything in the end; but Robert Joy seems to be the only person in Amityville with a good head between his shoulders, and he’s charming and likable to boot.

It’s too easy to pick this film apart for everything it does wrong; my only serious complaint against it is that there just isn’t enough of the gooey booger monster that shows up at the end. It would have been much more impressive if the writers had decided to unleash this beastie at the beginning of the final act, so he can raise some serious hell for the last 20 minutes or so. As it is, we only see the damn thing for a few seconds before it scorches off Robert Joy’s face and drags his ass down to hell. Then we get some telekinetic-fu as Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, and the rest of Robert Joy’s investigative team get thrown around by invisible forces throughout the house. This part is actually pretty entertaining (especially the shot where the basement door explodes and crashes into one of the scientists, resembling a live-action Looney Tunes segment); but I really wanted to see some monster-fu instead. Oh well, at least the house blows up; if I can’t have my fill of slimy glopola goodness, I’ll settle for a nice random explosion!

Just what in tarnation IS that thing, anyway?

In the earlier movies, the evil of the house is “confronted” by the Roman Catholic Church. The first movie features Rod Steiger as a priest who tries to help the Lutzes from afar, but who really doesn’t accomplish anything useful in the end; he just sort of loses his marbles, and then the movie forgets about him. The second film features a priest who tries to perform an exorcism on the Ronald DeFeo character, but he only succeeds in getting himself possessed instead. In Amityville 3D, Robert Joy’s character is a little more successful in dealing with the evil. (I mean, he does piss it off enough to make it blow its own home to smithereens; that’s got to count for something, right?) This transition from relying on organized religion to relying on quacky pseudoscience for answers was characteristic of the early 1980s. This was the era when the New Age movement really let fly and when “ancient astronauts” were all the rage. Not that I’m criticizing anyone for believing in that stuff if that is what they wish to believe; I just think it’s fascinating that the Amityville filmmakers would choose to take this course. The entire point of 1979’s The Amityville Horror was to cash in on earlier films like The Exorcist (1973), which is practically a late night infomercial for the Catholic Church. Amityville 3D is more like the bastard stepchild of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), which uses scientific speculation to explain its supernatural events.

If it seems I am being too hard on the Lutzes and their fellow conspirators, it’s because their little hoax was just one of several that fed into the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Of all the paranormal investigators who ever looked into their story, Ed and Lorraine Warren are perhaps the most famous and well-known. You might remember their names from all those Conjuring and Annabelle movies that have been produced over the past decade. Ed and Lorraine were a self-styled demonologist and clairvoyant, respectively, who claimed to have investigated over 10,000 hauntings together between 1952 and 2006. And during the late 1970s and 1980s, they were featured on damn near every TV special about the paranormal you might care to mention. My first exposure to them was in Scream Greats Volume 2: Satanism and Witchcraft, a direct-to-video “documentary” from 1986, wherein the Warrens insisted that organized “satanic ritual abuse” (SRA) is absolutely real. These hucksters made their fortunes by hoodwinking people into thinking that minority faiths like mine want to abuse and butcher your children, and the Amityville hoax is what facilitated their rise to fame. Granted, the Warrens weren’t the only SRA-peddlers in business at the time, and they certainly weren’t the worst. But whenever I see a trailer for yet another “Conjuring Universe” movie that probably cost about $140 million to produce, it just makes me feel a little queasy, you know?

There are several other Amityville films that came out after Amityville 3D, but only one of them—the 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds—was ever released theatrically. The rest are all direct-to-video or made-for-TV cheapies. The ones that were produced by Steve White—Amityville: The Evil Escapes (1989), Amityville: It’s About Time (1992), Amityville: A New Generation (1993), and Amityville: Dollhouse (1996)—are actually pretty enjoyable in my opinion; but they have almost nothing to do with Amityville or the house at 112 Ocean Avenue at all, so their titles are misleading at best.

1+