Hammer Film Productions ruled the horror movie scene for almost 30 years during the 1950s through the 1970s. Horror movies were everywhere, but these British-made movies were extremely popular with their low-budget look and feel, the gothic stories, and of course, a fair share of gore. TCM recently showed a Hammer film that went a different route, and with mixed results, 1967's Five Million Years to Earth.
As someone who doesn't usually seek out horror movies, I can say the scariest part of a movie is usually the build-up (for me at least). Present a situation, drop a couple of hints that all hell is about to break loose, and let the imagination run wild. This Hammer horror flick is a great example of that, leaving the viewer guessing as to what's coming. The first hour reminded me a lot of Jaws in that sense as you wait for the shark to actually be shown on-screen. But where seeing Jaws jump out of the water at Chief Brody is one of the greatest movie shockers of all-time, 'Five Million' falls short in the 'A-HA!' moment.
A subway station is being extended in London when workers stumble across a handful of oddly-shaped skeletons. Two archaeologists/specialists are called in Dr. Roney (James Donald) and Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) to supervise the excavation of what else they can find. A handful of skeletons are found that look like ape ancestors of a human, but slightly different from what you'd expect. More than that though, as the excavation continues a large object that looks like a space ship is uncovered that is impermeable to anything thrown at it. Roney and Quatermass are baffled, but the professor starts to do research and finds out that this spot where the object was found has long been a source of fear and evil-doings. Meanwhile, an army colonel (Julian Glover) believes it is an unexploded WWII rocket that poses no threat, but he couldn't be more wrong.
The build-up is where this horror flick is at its best, the clues slowly filtering out as to what these skeletons and space ship really are. As they do their research, Roney and Quatermass (along with Barbara Shelley's assistant character) figure out that the location dates back hundreds of years and contains many documented instances of strange occurrences with no valid explanation. I know not revealing what the ship actually contains probably isn't feasible -- I would have been pissed -- but the story is always more interesting when you're guessing what could happen, not what does happen. Stop reading if you don't want to know the reveal. SPOILERS for the next paragraph SPOILERS
When the ship actually reveals its cargo, it's about as low budget as possible. They're martians from thousands of years ago (or I guess maybe five million) who traveled to Earth in hopes of finding a new location to live. How do they get rid of the occupants already living here? Releasing huge amounts of energy that will cause humans to turn on each other, killing anyone who is different. That premise is perfect, and for a movie released in the midst of the Cold War and all its paranoia, it is even better. One great scene late has a crowd of men cornering a single older man, ready to pounce on him and kill him. They're like zombies, staring him down and moving slowly. But it's just one scene, and the ending makes that one good scene a waste.
Here's a case of a small budget killing the momentum. The martians look to be 3-feet tall praying mantises. Terrifying, huh? Worse than that, the scientists/doctors use a contraption that allows you to see into a person's subconscious, their dreams. By touching the space ship, we can also see the subconscious of dead martians! The "footage" is black and white with little models of hundreds of martians killing each other. I think, it looked like they were just walking around to me. Then when the energy does escape, it comes in the shape of a cloud that looks like a martian, or to me, Marvin Martian. Low budget limitations are one thing, but this was just awful, and the solution is even worse.
Not an awful movie because of the strength of the first hour, but this Hammer horror film goes downhill quickly. The main set of the excavated subway station is pretty cool, very claustrophobic as it encases something evil inside, and the cast is solid if unspectacular. The script has them scrambling around looking for answers most of the time while other characters make decisions so stupid nobody in their right mind would go along. Kinda like the end of the movie.
Five Million Years to Earth <----trailer (1967): ** 1/2 /****