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Quatermass and the Pit

Review by: 
Black Gloves
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Directed by: 
Roy Ward Baker
James Donald
Andrew Keir
Barbara Shelley
Julian Glover
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 Former BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale wrote the first draft of the screenplay for the film version of his originally BBC-produced series “Quatermass and the Pit” in 1961, at the behest of Anthony Hinds of Hammer Films Productions, but the film remained undeveloped for a further nine years until the company was able to secure financing from 20th Century Fox, who promptly changed the title to the generic-sounding  “Five Million Years to Earth” when it was released in the states, because the name Quatermass did not have the same cache there as it had carried for many years by that point in the UK. Kneale had come up with the surname Quatermass after scanning the phone book looking for an unusual name that would stick in the memory of the sceptical viewer; the character’s Christian name, Bernard, was appropriated from Bernard Lovell – the English physicist and astronomer who became the founding director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory in 1945. Bernard Quatermass was a donnish, British research scientist leading an experimental rocket group in a 1950s vision of the near future, and was both an establishment figure and something of a maverick: he was an independent thinker who embodied both the can-do optimism of the coming space age and the latent fear and suspicion of what might be ‘out there’ in un-carted regions of space.

 One of the defining features of Nigel Kneale’s writing was always his unique ability to take topical ideas and concerns of the day and weave them into tales of a timeless nature, often incorporating a framework of myth and exotic pseudoscience which today locates the stories as telling documents of the country’s near-past in the bomb-blasted austerity Britain of the early 1950s, even though the themes they contain continue to resonate just as strongly with modern audiences and have certainly been hugely influential on the development of the genre. The importance of the Quatermass franchise for the development of British TV drama and for Hammer Films itself cannot be underestimated: together with visionary producer Rudolph Cartier, Kneale created a ground-breaking take on the intelligent science fiction story first screened by the BBC in the coronation year of 1953, which had mass appeal during a time when the genre was not taken that seriously and when TV drama in general consisted of little more than thinly adapted stage plays broadcast live with a static, proscenium arch staidness.

 A small British company called Exclusive Films was quick to cash-in on the Quatermass craze: a film tie-in with the first series followed in short order, re-named “The Quatermass Xperiment” to highlight its association with the recently introduced ‘X’ certificate. It was a huge success for the newly-monikered production wing of the company, putting the name Hammer on the map and setting the company down a road that would come to define it forevermore. The horror bandwagon was now up and rolling and Hammer followed-up with another Kneale adaptation starring Peter Cushing, called “The Abominable Snowman”, and a faux-Quatermass piece of their own called “X The Unknown”. After “Quatermass II” proved another big success for the BBC, Hammer naturally moved to repeat their previous deal, once more snapping up the rights for the film version, despite Kneale having been unhappy with their treatment and casting of the first story. By the time the BBC came to make the third Quatermass series in 1958, TV had become considerably more sophisticated and Cartier and Kneale were able to create perhaps the most challenging piece of in-studio TV drama yet seen; by then, camera and recording technology had improved a great deal, and the results looked much more assured and still hold up surprisingly well today.

The first series of 1953 was broadcast during a time of optimism regarding the future of British rocketry, and Kneale had foreseen the kernel of the possibility of a future for the development of space exploration with Werner Von Braun’s use of Nazi built rockets in the atmospheric research that was being conducted in California, and in the British War Office’s on-going series of rocket tests, which were taking place at the time in Woomera, Australia. As Andrew Pixley points out in his viewing notes for the DVD release of the three ‘50s BBC series, by 1958, when the TV version of “Quatermass and the Pit” was screened, the Americans and Russians had actually launched the first satellites, intercontinental ballistic missiles had been developed by the US, and Britain had tested its first hydrogen bomb. The original mood of optimism proved no longer quite so easy to maintain though, and CND was formed in that same year with 3000 protesters marching on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. Protest marches to the site, organised by CND, would become a regular event throughout the ‘60s; 1958 was also the year of a disturbing series of race riots which ignited in the impoverished Notting Hill area of London during the late summer and brought the often pronounced racial intolerance of British society (with its open colour bar on certain jobs and special housing premiums specifically set for ‘coloured’ residents) into sharp relief.

All of Kneale’s Quatermass series dealt with invasion in various unique ways: “The Quatermass Experiment” was an early example of body horror, one in which a test flight into outer space brings back an alien form of microbial life that infects one of the returning astronauts and begins to slowly turn him into a vegetable-like alien creature. In the follow-up, “Quatermass II”, made  two years later, the invasion is a more subtle one, preying on growing Cold War fears and a distrust of postwar Government priorities; here the aliens take control of the corridors of power after a secret deal with civil service mandarins, in order to put in motion their project of adapting the planet’s atmosphere to suit their own race at the expense of the indigenous population – with a conspiracy involving New Town developments and secret military installations placed at the heart of it all. Perhaps the most disturbing manifestation of the invasion theme is reserved for the third story in the series, in which the discovery of the invasion is an historical and scientific one, which leads to the conclusion that the human race itself is the end evolutionary product of a 5,000,000-year Martian take-over plan.

“Quatermass and the Pit” offers nothing less than an total explanatory synthesis, which elaborates an over-arching rationale for mans’ tendency toward the exercise of war, his habitual racism and intolerance of otherness, together with an origins myth that seeks to align religion, ancient legend, science and pseudoscience in one heady cocktail that explains the occult, demonic possession, telekinesis, second sight, poltergeist phenomena, ghosts and man’s evolution in one curiously cohesive package. In the disturbing scenario Kneale’s screenplay offers up, the Martian invasion is not something that could be thwarted or challenged, even in principle. Instead, the story takes the form of a detailed scientific detective story which leads to the discovery of a truth that is set to engender a terrifying spiritual and cultural paradigm shift in the way humanity sees itself. Even then, it isn’t clear that acknowledging the awful truth will really change anything at all.

Of all Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories, this is by far the most disquieting one, but the horror in the story is purely conceptual: Kneale is one of the few science fiction/horror writers who deals with terrifying or disturbing ideas and insinuations rather than merely pumping out horrific images or crude jump scares. The story is really a riff on the making of scientific revolutions and how they are initially resisted by a blinkered establishment. Quatermass spends most of the film amassing evidence that leads to a conclusion no-one can afford to accept while the Government, and specifically the military in the form of Colonel Breen (played with a superior sneery disdain by the brilliant Julian Glover) continue to bend over backwards to assert their preferred paradigm – the only one they’ve been trained to deal with.

The film version of “Quatermass and the Pit” is a mighty step beyond the ‘50s Hammer versions of the previous two series: for a start Kneale’s own screenplay adaptation of his original series was used, which intelligently condenses the original three hour running time into a pert ninety-seven minutes which encapsulates the intentions of the TV play while moving along at a fair lick of pace. By the time the project finally got off the ground in 1967, the company was enjoying a second wind, courting distribution deals with a host of big Hollywood players. The casting was also much more appropriate this time out, eschewing the bullish tough guy bluster of Ulster-born American actor Brian Donlevy for the much more authoritatively professorial performance of Andrew Keir, who brings a tweedy robustness to the role although he doesn’t even receive top billing. Roy Ward Baker was one of the UK’s best directors of the ‘40s and ‘50s but had for some time found it difficult to find work outside of television film series such as “The Avengers” and “The Saint”, and so was happy now to embark on a second film career in a bevy of Hammer Horror outings. The most noticeable change is of course that the original shadowy monochrome of television has been exchanged for the vivid lustre of Arthur Grant’s colour cinematography, which splashes the screen with gorgeous Technicolor hues. The film also benefits from the fact of its being filmed at the much larger MGM Borehamwood studio since the smaller Elstree studio which the company usually operated out of was full up at the time of production, enabling Bernard Robinson to construct a sizable London residence for Hobbs End’s backstreets and alleyways on the large MGM backlot.

Kneale’s screenplay swaps the original building site setting for an extension of the London Underground tube station as the main locus of the action, which is being excavated by archaeologists as the site is cleared for future development and construction. Workers clearing the site rubble stumble upon skull fragments and eventually a partially formed skeleton of a prehistoric ape man concealed in a muddy recess. Professor Roney (“The Bridge Over the River Kwai’s” James Donald, who gets top billing for being the best known face in the film at the time) is convinced that the discovery re-writes human evolution and presents a vision of upright, cranially enlarged ape-men roaming the earth five million years ago to bemused journalists in a hastily organised on-site press briefing. When further exploration uncovers a large metal object that causes a peculiar frost bite sensation in the fingers when touched, the War Office is contacted and Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) sent in with the bomb squad in tow. This scenario was still a believable one even in 1967, when unexploded German bombs, a legacy of the Blitz years, were still being occasionally discovered during just such excavation work. It turns out Breen has recently been seconded to Professor Bernard Quatermass’s Experimental Rocket Group as part of a military take-over of his proposed Moon Base development scheme. The two don’t get on, but Quatermass tags along and gradually becomes convinced that the ‘bomb’ is in fact a space craft of possible extra-terrestrial origin. Joining forces with Roney and his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley, in her last screen role for Hammer Films), Quatermass is perplexed when another ape-man skull is discovered, positioned in such a way as to suggest that it had to have been inside the craft when it crashed!  

The first clue to the mystery as to what is really going on here comes when Judd absently notes that the street name “Hobbs Lane” has undergone a change in spelling over the centuries, and in fact used to be known as Hob’s Lane – ‘Hob’ being another name for the Devil! An abandoned row of houses across the road from the site has been associated with ghostly stories and poltergeist phenomena for many years and subsequent research in archives and libraries finds that the site has always been associated with curious paranormal manifestations, and often described  as ‘a place long notorious for weird happenings’. Perusing ancient records held at Westminster Abby reveals fourteenth century tales of ‘imps and demons’ and sightings of a dwarf-like creature with the ability to walk through walls appear to turn up in every age, always associated with some local disturbance of the earth, be it the simple digging of a well or, indeed, any other kind of building or development work. Breen persists with the notion that the craft is a wartime propaganda weapon devised by the Nazis to scare the population during the Blitz, despite the fact that it appears to be made of no known metal and cannot be pierced by any drilling technology at the army’s disposal. Weird happenings seem to be occurring at the site as well by now, with hardened soldiers suddenly losing their nerve and running from the area screaming of visions of spectral dwarf-like creatures. There are occult symbols inscribed into the surface of the craft, suggesting that age old signs associated with evil such as the Pentagram started life as a form of alien derived hieroglyphic.  Breen won’t give up his vision of bombs and Nazis even when the craft mysteriously reveals its contents: long dead, mummified, tripod-legged locust-like alien creatures that ooze sticky green slime!

After amassing a host of historical evidence, examining the alien insect creatures and observing the goings on at the Hobbs Lane site, Quatermass announces the discovery of an alien spacecraft to the press and puts together a scenario that grounds the religious notion of spiritual evil and other familiar stories and superstitions concerning ghosts and psychic powers as the human inheritance of  a plan by a dying Martian race long ago to continue its legacy by genetically altering some of our ape-like ancestors, who were originally abducted from earth and then brought back with enhanced Martian intelligence  to repopulate the planet. ‘We are the Martians!’ notes Barbara Judd at one point, later on. But the Martians have also created us with a trace of their own propensity for racial purity still deep within our psyche. After the craft is revealed to be sentient and prone to inducing telekinetic powers in some people, as well as the poltergeist phenomena that sees a possessed workman jittering down the road pursued by a whirlwind of psychic happenings that would make Uri Gellar proud, Quatermass and Roney manage to concoct and use a device that can record images in the brain to recover a trace memory from the receptive Barbara Judd, whose brain displays a Martian ‘wild hunt’ in which the Martian hives are seen being cleaned of genetic imperfections. Thus Kneale’s screenplay posits human intelligence as being inseparable from intolerance and racial hatred. Its dormant telekinetic powers are liable to be re-awoken by the latent power that is contained within the buried craft, producing weird manifestations and instances of what look like demonic possession.

Although not all of Les Bowie’s special effects stand up to scrutiny (the race memory ‘brain recording’ of the Martian hunt is particularly woeful and looks like exactly what it is -- miniature figurines being clumsily manipulated off screen), the scope of Kneale’s syncretic vision continues to impress, as well as the inherent pessimism lurking behind it: the two most sympathetic characters in the film, Quatermass and Barbara Judd, turn out to be just as affected by the psychic maelstrom unleashed by the fully charged-up alien craft as Colonel Breen (who literally melts transfixed before it near the climax of the film). The power of the glowing craft infects the population of London with psychic fear and hate for anyone who is different from them, because latent inherited susceptibilities to the Martian ‘evil’ are brought to the fore by proximity to the sentient craft. It is left to gentle professor Roney to save the day after he remembers that the Devil’s traditional enemy is iron and with that thought in mind rides a monumental docking crane into the heart of the locust/devil-shaped energy cloud dominating London’s now aflame skyline, as psychically induced race riots rage below, in order to ‘earth’ it and neutralise its power.

While the TV series ended with André Morell’s Professor Quatermass (despite having a strong association with Hammer himself, the actor was apparently unwilling to resume the same role twice) delivering a stodgy televised lecture which seemed to end on an unfeasibly hopeful note by emphasising the lessons that were to be learned from the incident in a typically 1950s patrician fashion, the film version ends with a dishevelled Quatermass and Barbara slumped in a devastated London street which encapsulates both the violence and uncertainty of the race riots of the ‘50s and the bombed-out image of the capital of the Blitz-torn ‘40s, while a mournfully sombre piece of library music plays out with the closing credits. One of Hammer’s best films of the 1960s seems to offer little hope for change in the human condition and suggests scientific knowledge and an understanding of the past are perhaps still helpless to make any difference, but the pessimistic message is couched is sumptuous colour photography and a bevy of enjoyably nuanced performances.

Keir is at his best and offers perhaps the definitive screen portrait of Quatermass -- heavily bearded and dressed in grey check tweed and bow tie; Barbara Shelley gets little to do for most of the movie but make her character essential nonetheless, recalling the mediumistic atavism of her best period roles in the Hammer filmography when she is taken over with visions of racial cleansing by the Martian power; Julian Glover is electrifyingly pompous despite being too young to feasibly portray a convincing WW2 veteran. There are a number of small character roles that also stand out, notably  Duncan Lamont as the cheerful cockney drill operator Sladden, who gets ‘haunted’ and possessed by the ancient power and winds up seeking solace in a small chapel where the Anglican vicar (Thomas Heathcote) is convinced he has encountered a ‘spiritual evil’. The film just might have a wider influence than is at first apparent: the sequence in which Colonel Breen is mesmerised by the escaping psychic Martian force and literally melts like a flaming waxworks doll as it subsumes him is very reminiscent of a sequence in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The structure of Peter Benchley’s screenplay of “Jaws” follows a similar trajectory to that of “Quatermass and the Pit” with Chief Martin Brody’s attempts to close the Great White-stalked beachs in the face of interference from the local Mayor’s office playing in parallel to Quatermass’s publicity campaign getting shut down by the Ministry and their susequent ill-advised publicity drive to reassure the public that everything is okay, which of course then ends in predicable disaster.

Studiocanal’s new HD transfer of “Quatermass and the Pit” is generally a sight to behold with the vivid, lustrous colour and excellent extra fine detail that is now evident in the film making one greedy for more colour Hammer from the Studio Canal vaults to make it onto the Blu-ray format in the near future. The original English audio track is offered in a robust stereo PCM 2.0 and the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is preserved. This is a double play release, which includes a DVD copy of the film to encourage those who have not yet made the leap to the Blu-ray format.

An exciting range of extras is included starting with an audio commentary originally recorded for a US DVD release for Anchor Bay released in 1997 with Nigel Kneale and director Roy Ward Baker (both now sadly deceased) discussing the Quatermass franchise and the making of the film in persistently quiet tones, occasionally falling into silence and requiring prompting from an un-miked but audible third party. As audio commentaries go, this is not the most riveting ever made but stick with it and lots of tit-bits of info do eventually get revealed.

There are a range of newly recorded interviews included which tot up at about two hours in running length. Kneale’s widow Judith Kerr discusses meeting her husband for the first time and the writing process which saw the beginnings of Quatermass. Joe Dante remembers “Quatermass and the Pit” as one of the great SF films of the 1960s and Kim Newman provides a hugely authoritative and eloquent summation of Kneale’s influence on science fiction and his usual insightful appraisal of Roy Ward Baker’s Hammer film version. Julian Glover talks for half-an-hour about his memories of shooting the film and other aspects of his career as well, including “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Hammer historian Marcus Hearn provides a ten minute insight into the production background of the film and Mark Gatiss remembers meeting the author while trying to get a re-make of an early Kneale play underway at the BBC and relates how his fondness for the Hammer film version has grown over the years. The disc also includes a 25 minute episode of World of Hammer, the one about the company’s Sci-Fi films, narrated by Oliver Reed. There is a murky-looking British trailer, a better-looking US trailer and alternative US title sequence with the “Five Million Years to Earth” title card.

Despite one or two minor flaws, “Quatermass and the Pit” stands out as one of Hammer Films Productions most artistically successful ventures, offering a rare foray beyond the picture book period trappings of their prestigious Gothics into the contemporary London of the 1960s, and finding a world troubled by violence and demon-haunted ancient fears that is a long way removed from the optimistic spirit of the age so often conveyed in popular culture of the period. The HD transfer here is the best one could possibly hope for, despite a faded and worn-looking opening shot. The transfer soon defaults to the vivid hues and sharp details one expects from the HD format though, making this UK double-play edition an essential upgrade.

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