Quatermass And The Pit (1967)
Minister Of Defence: “You realise what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?!”
Although famed for their satin-laced vampires and rug-chested werewolves, Hammer Studios also produced a sucessful strain of psychological thrillers (Paranoiac!, Freddie Francis, 1963), cave girl (One Million Years B.C., Don Chaffey, 1966) and science-fiction pictures during their 1960’s heyday, the most famed of which is Quatermass And The Pit, spun-off from the late-1950’s BBC serial of the same name. Hammer had dealt with Nigel Kneale’s source material before, when it was adapted into 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment and 1957’s Quatermass 2 (re-titled for US audiences as Enemy From Space), both directed by Val Guest. They took good box office at the time but Baker’s picture is the one which has endured, likely due to a more developed screenplay and a bolder visual sense (this Quatermass also marked the series’ shift into colour photography). Here prismatic cocoons and goo spewing aliens are juxtaposed with ideas of creation and origin, literally supposing a link between religion and extraterrestrial life. Time, I think, to establish the plot…
The film begins when builders working on an underground extension of Hobbs End stumble upon the remains of an ape/human sub-speicies, believed by Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald) to be five million years old. When a suspicious metal object is also unearthed, initially believed to be an un-detonated V-bomb from WWII, the military, headed by Col. Breen (Julian Glover), assume control of the worksite, and quickly turn extension into excavation. Professor Quartermass (Andrew Keir) also appears on site, where the apparent bomb is soon revealed to be a form of alien spacecraft, impossible to penetrate with fire or drill. It bears a spiritual emblem on its inner wall, and soon Quatermass uncovers a space-age conspiracy that could re-write the entirety of human history…
Inevitably, government cynics soon quash his theories, leaving the countdown-to-chaos to be prevented by nerds (also seen in Hollywood’s sci-fi’s of the 1950’s). Col. Breen suggests that the craft was part of a Nazi propaganda scheme that failed to catch attention in the early 1940’s (Nazi science-fiction is actually a fascinating and largely ignored sub-genre, starting with Robert Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo, and leading to the similarly-themed Iron Sky, 2012), but Quatermass knows better. To say any more would be to ruin several interesting plot developments, but suffice it to say that things get pretty weird…
Kneale’s science-ficiton has always been grounded in reality, and social commentary inevitably runs through Quatermass‘ veins. Fears surrounding the invention of the H-bomb (1951) are consciously evoked by Kneale’s screenplay, but it’s the enraged street revolts of the finale which are of most interest to a contemporary audience, recalling as they do the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. The allegory is largely subtle, save for one dreadfully sledgehammered exchange between Roney and Quatermass. “I wanted to kill you!” Quatermass proclaims, snapping out the alien’s violent mind control beams. “But why?”, Roney questions. The answer is simple, and simplistic. “Because you’re different.”
But moments like these are mostly saved by the first-class performances. Donald and Keir are fantastic here, but perhaps most enjoyable is Glover, who movie buffs will recognize from quintessential bad guy roles of the 1980’s; indeed, he fought Anakin Skywalker (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) James Bond (For Your Eyes Only, 1981) and Indiana Jones (The Last Crusade, 1989), confirming himself a Hollywood legend before slipping into bit-part obscurity. His steely stare suggests pure menace, and the actor proves perfectly cast in Quatermass. It’s always a shame to see actors of his calibre become typecast by their greatest roles (see also: Anthony Perkins).
Hammer’s special effects are often derided, and it’s true that the crick-aliens of Baker’s film look pretty terrible (especially in a laughable extermination sequence), but there are also some remarkably controlled action set-pieces which make the most of scale models and objects-on-string levitation. The destruction of London sequence is hugely impressive, especially considering the scope of the action; Roney climbs a crane to battle a holographic insectoid devil, and despite some obvious green-screen effects the scene manages to muster genuine tension. There’s often talk of Quatermass being remade, and no doubt it would all be done with extravagant CGI. The effects here may not be wholly convincing, but they have a presence in a frame that computer-generated pixels can’t hope to match; they have weight, texture and dimension. They’re real. And that’s why we buy into the fiction.
The quality of this release is evident from the menu; a shape-shifting replication of Tom Chantrell’s original hand-drawn theatrical poster. The highlight of the disc is really the film itself, lovingly restored in a brand new digital transfer which wouldn’t look out of place in today’s multiplex cinemas. The extras are as solid as the feature itself. There’s a ‘World Of Hammer‘ TV episode, narrated by Oliver Reed, detailing the studio’s science-fiction output, but sadly the sound on Reed’s narration is off, and mostly drowned out by music. Alongside a wonderfully dry Kneale/Baker commentary (they seem to enjoy re-visiting the film so much that they forget to talk) there are six original interviews, including director Joe Dante (Matinee, 1993), author/critic Kim Newman and Col. Breen himself, Julian Glover. Also included is the original theatrical trailer, and an alternative US trailer, which typically gives away every possible plot detail. A great package.
Quatermass And The Pit is out on blu-ray 10th October 2011.
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writer: Nigel Kneale
Stars: James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley
Runtime: 97 min