Quatermass and the Pit Review
The year of 1968 was a turning point for genre cinema. Massive hits such as 2001:A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby tempting people who would not normally have considered going to see science fiction or horror films. Meanwhile, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead broke barriers of taste and realism in its graphic depiction of zombies wreaking havoc (and society repressing them with the same alacrity shown in repressing contemporary race riots) and Planet of the Apes demonstrated that ‘hard’ science fiction could be palatable to a family audience if presented with wit, style and excitement. But one film, made in 1967 but released in the USA in February 1968 and not appreciated at the time, is just as interesting as any of the major contenders – Hammer’s adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s 1958 television series Quatermass And The Pit. Dismissed as a low budget pot-boiler by many contemporary writers, it has come to be seen as not only one of the best Hammer films but also as an important piece of science fiction which presents ideas just as audacious as those expressed in 2001 and does so with considerably less pretension.
Nigel Kneale’s career has been one of the most distinguished of any script writer of the past 50 years. Beginning in the early days of television, he carved a niche for himself as the number one writer of science fiction drama with his three “Quatermass” serials for the BBC and his notorious adaptation of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four”. Later, he began to see this as rather an albatross but it’s still quite remarkable how well his work stands up fifty years later. Kneale’s writing is good on character and dialogue but his real strength lies in his ideas. From the concept of the stone of a house acting as a primitive recording device to the idea of an alien intelligence feeding on the youth of the planet, Kneale has consistently pushed the boundaries of what television executives and other simpletons consider to the be within the grasp of a general audience. But of all the ideas which Kneale has presented, the most memorable for me are the ones which link hard science with the supernatural. His 1971 TV play The Stone Tape does this to staggering effect, creating a haunting which is presented in rational scientific terms but also manages to be pretty damned terrifying as a straight ghost story. Indeed, so influential was that play that later ghost stories have been hard pressed to escape from its shadow without going back to the earlier influence of Henry James. Even in his one Hollywood adventure, the original screenplay for Halloween 3: Season of the Witch - much altered by the producers – was based on a classic science/magic idea, that the Celtic gods who regard the commercialisation of their ancient festival as sacrilege must be appeased using all the wonders of modern technology.
But I am of the firm opinion that Kneale’s most substantial claim to immortality lies in his original script for the TV series and, subsequently, the film of Quatermass And The Pit. Although the film condenses the original serial, it doesn’t lose much of importance and it still manages to tell a story which is surely among the most ingenious of alien invasion plots ever devised. During routine engineering works at Hobbs' End underground station, a group of bones and half complete skeletons of ape men are discovered, apparently establishing that men walked the earth long before is generally accepted. Later, a strange metal container is unearthed. The authorities, led by the unimaginative martinet Colonel Breen (Glover), believe it to be an unexploded bomb left over from World War 2 but Professor Bernard Quatermass (Keir), head of the British Rocket Group, thinks otherwise. Along with a scientist Matthew Rooney (Donald), Quatermass presses for the container to be opened. When it is, the contents lead him towards a discovery which shatters the accepted history of human evolution and offers a dire warning for the future of mankind.
If you haven’t seen Quatermass and the Pit then I recommend that you skip down to my comments about the disc.
In some respects, Quatermass and the Pit can be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films are about the impact of an alien intelligence upon the evolution of mankind and both films deal with the consequences of that intervention being discovered. Of course, in style and tone the two films are worlds apart and the painstaking special effects of Kubrick’s film make the leaping alien puppets of Quatermass And The Pit look like amateur night stuff. But in terms of intellectual ambition, the two films are directly comparable and Kneale’s imagination is just as inventive and complex as that of Clarke and Kubrick. He suggests that the Martian intervention was far from benign; in fact it was actively malevolent, transferring the Martians own instinct to kill the ‘other’ – through some kind of carnivorous ethnic cleansing – into the ape men who were experimented upon. Consequently, the human urge to hate, despise and destroy anything different is explained through the fact that, as is explicitly stated in the film, “We ARE the Martians!” This is awesomely ambitious stuff and it’s interlinked with an equally ambitious attempt to rationalise the nature of both supernatural hauntings and human concepts of the devil. People in Hobbs’ End – once named Hob’s End, perhaps after ‘Hob’, the folk name for Satan – have been seeing mysterious images for years and Kneale suggests that this is due to the power contained within the container leaking out, or perhaps derived from some Jungian race memory. The Martian creatures themselves – hideous, horned creatures – could explain our image of the devil as ‘the horned beast’. It’s hard to believe that Science Fiction – now endless self-consuming and plagiaristic, used as an excuse for elaborate action scenes – could once have been so intellectually nourishing. Although the execution sometimes lets down the concepts, those ideas are strong enough to remain potent and, bizarrely, convincing. Nigel Kneale’s greatest achievement is to make the most outlandish claims and then render them strangely believable by treating them in an unpatronising, adult manner.
The screenplay is a small masterpiece. The film, unfortunately, is flawed. It’s not so much the special effects which render it somewhat tamer than it should be but it’s undoubtedly the case that they seriously damage one scene – the ethnic cleansing of the Martians - which is vitally important and tend, at other times, to look rather amateurish. To be fair, the physical effects when all hell breaks loose are rather better but the final image of ‘Hob’ looming over the London skyline is something of an anticlimax, despite Kneale’s brilliant use of the idea that iron was a defence against the powers of evil. Smaller annoyances build up too. The appalling acting of some of the supporting cast makes the opening unintentionally comic and it’s all too obvious that Julian Glover’s Colonel Breen is much too young to have seen service in World War Two. A few of the sets look rather too makeshift for comfort as well.
However, Roy Ward Baker’s direction is generally very good and I think this is probably the best film he directed – it’s certainly on a par with A Night To Remember. The pace of the film is spot-on and Baker creates some genuinely suspenseful moments. The apocalyptic conclusion is especially well handled considering the obvious limitations of the budget. He’s helped by the screenplay of course and by the superb cast which he has assembled. Andrew Keir is much the best screen Quatermass and the only one to capture the avuncular side of the TV character as well as the off-hand selfishness. Keir was an excellent actor who made a strong impression in two other Hammer films; as the monk Shandor in Dracula Prince of Darkness and as the obsessive professor in the underrated Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb. He’s well matched by James Donald, a quirky actor who is fondly remembered for his ‘Madness, madness’ at the end of Bridge on the River Kwai. There are also nice bits from the miscast Julian Glover – although his character is much too one-sided to convince – and from Barbara Shelley as Rooney’s flame haired assistant. But I think that this is one of the rare films which belongs to the writer and it’s as good a testament to Nigel Kneale’s abilities as you’ll find. Add the BFI DVD of The Stone Tape and you’ve got ample evidence to suggest that he’s one of the most interesting writers of his generation.
Quatermass and the Pit has been released as part of Warner’s Hammer Horror Resurrected boxset. While not a particularly bad transfer, it is a mediocre one which contains no extras at all, not even a theatrical trailer.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Although the picture is reasonably detailed, artifacting runs rampant throughout the film and is especially distracting in the night time and dark interior scenes. Luckily, the contrast is just right and the colours come across strongly. Grain is continuously present.
The mono soundtrack is a faithful representation of the original presentation and it is absolutely fine. The dialogue is clear and the music and various sound effects come across without distortion.
As I said above, no extras have been included. This seems a shame considering that the region 1 disc contains a commentary from Nigel Kneale and Roy Ward Baker – although it’s not a great loss as I have to rate it as one of the most boring commentary tracks I’ve ever listened to. Strange though, that the trailer isn’t included.
There are 16 chapter stops. No subtitles have been included.
Hammer fans will need no recommendation from me when it comes to Quatermass and the Pit but it’s a film which is intelligent and stylish enough to appeal to a wider audience. Warner’s DVD is adequate as far as it goes but it really has to be counted as something of a missed opportunity.
N.B. This disc is only available as part of the Hammer Horror Resurresurrected boxset
Last updated: 31/05/2018 21:32:37