Quatermass And The Pit Review
In the late-sixties, there was a film produced and released that posed many questions about the origins of intelligence in humankind, about our basest terrors and about the ghosts that linger in the furthest reaches of our imaginations. It questions whether the advances of our ancestors may have leapt ahead following the intervention of beings from another planet and how that history may influence our future. Best of all, it raises the possibility that the Devil and, by extension, God are no more than shared memories from a time when humanity lived in fear of his alien race. This film is a hugely intelligent and atmospheric piece of work and remains so to this day, being rightly lauded as a classic of science-fiction. It is, as you might well have guessed, Quatermass And The Pit. Oh yes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey was released as well.
Actually, I've always had something of a problem with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has long been a film to be admired more than liked. Much like being grateful that Anthony Burgess novel of A Clockwork Orange is still available, being, in my opinion, a far superior way to enjoy the tale of Alex The Droog without any of Kurbrick's stylings. And any amount of Nadsat is preferable to Kubrick's speeded-up sex scene, which proves the films owes more to Benny Hill than I am entirely comfortable with. Indeed, I have always secretly thanking Quatermass And The Pit for covering much of the same ground as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey without any of the apes, the monolith, the interminable middle section, the clearly-of-its-era psychedelic trip through space, the upside-down space stewardess and videophones that suggested we'd be communicating via 5" cathode-ray tubes.
But even taken apart from that, Quatermass And The Pit is a simply marvellous mix of science-fiction and horror, carefully blended such that one never notices the joins and with all the ambition, intelligence and wonderment that one came to expect of the recently departed Nigel Kneale, who, as he would with his later The Stone Tape, opens his film with the renovation of a popular landmark and talk of ghosts, goblins and poltergeists. However, unlike the setting of The Stone Tape in a haunted house, Quatermass And The Pit opens at the Hobb's End tube station, where paleontologist Dr Matthew Roney is called in when human remains as discovered at the site. However, what Roney discovers is that the bones, whilst close to being those of a human, are actually those of a dwarf-like creature, generally human in shape but with an abnormally large brain. Believing this creature to be a previously undiscovered ancestor of modern man, the work on the renovation at Hobb's End is put on hold whilst Roney moves in to oversee the dig. However, only a little time passes before an even more shocking discovery is made, that of something believed to be an unexploded bomb but which is made of a substance that not even a diamond drill makes a mark on.
Calling in the military, all work at Hobb's End is cancelled until the origins of this device is ascertained. To assist in their efforts, the military are, despite their disliking of the man, forced to take Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) with them to the site, whereupon they discover yet more artefacts, which convince them that what they have found is over five million years old. And then, just when they believe there exists no means of getting into the strange object, a door opens in it and they step inside. Unfortunately, what they discover are remnants of an alien civilisation, hidden behind a panel marked with five intersecting circles, which Quatermass explains as being a pentacle, a symbol of the occult. Soon after, terrible things begin happening at the Hobb's End site and as the media gather for a presentation by the military on the discoveries they've made at the site, London is consumed by a mania, which sets each man, women and child against one another in an orgy of violence. As this reaches a crescendo and as the city burns, the Devil appears over London, leaving Quatermass trying to find a means to restore order before the violence that ended the Martian civilisation also ends that of humankind.
Unfortunately, as wonderful as all this is, Quatermass And The Pit is let down by a production that, though perfectly decent, tends towards showing its very British budget through small, stage-bound sets, a production that wasn't a great deal bigger than the BBC's television production some years earlier and what we might, if we were being kind, describe as erratic the performances by certain members of the cast. Clearly, even in the late sixties, Hammer wasn't yet swinging but it's also obvious that they were set to be overtaken by the American studios in the next few years. Indeed, one only has to look at the contrast between the production of Quatermass And The Pit and 2001: A Space Odyssey but would grow all the more pronounced during the seventies as Hammer struggled against The Exorcist, The Omen and such US indies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
And yet, in spite of all that, this is obviously the more enjoyable and more fiercely intelligent film, battling with superstition, the supernatural and religion whilst still delivering a damn good scare. The death of Colonel Breen is one of those icky moments that the film doesn't quite prepare you for but the appearance of the poltergeist - objects moving under the energy provided by the alien spacecraft - remains eerie. And, never one to let a good finale pass him by, the appearance of the Devil in the sky over London is certainly on a par with the glowing red eyes of The Stone Tape. Perhaps neither offer much in the way of a sleepless night but, without knowing of the passing of Nigel Kneale, this film was part of my Hallowe'en this year and two children, four and six and sometimes terrified by this, thoroughly enjoyed it. They may not have appreciated Kneale's efforts at finding reason behind ghost stories but like so many of the best tales of horror, he marks out his scripts with so much depth that one can always return to them with the passing years and take something new away. Not only for this but for the rest of the Quatermass canon, for The Stone Tape, for his Christmas adaptation of The Woman In Black, for Halloween III and for The Year Of The Sex Olympics, we have much to thank Nigel Kneale for. It's a shame that the BBC, for whom Quatermass And The Pit was originally written, didn't feel the same and schedule some of the man's work. At Hallowe'en, it would have been a timely tribute.
Quatermass And The Pit has been available on DVD before and whilst Optimum may have remastered it, there's very little difference between this and the version Warners included in a boxset some years back. However, that version wasn't at all bad and this is much the same, perhaps a little brighter as well as a touch sharper but Quatermass And The Pit has generally been well served on DVD over the years and this is no exception. The audio track, mono mixed over a Dolby 2.0 stream, is fine with the effects sounding clear and very effective but with the dialogue able to be heard over the mix. However, in keeping with Optimum's usual standards, there are no subtitles.
There are no extras on this release other than the original Theatrical Trailer (2m28s).
Despite coming to this so soon after Rasputin The Mad Monk, I feel compelled to say that, once again, this is a marvellous and wholly entertaining film from Hammer. Indeed, by the release of Quatermass And The Pit, they had such a run of great films that their making of them looks effortless, all of them being produced with a particularly Home Counties look about them but which isn't unattractive to one who grew up with Hammer double bills on television. This is amongst the very best work that Hammer and Nigel Kneale ever offered and ought to be cherished as a classic of British horror. This release of Quatermass And The Pit goes some way to paying tribute to Kneale but for one of our very best screenwriters, it's not enough, although, to be fair to Optimum, it was never planned as such. One hopes that he is paid tribute to in the very near future.