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Quatermass and the Pit

by Glenn Erickson Oct 22, 2019

Don’t run away because we use the word ‘profound’ to describe this 1967 sci-fi classic — some call it the best of the Hammer Quatermass films, this time fully written by Nigel Kneale and acted by a terrific cast — Andrew Kier, James Donald, Barbara Shelley and Julian Glover. A subway excavation uncovers strange human skulls, and then a huge bluish craft that the Army dismisses as a secret German V-weapon… until it begins to emanate psychic storms and supernatural phenomena. Sci-fi fans wanting ‘more’ will be intrigued by author Kneale’s incredible ‘origin story’ for the human race as an intelligent, aggressive and literally haunted species. The disc is loaded with extras, information, history and great opinions from a half-dozen qualified film experts. Plus we can hear Nigel Kneale discuss it himself.

 

Quatermass and the Pit
Blu-ray
Scream Factory
1967 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date July 30, 2019 / Available from Shout! Factory / 27.99
Starring: James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover, Duncan Lamont, Bryan Marshall, Peter Copley, Edwin Richfield, Grant Taylor, Hugh Futcher, Thomas Heathcote, Bee Duffell.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editors: James Needs, Spencer Reeve
Original Music: Tristram Cary
Written by Nigel Kneale
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys
Directed by
Roy Ward Baker

 

Quatermass and the Pit was my very first DVD review for the long-gone DVD Resource Page back in 1998. It was high time to write something a little more substantial… !

At age 16 I let a local booking of Five Million Years to Earth slip by, something I never would have done had I already had access to John Baxter’s great early genre book Science Fiction in the Cinema. Although fans now know plenty about the ‘world’ of Nigel Kneale’s Professor Bernard Quatermass, it remains a fairly obscure franchise here in America. I’ve only seen the original BBC broadcasts of the three ’50s TV serials on PAL DVD; the first has only partly survived. They apparently riveted England in 1953, ’55 and ’59. A different actor played Quatermass in each serial, and each episode carried a prim and proper BBC warning that the show ‘might not be suitable for children and those of a nervous disposition.’

Well-researched books now document Nigel Kneale’s visionary ideas about a perilous sci-fi future. He was surely simply looking for conflict and menace in the rising frontier of outer space, but in turning out his intellectual suspense thrillers he opened up new horizons for screen fear. In his Quatermass stories, the main threat of the future is not always what we find ‘out there,’ but what going ‘out there’ reveals about us. Unlike American sci-fi, in which spacemen blasted off with a ray gun in one hand and a Bible in the other, Kneale slams us with wholly secular concepts. The unlucky astronaut in the TV serial The Quatermass Xperiment (1953) reaches space and finds not God, but an opportunistic life form ready and eager to use humanity as a parasitic host. The clever ‘multiple organism’ invaders of Quatermass II (1955) infiltrate our social organizations as easily as they possess our bodies, taking over the whole human hive, so to speak.

 

Each Kneale serial is an investigation that slowly reveals a new kind of biological invasion. The third serial Quatermass and the Pit (1959) goes for broke. jumping to the next level, much like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 book Childhood’s End. Since the Renaissance a nagging human conflict has centered on scientific theories that displace old concepts backed by tradition and political power. Science has a way of forcing us to reevaluate our place in the universe. Kubrick and Clarke’s visual 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is more sophisticated as cinema: those gentlemen basically say God Is Dead and it’s only a matter of time before extraterrestrials confront us with a cosmic community that in our present form we’re far too primitive to understand, let alone join.

Clarke and Kubrick hand us the humiliating news that all of human existence is irrelevant, except for a species essence that can be passed on to a new form of ‘star being,’ the way a single sperm fertilizes an egg. But human consciousness, values and sacredness are ephemeral — we’re merely the ‘little animals’ that H.G. Wells feared we might be at the conclusion of Things to Come (1936). Nigel Kneale’s medium is the TV photoplay, and the two iterations of Q/P are talky and exposition-laden when compared to Kubrick’s almost nonverbal masterpiece; but Kneale’s alternate explanation for human ‘specialness’ is equally thought-provoking.

In the 1990s my teenaged children saw Q/P and immediately proclaimed it the ultimate X-Files episode. The next paragraphs before the break might be a spoiler, revealing Quatermass and the Pit’s central secret:

Nigel Neale proposes a wilder theory, that overturns our species’ self-image in a different way: aeons ago alien beings experimented on the proto- neanderthals they found on Earth, playing Darwin with our brains. Thus a potential for advanced intelligence was imparted, by super-surgery, not a black monolith sentinel. The screwy side effect is that our atavistic experience is contaminated with traces of the alien race, borrowed ‘memories’ of a planet other than our own, with a cruel hive mentality and psychic powers. When the aliens abandoned their experiment, they didn’t leave us with many clues, but our species personality was altered. Kneale posits that phantom memories and psychic residual of the alien manipulation have left us with hidden psychic powers and a ‘race memory’ of ‘creatures with horns’ that was codified into the concept of Evil, long before our own religions were formed.

 

In other words, the first two Quatermass serials assert that the natural order in outer space is an extension of the basic free-for-all we’ve got here on Earth: every species does its utmost to compete with, exploit and victimize every other species it encounters. It’s the cynical/pragmatic Werner Herzog philosophy, that ‘life’ is an unending murder bloodbath. Quatermass and the Pit goes much further to say that Everything We Know Is Wrong.   We’re dealt a lower blow to our species pride, the revelation that we aren’t the anointed creations of a God, but animals given a ‘brain boost’ by Martians fooling around with a &@#% science fair project — or a concerted effort to colonize Earth by proxy. The last Quatermass story from 1979 (Quatermass aka The Quatermass Conclusion) takes us down a peg further, reducing humans to food, a crop ready to be harvested!


Hammer Films licensed the serials from the BBC, and handed authorship of the first two over to the very sharp writer-director Val Guest, who streamlined them into efficient, exciting and highly popular (in England) theatrical features. The first The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) boosted Hammer out of the ‘minor studio’ bracket, and made bigger productions possible; X – The Unknown (1956) is an immediate ‘faux Quatermass’ followup made to chase the format, while Val Guest’s more ambitious first sequel Quatermass 2 (1957) was being developed. Filmed in B&W and starring Hollywood star Brian Donlevy, the first two Quatermass serials were like Hammer’s earlier upgrades of radio thrillers, with borrowed American actors in hopes of finding an international audience. Kneale’s 1959 TV serial Quatermass and the Pit was hailed as the best of the three — and it still plays well — but by then Hammer’s main energies were soon redirected to their exponentially more successful gothic horror films, shot in Technicolor and with all-Brit casts. While concentrating on pioneering new international horror territory, Hammer delayed The Pit for a full seven years. By the time it arrived, both Hammer and the movie market had changed considerably.


The feature Quatermass and the Pit (1968) is filmed in bright color and directed by Roy Ward Baker, a respected pro with some great achievements under his belt, most notably the best ‘Titanic’ epic,  A Night to Remember.  Kneale adapted this sequel himself — was not happy with the first two sequels, and even suppressed the second for almost twenty years when the rights reverted to his control. But for Q/P he seems to have learned a good lesson from Val Guest’s re-write job. The three-hour miniseries is cut in half for running time yet drops no key story points, taking time to let the fine actors help us through a series of daunting revelations.

 

The story starts on a small scale. A new metro subway excavation uncovers some anthropological specimens, which brings in scientist Doctor Roney (James Donald of Bridge on the River Kwai). Construction is further halted when Roney’s student assistants, including Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), uncover the strange polished hull of what is at first feared to be a WW2 German terror missile. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Kier of Dracula Prince of Darkness) has just been forced to forfeit his Rocket Group to military stewardship. He’s already clashing with his new superior, the unimaginative Colonel Breen (Julian Glover).

Roney, Quatermass and Judd join forces to propose fantastic theories about the origin of what they feel certain is a space ship that has been buried for five million years, and its relationship to the primitive hominid remains found around and partly inside the hull– ape-men with what appear to be altered skulls. Colonel Breen scoffs at such nonsense. He presses on to penetrate into what he assumes is just a more sophisticated V-weapon… and unleashes terrifying psychic forces that have been lying dormant for millennia.

Speaking personally, I don’t feel all that receptive to theories that human evil is sourced from outside the human experience … saying that ‘Martians made me do it’ would seem a convenient evasion of responsibility. But the outlandish Q/P is as good a science fiction fable as has come along. If Martian creatures hadn’t set up their bio-evolution lab in a Knightsbridge swamp, would humanity have remained in a natural Garden of Eden, ignorant but blissful?

 

When a perfect 35mm print of Quatermass and the Pit was shown at the 1975 FILMEX sci-fi marathon, the full-house crowd went nuts with every new spooky occurrence … the basic thrill was seeing ‘supernatural’ phenomena explained in scientific terms. People are possessed not by evil demons, but by alien impulses designed to spread fear and chaos, as an agent of social control. The Martian influence is a ‘hive mentality’ that uses psychic powers to enforce conformity and ‘cull the herd.’ When Londoners become a mob, they band together to destroy individuals that are different. That’s not a bad description of societies directed by fear… as individuals, we do have an instinct that compels us to be gregarious, to be part of a herd — which can also be a mob conducting a purge.

Hammer gives the show a good production. It visualizes most scenes better than the 1959 teleplay, which (I think) mixed film and live video for a typically ratty 1950s video appearance — at least on surviving Kinescopes. (I hear that improved versions substitute original film transfers.) The Hammer production is elaborate, the acting is terrific, and director Baker works up considerable tension for the film’s high points.

Andrew Kier ties with André Morell for the best Quatermass. I have a fondness for Brian Donlevy’s blunt-instrument rudeness, but Kier’s thoughtful ‘Sherlock Holmes’ of science fiction is especially good at speculating out loud the verbal clues that keep our curiosity on track. The pearly-blue/green thing underground, with the chrysalis shape that glows with organic veins, is not a bad design. We side against Colonel Breen the moment he insists that it fell during wartime.

As happens in stories like these, the time frame can feel overly compressed. Dr. Roney has a fine-art clay mannequin of the altered hominid sculpted overnight. Some of the Professor’s more advanced mind-bending assumptions arrive rather hastily as well. But the feeling of growing menace and hysteria is managed early. Various soldiers and laymen, and then Barbara and Bernard, feel themselves being possessed by what Donald Sutherland would call Negative Waves emanating from the un-earthed, activated space ship. A storm of crazy Black Magic phenomena wipes out a district of London. People on the street are transformed into lynch mobs with telekinetic powers, Carrie White Hit Squads. Only the selfless humanist Dr. Roney possesses The Dispassionate Right Stuff to formulate a fix. Its execution puts him on a flimsy construction crane, pivoting right into the Evil Heart of the Invader.

 

Nigel Kneale’s concept avoids the pitfalls of most sci-fi epics, as Q/P never devolves into action clichés of people shooting guns. He even avoids the rubber monsters of his first two serials. Kneale would write more stories about scientific ‘explanations’ for the supernatural, but this is the one that still impresses Sci-fi fanatics.

What, it’s not perfect?

I have to say that when I first caught up with the show in 1972 — after John Baxter’s buildup — it seemed a letdown. The problem was seeing it on open-frame 16mm, probably cropped from 1:66. Roy Ward Baker’s direction is active — and his actors are always on target — but the film often feels cramped in scale, like a TV show. Overall there are too many close-ups and tight shots. The brisk pace is a plus, but we’re given no moments to contemplate the new ideas served up in quick succession. The subject matter begs for occasional expressionist effects, of which there are none. The literal approach to every scene hampers early scenes of possession — when a workman staggers into the street, wild-eyed and disoriented, nothing subjective is done with the camera to express the man’s feeling of vertigo & terror from experiencing the Martian visions. He hits the ground in a graveyard trying to make the dizzyness stop, and all Baker does is have somebody ripple a floor mat for an unconvincing earthquake effect.

Good editing and camerawork at the finale makes the most of some limited street chaos and a few funky miniatures, but overall the corner cutting is too severe. All the money must have gone into the elaborate set of the metro excavation. The little alley outside is barely wide enough for a single car, and a haunted building offered as a side trip is only eight or nine steps away, as in a set for a TV soap opera. Ministry buildings and museum research centers feel like over-dressed storefronts.

Kneale’s only misstep is something that I think really damages the movie — and maybe it’s just my warped perception because I’ve never heard a complaint about it. I wasted a lot of time in my first review with this gripe:

Dr. Roney and Quatermass want to prove that men subjected to the influence of the still-living space ship are having the atavistic alien parts of their brains reactivated. Gee, if we only knew what they were thinking about!

That’s when Quatermass phones home to his pals at the Rocket Group to arrange delivery of a rather convenient device — a fantastic invention that converts brain waves into visuals viewable on a screen. Essentially, it’s the incredible dream invention from Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, or the ‘bad dream extractor’ of Václav Vorlícek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie?, but in a box the size of a lie detector. Plug it in and they are watching stored memory videos of a purge back on Mars … lots of hopping insect creatures in a giant Fuss-ball game. Everybody decries the poor special effects and viewers always laugh, but nobody protests the presence of the experimental dream-visualizer.

The inadequate visuals are beside the point — if Roney has this REVOLUTIONARY DEVICE, what the heck is he doing playing around with old bones?   As becomes a major issue in the Wenders picture, the mind-camera device would be the MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER INVENTED BY MAN. I’m trying to think of a similar narrative land mine in another movie, but haven’t quite yet. It’s a testament to Q/P’s essential power that this sidebar stumble doesn’t bring everything to a halt.

Or perhaps I’m just nuts. Nobody, not even Kim Newman, is bothered by this.

 

Breaking into the space ship motivates some really good visuals and some that are barely adequate. For me, any alien space ship that doesn’t have doorknobs or glass bricks is a thoughtful design, but the plexiglass honeycomb we see isn’t very impressive. The oddest surprise is that the mocked-up aliens are so unexciting — they’re just sloppy rubber castings of bugs with minimal detail — we even see a lot of ‘mold flash’ around the tangled feet.    (Somebody tell Craig Reardon that I’m not blaming the special effect prop fabricators…. perhaps the  monster experts’ delivery schedule was accelerated on short notice, and they had to be done overnight.)

Helping to compensate is a neat shot of Bernard tweezing a layer of skin from an insectoid eye. Another gore detail takes the place of Hammer’s traditional blood close-up: a scalpel incision releases a gushing flow of green ooze, as if Linda Blair were hiding inside.

I’m not alone in all my opinions — several pundits say that they always thought the alien mockups in the original TV show look far better, on what had to be a nickel & dime (shillings & pence?) budget. Oh well.

 

All corner-cutting is forgotten in the beautifully-conceived finale, the big-scale business of ‘grounding’ the alien projection that hovers over London like the Bat Signal. Kneale’s references to traditional Satanic imagery and superstition are well woven into the story line: the scratched Pentagram, the name ‘Hob’s Lane,’ etc. Dr. Roney’s heroic wild ride is one of Hammer’s most spectacular finishes. Its focus and sobriety betters the expensive visual effects orgy that concludes Tobe Hooper’s later faux-Quatermass epic Lifeforce.

The film’s thoughtful impact is aided greatly by the low-key, drawn-out recovery epilogue that leaves Andrew Kier and Barbara Shelley in the ruined street, dazed, confused, and exhausted. Hammer was famous for getting their ending cast calls and exit cues rolling at the earliest possible moment. The nice switch on expectations keeps Q/P from feeling like it belongs back in the 1950s.

In our post- 2001 era, after 1,001 sci-fi pictures with ‘Fantastic! Mind-Blowing!’ science fiction ideas of increasingly diminished interest, Quatermass and the Pit’s daring and revolutionary concept is still a big winner.


 

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Quatermass and the Pit is every bit the disc we wanted to see. The rich, colorful image hasn’t faded one iota, and with the added resolution of HD the images have added depth and detail. On a big monitor, it’s the equal of a quality theatrical presentation. All that’s missing is a big audience going nuts because 1) considerable anxiety is generated, and 2) the movie doesn’t insult our intelligence.

We’re pretty sure that no original audio track is present: the audio is the 5.1 remix with new effects added to the track; and the ‘mono’ option is a mix-down. Keen observers may have a more definitive answer on that, and on the fact that, when tools and other items float around under telekinetic influence, we can’t see any wires holding them up. It’s possible that a few have been removed.

2019 is the best year so far for releases of fantastic classics on Blu-ray. The disc boutiques that license these vault titles are clearly in competition impress the fans — Arrow, Powerhouse Indicator, and Kino are taking special care to take a Criterion-like approach to extras for titles deemed worthy. Scream Factory throws the book at this one. Existing extras are retained from older releases; not everything feels dated, but we can tell because some of the usual suspects familiar experts indeed look a tad younger. The interviewees on file include actor Julian Glover, and a charming piece with Nigel Kneale’s widow, who happily tells us all about their romance back at the BBC (about the time I was being born, I guess). Joe Dante likes the movie enough to answer a raft of questions. He reasons that the censors and pundits didn’t object to Kneale’s radically anti-religious theme because nobody was paying attention to science fiction movies, period.

That opinion agrees with Daily Variety’s review, which came exactly one week before the raves given Planet of the Apes. Their assessment was positive, but muted: “…somewhat distended development,” “…suspenseful (if not always clear) exposition,” and “…a fair dual bill sci-fi yarn about a lost tribe from Mars.”  Not a single red flag falls to warn America’s church guardians. Q/P indeed slipped by as a double bill release, and in comparison to its conceptual cousin 2001 attracted little notice. Actually, at least here in the states, the 1968 Sci-fi attraction that got more people excited, that had the biggest impact, was Planet of the Apes.

The authoritative Kim Newman and Marcus Hearn show up in side-by-side video pieces that complement each other perfectly — Hearn’s social, Sci-fi and conceptual context plays well against Newman’s researched studio history. Hearn explains that Hammer didn’t immediately adapt the third Quatermass serial because the American studios that funded their lucrative distribution deals weren’t keen to bankroll such an expensive, Britain-centric show. Newman notes, with that twinkle in his eye, that he frowns on possible new plans to remake the Quatermass series today, re-setting the very English tale in New York. When they produced Superman: The Movie, Kim argues, they didn’t relocate the Daily Planet to London.  And now that I’ve seen the featurette, I note that Kim Newman was inspired to the same green goop / Linda Blair comparison that I was.

Also well worth checking out are the three separate audio commentaries. Established fans have probably already heard the older track with Roy Ward Baker (died 2010) and Nigel Kneale (died 2006). The separate new commentaries naturally duplicate some material (as do Hearn and Newman) but all of the contributors offer their own ideas on the film’s theme, why it’s so exciting and different, and ‘what it all means.’ Bruce G. Hallenbeck at first seems to be giving standard play by play coverage, but it soon becomes apparent that his track has unique information to offer. On the other new commentary, Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr apply good research and (just as important) thoughtful perspective to yet another Hammer winner — I’m more a booster of sci-fi than Satanic horror, so I paid closer attention here. As professional as they are, it’s clear that these men love these pictures.

I agree with these experts that this third Quatermass picture is just as important and significant as the bigger Sci-fi landmarks of 1968 — its right up there, as Constantine Nasr says, with the top titles in the genre.

The disc carries a nice selection of gallery items, including the U.S. title sequence with the Five Million Years to Earth main title card. Disc collectors often find they must keep older, inferior discs because of one special item not viewable anywhere else. In this case I’m glad I didn’t hang on to my first DVD…  21 years ago, it soon became an over-valued collector’s item.

← Released in Spain in late 1968, the film was given an interesting Spanish-language title: ¿Qué Sucedió Entonces?   The literal translation is, ‘What happened then?’  It either means, ‘what happened back then,’  5 million years in the past, or perhaps a simple ‘what happened next?’   Spanish experts please weigh in!

 

With substantial corrections/assistance from Gary Teetzel.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Quatermass and the Pit
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: (from Shout:) NEW audio commentaries with Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman, and with Bruce G. Hallenbeck; NEW interviews With actor Hugh Futcher, special effects artist Brian Johnson, clapper loader Trevor Coop, focus Puller Bob Jordan; archived interviews with Judith Kerr, actor Julian Glover, actor/writer Mark Gatiss, Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Marcus Hearn; archived audio commentary with director Roy Ward Baker and writer Nigel Kneale. World of Hammer Ð Sci-Fi, trailers, TV spots, still gallery, Alternate U.S. main title sequence.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
October 20, 2019
(6111pit)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.