Quatermass and the Pit Blu-ray Review
Very impressive, this.
We all have lingering doubts about how Optimum handle their transfers, but I have to say that Quatermass looks incredible. The virtually pristine print has been encoded via AVC and presented correctly as 1.66:1.
The bad news we can dispel immediately, and it won't take long. As the film, itself, opens, we observe a London Bobby going about his patch and approaching the Hobbs End Station. It is night-time, or at least late evening, and the street is dark and swathed in shadows, but these shadows are terribly washed-out and infiltrated by grey. Although detail was good, and the colours to be found amidst this compromised murk were bright and clear, the blacks looked, to me anyway, awful. But my misgivings were then turned completely on their heads as the interior scene that follows, in which we encounter the workmen carving their way through the mud-wall that houses bones, skulls and alien craft, revealed fantastic clarity, terrific colour reproduction, rewarding levels of hitherto unseen detail and a pleasing sense of depth … with altogether better stability and presence in the black. And this pretty much set the standard for the rest of the film, revealing a transfer that couldn't fail to satisfy.
Close-ups are especially well resolved, with very clear wrinkles, lines, pockmarks and whiskerage on display. And look at the beads of sickly sweat on those overcome by the Martian influence, particularly the poor police sergeant played by Grant Taylor. Eyes are keen, teeth (and fillings) are easily examined should you be into that sort of thing, and skin-tones are varied and natural, although benefiting from the warm hue that the period, the makeup and the studio, especially, favoured. There is remarkable definition afforded the uniforms of the soldiers and the clothing of the academics – you can see stitching, material texture and a wonderful sharpness heralding the badges, stripes, pips and whatnot of the various ranks. I've always been able to read the “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti on the wall of the scratched house, but it is definitely better rendered here than ever before, as are all of those mysterious and eerie scratch-marks and the splinters of the beams and banisters. Colours are bold and well saturated. Insignia and lipstick stand out (though not on the same person I should state) and will possibly appear boosted but, once again, this is a product of the aesthetic that Hammer required. There is the odd splash of blood, which is suitably garish, and we see some bright and livid flames, sparks and explosions. Barbara Shelley's striking red attire provide a dazzling and alluring highpoint during the final act. The vein-like pulsing of the Martian craft is delicately handled and there are no elements of smearing, banding or aliasing going on.
Grain is nice and film-like. It is consistent and does not veer into noisy territory. Edges are not bolstered with any haloing either.
I'm really happy with how Quatermass And The Pit has been treated on Blu-ray. It is even more of a pleasure to watch the movie now.
The good news doesn't end with the video either. Optimum don't muck about with any pseudo-surround mixing, and Quatermass carries an Uncompressed 2.0 stereo track that sounds faithful and accurate to me,, with the original mono mix appreciably widened and given more space in which to breathe. Dynamics are good. High ends are shrill but don't sound too constrained or bottled-down, and the lower levels are suitably deep in the scheme of things.
Dialogue is clear and never swallowed-up by effects or music, although you have to wonder just what the mix would have been like if Hammer stalwart James Bernard had been scoring the orchestral side of things to complement Tristram Cary's electronica! WOW, that would have been a true audio tour de force of utter bedlam. However, dialogue is clipped and tinny. Hardly a surprise that, though, is it? I didn't hear any dips or obvious variance in vocal levels though. Barbara Shelley is not a scream-queen of the calibre of Fay Wray, Janet Leigh or Barbara Steele but she has a damn good go, and the track captures her tonsils more than adequately.
The sound design is very important to this film. What with lots of unearthly pitches and pulses and droning hums going on when the Martians begin to exert their influence, this is a testing environment for the mix to keep up with and maintain Cary's elaborate synthetics and white noise swirls. The soundfield is stylised and the track is able to present its wildness and its chaos with hugely enjoyable results.
Although we shouldn't expect too much detail within the mix, there is still a lot of stuff going on to provide both some exciting swirls of action and some subtlety. I'm not sure if anything has been especially boosted for this uncompressed track, but there is a great effect for the whipping about of some Martian-swung equipment during one sequence that really taps out with a crystal clear metallic cadence. Wires and cables snap and flap about too. The added width to the track really helps these elements to become a violent wall of sound that genuinely seems to creep towards you across the room. Impacts are okay. We get some thumps and bumps of tumbling masonry and shattering glass, but even if there are buildings crashing to the ground, this is not an especially weighty and bombastic track. Individual elements are still crisply delivered. Things like the starting-up of a generator with a crank-handle, or the dragging of a grill-gate, or the clattering of footsteps all come across with clarity.
Yet more good stuff here! This release is a combo with a DVD version of the movie thrown into the pot.
We get the now-vintage commentary track from Nigel Kneale and Roy Ward Baker which, for fans, is a delight of nostalgia rather than insight. Both men are considerably older by this stage and their reminiscences are broken-up with periods of quiet reflection. There's a air of polite backslapping going on and a now trite-sounding comment on the ease of producing special effects with modern technology, but Kneale still provides some background to his ideas and Baker discusses the cast and the production with a few small anecdotes.
What we get next are a cluster of surprisingly worthwhile interviews.
The first comes courtesy of Judith Kerr, who was Nigel Kneale's wife. This is a more far-reaching a discussion than merely about the film itself, and takes in a lot more of the writer's life and outlook. She talks about how they met and how he came up with Quatermass and about how his stories were all based upon ideas and how these ideas might, one day, have some bearing on our world. She picks a few fine examples to illustrate her point too. All fans of his work will appreciate this.
Then we hear from cult filmmaker Joe Dante, who seems to be appearing in a helluva lot of disc special features these days. He swings about in his chair and provides a detailed and knowledgeable chronicle of how he discovered Hammer and Quatermass and how the films and Kneale's work evolved over the initial trilogy. We hear about the lamented misadventure the writer had with John Carpenter on Halloween III – a deal that Dante actually helped come about. I'm a bit fan of the movie and you can clearly see the elements that were Kneale's. Dante has plenty of opinions about the mixed bag of the film's special effects too. Overall, he is witty and informative and provides a great interview. And I still say he looks like Tony Slattery!
Next up is one of my favourite movie critics and raconteurs – author Kim Newman. Suitably enthusiastic and going at a hundred-words-a-minute, Newman piles on the facts and the trivia and provides his own detailed assessment of the importance of Kneale's work and the influences that he both capitalised on and fostered, himself.
And then we get one of the stars of the picture in Julian Glover, who is, of course, also famous for appearing in The Empire Strikes Back as General Veers and as the vain, eternal-life seeking villain in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. He gets a half-hour session, does Julian, and he covers some ground too. His memory serves him well and we hear his thoughts on the character of Breen, about the rest of the cast, the production, the special effects and how they compare to the over-reliance on CG these days, and about the whole Quatermass franchise and its themes, and he even moves into the other genre roles that he has had too, such as in Empire – which, folks, is an absolutely hysterical slice of praise, reverence and barely concealed ridicule. It's like listening to your Granddad trying to get the names of the characters right and to quote lines from the film. Honestly, it is worth the price of the disc for this section alone – to hear Glover say that he doesn't give a “toss” about the last Star Wars movie! Entertaining, frank and occasionally very amusing, he manages to just about resist the urge to ramble. God, he even goes into snuff movies!!! Wild Man Glover! Listen to him go. In fact, I'd love to have him as a granddad! But it is great to see and hear the man, regardless. As one of the two remaining leads involved with the film who are still alive, the other being Barbara Shelley, kudos must go to Optimum for securing him for this interview. It is obviously a shame that Shelley couldn't be obtained, though.
Things run a little drier when we get to Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. But, once again, here we have some wonderful side-notes to the production and a clear and highly regarded viewpoint about what Hammer did with the material and an objective review of what was incredible about the movie, and what was not. He discusses the film's standing amongst the series, and how all three of them bear up today, with The Pit coming out on top. I was very interested to hear about the treatment of Cary's music and the use of library and stock tracks. He also gets to mention the possibility of further adventures for the Professor now that the studio has been revitalised.
And, finally, we hear from the esteemed and knowledgeable Mark Gatiss. Now we hear about the problems that Kneale had with the BBC and with Hammer and the resentment that he kept up until his death. Gatiss talks about meeting the man with a view to getting his story The Road made, a project that sadly never came to fruition. He doesn't make much mention of the 2005 adaptation of The Quatermass Xperiment, however. Although, to be honest, if I was involved with it, I wouldn't either.
All of these interviews are in hi-def and none of them are little two-minute sound-bites. However, the questioner is never seen or heard and the questions are flashed up on the screen. Check them out, though. There's a few mistakes in there, such as misspelling Nigel Kneale's name and calling Colonel Breen Colonel Green! Although the selection and the generous running-time are welcome, a little bit more care should have been taken, I feel.
After this we get to see the now-nostalgic but really rather poor World of Hammer episode about the studio's SF productions. Narrated by Hammer's only feature-film werewolf Oliver Reed, this is merely an excuse to show off a whole bunch of clips from their various offerings in this genre. Sadly, even worse than the show itself, the sound is terrible and has been badly mixed.
And there's still some more.
We get to see the opening titles for the US release which is exactly the same as the UK print, except for the film's title, obviously. And we also get to see both the original and the US trailers for the film.
Obviously a retrospective making-of would have been appreciated, but I really wish that another commentary track could have been recorded with the likes of Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss. I mean these guys have been approached for material already – and the interviews we see do seem to have been culled from larger sessions that could well embrace later releases.
Quatermass And The Pit is one of Hammer's shining lights, appealing to genre-fans and critics alike, and actually having something intelligent, witty and thought-provoking to add to what was an exciting smorgasbord of creature-features, fantastical moral warnings and speculative fiction that had been playing to packed houses for two imaginative decades. Whilst Hammer's period chillers, as great as they are, were showing signs of repetition and were falling somewhat behind the audacious and flamboyant Poe adaptations of Roger Corman and the gorier, more shocking chillers from America, the studio had been consistently excellent with its SF output. Boundary-pushing, ambitious and articulate, this was a niche that would sadly peter-put with the likes of Moon Zero Two which was also directed by Roy Ward Baker, but would reach its zenith with this last Quatermass escapade.
We had every right to expect something grand for its Blu debut and, happily, Optimum doesn't drop the ball. With a terrifically detailed and vibrant transfer and perfectly acceptable audio, we just needed some quality supplements to round out the package. Whilst a critical commentary would have been good fun, we do, at least, get to hear a familiar but respectable chat track from the film's creators, Nigel Kneale and Roy Ward Baker. And the selection of interviews are wisely gathered and offer a good blend of enthusiastic rhetoric and reminiscence, and background information about the man behind Quatermass.
All in all, this is a marvellous release that Hammer-fans should happily rejoice in. It shows that someone out there really cares about these classics … and I continue to have high hopes about future releases.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £22.99
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