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Quatermass and the Pit Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 25, 2011 at 8:44 PM

    Quatermass and the Pit Review

    I tell you, people don't believe nothin' nowadays unless they've seen it on the telly.”

    With cover art that resembles that for Phil Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Optimum's new Blu-ray/DVD combo release of Hammer's awesome 1967 adaptation of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass And The Pit (aka Five Million Miles To Earth) makes something of barnstorming debut on the format. Fans have been champing-at-the-bit for offerings from the cherished studio in high-definition although, to date, the releases that we've had have been slightly left-field. Paranoic, Vampire Circus and The Man Who Could Cheat Death (all of which I have reviewed) have been enormously welcome, of course, but real Hammerites, like myself, are impatiently awaiting the likes of Curse Of Frankenstein, Dracula and its immediate sequel Prince Of Darkness, The Abominable Snowman, Curse Of The Werewolf, The Mummy, The Brides Of Dracula (visually their most ravishing)and Captain Kronos amongst a great many others to surface. But Optimum score big-time with this colourful, articulate and hugely imaginative SF thriller from cult screenwriter Nigel Kneale that will, hopefully, lead to many more making the leap.

    Kneale's intelligent brand of genre-writing for film and TV started from a clinical stance. In his mind, these concepts – aliens, yetis, the occult and influences fro pre-history – were all based in scientific truth, or at least a convincing extension of scientific truth. He didn't come to these stories and screenplays by looking at the showmanship-angle of monsters and mass destruction first, such mayhem may have been the eventual by-product but, for him, it was the unravelling of a cosmic, or supernatural mystery that intrigued him most of all. And if he could tie these concepts into current social mores – rocket science, the Cold War, racial tensions, warmongering – then all the more reason to twist them around with plausible sounding explanations.

    His beloved yet curmudgeonly hero, Professor Bernard Quatermass – the skin-prickling surname culled from a stab in the phone-book – had been the Earthly defender in two previous big film outings for Hammer. Ace director Val Guest helmed them both with 1955's supremely monikered The Quatermass Xperiment (and released as The Creeping Unknown in America) seeing the imp-like rocket scientist battle an unfortunate astronaut who had returned from space with an alien infection that transformed him into a deadly mass of plant-like savagery, and then 1957's follow-up, Quatermass II (or Enemy from Space in the US), in which the cantankerous egghead took on extra-terrestrials who had already infiltrated the planet and proceeded to set up huge factories run by zombified humans in their clandestine effort for eventual takeover. Both had been immensely successful TV drama serials for the Beeb before Hammer gave them the celluloid go-ahead. Quartermass And The Pit was televised back in 1958 to tremendous acclaim, almost winning the bums-on-seats battle with the cinemas, so it was only a matter of time before Hammer took it under their by-now blood-soaked wing.

    Made in 1967, just on the eve of the great genre explosion that saw Barbarella, The Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Night Of The Living Dead change things forever, and now in colour and directed in his first production for Hammer with what would become customary speed and guile by Roy Ward Baker who, whilst no considered artist like Guest, was much more in-tune with the dynamics of the narrative and could move things along at a brisk clip. He didn't want to bog things down with lectures and sermons, the sort of scientific and intellectual theorising that the TV series could and did give space for, and even if the third Quatermass instalment didn't benefit from an ever-changing monster like the first one, or boast unorthodox battle scenes like the second, he would ensure that an atmosphere of slow-building thumb-screw dread and paranoia would keep audiences gripped.

    At the same time as the ever-beleaguered Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is discovering that he is to run his hallowed space project in-conjunction with the low IQ militarism and hate-injected intolerance of his professional rival Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), some even more startling discoveries are being made in the renovation work beneath the Hobbs End tube-station. As the workers claw away the mud walls down in the tunnels, an array of primitive bones are revealed. Swiftly brought in to assess who and what they belonged to, high-brow palaeontologist Dr. Roney (The Great Escape's James Donald), comes to some incredible conclusions. These are the remains of an evolutionary offshoot of ourselves, but with enhanced brains not associated with our known ancestors. But before he can declare the site as a scientific excavation, the hull of what appears to be a massive bomb is also unearthed. Curses! The vicious sniping animosity between the halls of academia and the stiff-upper-lipped mob is set in time-honoured motion. When the Bomb-Disposal unit, headed up by the great Bryan Marshall (Destroyer, The Long Good Friday) can't make head nor tail of the strange device, the egocentric Breen struts in, dragging a resentful Quatermass with him. Declaring the thing in the pit a Nazi experimental weapon, he sets to work on breaking into it with a variety of drills – none of which can penetrate its bizarre shell. But the increased human activity around the thing rouses the dark powers that reside within it, and pretty soon people are witnessing frightening visions of demon-like creatures, and the place becomes a chamber of telekinetic mischief, possession and terror.

    With his previous encounters no doubt still fresh in his mind, although they are hardly referenced by the screenplay, Quatermass finds the whole thing very stimulating. Allying himself with Roney and his plucky assistant Barbara Judd (the lovely Barbara Shelley) he begins to uncover unsettling evidence that the area surrounding the satanically named Hobbs End station – actually an evolution of the older Hob's Lane – has long been associated with hauntings and bad tidings. Investigating the derelict houses across the road, he and Miss Judd find the walls covered with mysterious scratches, and the old police sergeant showing them around manifests clear panic at the evil atmosphere of the place. There is clearly a lot more going on here than Colonel Breen assumes, and when a wall in the “missile” cracks and gives way, revealing several insectoid bodies hidden within, both Roney and Quatermass arrive at the terrific conclusion that the thing in the pit is actually a Martian spacecraft and that its dormant occupants have been telepathically manipulating the minds of human beings … and were probably responsible for creating Man's war-like tendencies and racial animosity, irreparably thwarting natural evolution in the process.

    Heady concepts from Nigel Kneale once again. In fact, the story for Quatermass And The Pit, with its theological asides – the Martians look like devils and their psychic influence has possession-like attributes – and its huge social commentary, is probably his most wide-ranging and audacious. When the pig-headed Breen dismisses Quatermass's theories and blunders on with his own warped crusade he unwittingly opens the gates to the apocalypse, setting the scene for a fantastic climax of anarchy and destruction that could spell the demise of Mankind. What more could you ask for from a vintage SF classic?

    The set for the Pit is marvellous. One end is typical London subway, the other a muddy enclave of pure fantasy indulgence. The ship, itself, has a wonderful design, somewhat fashioned after the shell-like carapace of a scarab beetle. When the thing comes “alive” it pulsates with veins, glowing like an alien brain. During scenes when its powers are activated, objects, tools and equipment are levitated and swung through the air. It is always claimed that you can see the filaments operating these wildly dancing objects, but I think the effect is done with too much of a sense of giddy bravura to notice. Or care. Composer Tristram Cary uses orchestra and electronics with often startling alacrity. The scenes of energy-boosted Martian activity are given a massive aural wallop courtesy of his elaborate early synthesised effects – reminiscent of what Louis and Bebe Barron achieved for Forbidden Planet. The deserted houses whose residents were driven out by the evil alien manifestations are beautifully eerie, that early scene of the Bobby getting the jitters is an absolute stand-out of quiet, hair bristling suspense. One final visual effect is admittedly poor, but only because it seems so simple and a little too convenient to really set the pulse racing. It is important to note, however, that the tackiness of this climactic embellishment is greatly offset by the human sacrifice that is made, rendering any complaints rather outweighed by the emotional aspect.

    Quatermass obviously informed the ever-valiant and Earth-defending character of Doctor Who. The very title of this yarn with its Quatermass “And” would also influence how the Doctor's adventures would frequently be termed. And, foreshadowing the antics of U.N.I.T. in Doctor Who, the film is filled with beret-wearing Action Man sqauddies who provide that earthy British mood of gritty realism. Somehow, seeing our boys scurrying about, saluting, smirking and fetching/carrying is always more convincing than seeing their American counterparts. There's a genuine believability about them that the Yanks don't seem to have. Whilst those guys wisecrack-away and look cool in flying jackets or with their chin-straps casually unbuckled, our fellers have on their woollen jerseys with shirts and ties underneath, plus those coarse and scratchy jackets to contend with. The bonhomie, even when patently scripted, still has a core element of credibility – and their no-nonsense, just-get-on-with-it attitude does them credit. Which, of course, means that when one unfortunate soldier gets a sudden vision of a Martian wandering through steel walls and flips out, it is all the more shocking.

    Quatermass And The Pit broke the tradition of monster-on-the-attack chillers because the Martians are long dead and it is their psychic residue that lives on, awoken by the mental aberrations of the race they had manipulated millennia ago … and gaining sustenance from it. Acclaimed fantasy/SF author Ray Bradbury would concern himself with the telepathic powers of a crushed red planet civilisation in his great The Martian Chronicles, further instilling Mankind's seemingly determined attitude to finding life there … of some kind. Of course, this sort of science fiction could often prove to be weighted down too much on the side of the “science” when there wasn't a tentacled monster running amok, but Kneale and Baker were experts at playing with audience expectations and were able to provide enough action-by-proxy and splendidly creepy moments to keep viewers hooked. The contemporary setting was a bonus, too. The gothic chillers that the studio churned out were beautiful but distant. Seeing modern London streets – well, sets doubling for them – brought the nightmare home with a more immediate relevance. Plus, like all of the Quatermass stories, and the majority of SF being made over the Pond, the tale was ultimately apocalyptic, and this was what audiences wanted back then. In a strand of reverse psychology they sought escape from the harsh tensions of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War in films that depicted such horrors from a more fantastical and colourful perspective.

    Stepping into the ever-ferreting shoes of Prof. Quatermass this time was professional Scotsman Andrew Kier. Already a familiar face to Hammer fans with a couple of pirate flicks under his belt, Dracula Prince of Darkness and The Viking Queen, he was terrific character actor with a brogue and look that was immediately distinctive. He may have toiled in the backgrounds of a few historical epics too, with Cleopatra, The Fall of The Roman Empire and A Night To Remember, but he knew a thing or two about alien threats as well, having witnessed, first hand, the Daleks: Invasion of Earth 2150 AD. So the menace caused from awakening of this little Martian spearhead should have been old hat to him. Audiences had enjoyed seeing Yank Brian Donlevy playing the determined, take-no-prisoners rocket scientist in Hammer's first two Quatermass pictures, but they had never warmed to him. In Kier's hands, the professor became a lot more amicable and cuddly, with his thick beard and protective, charitable nature. He still had his trials and tribulations with authority of course, but Keir's depiction was clearly the good guy, whilst Donlevy could actually blur the line between hero and villain with hard-hearted brusqueness. In the TV serial of a decade before, it was Andre Morell who, only a year prior to the professorial baton-change, had battled the living dead for Hammer in the Cornish tin-mines of The Plague Of The Zombies. This connective tissue that flowed through the studio's productions, both in front of and behind the cameras, was not unlike the race-memory and psychological coding that The Pit's storyline embraces. Almost unconsciously, we feel the symmetry and the creative pattern that binds the films together, lending a form of cosy deja vu to the experience. This was something that Hammer excelled at – without even trying – and would become one of its unique and almost familial trademarks. Kier would be reunited with Kneale, and once more take on the gruffly inquisitive attitude of the Professor, in BBC Radio 3's five-part 1996 series The Quatermass Memoirs, in which SF's academic crusader recounts his three acclaimed adventures for a journalist.

    With the memory of the terrible race riots still simmering in peoples' minds, Kneale's tale taps into the hysteria and the intolerance that the country, as well as the United States and elsewhere, were undergoing. The chaos on the streets also serves as a portent for much imagery to follow. It is hard to watch the unfolding scenes of possessed rioters tumbling out of Hobbs End and not be reminded of the final act of American Werewolf, or the frenzied action of Lifeforce, and even the zombie-like epidemic flooding the capital in 28 Days and Weeks Later. And, of course, the recent riots that ripped through London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. That Nigel Kneale, eh? His stuff is endlessly surprising. Prescient, incisive, bold and ominously well-conceived, he was the Michael Crichton of his era.

    And, for him, the scientist on the case was never there for mere expositional purposes. Quatermass wasn't just an information disseminator and theorist. He got stuck in too. Thus Kier's Quatermass is not immune to the Martian mania, himself. He may be able to guess what is going on, with some huge leaps of logic that only a movie-boffin could ever make, but he becomes as much a victim as the majority of the people swarming through the London streets on a rampage do. He becomes a part of the evolutionary purge, himself. This element, alone, marked the film out as being unusual in a genre that, more often than not, picked its sides as being black and white as stuck rigidly to them. He would fall just as surely as the general populace if it wasn't for the redoubtable Roney slapping some sense back into him and compelling him to fight back.

    Barbara Shelley was no stranger to the genre, the studio, or to Andrew Kier. Incorporating all three affiliations with memorable gusto was her performances in Hammer's Dracula Prince Of Darkness from two years prior, in which her sensuous vampirical form is brutally and provocatively held down by a gaggle of monks and then staked by Kier's crusading Father Shandor. But the flame-haired actress had been seen in MGM's Village Of The Damned before a tour of duty for Hammer that also included The Secret of Blood Island, The Gorgon and Rasputin The Mad Monk. Shelley was like a blood-sister to Hazel Court, another redhead who made a distinct impression in what would become cult horror movies. A very good actress and truly eye-catching, her scientific assistant to Dr. Roney is not the pretty but bland creation that her Stateside sisters would almost certainly be. She does a whole lot more than simply stand around and scream for help. Barbara Judd eagerly indulges in some detective work of her own and is not content to sit idly by as the menfolk tear their each other's hair out. Plus, fans get to see something of a demented nod to her carnivorous vampire portrayal as she goes Martian-mental and goes for Keir with some considerable gusto. She's obviously got a score to settle after he plunged that stake into her. Shots of her simply standing there in pod-person mode amid Dresden-like devastation are extremely effective.

    Julian Glover, playing a somewhat younger Colonel Breen than is strictly accurate, is not at all miscast as a few critics have commented. He is the sort of go-getting, falsely confident and irrationally brazen military man who would have won his commission in the shadow of a decorated father. Having just missed out on good old “double-u double-u eye-eye” (thank you Mr. Futterman from Gremlins) he would have found a lot to live up to and yet little opportunity. Having worked with rockets, missiles and unexploded shells before being seconded to a scientific project, he is probably colossally bitter that he hasn't seen action other than bullying lower-rung officials in the Ministry of Defence. An egocentric buffoon and a prime example of the genre's quintessentially stuffy and closed-minded rupert, Breen is following in the doomed footsteps of a long and heartily held tradition. He also gets one of Hammer's most famous and visually striking comeuppances.

    This battle between military and the scientific minds is one that was most blatantly and effectively waged in the classic Hawks and Nyby production of The Thing From Another World, and has been witnessed in dozens of other SF and horror outings, from Forbidden Planet to even Romero's Day Of The Dead. I'm not actually sure which side is overall winner in these genre stakes, as both have been regularly rendered imbecilic in practically equal measure by the situations that they have found themselves in. The one definite thing is that the two factions never, ever see eye-to-eye. Here, the very collaboration of war and knowledge-furtherance is a device that Kneale actively wanted to explore. At the time of his writing Quatermass And The Pit, CND had just been formed and the acceleration of the Cold War was meshing the two ideals – science and destruction – into one seething and volatile mass not unlike the amorphous, conscience-less blobs seen rampaging in the first two Quatermass instalments and the wonderful Quatermass-in-disguise outing, X The Unknown. Breen's obsessive clinging to the belief that the Martian insectoids are nothing more than Nazi propaganda tools stuffed into the hold of their missile to throw the Brits completely off-guard may seem utterly ridiculous, but look at how similar mock-ups have been used to foster the whole alien autopsy and UFO footage phenomena in more recent times. I can recall some Fortean speakers and conspiracy-mongers stating the same thing about the authorities trying the throw us off the scent of real aliens with such fakery – another sort of reverse psychology, if you will. Suddenly, the machinations of bumbling ministers and military top brass doesn't seem so far fetched when used as a smokescreen for more sinister intentions.

    But Kneale and Baker don't just sit back and admire their intelligent incisions into political and sociological dogma. They supply us with some pulse-pounding set-pieces too.

    When Sladden (Duncan Lamont) the contracted drilling engineer falls under the influence of the Martians, the film shifts up a gear or two. In a celebrated set-piece that is recalled by Patrick Troughton's doomed priest afflicted by a killer storm in The Omen, Sladden runs for his life from the pit and out into the streets, a whirling maelstrom of energy giving life to everything around him so that he is at the epicentre of his own tempest wherever he flees. Collapsing in the sanctity of a churchyard, the very ground beneath him throbs with an infernal, alien power. Lamont is wonderful in the subsequent sequence when Quatermass and Barbara quiz the stricken, mind-fried Sladden about what he experienced. He tells them that he saw Martians “running, jumping… leaping!” with a face that suddenly resembles a terrified Frankie Howerd, and the whole whirling Dervish act starts all over again in a very familiar-looking Borehamwood church-set. Suddenly the film is able to economically and convincingly posit the notion that poltergeist activity and demon possession are all part and parcel of this same alien race-memory, both contradicting and yet reinforcing the church's stance about evil forces being at work in the world. The sheer audacity of Kneale's idea is a diabolical revelation in itself. It is the sort of brilliance that made Science Fiction the real realm of mighty, culture-swinging speculation … and placed Kneale right at the forefront of that campaign. Remarkably, critics and audiences at the time never really leapt at this fabulous conceit, which almost makes it seem as though the film's own influence worked some kind of Martian spell over them. Certainly now, its themes of where race hatred and our notions of the Devil came from are considered one of SF's crowning glories … Arthur C. Clarke's highly influential Childhood's End dutifully acknowledged too.

    Baker had directed Kier in A Night To Remember, but he was better known for his escapist-fantasy TV shows such as The Avengers, The Champions and Department S. His quick, incident-packed style was well-suited to Hammer, and he would bring a lurid, comic-book sensibility to things like the savage Scars Of Dracula and the simply delirious Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires (see CD review). He clearly found some sort of affinity for the theme of tense, stethoscope-wearing squaddies walking on eggshells around half-buried lumps of metal as he would also go on to helm episodes of the cracking 70's war-time drama Danger UXB with Anthony Andrews and genre-babe Judy Geeson. He generates enormous excitement during the fiery and violent finale. Scenes of crowds of possessed citizens surrounding individuals singled-out for extermination, or purging, are quite strong even if we don't actually see the mob descend upon them. Kneale must surely have been influenced by Don Siegel's seminal 1956 Body Snatchers adaptation of Jack Finney's nightmarish novel as much as he had been by the race riots on the London streets.

    What continues the let the film down, though, are the Martians themselves. Although the actual design of the creatures, rather like demonic grasshoppers – which is a little too reminiscent of the Moon-things populating our nearest celestial relative in the fanciful Ray Harryhausen adventure which, incidentally, Kneale actually wrote, First Men In The Moon, to be honest – their weird otherworldliness runs counter to traditional SF monsters. These are not men in rubber suits. Plus we never get to see any of them actually advancing upon some hapless screaming human victim in any of the more expected clichés. By implying their influence and hearing the hysterical claims made by those who have witnessed visions of them, their metaphysical mystique is maintained. But even if the tangible things are interesting to look at and unusual enough to inspire a shudder, the telepathically gained video footage of the mass purging of their Martian hives, that is so supposed to inspire in us utter dread, is simply dreadful. Even given the comparative lack of budget the visual FX for this are overwhelmingly shoddy and can't help but detract from the sense of ominous doom and horror that the imagery is meant to convey. Honestly, if you spliced-in footage from the classic children's TV show The Clangers (come on, those folks who can remember it, how awesome was that then?) it would have been more effective. I see this now and my reactions are just the same as the embarrassed Minister (Edwin Richfield) as he views Quatermass' evidence of Martian threat – somewhat let-down and uncomfortable.

    But the screenplay, the performances and Baker's dazzling control over it all are strong enough to make this just a small bone of contention.

    Fans of the story and the character will know how condensed this version is, but this doesn't alter the power, mystery and atmosphere of Hammer's theatrical adaptation one iota. All the main ingredients are here, and the opulent DeLuxe colour makes it a vibrant, often gaudy treat. The set-pieces are terrific and the writing, as you would expect from such an enthusiastic and intelligent talent as Kneale is right on the money. The big ideas are proffered and even if they don't have quite as much room to breathe as they did in the TV series they still set the mind to colourful pondering. This was the best and most elaborate of the Quatermass series but I still adore the first two adventures. Kneale would bring the Professor back again in 1978 for another TV mini-series entitled simply Quatermass, and starring Sir John Mills. Although engaging the fashion of cults and hippies – a little too long after such things were actually prevalent – and providing a dark vision of a future England split asunder by social and moral collapse, this tale of yet another alien threat (Mankind is being harvested at old historical sites) was a major disappointment. There is always talk of rejuvenating the character in remakes and whatnot. Richard Fell adapted and Jason Flemying starred in 2005's live and nostalgic (but thoroughly awful) redux of The Quatermass Xperiment for television, but the big film makeover, with today's special effects and probably somebody like Sir Ian McKellen (who'd be great) or, hey, what about Brian Blessed (who'd be even better in the Andrew Kier mould … and certainly louder!) in the role, has yet to materialise. The newly invigorated Hammer Films have stated that they intend to remake Quatermass And The Pit.

    For now, just settle back and bask in the mesmerising mix of Nigel Kneale and Hammer at their Sci-Fi peak. Quatermass And The Pit is top flight entertainment that is unafraid to engage the grey cells and hypothesise over some big issues. It comes very highly recommended indeed. Now bring on the first two entries!