Saturday, 11 February 2012

Quatermass and the Pit

You'll rarely find it rubbing shoulders with the likes of Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner, but Hammer's 1967 film Quatermass and the Pit is quite simply one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Of the three Quatermass adaptations The Pit had the longest gestation period, first mooted as a Hammer film in 1961, then falling in and out of the production schedule until February 1967 when Nigel Kneale's screenplay finally went before the cameras, some 8 years after the original serial had aired.


During an archaeological dig at Hobbs Lane tube station, a strange unidentified vessel is unearthed. Declared to be an unexploded German missile by Col. Breen, his reluctant colleague Professor Quatermass is not so sure. When insect-like bodies are found inside the vessel, Quatermass is convinced it is in fact an ancient spaceship from another world, and despite it's 5 million year vintage, still contains a destructive power... As Hammer's Quatermass series evolved, the films inched ever nearer to perfection, culminating in Quatermass and the Pit, one of the studio's finest hours. Nigel Kneale's third Quatermass teleplay had packed an extraordinary amount of ideas and imagination into three and a half hours of television, but somehow Kneale's screenplay with just a few minor revisions to the original story, streamlined the story into just 97 minutes of Cinema. "It was one of the few scripts where you didn't have to alter a single word", remembered director Roy Ward Barker. "I just took the script and shot it"

Andrew Kier - the fifth Quatermass
Andrew Kier who had previously battled evil in Dracula Prince of Darkness, stepped into the role of the Professor, and comes a close second to André Morrell as the definitive Quatermass. Kneale was famously displeased with the title role going to Brian Donlevy in the previous films, and was very happy with Kier, who restored the humanity of the character while retaining the toughness required to hold his own against the aggressive Col. Breen. Excellent as well is archaeologist Barbara Shelley (in her final Hammer film) bringing sophistication, not to mention astonishing beauty and grace to what is largely a secondary role. Aside from Kier, she's easily the most interesting and compelling character in the film, outdoing an otherwise excellent James Donald, one of the finest character actors of his generation (appearing in Bridge on the River Kwai, The Vikings and The Great Escape). Incidentally, actor Duncan Lamont who played the roughneck charged with penetrating the interior wall of the spaceship with a drill, appeared as Victor Caroon, the stricken astronaut in the original BBC Quatermass Experiment.

Lucifer over London
Roy Ward Baker who directed A Night to Remember, the definitive film of the Titanic disaster, had spent much of the sixties in television was ideally suited to Hammer's tight scheduling and low budgets, and together with cameraman Arthur Grant who expertly lit Bernard Robinson's magnificent sets, gave the film a class and slickness that went far beyond the final costs of the production. Baker went on to make The Anniversary (1967), The Vampire Lovers and Scars of Dracula (both 1970) for Hammer but Quatermass and the Pit is by far his best work for the studio. The final act of the film is one of Hammer's most dazzling moments, with Baker and his handheld camera urgently capturing the dangerous frenzied streets of London engulfed in chaos (a sequence much imitated by Tobe Hopper in 1985's Lifeforce, a film that owes a huge dept to the Quatermass saga). Brilliant as it is, the film has at least one flaw which most commentators will readily confess to, the scene of Barbara Shelley's recorded vision of the Martian massacre, a rare clumsy moment in the film, botched by some truly pathetic effects. The same scene was included in the television serial but actually looked better. Also, some of the film's effects shots look crude by today's standards, while the alien creatures can look less than convincing (although look out for a deliciously gooey moment, where one of the decomposing bodies drips green juice onto a suitably disgusted soldier!)

Hammer's art department included some shameless self-promotion in the film - behind James Donald you can see a poster for The Witches, while if you look fast during the opening scene where commuters emerge from the elevator, you can just spot a poster for The Reptile
Optimum's DVD of Quatermass and the Pit is one of the best looking DVDs in the box set, featuring a fine, sharp vibrant colorful 1.66 transfer image. Audio is very good too, no problems with dialogue or sound effects. The sole extra on the Optimum disc is a two & a half minute trailer. Far superior is Optimum's 2011 Blu-Ray edition and while I have yet to pick up this disc, by all accounts it's a stunner, and topped many DVD of the Year lists, with a glorious, high-def, demo quality transfer as well as a definitive sound mix. The BR comes with some fine extras as well, a commentary track by Kneale and Baker (from the old Anchor Bay DVD) and a host of interviews with various admirers of the film (the best of which is Kim Newman's 30min segment) as well as the Sci-fi episode of World of Hammer.

2 comments:

  1. All three Hammer Quatermass films were great but Pit really ranks up there as one of the best SF movies of the sixties. Dated in places but wonderful atmosphere.

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  2. Yeah, Quatermass and the Pit really is a high water mark for Hammer Cinema, and a fantastic trilogy of films. I am torn between the BBC Pit and the Hammer Pit, but I'm leaning towards the BBC version just because of its breadth and scope...

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