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Schlock & Awe: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT

While I normally use this column for essays about dumb or ridiculous movies, I sometimes like to use it to celebrate genre movies that I think are brilliant but aren’t as widely acclaimed here in the U.S. as they should be for whatever reason. Viz, this which you’re about to read, and true to form, we’re going to the United Kingdom to find our film du jour.

In the 1960s, there was no stopping the machine that was Britain’s Hammer Film Studios, cranking out genre films, mainly of the horror variety.  They made nine Dracula movies, seven Frankenstein movies, a handful of Mummy movies, and one-offs featuring werewolves, zombies, and even reptile people.  While the bulk of their output fell into the Gothic realm, with lavish sets, tight corsets, and long capes, they occasionally dipped into the offshoots of suspense, occult, and sci-fi.  The 1968 film, Quatermass and the Pit, ties all three of those together into what is probably one of the best examples of smart British science fiction ever made.

The film was based on the third season of the popular Quatermass television series, concerning the adventures of rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass, head of Britain’s Experimental Rocket Group, as he works to thwart alien menaces that, for the first film anyway, were caused because of his work.  Hammer had already made the first two seasons into films in the ‘50s with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its aptly titled sequel, Quatermass 2 (1957).   American tough-guy actor Brian Donlevy was hired to play Professor Quatermass in the first two films in an attempt to make them play better in America, where they were boringly re-titled The Creeping Unknown and Enemy From Space, respectively.  The author of the TV series, Nigel Kneale, absolutely hated these films and thought that Donlevy in particular was guilty of turning his quiet, thoughtful protagonist into a loud, boorish thug, which is code for “American.”  A decade later, when Hammer finally decided to make Quatermass and the Pit, (U.S. title: Five Million Years to Earth), Kneale wanted to ensure the film stuck more closely to his original intent and wrote the screenplay himself.  Donlevy was replaced by Scottish character actor and Hammer staple Andrew Keir, who lends Quatermass a great deal more believability.

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Directed by one of Hammer’s most prolific directors, Roy Ward Baker, Quatermass and the Pit opens with a work crew building an extension to the London Underground in Hobbs End, where they dig up skeletal remains.  Paleontologist Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald) is called in and deduces that the bones come from an ape man, probably around five million years ago, more ancient than any known ancestral humans.  One of Roney’s team discovers a huge metallic object under the ground and, believing it to be an unexploded Nazi missile, they call in the army bomb disposal unit.  Elsewhere, Professor Quatermass is more than a little displeased when he learns that his planned experiment to colonize the moon has been turned over to the military and is even further put off when he finds that Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) has officially been assigned to his Experimental Rocket Group.  Before much of an argument can take place, Breen is called in to assist with the bomb disposal, and Quatermass tags along.  Further digging reveals the object to be hollow, and inside are the remains of a second apeman, meaning the “bomb” must also be around five million years old.

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Right away, the mystery is building, but as of this point, there has been nothing “horrific” onscreen.  Good science fiction is about ideas and the action or terror comes from them, not the other way around.  When the alien itself is finally revealed, it’s as a function of the story and not for shock value alone.  Quatermass does some investigating of the area of Hobbs End, remarking that “hob” is an old name for the Devil.  He finds that through the centuries, Hobbs End has been plagued by reports of haunting and other spectral activities.  With this, the film begins to bring together the worlds of horror and science fiction.  The more that is learned about the ancient alien creatures, with their horn-like antennae, the more we discover that they were the catalyst for demonic and satanic mythology.  Something for which British science fiction is known is giving a scientific explanation for horror events, and this film goes even further by giving an extraterrestrial cause for humanity’s fears and, indeed, their very existence, something which was very popular at the time. Toward the end of the film, it becomes more and more horrific as the end of the world draws ever nearer. Alien ghost winds, while silly sounding, prove to be all the fright an audience needs.

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It’s pretty clear from this film that Nigel Kneale had a definite dislike of the military; Colonel Breen is depicted throughout as pigheaded and shortsighted and is the major human antagonist for Quatermass.  It’s the warmongers that get in the way of true discovery.  Still, I think the film succeeds in presenting that side’s point of view in a respectable way, if not a sympathetic one.  Breen, while a moron, does truly believe he’s acting for the good of the British people, albeit at the expense of learning and understanding.  On the other hand, Quatermass and Roney, who we’re meant to side with, also believe they’re acting in the best interest of the people, and they too are to a degree mistaken.  Perhaps, then, we are meant to take from this film and others like it that it’s only when brain and brawn work together that anything substantial can be achieved, but it seems an unlikely prospect even outside of the parameters of the film.

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Part of the charm of Hammer films is their sometimes laughably low budget special effects.  The blood is usually day-glo pink and the creature makeup, while elaborate, is painfully obviously caked on.  Quatermass and the Pit, luckily, does not suffer too much from this.  The aliens are depicted mainly as specters and things that zig and zag quickly across the frame, making any seams or strings far less noticeable.  The film also benefits from having a strong script being delivered by a fantastic cast, anchored by Andrew Keir’s grounded portrayal of the title character.  For movies like this, the lead needs to play it as straight as possible, and Keir, a veteran of these kinds of films, truly shines, as does his excellent beard, which looks like it would go on forever if not bound by the restrictions of his face.

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Quatermass and the Pit stands as one of Hammer’s finest hours and an excellent science fiction film.  An influential one at that; Stephen King and John Carpenter have both cited the film as having a huge impact on their work, and its importance to TV shows like The X-Files, ’70s Doctor Who, and Fringe cannot be overstated.  The film is, unfortunately, very hard to find these days, since the Region 1 DVD fell out of print ages ago. There was a spiffy Blu-ray release given to the film a couple of years ago in the U.K., but that, as of this writing, has not made its way to North America. I keep checking. It can be seen under its alternate title semi-regularly on Turner Classic Movies, or it can be purchased in the form of a bootleg, like yours truly got on eBay a few years ago.

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1 comment

  • Yes, I HAVE seen this. The professor of my “Science Fiction” genre class in college said it was one of his favorites. I was pretty disappointed; however, it really came down to a problem with expectations. My professor teased this as a “complex, science-fiction horror film that deals with the origins of Satan.”

    Now, I get how he could say that… but I’m pretty sure I would have been way more on board if he’d just said it was a schlockey, dated science fiction film about space bugs. That might NOT be a truly fair assessment, but it would have won me over.