Sunday, 29 May 2011

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Quatermass and the Pit (AKA Five Million Years to Earth) was the third of Hammer’s Quatermass movies, all based on BBC TV series. It came a decade after the first two but it’s certainly a worthy entry in the Quatermass cycle. And ideal viewing if you’re in the mood for the Apocalypse.

A tube station in London is being redeveloped. During the excavations some skulls are found. Rather odd skulls. Palaeontologist Dr Roney (James Donald) believes they’re the skulls of primitive ancestors of humanity but there are a couple of anomalous features about them - they’re much more ancient (possibly five million years old) than any known human ancestor and their brains seem much large than you’d expect.

An even more puzzling discovery follows. What at first appears to be an unexploded bomb dating from the Blitz is found nearby, but it turns out to be mostly hollow and there is another skull inside it. How could a skull five million years old be found inside something dating from just a quarter of a century earlier?

All attempts to cut inside a sealed chamber in the object fail. It resists a drill that can slice through armour plating with ease.

As it happens the eminent rocket scientist Dr Bernard Quatermass has just been assigned to work (much against his will) with a military weapons expert, Colonel Breen (Julian Glover). They both find themselves involved and Quatermass comes up with a startling theory - the object is a spacecraft. Further examination of the craft throws up even stranger possibilities - Quatermass believes it was crewed by a highly advanced insectoid race from Mars and that the mysterious skulls were the skulls of apes that had been genetically modified by the Martians.

This is all very fascinating to the scientists but events soon take a sinister turn. The ingenious plot manages to embrace human paranormal abilities, the nature of evil, race memories, poltergeist phenomena, religion, crowd behaviour, insect societies and the future of civilisation itself.

As with the earlier Quatermass films this one was scripted by Nigel Kneane and it displays the intelligence and dazzling imagination one expects from Kneale. And there are plenty of other Hammer luminaries on hand behind the camera - cinematographer Arthur Grant, production designer Bernard Robinson and director Roy Ward Baker. This is pretty much Hammer’s A Team.

The cast might be short on big names but it’s certainly not short on talent. Andrew Keir has the right mix of arrogance and visionary qualities to make a splendid Quatermass. Julia Glover is delightfully pompous as Colonel Breen. Barbara Shelley adds some glamour as the palaeontologist’s assistant.

There’s one major problem. Most of the special effects are pretty good but the insectoid aliens are unconvincing and look quite silly. I’m a great believe in the idea that great science fiction doesn’t need expensive gee-whizz special effects but even in 1967 I think the aliens could have been done more effectively.

Aside from that the visuals are quite impressive and Roy Ward Baker keeps the tension ratcheted up.

This is essentially an ideas-based science fiction film, and it has an abundance of ideas and they’re developed with great skill and originality. Hammer’s contribution to the science fiction genre was arguably just as significant as its contribution to horror and this is one of the best of their science fiction films.

The Optimum Region 2 DVD has no extras apart from a trailer but its widescreen and the picture quality is excellent.


Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This was one of Hammer's better films of this period, but I think it falls short of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and especially QUATERMASS 2 which is my favourite of the series. Andrew Keir is a much warmer and sympathetic Quatermass, but as you point out it is badly hampered by the feeble aliens, which look no better than those used in the BBC series almost a decade earlier.

dfordoom said...

Shaun, I love all three Quatermass films. It's a tribute to Nigel Kneale's writing skills that the movies work so well even with iffy special effects.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I think I like this one the best of the QUATERMASS films. The story is very cool and complex, and the cinematography is great. Also, I love Andrew Keir in the lead--I noticed that his brogue seemed to get more and more pronounced as the stakes of the film got higher. :)

Also, it's fun to note parallels between this flick and Tobe Hooper's LIFEFORCE, one of my favorite "glorious mess" movies of the 80s. Probably not intentional, but still.

cblaze said...

Okay, I'm sold on your write up...

I come across Quartermass and the Pit quite often and usually pretty cheap - as I walk by it I'm already thinking "D for DOOM!" - so now I'm just going to have to pick up a copy and give it a watch.

Stacia said...

I think I'm the only one who loves the little grasshopper aliens. They are completely unconvincing, yet adorable, and the juxtaposition of the physical appearance of these insect-aliens with our concept of devils (or hobs) is very clever.

Love that screen capture with James Donald wearing the dream helmet.