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What a piece of work is man
A Blu-ray review from the double-play release of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT by Slarek
 

It's hard to imagine a modern science fiction television series having the impact that The Quatermass Experiment did when it was first screened back in 1953. Of course, it did have some advantages, the principal one being that it was made by the BBC when they had a monopoly on broadcast television, which at that time consisted of only one channel, so if you wanted to watch television when Quatermass was on then that's all there was to see. But it's also worth pointing out that in 1953 television was not the dominant force it is now, and plonking yourself down in front of the TV was far from the automatic process it has long since become. And stories involving Professor Bernard Quatermass had the country gripped. I wasn't even born when the series was transmitted, but the mere mention of the name Quatermass to my mother prompts an immediate and enthusiastic expression of recall. For her, The Quatermass Experiment was the first time that television had exercised the dramatic hold of the weekly radio plays she had been hooked on for years. It was also, history informs us, the first science fiction television serial targeted specifically at an adult audience. And it was frightening stuff. This is the television you watched from behind the sofa, that drew you to the screen and then made you question the wisdom of your decision. And the man behind this tool for scaring the nation every Saturday night was BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale.

Kneale was a master dramatist who is now best known for thrillers and horror-infused science fiction, and whose early work was done almost exclusively in television. Professor Quatermass remains his most famous creation, but he also wrote a number of prestige film screenplays, including Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer for Tony Richardson, the 1964 film version of H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon, and a 1966 horror film The Witches for Hammer Studios. In 1968, his celebrated TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics predicted the rise of modern day reality television with uncanny accuracy, and if you're looking for a good scare then his 1972 television play The Stone Tape or his 1949 short story Minuke are as good a place as any to start.

Quatermass and the Pit was his third Quatermass serial for the BBC, the first two of which were turned into internationally successful feature films by Hammer. It's easy to forget that genre stalwarts Hammer were not initially associated with horror at all, but became so following the runaway success of their 1957 The Curse of Frankenstein and the 1958 Dracula (aka The Horror of Dracula). Prior to this, their output was a cheap and cheerful blend of comedies and thrillers, some of which were adapted from successful BBC radio series. Their 1955 feature film of The Quatermass Experiment was their first adaptation of a television serial, and also marked their first venture into horror and earned them their first X certificate, paving the way for productions to come. Like much of Hammer's output of the period, the film was targeted at both the domestic and transatlantic markets, here through the casting of American actor Brian Donlevy as the eponymous Professor, something that apparently annoyed the hell out of Kneale. The film's unexpected success led to a second film adaptation, Quatermass 2, also with Donlevy, but following their rise to international fame though their reworking of classic Universal monster movies, their American funding and distribution partners were uninterested in bankrolling a film version of a series that was virtually unknown in the States, and the third film was effectively put on hold.

Then in 1966, when the studio's output was at a quantitative peak, Hammer struck a new distribution deal with Seven Arts, ABPC and Twentieth Century Fox, and a feature adaptation of the third and best of Kneale's Quatermass serials, this time scripted by Kneale himself, finally went into production. Director Roy Ward Baker was brought on board for his track record with films like the 1958 A Night to Remember (far and away the best film about the sinking of the Titanic), and unlike its predecessors it would be shot in colour. And this time around Quatermass would be played by British actor Andrew Keir, who had already made his mark for Hammer as the no-nonsense, gun-toting vampire hunter Father Sandor in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). The resulting film was not only the best of the studio's Quatermass trilogy (and its predecessors were no slouch), but one of the finest and most fondly remembered films in the Hammer studio canon.

All the building blocks for a fine film are provided by Kneale's screenplay, adapted from his own six-part TV serial, which is still one of the smartest and most ambitious science fiction television series ever made. It all starts when work on a new extension to London's Hobbs End underground station is halted when workers uncover what appears to be human skeletal remains, which paleontologist Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald) and his assistant Barbara (Barbara Shelly) calculate are over five million years old. In the process of unearthing the rest of the remains, Roney and his team discover a metallic object that they believe to be an unexploded wartime bomb, and an army disposal team are called to the dig. Asked along to cast an expert eye over the discovery is specialist Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who is accompanied by a disgruntled Professor Bernard Quatermass, whose moon colonisation project has just come under Breen's militaristic control. The object itself conforms to no previously known design and is constructed from a virtually indestructible material of the like the disposal team have never encountered. What really interests Quatermass are the humanoid skulls being unearthed by Roney, which despite their fragility have been left completely undamaged by the object's arrival. Quatermass deduces that this is not a bomb at all but a transport vessel of Martian origin, one whose arrival may well have major implications both for human history and its continued survival.

This brief synopsis, intriguing though I hope it is, gives only a small flavour of the compelling manner in which the story unfolds. In a stroke of real brilliance, Kneale links the science of alien arrival to superstition and religious folklore, in the process suggesting that the alien presence has for centuries been the root cause of hauntings and demonic encounters, and that these visions are not of supernatural origin but deeply ingrained in our DNA. It's an aspect that moves this science fiction story into the realms of horror, vividly captured in a supremely creepy early sequence in which a seasoned police sergeant shows Quatermass and Barbara the inside of an abandoned local house, one whose walls are peppered with claw marks and whose atmosphere and history reduce this stout authority figure to a visible state of barely concealed terror.

As the vessel is unearthed and its contents are revealed, a force is unleashed that awakens in those in close proximity a dormant behaviour that has all the hallmarks of demonic possession. Here Kneale directly challenges traditional religious concepts of good and evil by suggesting that the human capacity for collective aggression might actually be the result of evolutionary programming and alien intervention. It was a bold suggestion in 1967, but must had bordered on the revolutionary in 1958 when the BBC serial was originally broadcast.

This intellectual base gives the drama real metal and helps steer it confidently over a couple of low budget bumps, although there's a curious inconsistency to this aspect of the film. The vessel itself is a most impressive creation, one of convincingly otherworldly design and whose flawless surface and polymer sheen really does look resistant to the drills and blowtorches that are unsuccessfully used against it. But the sequence in which government ministers watch the recording of a trace memory of Martian hive cleansing is so technically feeble that it borders on the ridiculous, a micro-budget puppet show in which stapled-together rows of locust-like creatures are bobbed up and down in an almost comically unconvincing representation of running and hunting. The decaying aliens recovered from the ship sit somewhere between these two benchmarks, intriguingly designed and appropriately gooey, but seemingly lacking the weight these creatures should have and thus looking a little too much like the artificial constructs they are.

But distracting though these elements are, they are minor blips in an otherwise beautifully devised and developed story whose atmosphere of increasing dread and impending disaster scared me witless as a kid and are still have the power to make the skin crawl today. Like many of Kneale's works, the scientific base on which the drama is built makes it all seem somehow disturbingly plausible, something really brought home by Roy Ward Baker's no-nonsense direction and a string of sincere performances from actors who play it like they're convinced of the truth of every line they deliver. In the absence of the original's André Morell, Andrew Keir makes for a formidable and authoritative Quatermass, hard-nosed when he needs to be but bringing a frailty and humanity to the role that Donlevy's interpretation was notably lacking. Julian Glover is suitably bluff as Colonel Breen, and Barbara Shelley and Duncan Lamont pull off the rare trick of being convincingly possessed with considerable aplomb. Best of all is always impressive James Donald, who brings real authority to the role of knowledgeable and level-headed paleontologist Dr. Roney, one of the few people who remain unaffected by the ship's growing influence.

As the true power and purpose of the alien intervention is unleashed and the residents of London unwittingly embark on their own form of hive cleansing, the film takes on a more apocalyptic tone. As the externalised energy reaches a physically destructive pitch, buildings collapse, objects are levitated and propelled through the air (for some reason the plates that shoot skyward at the mobile snack bar always creeped me out), and the afflicted gather in telekinetic mobs to hunt out and destroy those invisibly marked for extinction. It builds to an absolute belter of climax in which Science and Satan go head-to-head in an extraordinary collision of reason and folklore, one that provides actor James Donald with possibly the most commanding moment of his distinguished career.

A couple of sub-par effects aside, Quatermass and the Pit is everything a great science fiction-horror crossover should be. It's gripping, ambitious, atmospheric, intermittently frightening, and bristling with bold and intelligent ideas, and in spite of the budget and a lack of locational scope, the sense of a society in apocalyptic free-fall is vividly realised. Its socio-political undertones are still relevant today (substitute the word "hive" for "ethnic" and pick your modern reference), and while the concept of alien intervention in human development has been recycled since, nowhere has the idea been more chillingly expressed than in the scene in which afflicted worker Sladden (Duncan Lamont) describes his hallucinatory experience as one of the alien creatures, leaping and jumping in and out of huge undefined places that reach up to the sky. "The sky?" asks Quatermass urgently. "What colour is it? Blue?" "No," Sladden replies ominously. "Dark. Purple." It's so much to Kneale and Baker's credit that they allow the audience time to digest for themselves the monumental implications of that simple statement before confirming it with exposition.

sound and vision

Frankly this is the sort of transfer we bought into Blu-ray to see. You can see minor signs of what looks like DNR on the visible film grain, but otherwise this is a glorious transfer that does Arthur Grant's rich DeLuxe cinematography proud. Colours are largely naturalistic with an earthy leaning that is curiously more pronounced on the screen grabs than on a well calibrated plasma screen, where the colour palette is a lot richer and the primes really pop. The contrast is spot on, with crisp black levels that do not swallow detail, and the sharpness and fine is up there with some of the best transfers of more modern films, and a good deal better than some I've seen recently.

The Linear PCM stereo soundtrack boasts a better clarity and dynamic range than you might expect from a genre film of this age, the slight treble bias of the dialogue balanced by some solid bass rumbles from the activated ship and the collapse of buildings in the climactic scenes

extra features

Commentary with Roy Ward Baker and writer Nigel Kneale
This is an extra ported over from the 1998 US Anchor Bay DVD, but is nonetheless most welcome, especially given that both Baker and Kneale are no longer with us and the value of getting the two men who comprise the creative backbone of the film to comment directly on it. Occasionally prompted by an unidentified Anchor Bay feed man, the two are full of interesting memories of the shoot and – in Kneale's case at least – the Quatermass films and series in general. Baker is asked directly if he had originally wanted Kenneth Moore for the lead, as the oft-repeated rumour has suggested, and though his memory is a little hazy, he finds the idea unlikely, suggesting that Moore was "too nice" for a role like this. Kneale confirms his displeasure at the casting of Donlevy in the earlier films, but gives a thumbs-up for Keir, and the both he and Baker are sincerely complimentary of the work of the other. Baker in particular believes the script was so good that no changes needed to be made, and remembers the shoot as one of the happiest of his career.

Interviews
The first entry on the extras menu consists of six separate interviews, and even if overexposure to the sort of ten minute verbal back-slaps you find on so many studio releases of modern mainstream movies has put you of this type of feature for life, I urge you to make a serious exception here. The combined running time of the interviews included under this banner exceeds that of the feature itself, and every single one of them is worthy of your attention.

We are cued in by a caption to the first interview that Kneale was known to those close to him as Tom, a name he is referred to by several of the interviewees here.

Judith Kerr (17:11)
Nigel Kneale's ex-wife reveals how the two first met, that the success of the first Quatermass serial effectively bankrolled their marriage, how Kneale himself had a hand in the effects on the first TV series, that he actually had a strong dislike for science fiction in general, and that both he and she believe Quatermass and the Pit was the best of the Quatermass stories. She attributes her husband's sometimes prophetic writing to his ability to see how ridiculous things were, and recalls a funny story in which Kneale assured his family that their cat was working on a novel but just couldn't settle on a title.

Joe Dante (11:05)
Director and genre enthusiast Joe Dante cheerfully recalls his introduction to Hammer and the Quatermass films in particular. He makes a solid case of the film's intellectual strengths, and reflects on the difficulty of getting intelligent science fiction films funded now, suggesting that Starship Troopers only got off the ground because the studio didn't realise they were bankrolling a satire. He does touch on that dodgy special effect, believes the alien design was better in the TV version (he's not alone in this opinion) and is the first of the interviewees to suggest that A Night to Remember is a better film than that overblown James Cameron take on the same event. It's one of those interviews I both enjoy immensely but groan at because the interviewee covers much of the same ground that I did in my review.

Kim Newman (29:30)
Oh the joys of genre enthusiasm. Critic and genre writer Kim Newman delivers a wonderfully comprehensive appreciation of a film he clearly holds in very high esteem. In common with many of his fellow interviewees, he recalls how he first discovered the pleasures of both horror and the Quatermass stories, which he seductively describes as being intellectually terrifying, films that whisper frightening ideas in your head. Newman covers a lot of ground here, including what made Kneale such an exciting screenwriter, director Roy Ward Baker (and a second nod to A Night to Remember as the best movie made about the sinking of the Titanic), and alien goo that he describes as the most disgusting green slime in the history of movies. He also identifies Scars of Dracula as Hammer's worst film, a view that didn't come across in his recently aired introduction to the film for The Horror Channel. Ahem. A superb inclusion, though.

Julian Glover (29:27)
A useful interview with one of the few surviving cast members, who does wander a little, but does so with enthusiasm for his craft and the films that he clearly admires (the first Star Wars film is a particular favourite). He has a lot of respect for his fellow actors, James Donald in particular, and has some engaging recollections of the shoot itself – asked if he saw Breen as the villain of the piece, he responds, "He was an idiot!"

Marcus Hearn (12:24)
Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn outlines the importance of the Quatermass brand to Hammer and why the third film was so long in coming, and discusses the contribution of Roy Ward Baker, dismissing along the way the rumour that Baker really wanted Kenneth Moore for the lead. Asked to pick a highlight from the film itself, he reveals that there are just too many to list, preferring instead to identify the only bit that doesn't really work, a certain special effects sequence I might have mentioned...

Mark Gatiss (19:14)
Actor and writer Gatiss, whose BBC 4 series A History of Horror was one of the most thoughtful televisual overviews of the genre I've seen, follows the lead of his fellow interviewees (or rather responds to questions they were all asked) and talks about discovering horror and the Quatermass stories, and what makes this film the best of the bunch. He recalls meeting Kneale when he proposed a remake of one of his lost TV plays, The Road, and muses on the problems facing potential remakes; "Why bother?" he asks of a once proposed version of Quatermass and the Pit to be set in America. Why indeed?

World of Hammer Science Fiction Episode (24:35)
An episode from the TV series, The World of Hammer that explores the studio's science fiction films. Interesting in itself, particularly for the clips from lesser seen Hammer works in this genre, it's narrated by the lovely voice of Oliver Reed, but you'll struggle to hear it on a home cinema system – for reasons unknown, a remix has sent Reed's voice to the left speaker only, where it has to fight a sometimes losing battle with the film clip sounds that emerge clearly from both.

Trailer (2:29)
A convincingly urgent trailer that's rather fond of shots of panicking crowds, and warns of a terror that has been five million years in the making. In fact, you can take a look at it here:

 

Alternate American Credits (0:26)
The opening credits for the US release, where the film was titled Five Million Years to Earth.

Alternate American Trailer (2:32)
A compilation of some of the most memorable shots from the last act of the film (including the bloody ending!) with a comically serious and alarmist narration.

summary

The best of the Quatermass stories is also one of the smartest, most chilling and compellingly handled science fiction films in the genre's proud history. Ignore the one really dodgy effect and revel in the boldness and intelligence of Nigel Kneale's ideas and story development, its slow build tension, its still frightening sequences and its apocalyptic climax. The previous DVD versions were good-looking affairs, but the HD transfer on Studio Canal's new dual play release is gorgeous, and is supported by a terrific set of interviews, the only blip being the sound mix on the World of Hammer episode. Slightly irritating though this is, the disc still comes highly recommended.

Quatermass and the Pit

UK 1967
97 mins
director
Roy Ward Baker
producer
Anthony Nelson Keys
screenplay
Nigel Kneale
cinematography
Arthur Grant
editing
Spencer Reeve
music
Tristram Cary
art direction
Bernard Robinson
Ken Ryan
starring
James Donald
Andrew Keir
Barbara Shelley
Julian Glover
Duncan Lamont
Bryan Marshall
Peter Copley
Edwin Richfield
Grant Taylor
Maurice Good

disc details
region code unspecified
video
1.66:1
sound
PCM stereo 96
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Commentary by Roy Ward Baker and Nigel Kneale
Judith Kerr interview
Joe Dante interview
Kim Newman interview
Julian Glover interview
Marcus Hearn interview
Mark Gatiss interview
World of Hammer science fiction episode
UK Trailer
Alternate American credits
Alternate American trailer
distributor
Studio Canal (Optimum)
release date
10 October 2011
review posted
10 October 2011

related review
Quatermass

See all of Slarek's reviews