Continuing our Hammer Films retrospective with a look at the folk horror science fiction classic.
Logically, Quatermass and the Pit should have been made at the end of the Fifties, as a direct follow-up to Hammer’s previous two Quatermass films, much as the TV version followed the original serials. But a combination of production issues and Nigel Kneale’s reluctance to deal with Hammer again after being dissatisfied with the first two films – most notably, the abrasive performances of Brian Donlevy in the title role – meant that this film didn’t emerge until a decade later. It’s fair to say that this was a blessing, as this is not only the best of the Quatermass productions but also one of the smartest science fiction films you’ll ever see.
When we think of Hammer Horror, we perhaps think of the series starting in 1956 with The Curse of Frankenstein, the first colour gothic horror that established the Hammer style for the next decade or more. But equally, we might think that it began a couple of years earlier with The Quatermass Xperiment. Hammer were, even then, no strangers to adapting popular TV (and radio) series for the cinema, but this film was different – not only was it a huge box office hit that showed Hammer the way forward (it’s unlikely that The Curse of Frankenstein would’ve happened if this film hadn’t been so popular), but it also established a market for X-rated horror that Hammer would exploit ruthlessly. The British ‘X’ certificate had only been introduced a few years earlier and was avoided by most distributors who thought that it would be box office poison; as the title respelling suggests, The Quatermass Xperiment made it into a virtue, offering something that people couldn’t see on TV, a smart move when adapting a hit TV series. While the first two Quatermass films and X – The Unknown, made around the same time, don’t seem to have much in common with the more supernatural horrors that followed, they nevertheless were the first steps of a B-movie studio moving into something much more interesting. It’s not just that they are science fiction films – after all, Hammer had already dabbled in that genre with the likes of Four-Sided Triangle and Spaceways, neither of which has ever been seen as part of the Hammer Horror world. These early films were a toe in the water and once the first Quatermass film had been made, Hammer was on a roll and never looked back.
The notoriously curmudgeonly Nigel Kneale was less than impressed with Hammer’s adaptations of his serials, and the critical consensus ever since has been that the films were definitely the lesser versions, a consensus held even when the BBC serials were unavailable for viewing and so anyone who hadn’t seen them on TV at the time could hardly make an educated comparison. I actually think that the Hammer films are the better versions – clearly, the production values are far better and the stories are tightened up without any obvious compromise. I don’t even mind Donlevy, who is every bit the determined, single-minded scientist you wanted Quatermass to be. His gruff performance seems spot-on for a character who cuts corners and butts heads with the establishment. For Kneale though, he was slap in the face and he refused to licence the third story to Hammer for some time. When Quatermass and the Pit finally went into production, the Hammer style had been established and refined for over a decade, and the resulting film would be very different from the earlier two. That the company still chose to film it after such a long delay speaks to just how the Quatermass character was ingrained into the public consciousness (and would remain so, with Hammer initially attempting to film Kneale’s fourth story in the 1970s before it was finally shot for TV in 1979).
Andrew Keir – one of Hammer’s more solid supporting actors over many years – takes on the main role this time around and he brings a more restrained approach to the role, as Professor Quatermass is called in when a mysterious object – initially thought to be an unexploded bomb, but quickly established as something else – is found buried in the mud during a renovation project at London Underground station Hobb’s End (not a real place, in case anyone is planning a visit). When the initially impenetrable object is finally opened, large, desiccated insect-like creatures are discovered inside and further investigation reveals that these are the bodies of ancient Martians, who were influencing human evolution five million years ago. It soon becomes clear that the spaceship maintains a residual memory that is still able to influence humans (a concept similar to the one explored by Kneale years later in his supernatural TV movie The Stone Tape), and it soon begins to revive long-buried prehistoric Martian memories among the population. As chaos, panic and possession grips the streets of London, Quatermass and his colleagues have to find a way to stop the Martian influence from taking over humanity entirely.
While the first two Quatermass films that Hammer made were among the grittiest and most impressive science fiction movies of the 1950s, Quatermass and the Pit steps things up several gears. The Hammer style was fully established by this point, with a reliable production crew and a knack for somehow bringing the best out of whatever material they had to work with. The only one of the films shot in colour, it has a vibrant look to it, even though much of the action takes place in a muddy, cramped underground location, and director Roy Ward Baker – making the first of several films for Hammer – does an excellent job here. Like many a Hammer director, Baker was a bit uneven and workmanlike at times, but this is by far his best work for the company, and possibly his greatest achievement as a director (others will rate his work on A Night to Remember more highly, but I’d be inclined to disagree). Kneale – who adapted his own work here rather than leave it to someone else – has done a good job of condensing the original three-hour story to 100 minutes – nothing feels rushed or confused, though the film does move at quite a pace. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything important missing here, and to be honest, the original serial seems rather plodding and padded in comparison.
Interestingly, while Quatermass and the Pit is – on the surface at least – a science fiction film, in reality, it is closer in feel and theme to ‘folk horror’, exploring as it does the extraterrestrial origins of mythology and occult belief. The Martians are provocatively posited as the originators of the idea of the Devil – their horned appearance giving birth to legends of demons, goblins and imps. While the film toys with the same ideas as popular books of the time like Chariots of the Gods that claim humanity was evolved from/manipulated by alien visitors millions of years ago, it does so in a much more provocative way, exploring the very origins of religious belief and superstition. In this film, the aliens remain with us as a collective memory that we have reinterpreted into an image of the Devil – and that’s a pretty fascinating way of explaining how different cultures have such familiar mythologies about the supernatural and the demonic. it’s evidence, once again, that Folk Horror does not need to take place in a rural past to be valid.
Of course, it’s not all perfect – while the dead Martians hold up more effectively than you might expect (with a particularly icky dissection scene), the flashbacks to the Martian purges – a none-too-subtle reference to racism – feature the worst special effects you’ll ever see. These scenes are laughably bad and – more importantly – must’ve looked just as shoddy at the time. This film was, we might remember, made in the same years as 2001: A Space Odyssey and while Hammer obviously had nothing like the budget of Stanley Kubrick, there is no excuse for such dreadful effects work. You have to wonder why such dismal effects were allowed to remain in the film, though thankfully they appear only briefly. But these dodgy scenes could have easily derailed a lesser movie, and even here, it’s likely that some viewers might struggle with the film after this point. Interestingly, when Hammer updated the special effects for The Devil Rides Out – a film made shortly after this and with equally shoddy effects work – for the Blu-ray release, there was uproar from purist fans and probably put the company off ever doing it again – but if ever a film needed a big of CGI revisionism, it is Quatermass and the Pit and it’s a shame that it is unlikely ever to get it. While I can overlook all manner of ropey special effects imagery, I do wonder how modern audiences with less of a commitment to vintage low budget cinema might react to this – not well, I fear. It’s a shame because this movie is otherwise so good and could still speak to new viewers but these moments, coming at a pivotal moment in the film, would probably be greeted with howls of laughter and ultimately colour the wider judgement of the movie. We’ll come back to the thorny subject of revisionist tinkering when we discuss The Devil Rides Out, so stay tuned and get ready to fume indignantly at that.
If you can get past this stumbling block – and you really should – then Quatermass and the Pit remains a hugely impressive, highly intelligent and subtle film, with a fine cast. Keir is so good in everything he did for Hammer – Dracula Prince of Darkness, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, The Viking Queen – that you really wonder why he wasn’t used more often. Presumably, the roles he might have played were first offered to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Here, he’s joined by Hammer stalwart Barbara Shelley, who is excellent as the scientist who becomes a conduit to the Martian memory, and there is fine support from James Donald and Julian Glover.
This is hard science fiction – intellectual more than spectacular. If your taste in the genre starts and finishes with lots of techno flash, sound and fury, you might not care for it much – but if you want thoughtful, well-produced and serious cinema, you can’t do much better than this.
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