Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: July 25th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Even though the Quatermass character heralded Hammer’s successful foray into genre filmmaking in the 1950s, the iconic property went on hiatus for a full decade, largely due to the ever shifting winds of public taste and foreign studio investment. When 50s sci-fi fell out of favor with audiences and American co-financers, Hammer turned to classic literary monsters towards the end of the decade, leaving Quatermass behind. Hammer’s incredible success, however, all but guaranteed the British icon would eventually return. He did so with creator Nigel Kneale in tow, ever ready to resurrect his beloved Quatermass as a sort of do-over for what he saw as a couple of mangled big-screen translations the first time around. Kneale went back directly to the source with an adaption of Quatermass and the Pit, the wildly successful television serial that helped to make the character popular in the first place. This familiarity and Hammer’s signature golden age style proved to be a winning formula because Quatermass and the Pit is the most impressive film in the trio, particularly when it comes to capturing how strange and imaginative Kneale’s work could be.
When an expansion project to the London Underground turns up mysterious skeletal remains (and an even more mysterious metal object), it draws the attention of professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Kier, assuming the role from Brian Donlevy). Like always, Quatermass is embroiled with political bureaucrats who are eager to either dismiss his work or co-opt it for military purposes, and this latest discovery proves to be no different. Where Quatermass and a colleague (James Donald) suspect an alien origin, army colonel Breen (Julian Glover) believes it to simply be an unexploded bomb from World War II. Completely unsatisfied with this reasoning, Quatermass investigates further, only to find out that the surrounding area has a history of bizarre phenomena. Trawling through the lore uncovers stories of strange specters that can pass through walls; whispers of dwarfish creatures that cause poltergeist-style disturbances; and even centuries-old accounts about demons and goblins that have haunted Hobb’s End.
Kneale’s script brilliantly strings both Quatermass and the audience along with two fairly disparate threads—extraterrestrial invaders and earthbound occult activity—before ultimately intertwining them. Quatermass and the Pit ultimately occupies a cool space at the intersection of science fiction, fantasy, speculative history, and religion, as Kneale conjures up a bizarre, unsettling mythology that’s irresistibly intriguing. He takes a unique angle in imagining that the history of men and its various demons may have an origin in the stars, a notion that director Roy Ward Baker (who would parlay this film’s success into a storied run with Hammer) mines for some incredible imagery. While the film eventually works up to an explosive, chaotic climax, it’s the more subtly unnerving images that linger after the film is over, like the insectoid creatures marching in fuzzy, millennia-old transmissions extracted from the characters’ own subconscious. Quatermass and the Pit could likely float on the mere suggestion of what its title character and his colleagues suppose—that mankind is the result of an ancient Martian colonization experiment—but Baker’s camera curiously trawls about, uncovering enough fleeting glimpses in an attempt to capture Kneale’s vivid imagination.
Baker’s direction is also noteworthy in how it transports Quatermass from the chiaroscuro 50s to the distinctive, lush visual style that defined Hammer’s glory days. The transition is naturally exquisite, as Kneale’s script offers plenty of room for lucid, colorful freak-outs, particularly whenever the strange craft in the London Underground is involved. The Pit is a bit more of an effects extravaganza than its two film predecessors, though many critics have been quick to note that the television take was actually more impressive in this regard. While it’s true that the relatively low budget limits the climactic pandemonium to a handful of shots of a ravenous, hivemind crowd, the lo-fi nature of the other effects (especially the spectral, demonic Martian towering over London during the climax) work in the film’s favor by grounding its proceedings in genuine drama rather than spectacle.
For a film with such world-breaking stakes, Quatermass and the Pit is strikingly intimate, thanks in large part to the absolute conviction it has in its title character. Kneale clearly loved this character, and he must have especially relished the chance to see it done more correctly, at least in his eyes. Kier’s take on Quatermass is markedly different from Donlevy’s. Where the latter brought a very square-jawed, swaggering American sensibility to the British icon, Kier is much more reserved in his quiet confidence. He’s no less confident in his dogged quest to uncover the truth, but he is more vulnerable than Donlevy ever was. He feels human in a way that’s critical for a film that seeks to explore humanity’s origins and its potentially dark future. When he momentarily falls victim to the Martians (practically ceding the film’s hero role to Donald in the process), it’s an unnerving moment that looks to shake an audience to its core: if Quatermass isn’t immune, what chance do the rest of us have?
Baker recognizes this, even when order is somewhat restored and the credits begin to roll. Unlike most Hammer productions—which definitively (and often triumphantly) dovetail into their end credits, Quatermass and the Pit lingers on a haunting shot of Kier and co-star Barbara Shelley in a state of shock, processing the mayhem and destruction they’ve just witnessed. It’s emblematic of Kneale’s work, which aimed not to simply shock viewers with outlandish imagery but to leave them genuinely disturbed. To that effect, Quatermass and the Pit is certainly thrilling and even quite spooky in the moment; however, it’s not until you’ve reached those final moments of Quatermass’s quiet trauma that you realize the film’s ultimate, skin-crawling triumph. This is a film where evil may be thwarted, but it’s never truly vanquished, not when it’s irrecoverably shattered humanity’s psyche and forced them to confront cosmic forces beyond comprehension.
Like Quatermass 2, this sequel has been long overdue on Blu-ray here in the States. Originally released over a decade ago to a long out-of-print DVD from Anchor Bay, these films have become some of the most-requested titles from cult fans. Scream Factory has not only heard these cries—they’ve also delivered an unbelievable upgrade that’s made the long wait worthwhile. The presentation boasts a typically solid presentation that allows the film’s lush visuals to sparkle alongside a similarly sharp DTS-MA 2.0 track.
However, the disc truly shines with its supplements, as Scream has included three separate commentaries: one with Baker and Ward, another with film historian Steve Haberman and filmmaker Constantine Nasr, and yet another with historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck. Nearly 150 minutes worth of interviews from various participants, historians, critics, and fans provide a little bit of everything: on-set production stories, wistful anecdotes, fond memories of growing up with Quatermass, and critical insight about the film.
Actors Hugh Futchner and Julian Glover both appear to recount their experiences with being hired and working with Baker on the film; below-the-line crew members Brian Johnson (effects technician), Trevor Coop (clapper loader), and Bob Jordan (focus puller) each provide some behind-the-scenes insight; Kneale’s widow Judith Kerr (an author and illustrator in her own right) discusses both personal and professional aspects of her late husband; actor/writer Mark Gattis, director Joe Dante, and film historian Kim Newman each share their own thoughts on the Quatermass saga as a whole, wherein they answer various questions about their own experiences with the films; finally , Hammer historian Marcus Hearn provides a historical context that delves into the production of Quatermass and the Pit, all while noting the franchise’s importance to Hammer’s legacy.
An assortment of other tidbits completes the disc, including TV spots, trailers, a still gallery, the film’s alternate U.S. title sequence, and the Sci-Fi episode of “World of Hammer” that’s popped up on various releases at this point. Given the anticipation surrounding its release, Quatermass and the Pit is among Scream Factory’s most impressive disc, as they’ve gone above and beyond to deliver as much material as possible. Beyond featuring an appearance from John Carpenter (who famously adopted the Quatermass pseudonym for Prince of Darkness), it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive release than this, which should immediately be in the conversation for “Best of the Year” honors.
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