There are some stories that, despite the ravages of time, continue to resonate down the decades. Quatermass And The Pit is one such example, and perhaps the finest British sci-fi movie ever made.
Already a hit television series in the 1950s, a time when the adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass were enormously popular, Quatermass And The Pit’s script spent several years in limbo. Other stories featuring the professor had been adapted for the big screen before (these were 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, released in the US as The Creeping Unknown, and Quatermass 2, retitled Enemy From Space), but a lack of interest from American financiers meant that Nigel Kneale’s Pit script sat around unfilmed for six years.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the wait was worth it. Quatermass And The Pit’s path to the screen was a protracted one, but the production itself was quite serendipitous. A series of flops meant that Hammer could afford the services of the once prestigious director Roy Ward Baker, who brought real drive and panache to the movie on a minimal budget. The production was similarly lifted by Hammer’s decision to move locations from its usual haunt at Elstree’s rather cramped Associated British Studios, to MGM’s more lavish quarters a short way down the road. The gave Baker’s Quatermass movie a sense of scale unseen in either the TV shows or big-screen adaptations that followed.
The biggest coup, though, was in Quatermass And The Pit’s casting. For those steeped in the lore of the television series, the role of the professor will be forever associated with actors such as Reginald Tate or André Morell. For me, though, Andrew Keir is the finest of the cinematic Quatermasses, bringing a mixture of bear-like cuddliness and macho terseness that is a world away from the dismal character played by US actor Brian Donlevy in earlier films.
Keir was joined by the great James Donald (who received top billing due to his fame in films such as The Bridge On The River Kwai and The Great Escape) as an excitable paleantologist, Hammer regular Barbara Shelley as his assistant, and Julian Glover as the comically stubborn and myopic Colonel Breen.
In spite of a startlingly lean 97-minute duration, Kneale somehow managed to pack in almost all the events of all six episodes in the original series. During an excavation of the mythical London Underground station, Hobbs End, workers dig up the skeleton of a long-extinct hominid and, most bizarrely of all, a gigantic structure that looks like an alien spacecraft. Although Colonel Breen is adamant that it’s an unexploded bomb from the Second World War, Professor Quatermass is less convinced.
Further investigation reveals some disturbing possibilities: that the spacecraft crashed during Earth’s prehistory, and that its occupants may have had a direct hand in the evolution of our species. Unsurprisingly, Quatermass’ theories are shot down point blank by Breen and members of the government. The craft, they insist, is simply a piece of Nazi propaganda, designed to create panic among a wartime populace.
As Quatermass and his fellow researchers continue to probe the ship, however, they discover that it continues to exude a potentially terrible telekinetic power, and is capable of both controlling human minds and manifesting itself in weird, satanic visual images…
The concept of prehistoric aliens and an extraterrestrial origin of human life is now a familiar one. It’s an idea used to great effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and became the subject of Erich von Däniken’s successful 1968 bestseller Chariots of the Gods? and its various hastily-penned follow-ups. Kneale’s story was one of the earliest, however, and his suggestion that humans are the product of a long-extinct race of Martian insects is a brilliant one.
Kneale’s idea of the Martians’ being stored in our collective unconscious is similarly compelling, and leads to some of the most startling and tense moments in the film, whether it’s the underground worker who’s possessed by the dormant intelligence in the alien craft, or the concluding image of the devil projected onto the night sky.
As you might expect from a relatively low-budget movie of its vintage, there is much that is dated and rather quaint about Quatermass And The Pit, and next to the aggressively stylish (and expensive) A Space Odyssey, which arrived in cinemas just one year later, Roy Ward Baker’s film may look rather crude. Nevertheless, Quatermass And The Pit continues to enterain, in large part because its story is so relentlessly compelling.
In condensing his television script into 90 minutes, Kneale was forced to sacrifice some of the creeping dread of the original serial, but the trade off is worth it: the movie rattles along at an unrelentingly fast pace. Tracts of dialogue are exchanged while characters travel from one location to another; in some instances, relationships between characters is related with a single terse comment or sour, sidelong glance.
The result is a film that is undeniably 60s in term of special effects (though the spaceship is still a gorgeous, swooping specimen, its insectoid occupants deliciously icky), but surprisingly modern in pace – even the most attention-deprived multiplex dweller will surely find themselves swept along by the gradually escalating discoveries Professor Quatermass makes.
As evidence of the film’s brilliance, look no further than the writers and directors it has influenced: John Carpenter and Joe Dante have both made references to Quatermass in some of their films. Certain Doctor Who stories have borrowed some of the film and original serial’s ideas (the 1971 story arc, The Dæmons is one example), and Stephen King’s novel, The Tommyknockers, appears to have been directly inspired by it.
The true proof of Quatermass And The Pit’s greatness, though, is that it has endured so persistently. The film’s approaching its 45th birthday, but it remains a commonly discussed and lauded entry in British sci-fi.
Sooner or later, it’s likely that someone will resurrect the character of Professor Quatermass – and deservedly so, since he’s as resonant a sci-fi character as any in the genre, including the great Doctor himself.
Anyone looking to remake Quatermass And The Pitt, though, should do so with caution – Roy Ward Baker did a fantastic job back in 1967, and like the ancient alien ship lurking in the clay of Hobbs End, it’s lost none of its hypnotic power.