In the 1960s, there was no stopping the machine that was Britain’s Hammer Film Studios. They made genre films, specifically of the horror variety. They churned out nine Dracula movies, seven Frankenstein movies, a handful of Mummy movies, and one-offs featuring werewolves, zombies, and even reptile people. While the bulk of their output fell into the gothic realm, with lavish sets, tight corsets, and long capes, they occasionally dipped into the offshoots of suspense, occult, and sci-fi. The 1968 film, Quatermass and the Pit, ties all three of those together into what is probably one of the best examples of smart, British science fiction ever made.
The film was based on the third season of the popular “Quatermass” television series, concerning the adventures of rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass as he works to thwart alien menaces. Hammer had already made the first two seasons into films in the ‘50s with The Quatermass Xperiment, (1955) and its aptly titled sequel, Quatermass 2, (1957). American tough-guy actor Brian Donlevy was hired to play Professor Quatermass in the first two films in an attempt to make them play better in America, where they were titled The Creeping Unknown, and Enemy From Space, respectively. The author of the TV series, Nigel Kneale, absolutely hated these films and thought that Donlevy in particular was guilty of turning his quiet, thoughtful protagonist into a loud, boorish thug, which is code for “American.” A decade later, when Hammer finally decided to make Quatermass and the Pit, (U.S. title: Five Million Years to Earth) Kneale wanted to ensure the film stuck more closely to his original intent and wrote the screenplay himself. Donlevy was replaced by Scottish character actor Andrew Keir, who lends Quatermass a great deal more believability.
Directed by one of Hammer’s three resident directors, Roy Ward Baker, Quatermass and the Pit, opens with a work crew building an extension to the London Underground in Hobbs End, where they dig up skeletal remains. Paleontologist Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald) is called in and deduces that the bones come from an ape man, probably around five million years ago, more ancient than any known ancestral humans. One of Roney’s team discovers a huge metallic object under the ground and, believing it to be an unexploded Nazi missile, they call in the army bomb disposal unit. Elsewhere, Professor Quatermass is more than a little displeased when he learns that his planned experiment to colonize the moon has been turned over to the military and is even further put off when he finds that Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) has official been assigned to his Experimental Rocket Group. Before much of an argument can take place, Breen is called in to assist with the bomb disposal and Quatermass tags along. Further digging reveals the object to be hollow, and inside are the remains of a second apeman, meaning the “bomb” must also be around five million years old.
Right away, the mystery is building and as of this point, there has been nothing “horrific” onscreen. Good science fiction is about ideas and the action or terror comes from them, not the other way around. When the alien itself is finally revealed, it’s as a function of the story and not for shock value alone. Quatermass does some investigating of the area of Hobbs End, remarking that “hob” is an old name for the Devil. He finds that through the centuries, Hobbs End has been plagued by reports of haunting and other spectral activities. With this, the film begins to bring together the worlds of horror and science fiction. The more that is learned about the ancient alien creatures, with their horn-like antennae, the more we discover that they were the catalyst for demonic and satanic mythology. Something British science fiction is known for is giving a scientific explanation for horror events and this film goes even further by giving an extraterrestrial cause for humanity’s fears and, indeed, their very existence.
It’s pretty clear from this film that Nigel Kneale had a definite dislike of the military, as Colonel Breen is depicted throughout as pigheaded and shortsighted. It’s the warmongers that get in the way of true discovery. Still, I think the film succeeds in presenting that side’s point of view in, at the very least, a respectable way. Breen, while a moron, does truly believe he’s acting for the good of the British people, albeit at the expense of learning and understanding. On the other hand, Quatermass and Roney, who we’re meant to side with, also believe they’re acting in the best interest of the people and they too are to a degree mistaken. Perhaps, then, we are meant to take from this film and others like it that it’s only when brain and brawn work together that anything substantial can be achieved, but it seems an unlikely prospect even outside of the parameters of the film.
Part of the charm of Hammer films is their sometimes laughably low budget special effects. The blood is usually Dayglow pink and the creature makeup, while elaborate, is painfully obviously caked on. Quatermass and the Pit, luckily, does not suffer too much from this. The aliens are depicted mainly as specters and things that zig and zag quickly across the frame making any seams or strings far less noticeable. The film also benefits from having a strong script being delivered by a fantastic cast, anchored by Andrew Keir’s grounded portrayal of the title character. For movies like this, the lead needs to play it as straight as possible and Keir, a veteran of these kinds of films, truly shines, as does his excellent beard, which looks like it would go on forever if not bound by the restrictions of his face.
Quatermass and the Pit, stands as one of Hammer’s finest hours and an excellent science fiction film. An influential one at that; Stephen King and John Carpenter have both cited the film as having a huge impact on their work, and its importance to TV shows like “The X-Files,” “Doctor Who,” and “Fringe” cannot be overstated. The film is hard to find these days as the Region 1 DVD has fallen out of print, but it can be seen semi-regularly on Turner Classic Movies or in the form of a bootleg like yours truly purchased off of Ebay. It’s a movie so worth seeing, it warrants breaking piracy laws.