Home Video Hovel: Quatermass and the Pit, by Alexander Miller
The Quatermass series is vitally important in the history of Hammer Horror. Though they’re primarily rooted in science fiction, these titles doubly embrace an atmosphere of terror. After working in a myriad of genres, prolific producer Anthony Hinds gobbled up the film rights to Nigel Kneale’s massively popular Quatermass BBC series. With a couple of clumsy forays into the genre (Spaceways and The Four-Sided Triangle), Kneale’s insightful and mature interpretation would serve as an ideal launching pad for the burgeoning studio. The first Quatermass film for Hammer, The Quatermass Xperiment (the “E” was dropped to emphasize the X rating) not only coined an edgy brand of mature science fiction in British cinema, it also introduced audiences to something new: Gothic fantasy.
With the two previous entries, Hammer was obliged to rejigger the film for American audiences. This meant casting a Hollywood actor in the Quatermass role and changing the film’s title. Though the Quatermass name had recognition in England, it’s ironic that the fuss over a leading actor whose name is in the film’s title became one of the elements they changed in order to sell the film in the states. This resulted in the casting of Brian Donlevy in the lead role. He makes for a formidable and stern Professor Quatermass. But his presence feels like the “obligatory American actor,” contrasting the British players on the periphery, not to any fault of his own. But one of the many advantages at the heart of Quatermass and the Pit is the presence of Hammer regular Andrew Keir as the steadfast Professor Quatermass. While it might seem strange, considering the ten-year gap between the second and third films, this delay might actually contribute the technical superiority and increased budget.
The story kicks off when a crew of workers digging in the London Underground excavate some mysterious bones that turn out to be the discovery of primate apemen dating as far back as five million years ago. Shortly afterward, another discovery is made, a large metallic object. Authorities think it’s an unexploded bomb from the war, a German V-weapon. When the bomb squad is called in, they’re accompanied by the feisty and proactive Professor Quatermass. Once the layers to the mysterious vessel are peeled away, it’s revealed to be something more dangerous and unexpected than a relic from the war. Kneale’s script explores science fiction and the macabre with a sly political bent. He carries a sincere sense that, while there’s this unmistakable inclination toward the unknown, there’s also this investigative flair, as if this script was culled from an alternate edition of Chariots of the Gods that was penned by MR James.
With the reverberating echo of post-war anxieties, the propulsive narrative pursues an air of mystery where history, extraterrestrial aliens, archeology and the occult swirl into a heady and straightforwardly creepy atmosphere. Much of the film’s locale is a cloistered underground set but there’s such a rousing structure at the heart of Kneale’s writing it’s easy to forget the location-bound framework. Thanks again to in-house effects guru Les Bowie, the film offers some entrancing visuals; telepathically transmitted images of insect-martian hordes, melting, fossilized alien corpses, witchy iconography and finally the unforgettable finale scene where the sky is illuminated with a ghastly, horned apparition. The persuasive tone carries throughout. Quatermass and the Pit is hard science fiction with a misleading B-movie veneer. Don’t be fooled by hipsters prone to ironic posturing who, for some reason, appreciate Hammer on a camp level. There are some brilliant ideas at work here and, as usual, the consummate pros in front of and behind the camera capture an essence of movie magic.
It’s hard to forget that, for years, being a Hammer fan was a lot of work and having a decent collection meant owning OOP DVDs, bootlegs, haggard VHS tapes, Japanese LaserDiscs, multi-region DVDs and so forth. Among the boutique Blu-ray distributors (Kino Lorber, Twilight Time, Criterion, etc.), Hammer seems to have found their match in terms of home video. This release from Shout!/Scream Factory does Quatermass and the Pit the justice it deserves. The 1080p image sparkles, the film itself has never looked better and the bonus feature are mouth-watering for any Hammer fan and an informative jumping-off point for newcomers. Interviews with cast members Julian Glover and Judith Kerr and horror movie luminaries/noted Hammer experts such Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss, and Marcus Hearn are delightful and go deep, opting out of the banal stock praise you usually get with bonus features. The two audio commentaries, one featuring Bruce G. Hallenbeck, the latter with director Roy Ward Baker and writer Nigel Kneale, are meaty supplements that make this release of Quatermass and the Pit the definitive one to seek out.