The most renowned of the Quatermass films (which are themselves derived from the 1953 TV show titled The Quatermass Experiment), Quatermass and the Pit is a Hammer film that holds a firm place in the minds and memories of science fiction and horror fans.
Fondly remembered for elements that could be perceived as simultaneously excellent and terrible, Roy Baker's venture is full of over the top, cheesy acting, laughably bad effects and havoc-filled scenes. These flaws are themselves charms, but amongst them also lies some intriguing science fiction ideas, a likely Holocaust analogy and the odd surprisingly good special effect. It's comforting to know that a film as thoroughly cult and as sparsely seen as Quatermass and the Pit has made it onto Blu-Ray release, and a great release it is.
Quatermass is a professor who is called in when a mysterious object is unearthed in the London Underground, along with the remains of a primitive form of man. Thought to be a bomb initially, the object is soon revealed to be a Martian space craft that has long been buried beneath the Earth. Upon excavation the Martians throw London into chaos and disarray.
The film's bite lies in the way it bravely disregards religion and instead hypothesises a rather thought-provoking science fiction notion: "You realise what you're implying?" asks the Ministry of Defence incredulously, "that we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects." On top of this, the film also intelligently explores the notion of race memory. The idea is that we as a species have seen these Martians before – a long time ago as primitive man, and the image has stayed with us ever since as a horror to be instinctively afraid of. The image of these creatures having been passed down through our cultures as the image of the Devil and gargoyles.
This is something directly taken from Arthur C. Clarke's excellent novel Childhood's End (which those interviewed in the extras acknowledge), in which an advanced alien race arrives on Earth but refuses to show their true appearance to us for many years, because they know that our less mature minds would jump to the wrong conclusions, given that they all look like Satan himself (from our perception). It's a blindingly clever idea, and certainly one that was worth mining, especially given the fact that we'll likely never see a direct adaptation of Childhood's End.
Watching the film with a large crowd (as we have experienced), you'll find that many viewers laugh at the film rather than with it (there is some nice, typically English humour within), which is somewhat understandable given the atrocious acting in places, silly scenes and terrible effects (the Martian puppets look terrible, and you can clearly see wires attached to supposedly floating objects), but absorbing the film with a mocking eye (should you choose to) doesn't detract from the viewing experience.
You enjoy the film on several levels; one being that it's so bad it's enjoyable, another being nostalgia for the science fiction film tropes of yesteryear, and another being for the intelligence that lies behind all of the chaos. You have to be an SF and/or old school horror fan in order to like it, and towards this demographic it plays well.
The acting itself isn't all bad. It's more the minor characters who deliver ridiculously over the top performances. Andrew Keir himself gives a very sturdy and likable performance as Professor Quatermass. Equally as enjoyable is James Donald's turn as archaeologist Dr. Roney and Julian Glover's turn as Colonel Breen. It's with these three (with a little additional help from Barbara Shelley) that the characterisation shines, and unfortunately almost nowhere else.
Where a likely allegory lies is in the Martian's mind control forcing people to seek out and kill all of those who are immune to susceptibility. The idea of "wiping out something that isn't yourself in some way," as someone interviewed in the extras puts it, is now intrinsically bound to the Holocaust of World War II, but also, of course, various other historical and modern atrocities.
This is one Hammer film that lends itself very nicely to digital restoration. Even watching the old DVD release you can see that it would benefit immensely from the transfer, and indeed it does – the result is a crisp and clean picture, which nicely enhances the variety of bright and exuberant colours that the film's location choices offer. Coupled with this is a rather stunning menu screen that shifts between portions of the film's excellent poster (seen above).
What strikes about this film the most is its intelligence. Dealing with fairly deep allegorical themes, whilst still managing to retain all of the science fiction and horror thrills you could want, serves to create something quite special indeed. It's far from great, but it's certainly a gem of science fiction film, in its own quirky way, which deserves to be more widely seen and appreciated.
The extras on offer are bountiful and very interesting. There are six separate interviews with various talents such as Joe Dante, Kim Newman and some of the film's cast members, each of which is rather lengthy and most of which are rather engaging. They reveal such interesting facts as that the writer T.E.B. Clarke hated science fiction and didn't believe this film to be science fiction because "this is more ideas based," which only shows vast ignorance on their part, since real science fiction (that of the genre's early, original novels) is purely ideas orientated, not the low brow action stuff cinema often offers up. There's a "World of Hammer" science fiction episode, which observes various Hammer films, all narrated by Oliver Reed (in which, oddly, the music drowns out Reed's narration most of the time). We're given the film's UK trailer and the alternate American trailer, as well as an alternate American opening credits.
This article by Chris Hart originally appeared at The Film Pilgrim — where you can enter to win a free print of the new film artwork by Olly Moss, as featured above.