Monday, 5 July 2010

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Sequels rarely seem anything more than run-of-the-mill or tame, continuing a successful formula without a tremendous amount of variation. Nigel Kneale however, could hardly be described as a run-of-the-mill writer; his Quatermass TV series had chilled BBC audiences with its documentary-style integrity in relating the most seemingly fantastic events involving aliens from other worlds, but right here on British soil.

It began in 1953 with The Quatermass Experiment, about a rocket that had returned to Earth from outer space with its crew horribly affected by an alien virus; then in Quatermass 2 (a rare instance of a "numbered" sequel long before the fashion for them in the 1970's), the alien invasion had spread to Earth of its own accord with an experimental moon base (filmed at Canvey Island - right) used as the nestling ground for a lifeforce secretly infecting everyone around it.

Come the time of the third series, Kneale felt he had to top himself even further, and did not disappoint, by having the aliens (possibly Martians) not just coming to Earth, but having already been here for millions of years - as Man's intelligent ancestors. The "Exclusive" film studio had adapted the first two series in two economical but gripping 80-minute feature films directed by Val Guest and starring the erstwhile but slightly pedestrian Brian Donlevy in the title role.

Kneale held back on adapting the third series until 1967, by which time the Exclusive studio was now known as Hammer, and had defined itself as the home of lurid, highly successful horror films with a traditionally Gothic edge. There's little doubt that the success of the Quatermass films had helped Hammer to pave the way for its lasting image as the house of horror. Here was a welcome chance to use those same ingredients in a much more cerebral context, as much about ideas as horror, which has always been Nigel Kneale's strength.

Succeeding Val Guest this time was Roy Ward Baker, who brought the same sense of tension and escalating drama that he brought to A Night to Remember - which also featured Scotsman Andrew Keir, who was the ideal cinematic Quatermass.

Every element of Keir's performance hits the right note, right down to little details such as noting the new spelling of Hobbs Lane, after "Hobbs the cricketer" (whilst the old "Hob" was once "a sort of nickname of the devil..."), and despite Keir's own assertion that Roy Ward Baker was a difficult director to work with, what they produced together is still compelling to watch.

Top billing however, is inexplicably not given to him but the splendid James Donald - a familiar stalwart of the silver screen since the 1940's including two classic World War II films, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. Here Donald brings all his British bearing to equally compelling effect as the paleontologist who uncovers prehistoric human skeletons (unearthed at a wonderfully authentic London Tube station) that form the Missing Link - and, Quatermass realises, much, much more.

Assisting them in uncovering the truth is Barbara Shelley as namesake Barbara Judd, playing the stereotypical 1950's girl in the lab, but an intelligent one, who later also experiences the Martian nightmare of ethnic cleansing.

Skeptical Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) delves into the mysterious "unexploded bomb" that has far more secrets behind it than mere military minds can conceive.

At times, the story doesn't quite work visually in trying to convey nightmarish details such as the mental image "video" of the Martian purges, which looks a little cheap, and the climactic special effects image of the devil over London, I confess, to be a little disappointed by when I first saw it. Of all the horror films unnecessarily being remade at the moment, QATP is one of the few that I would like to see redone in terms of special effects.

But the whole thing wraps up memorably with an apocalyptic climax as London becomes a Martian colony, and hypnotised Londoners begin their chilling blood purge for racial purity - an irony of QATP is that it was conceived in the 1950s, the time of race riots in Britain, but come 1967 the same scenes of panic actually pre-dated the student riots in Paris and Europe of a year later. Admittedly if there are any weaknesses, aside from the daunting technical challenges, it's that the depiction of military and ministerial skepticism seems very one-dimensional, although this was very much representative of Britain's dilemma back in the 1950's - whether to move forward into the future or cling to their war-like ideals after World War II.

The last shot, as Keir's Quatermass soberly walks through the shattered streets, echoes Peter Cushing's Van Helsing's sense of weary accomplishment at the end of Dracula. With the assistance of a larger budget (and the helpful use of MGM-Elstree's derelict set for The Dirty Dozen), Hammer produced what I think is one of their best, most thought-provoking works, definitely comparable with their most famous horrors, and one deserving of its status as a British film classic (I saw it at the National Film Theatre in 2000), a film for which all concerned can be proud.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films