|Quatermass and the Pit|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 21 October 1998|
Tossed out by its initial American distributor without much promotion and a title ("Five Million Years to Earth") not designed to get viewers into theater seats, "Quatermass and the Pit" was initially noticed only by hard-core science fiction movie fans, and those who knew it was the third entry in the Quatermass series created by writer Nigel Kneale. It has been released in excellent form on DVD by the estimable Anchor Bay Entertainment as part of their series from Hammer Films, the small but beloved British studio that turned out many excellent horror and sci-fi movies in the 1950s and 1960s.
For BBC-TV, in 1953 he wrote a six-part serial called "The Quatermass Experiment" -- and it turned out to be phenomenally popular. Hammer Films quickly bought the movie rights and filmed it with a new cast (and condensed) as "The Quatermass Xperiment" -- the odd spelling was to emphasize that it had a British "X certificate," warning parents to keep children away. In the U.S., where it was "The Creeping Unknown," children were scared silly by the intelligent, suspenseful thriller, and loved it. Kneale wrote a TV sequel, "Quatermass II," which was itself filmed and released under that title in England, while it became "Enemy from Space" overseas. The third serial, was telecast over the holidays 1958-59, but there was a longer gap between TV and movie production.
It was worth the wait; "Quatermass and the Pit" is one of the best science fiction movies ever made. It's a little short on special effects for the hard-to-dazzle crowd of today, and those that are in the movie are rather weak. But the movie rests solidly on a bedrock of fascinating ideas, intelligently developed and linked thematically to the characters. If you have never seen this film, and have a taste for smart science fiction, this is a must purchase.
During the excavation for a new subway line in London, workers find skeletons of creatures that seem both ape- and man-like. Soon thereafter, what seems to be an unexploded bomb from World War II is found -- in the same strata as the skeletons. Both the gleaming, dark green bomb-like object and the skeletons were buried by accident at the same time. As investigations continue, insect-like creatures are found inside the object, and Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), a rocketry expert (and the continuing character in the series), paleontologist Roney (James Donald) and his assistant (Barbara Shelley) realize the ship came from Mars. A dead planet now, but five million years before, clearly it had life -- but what were the Martians doing with the apemen, clearly of Earthly origin?
As the mystery unravels, it connects with nothing less than the origin of mankind, but there are surprises coming round every bend in the plot, and a threat develops that could wipe out humanity.
if the first twenty minutes of the film seem less than riveting, stay with it -- this is a movie of ideas, not of action. And the premise of the film is built is challenging and imaginative, sharing some central ideas with "2001: A Space Odyssey," coincidentally released the same year. For some time, a remake of "Quatermass and the Pit" has been discussed, but it's hard to imagine how this film could be bettered, except in the area of special effects.
The cast is exceptionally good, particularly the three leads. Keir plays Quatermass as brusque and dynamic, an effective contrast to the lower-key Donald; the basic humanity of Roney is ultimately key to the plot, but Donald never lets him seem weak. Barbara Shelley was one of the great treasures of Hammer movies in this period; this may be her best performance for the studio.
The DVD includes a narration track by screenwriter Kneale and director Roy Ward Baker which, alas, isn't as informative as one would like. There are several trailers, both for the British and American releases, and a mediocre segment of a British TV series about Hammer.