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QUATERMASS AND THE PIT
Blu-ray / DVD. Studio Canal.

Quatermass and the PitLogically, Quatermass and the Pit should have been made at the end of the Fifties, as a direct follow-up to Hammer’s previous two Quatermass films, much as the TV version followed the original serials. But a combination of production issues and Nigel Kneale’s reluctance to deal with Hammer again after being dissatisfied with the first two films – most notably, the abrasive performances of Brian Donlevy in the title role – meant that this film didn’t emerge until a decade later. It’s fair to say that this was a blessing, as this is not only the best of the Quatermass productions, but also one of the smartest science fiction films you’ll ever see.

Andrew Keir takes on the main role this time round, bringing a more restrained approach to the role, as Professor Quatermass is called in when a mysterious object – initially thought to be an unexploded bomb, but quickly established as something else – is found buried in the mud during a London Underground station renovation. When the object is finally opened, insect-like creatures are discovered inside, and further investigation reveals that these are ancient Martians, who were influencing human evolution five million years ago. It soon becomes clear that the spaceship is still able to influence humans, as it begins to revive long-buried Martian memories among the population. As chaos grips the streets of London, Quatermass and his colleagues have to find a way to stop the Martian influence from taking over humanity entirely.

While the first two Quatermass films that Hammer made were among the best science fiction of the 1950s (and, as someone who saw these long before any of the TV versions, I have to say that Donlevy’s irritable, fanatical Professor always seemed spot on to me), Quatermass and the Pit steps things up several gears. The only one of the films shot in colour, it has a vibrant look to it, even though much of the action takes place in a muddy, cramped underground location, and director Roy Ward Baker – making the first of several films for Hammer – does an excellent job here. It’s by far his best work for the company, and possibly his greatest achievement as a director (others will rate his work on A Night to Remember more highly, but I’d be inclined to disagree). Kneale has done a good job of condensing the original three-hour story to 100 minutes – nothing feels rushed or confused, though the film does move at quite a pace. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything important missing here, and to be honest, the original serial seems rather plodding in comparison.

Quatermass and the PitIt’s not all perfect – while the dead Martians hold up more effectively than you might expect (with a particularly icky dissection scene), the flashbacks to the Martian purges – a none-too-subtle reference to racism – feature the worst special effects you’ll ever see. You have to wonder why such dismal effects were allowed to remain in the film, though thankfully they appear only briefly. But these dodgy scenes could have easily derailed a lesser movie, and even here, it’s likely that some viewers might struggle with the film after this point.
But if you can get past that – and you should – then Quatermass and the Pit remains a hugely impressive, highly intelligent and subtle film, with a fine cast (Keir is joined by Hammer stalwart Barbara Shelley, James Donald and Julian Glover) and mostly excellent production values. If your idea of science fiction involves lots of technoflash, sound and fury, you might not care for it much – but if you want thoughtful, well-produced and serious cinema, you can’t do much better than this.

Studio Canal’s Blu-ray of course is the best the film has looked (although the cover is awful), and comes complete with a commentary track from Kneale (who seemed to have got over his misgivings about Hammer and the film) and Baker – both no longer with us – alongside new video interviews with Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss and others (only Julian Glover having any connection to the film itself), alongside an episode of throwaway series The World of Hammer, a couple of trailers and the alternate US opening titles, presenting the film as Five Million Years to Earth – a supremely dreadful title for a remarkable film. None of the extras are on the DVD.

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)

 

 

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