Thursday, June 16, 2016

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

It’s come to my attention recently that nowhere near enough of you have seen this film. I’m not sure how it’s gone so unnoticed by so many over the years, but somehow it has. This is one of the Hammer classics that played around in several genres at once, telling a story that dances into both classic science fiction and fantasy/horror quite nicely. It had a tight script, some great FX work for the era, and had an amazingly solid and engaging cast that helped propel a story “five million years in the making”.

Our story starts on a worksite in England where the underground system is having an extension built for it. Blake’s 7 fans need to keep an eye out here. We see a group of jovial working class lads digging out the tunnel when one of them makes a discovery that scares the spit out of him. He uncovers a human skull in the mud and clay, and behind it are more remains from more than one body.

Construction comes to a halt, and the discovery brings in paleontologist Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald) and his team. The good doctor’s excitement is barely containable. These aren’t men, but pre-man. The remains appear to be a colony of ancient ape-man, a link between our more simian ancestors and the next stage of mankind, and at least five million years old. One of Roney’s team finds something unusual- a strange, flat surface -behind the remains of one of the creatures. As the object is gently cleared from the mud, panic sets in. They’ve discovered what appears to be an unexploded bomb, which in turn brings in the military’s UXB teams.

Elsewhere in the city we find the head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, Professor Bernard Quatermass (played here for the first time by Andrew Keir, taking over the cinematic role from the previous two films’ star, American actor Brian Donlevy) just as he’s learning that his group and its work, the colonization of the moon, are being taken over by the military. He’s introduced to Colonel Breen (Doctor Who, James Bond, and Game of Thrones actor Julian Glover), a military rocket expert.  Their immediate interaction with each other makes it pretty clear that they’re never destined to be drinking buddies.

Their moment of not even close to bonding is interrupted by a phone call for Colonel Breen. Apparently the UXB teams have never seen anything like what’s being uncovered at the worksite, and Breen’s specialty throughout his military career makes him the foremost military expert on these matters. The phone conversation piques Quatermass’s interest and he decides to accompany Breen to the worksite.

Once there they immediately begin having completely different takes on the now half uncovered, rocket-like object. Breen is convinced it’s some sort of last ditch, experimental V-weapon launched by Nazi Germany just before the war ended. Quatermass is initially somewhat suspect of this identification of the object. The metal is unusual to the touch, and the vehicle looks like nothing he knows of from WWII military ordinance. 

As Quatermass is inspecting the device, one of the military team members using a pressure hose to wash the mud and clay out of an interior enclosure of the thing uncovers another skull. He calls out for Dr. Roney, and the good doctor comes running; almost knocking Quatermass over. Quatermass finds Roney a curious fellow and, after getting up to speed on the recent events, he walks over to the improvised work station Roney’s people have assembled.

After a quick introduction he points out what Roney failed to realize in his excitement over the finding of such a well preserved specimen. This skull was found inside of the object, not under or around it. This leads Quatermass to suspect that the rocket itself is five million years old, and of extraterrestrial origins. He and Roney discuss the idea, but Roney is firm on his position that the ape-man remains they’ve been uncovering are terrestrial. They absolutely are from Earth and absolutely are part of our evolutionary chain.

This is obviously an idea that is not at all well received by Breen.

It’s at this point that Quatermass is introduced to Roney’s assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley). Barbara and Quatermass step out after learning something odd about the locality. Breen is being briefed on the history of the German ordinance dropped in the area, frustrated that there are no reports of any heavy ordinance. Everything was lighter ordinance or incendiary devices. He’s informed they only did any real damage because of the empty houses. Quatermass questions this and Breen snaps at him that they were evacuated. The local constable catches up to Quatermass and tells him this wasn’t the case. The buildings were empty even before the war. No one would live in them and even the homeless drifters would steer clear of them.

The constable walks them through one of the buildings. They’re crumbling and decrepit, and some of the walls have unusual scratch marks on them. The constable tells them that the buildings have stood empty for decades because of occurrences in them that starting driving those who lived there mad. There were sounds, things moving on their own, and even spectral figures- hideous dwarf-like apparitions, goblins, and even demons –appearing before people and walking through the walls.

When Quatermass and Barbara leave, Quatermass notices the sign naming the area is newer with an older sign under it. It names the place as Hobb’s End. He wonders aloud why they changed it and Barbara points out that the old name, Hob, was once another name for the devil. Quatermass asks Barbara to find out what she can about the area before leaving.

The next morning she brings him her findings. The area has been known for hauntings and the supernatural for not decades, but centuries. The events are worse whenever there’s any construction in the area; specifically near the location worksite. At the same time, Breen and his men have found what they feel may be a secret compartment in the object.

Breen orders several attempts to open the sealed compartment, but all attempts fail. Suddenly, the wall of the compartment dissolves and reveals the object’s long dead passengers. Insect like creatures- large, three legged, and with heads like classical illustrations of demons or gargoyles –are found inside. From that point forward the story barrels headlong into a satisfying mix of horror, science fiction, and just damned entertaining storytelling.

Again, the acting is typically first-rate. Keir, Glover, and Donald in particular play off each other very well. The sets and props are all well-built and add convincing atmosphere to the story. The direction by Hammer regular Roy Ward Baker is tightly shot, and moves the story along at a brisk pace once everything begins to hurtle towards the nearly apocalyptic ending.

The film itself benefits from playing with engaging and interesting ideas and concepts on top of being just generally enjoyable. It’s also a film that influenced more than a few productions that came along in the decades after it. I highly recommend you track it down and check it out.

Jerry Chandler is taking a break this weekend. He’ll be watching a lot of Hammer. 

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1 comment:

  1. My favorite Hammer film. And that is saying something. Well written article.