Quatermass And The Pit
Posted on Friday October 7, 2011, 16:45 by Kim Newman in Empire States
In 1972, it looked like the United Kingdom was about to turn into a dystopian nightmare. The oil crisis and government on the verge of collapse led to the three-day week (look it up – it happened here!), power-cuts, strikes, economic disaster and austerity measures which would be unthinkable today. One of the government’s decrees to get through a dark winter was that television should shut down at ten-thirty every night. Any programs scheduled after that – and the Radio and TV Times listed what would have been on if the plug hadn’t been pulled – were cancelled or binned or postponed. However, on Christmas Day, as a special treat, television was allowed to go on a few extra hours. BBC2 chose to use their precious extra time to screen the Hammer Films version of Quatermass and the Pit. It’s when I saw the film for the first time, though I already knew the story from the Penguin editions of Nigel Kneale’s TV serial scripts I’d borrowed from the library. I don’t know if the film just happened to be at the top of the pile of purchased programs or whether someone in the BBC’s film department decided that now was the perfect time to further terrify a nation already trembling at the horrors to come in 1973.
In 1959, the BBC broadcast Kneale’s original Quatermass and the Pit serial, the third adventure of his rocketry boffin Professor Quatermass, and its plot seemed to grow out of the recent Notting Hill race riots. Bluntly, Kneale proposed that five million years ago, human evolution was tampered with by a dying Martian insect civilisation and that we inherit our murderous xenophobia from alien influence. In 1967, when Hammer’s film version – radically slimmed-down from six hour-long episodes but in colour – seemed to key into the outbreaks of violence that came when the counterculture got confrontational.
Now the film’s out on BluRay – in a transfer I couldn’t love more if it made me breakfast – and yet again Kneale’s fifty-year-old vision seems torn from recent headlines. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out a year later, Quatermass and the Pit delves into deep time and tries to come to grips with the contradictory nature of humanity – in both movies, aliens make proto-men more intelligent and yet more aggressive, though only Kneale suggests why they might do so (as a means of carrying on their race after its extinction). The problem is that the intelligence and aggression which make civilisation possible also lead to more and more atrocities – in a sub-plot, Quatermass (Andrew Kier) is arguing with the military idiot (Julian Glover) foisted on his peaceful rocket program about putting missile bases on the moon (in effect, the Star Wars Initiative of the 1980s). Kneale, who prided himself on ‘just making things up’, was proved a prophet yet again in the last few months when it was announced that researchers had devised a machine to interpret brainwaves as pictures – just such a remarkable device is cobbled together in Quatermass and the Pit to show the visions of ancient Mars troubling the psychic heroine.
I should declare an interest … my friend Helen Mullane, who supervised the extras for the StudioCanal+ Blu Ray release, included an interview with me on the disc, and shot several other pieces in my front room (those are my books behind Julian Glover and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn). I’ve worked on a lot of DVD and BluRay extras over the last few years – I’m pleased with the commentary track I recorded with Nigel Kneale on the OOP and thus highly collectable DVD of The Stone Tape – but this is a project I’m especially enthusiastic about (no offence, but … Cannibal Holocaust, not so much). This is a picture rooted in its time – most of it is set in the London Underground, and the high-def picture lets you freeze the frame and savour the 1967 vintage movie posters (including Hammer’s The Witches) and product ads (Johnnie Walker red label) on the walls – yet always timely.
Kneale was one of the best plot-hook men in the business, and every time I sit down to look at the film I find its logical progression breathtaking: workmen digging up a new tube line find prehistoric human remains (which brings in the evolutionary paleontologists), then what seems to be an unexploded German V-weapon from WWII (which brings in the military and civilian rocket men) and then there’s a realisation that the ape-men were inside the rocket (which makes the machine five million years old). Then, as we hear local ghost stories and delve in the archives, it becomes apparent that the long-buried spaceship has been exerting a malign influence ever since it crashed, and that the whole concept of demons and psychic phenomena derives from a race memory of the Martian bugs which changed our nature.
There’s a cool cover image from Empire’s own Olly Moss too.
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Posted on Monday October 10, 2011, 11:34
My favourite Hammer film by a country mile.
Roy Ward Baker was a canny genius and Nigel Kneale is to Sci Fi drama What Dennis potter was to TV drama .
Now if the new Hammer could remake the Quatermass films that would be ace
Posted on Monday October 10, 2011, 15:24
I'll definitely be getting a copy, and I see there's a Joe Dante interview on there too.
Posted on Monday October 10, 2011, 18:12
Definately in my top 5 Hammer films. Love all the underground evil spirits creepiness. The "martian visions" effects still crack me up though, as does the "they were leaping, LEAPING!" speech. Total classic though.
Posted on Tuesday October 11, 2011, 00:33
Not only is this in my top 5 Hammer films, it's also in my top 10 sci-fi films ever made. It's intelligence and ideas put it way ahead of the vast majority of sci-fi that followed. As a writer, I don't think there many that are as good as Nigel Kneale.