Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Film #172: Quatermass and the Pit

I'm surprised by the seemingly large number of rabid science-fiction fans who have never seen the Hammer Studios' classic Quatermass and the Pit. Why have they missed this essential entry in the Bristish studio's treasured output? Well, neither Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing are in it, first of all. It wasn't a major hit when it arrived in 1967. It’s been out of print on DVD for many years, and was only released on Blu-Ray in 2011, and has quickly gone out of print again. Also there could be some confusion lingering as it was (not badly) renamed Five Million Years to Earth upon its 1968 American release, since the estimable UK TV and movie hero Professor Bernard Quatermass was largely an unknown quantity on US shores. Anyway, it's a film that's never been talked about in the same breath as other heady sci-fi classics like Solaris and Blade Runner, though it certainly deserves to be. If I’m correct and many of you have missed this bonafide masterpiece--or somehow have forgotten its rather nightmarish power--I’m happy to lead you to a visitation (or re-visitation) of its estimable horrors.

The Quatermass series has a complex history. It originated on British TV in 1953, with actor-turned-writer Nigel Kneale’s serial The Quatermass Experiment dramatizing the aftermath of a failed mission to space; a single astronaut (out of a three-man crew) returns to Earth, upon which Quatermass is charged to figure out why the spaceman’s flesh is slowly deteriorating. Reginald Tate would be the first of many actors to assay the role, and the piece would be remade for cinemas in 1955 with Brian Donlevy in the lead (the film would be rather strangely retitled The Creeping Unknown in the US).

The TV serial was a huge hit for BBC, so they quickly were on board for a 1955 sequel, Quatermass II, which had John Robinson taking over the role after Reginald Tate’s untimely death at 58. In this installment, Quatermass studies the effects of a meteor shower and uncovers an alien invasion that has reached the top echelons of the British government, and so it’s up to the professor to weigh the pros and cons of using a nuclear device to upset the alien plot. Once again, this massive hit was remade for cinemas in 1957 with the highly difficult Brian Donlevy in the lead (he was battling serious alcoholism). The US distributors, obviously continuing to have a difficult time with the character’s name, decided to give this one the drab moniker Enemy From Space.

By 1958, BBC was again badgering Kneale for another series, so he came up with Quatermass and the Pit. In this cycle, the professor (here played by Andre Morell) and his team soon ferret out a mind-boggling theory that puts forth not only answers to our derivation from alien species, but also to the very human notion of abject evil and its representatives here on Earth. This turned out to be the most thoughtful and unsettling entry into the series, and it’s for this reason that the cinematic adaptation didn’t arrive for almost another decade (not surprisingly, the American financiers were flummoxed by the story). Anyway, it was probably a bear for Kneale to reduce his tale down to a more movie-shaped 90 minutes (by the way, the 3 ½ hour, six-episode original is now available on You Tube).

It’s good they waited, though. As fine as Hammer house director Val Guest’s work was on the first two black-and-white cinematic installments, by 1966, when Hammer was charged with remaking Quatermass and the Pit, the addition of color was absolutely necessary, and director Roy Ward Baker’s use of Hammer’s team in this regard was exemplary. Hammer films are always better in color, and as always, red is there favorite hue. It pops up most creatively all throughout this film, and is invariably a sign of scary things to come. But blues, greens and grays are equally important here.

The unusual burning-red credits that open Quatermass and the Pit are a portent of hellish things to come. Under Tristam Cary’s stinging but sparse score, blazing puzzle pieces fit together to construct a horrific skull as the unusually shortened credits sequence unfolds into a thin horizontal image of a London bobby patrolling the street’s outside of the Hobbs End underground station, where tunneling workers are dutifully peeling away layers of gooey clay. Director Baker keeps things moving quickly in this picture, so in only seconds, the major discovery of a glimmering, simian-looking skull appears in their sights. “Look at those dead eyes, and those gnashers,” a worker says. And before we can breathe again, another skeleton unglued from the mud, and the government is called in to investigate as Mod London looky-loos are gathering outside the station.

Leading the excavation is Dr. Matthew Roney (James Douglas), a grey-suited, serious-faced sort of chap, thin and pinched though joyful at his new find. His second is Barbara Judd (Barbara Steele), who supervises the various spots where fossils have been located. Roney manages the tour of the site for the press, who are present as new pieces are uncovered (one of the excavators is played by Bee Duffell, who portrayed the book-loving woman forced to see her library go up in flames in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451). Under the interrogation of a red-coated journalist, Roney admits his belief that the fossils are evidence of an ancient ape-man that predates science’s view of man’s arrival on Earth. Just as this is unfolding, Duffell discovers a wall of metallic material she cannot define. The possibility is raised that this is an unexploded bomb dropped during the German blitz, and as far fetched as this is, it’s a good enough cover story to keep the public far away from their findings.

But it necessitates the arrival of the military, who have no time for science. Roney sees his site taken over and demands answers from the higher ups. This introduces Julian Glover as hawkish Colonel Breen, who’s introduced battling rocket scientist Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir, who is superb here in his bearded authority) over the future of moon colonization, which is wholly being taken over by the military against his peaceful objections (“Nose to the grindstone,” says the prim government bureaucrat as he leaves them to it). Breen gets a call to Hobbs End, and he invites Quatermass to join him in a shakily placid collaboration.

When they see the “unexploded bomb,” it’s instantly clear this is not a construction of 1940s Germany. It has been excavated further, and looks like something constructed by a young H.R. Giger, with sharp lines and weird curves that connote something from another world (I guarantee, this film was a big influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien). Of course, the colonel stays his course, but Quatermass immediately thinks bigger. This craft they discover doesn’t conform to anything known by man. It’s a metal that doesn’t conduct magnetism and is resistant to any damage. But the military man, realizing his job is over if it’s NOT a bomb, stick to his story. But when another skull is discovered under the craft’s hull, Quatermass asks how did it get there, and remain there intact. The colonel is clearly disturbed by this, and by the news from his captain (Bryan Marshall) that there are no records of unexploded arsenal landing in the area. Quatermass is clearly both an establishment and anti-establishment figure here. I love how the movie sets him up as an authority and as a protester against military aggression. Thank goodness Kneale and Ward did this without introducing any hippie characters that could have badly dated the film.

It’s told that the area around the station had been abandoned during the war, not by evacuation, but by choice; the population had abandoned the area out of some “superstition” that the area housed a terrible power. “A lot of nonsense, I dare say,” a policeman tells an intrigued Quatermass. In examining the abandoned flats across the street, the professor learns of noises heard, things seen, that frightened the inhabitants away. The eerily scratched walls seem to bear this out, and so does the sweaty bobby who crumbles under the pressure of inhabiting the area. Miss Judd then informs Quatermass, upon his notice of the area’s original name Hob’s Lane, that Hob was once a popular nickname for Satan.

I think that’s quite enough to get one interested in the film. I don’t want to reveal any more than is uncovered in its first third. But, of course, I do want to trumpet the movie’s later success. It’s really a celebration of science (as is the entire Quatermass series). It’s a film about keen observation and its resulting conclusions. Quatermass and the Pit is, all at once, a piece concerned with fear, curiosity, and revelation. Quatermass, Roney and Judd form a triad devoted to discovering truth, even in the face of remarkably preposterous evidence. Watching it is to look into the face of those who believe one thing, only to discover another, more outlandish reality. It’s the essence of science (“The Germans didn’t make this and lose the secret,” Quatermass says of the harder-than-diamond craft. “You ask Von Braun”).

Quatermass and the Pit doesn’t shirk away from terror. As the process goes on, the threats mount, and the implications mount even higher. But it becomes a film that doesn’t accept superstition as rote, but as a jumping-off point for recognizing the reasons behind false beliefs. In that way, it’s very much unlike most science-fiction films. It has its roots firmly planted in the terra firma, and yet it becomes so otherworldly. The sequence following the exploration of the craft is unnerving; its results are even more so.

Proper respect must be given here to the movie’s art direction (by Bernard Robinson), makeup (by Michael Morris), and sound design. At times since its release, the film’s low budget has been held against it. But these artisans really make their creations sing. It’s true that, later on in the film, the visual effects let us down a bit. But I contend they add, in their ineptness, a kind of odd movement that better effects would fail to achieve. They somehow hit the abstract mark of pure, primordial dread. I've always thought it interesting that this film and 2001: A Space Odyssey arrived on screens at nearly the same time. Both films are about dug-up discoveries that send humans hurtling towards disclosures about our past for which our species is not quite prepared. Both are about the co-mingling of alien and human experience, and even of their shared DNA. I have no doubt that Kubrick viewed the original BBC production, since he watched even the most obscure science-fiction films in preparation for 2001. But, by the time its screeching, glaringly strange and harrowing denouement, Quatermass and the Pit provides an insight that Kubrick’s film arguably misses: in this co-mingling, a myth was formed, and that myth created religion—the uneasy cohabitant of science. This idea creeps me out, and is the chief quality that makes this smart, fast-moving, highly entertaining film unforgettable.

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