Who is Quatermass? The name itself is as strange and mysterious as the character. He’s a professor, a nuclear and rocket scientist, and an important element in Britain’s fight against the Nazis during the second world war. He also kept the country safe from the threat of alien forces throughout the 50s, and from the horrors of an ancient civilisation discovered beneath the streets of London.
Quatermass was the creation of legendary screenwriter Nigel Kneale. In 1953 he was working as a staff writer at the BBC and frustrated with the sedate and stiff style of television the corporation were producing. Hearing of the fast-paced serial-style productions that were becoming popular in America, he pitched the idea of a six-part science fiction show, an idea he’d been working on concerning a manned rocket crew heading into space that, following a disaster, returns with only one survivor who may be more than he appears. The idea was commissioned, and Kneale found the name of the quirky scientist who runs the space programme after scanning the pages of a London telephone directory. The Quatermass Experiment was an instant success, a programme that historians often cite as the birth of modern British television, edgy, frightening and far ahead of its time.
Serial sequel Quatermass II was equally successful two years later, and late in 1958 the third series arrived. Quatermass and the Pit centred around the discovery of a strange object during excavations for an extension on the London Underground, at first thought to be an unexploded bomb but later revealed to be a spacecraft containing long dead beings who may have influenced human evolution. The series was adult, deeply intelligent and (as this writer can state after seeing a re-run as a child) very frightening.
The film is faithful to the original series, with Quatermass the first to realise that the object must be at least five-million-years-old and arguing that it is alien in origin. After finally drilling into the machine they find three-legged, insectoid creatures, their horned heads resembling old images of the Devil. Quatermass offers his theory to the government: the occupants are Martian and came to Earth and created intelligence in the first ape men, who subsequently evolved into modern man, leaving traces of Martian intelligence in our psyche. At a press event the craft starts to draw power from equipment, and its psychic influence — previously seen on several of Quatermass’ colleagues — is intensified, violence breaking out on the London streets as people are mentally captured by the Martian civilisation.
Quatermass and the Pit remains one of the finest films ever made by Hammer. Coming from TV series The Avengers, director Roy Ward Baker was used to shooting quickly, and the small crew Hammer provided was perfect for his first feature. It’s a fast-paced and dramatic movie, and neither Baker nor Hammer shied away from the complex themes — religion, mass hypnosis, propaganda — of Kneale’s screenplay that wouldn’t become cinematic staples until the following decade.
It was also groundbreaking in terms of special effects and music; puppetry for the Martian creatures and brilliant model work for a ruined London are contrasted with an eerie electronic and orchestral soundtrack, unusual and unsettling. Like its television original it’s a film that not only holds up to repeated viewings but offers the viewer something new each time. A huge hit for Hammer, especially in the US — where it was given the clumsy title of Five Million Years to Earth — it was sadly the last time Quatermass would ever appear on cinema screens, despite long-held rumours that Kneale was writing further adventures for Hammer. Quatermass would appear on TV again, in 1979 and as recently as 2005, but these were minor efforts far removed from the greatness of Baker’s film and the original productions.
The recent Blu release from StudioCanal gives this seminal and highly influential film the respect it deserves, with a remastered image and sound that fully restores the atmosphere lost in scratchy TV and video prints. An audio commentary from Baker and Kneale (which is taken from an out-of-print laserdisc edition) is filled with stories of the production and revelations behind the workings of Hammer, and modern interviews with fans as diverse as Joe Dante, Mark Gattiss and Kim Newman reveal just how important this picture is in the history of the horror and science fiction genres. An essential release and purchase, Quatermass and the Pit remains to this day perfect material for this website. Not only is it terrifying, it is also exquisite in conception.
Quatermass and the Pit is available on double play now