Quatermass and the Pit

Once upon a time it was quite common to see movies either inspiring TV shows or leading to direct spin-offs. This still happens of course but it doesn’t seem to take place with the same frequency. On the other hand, we’ve now grown accustomed to seeing TV shows being adapted or reimagined as big screen vehicles, with variable success. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking the latter is a purely modern phenomenon. But it’s not really, it had been going on long ago and one of the studios that became aware early on of the potential for commercial exploitation was Hammer in the UK. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials were big hits for the BBC and Hammer seized the opportunity to turn them into cinema features, significantly boosting their fortunes and profile in the process. That was in the 50s, and Hammer would return to this winning formula again in the following decade when Quatermass and the Pit (1967) stylishly revived the series in color.

The ominous-sounding pit of the title is an excavation taking place at a London underground station, Hobbs End, aimed at extending the line. This is our point of entry, following the workmen as they shovel out the clay.  In the midst of this routine labor something irregular is spotted trundling along the conveyor belt – the remains of a skull. Almost immediately, another section of earth is pulled away to reveal an almost complete skeleton. So one excavation gives way to another, the structural yielding to the archaeological, this one under the supervision of Dr Roney (James Donald). However, the relatively standard prehistoric material being retrieved isn’t all that’s been buried at this site, the unexpected discovery of an unfamiliar casing suggests there might be an explosive device keeping the ancient residents company. And it’s here that Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), professor of physics and head of the government’s rocket research, comes into the picture. Furthermore, this is also the stage at which the film shifts from the realm of the mundane towards that of the fantastic, and potentially horrific. Quatermass, Roney, and Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), find themselves gradually drawn to the conclusion that the contents of Hobbs End station may not be from this planet at all. If their theories are correct, they may have stumbled upon that long sought after “missing link” in the evolutionary chain, something which promises to be not only startling in its audacity but also terrifying in potency and destructiveness.

I’ve never seen the original TV serial that formed the basis for this adaptation but I’ve heard that it was a triumph, a high point for the medium. I’ve also seen claims that the film, while very good, didn’t quite measure up to its origins. I do intend to fill in this gap in my viewing knowledge at some point but for now all I can do is comment on the movie as I see it. I think I first saw this at some time back in the 1980s and it made an instant impression. Anyone familiar with Hammer films will know what I mean when I say that they had a “feel” to them which was unmistakable. This was partly due to the casting but, as with films like Quatermass and the Pit, it was still apparent even if many of the faces weren’t as familiar. It was as much the contribution of the team behind the cameras that created that unique Hammer vibe as anything. Just seeing credits which promised production by Anthony Nelson Keys, photography by Arthur Grant, art direction by Bernard Robinson etc meant you were in for a cinematic experience that had Hammer stamped all over it.

Roy Ward Baker had enjoyed success in Hollywood, UK cinema and then worked quite extensively in British TV before coming to Hammer. As such, his was a sure hand directing and he obviously slotted neatly into the team as he went on to take charge of a number of features for the studio.  Possibly as a result of being a serial in the first place the script, having presumably been compressed to some extent, moves along at a reasonable pace, taking its time only where necessary, and there’s no shortage of incident to hold the attention. Sci-Fi generally depends on intelligent writing and, perhaps more so in recent times, visual effects to be considered successful. While I don’t believe effects are the be all and end all in any production, it’s clear that they do play a part in the enjoyment of many – in Quatermass and the Pit this aspect ought to be considered perfectly satisfactory although obviously not of the kind audiences today would be used to. Of greater importance is the quality of the writing and again, without wishing to go into too much detail and thus spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I believe Kneale’s script fulfills the basic requirement of any good piece of science fiction: it asks as many questions as it answers and encourages the viewer to think.

Kneale never made any secret of the fact he disapproved (to say the least) of the decision to cast US actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the first two adaptations of his work, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, something I’ve seen fans complain about too. Frankly, I never had any problem with Donlevy and quite liked the energy and assertiveness he brought to his interpretation, although I can understand too how a writer might feel displeased with a characterization he found too far removed from his own vision. Anyway, Andrew Keir tackles the role of Quatermass in a different way, emphasizing the more thoughtful sides of the man but retaining something of an edge at the same time. That tougher, more stubborn streak emerges most noticeably when he’s confronting the supercilious and dismissive Colonel Breen whose military inflexibility is captured neatly by Julian Glover. James Donald has a certain reserve and remoteness as Roney, lacking some of the warmth and companionable charm of Keir, but that’s something which serves his character well, bearing in mind how he’s seen to develop in the latter stages of the film in particular. Barbara Shelley feels like one of the constants of British TV and cinema. She appeared in a huge number of notable productions, and something like a half dozen or so Hammer films among them. The roles offered to women in Sci-Fi weren’t always the most interesting yet Shelley’s part in Quatermass and the Pit is actually quite pivotal and she comes across as playing an important part in the central team.

Some Hammer films have been difficult to come by and really only became readily available in recent years. However, that was never the situation with Quatermass and the Pit, it being one of those titles that never seemed to be out of print for any length of time. I had the DVD for years and then picked up the UK Blu-ray last year as I reckoned it was the kind of movie that might benefit from the upgrade, and it does. The old DVD  was perfectly acceptable to my eyes but the Hi-Def version brings out the details and colors even more and gives the whole thing an attractive punch. The film remains an absorbing one no matter how it’s viewed of course – it’s up there among the very best Hammer productions and it’s also one of the finest British Sci-Fi movies.

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43 thoughts on “Quatermass and the Pit

  1. I saw the original TV serial as a child, and felt underwhelmed when, years later, I saw the Hammer movie. A few years ago, having the opportunity to rewatch the TV version (it’s now in fact on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lmyyzUSn5Y), I chose to watch the two back t back to see if my original judgement had been just a product of childhood amazement vs. adult reserve.

    And, actually, I still preferred the original, despite all the egregious clumsinesses of its production. You actually refer to the reason in your (excellent) account of the big-screen version:

    the script, having presumably been compressed to some extent, moves along at a reasonable pace

    In my view, the story is such that, to achieve its maximum impact, it needs to be told a bit more slowly: the buildup in the original is incredible, whereas in the movie it all seems to be over in rather a rush.

    I’m a great admirer of Donlevy but, like Kneale — and this without having seen the original; TV versions — I was unpersuaded by his portrayal of Quatermass. I mean, it’s a bit Rocky XCIII: Rocky Goes Quatermass.

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    • Well, I’m going to have to check out the original TV version and see what I think of it, John. It’s a really good story so the extra breathing space, the slower pace may, as you say, work in its favor – we’ll see.

      And I have to say I love your Rocky Goes Quatermass tagline. 😀

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  2. Back in the days of vhs I bought this one after seeing the Donlevy films and found it quite watchable. Then a couple of years ago I stumbled onto the tv original from 1958. Wow! It was great fun and highly entertaining. As realthog says, the slow build-up really works. Not that I’m crapping on the film version, but I also prefer the serial. Nice write-up by the way. .

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    • Another vote for the TV serial then. There’s quite different feel to the Donlevy films so if the Quatermass figure is able to bridge the characterization gap apparent in the movies then I guess the differences that must exist in the TV serial are also manageable, which I think says a lot about the strength and solidity of the original writing.

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    • Yes, Chris, Donald was memorable in those movies.
      Everyone can’t go for the same genres, obviously, but I have to say that a film like this is quite accessible to those who wouldn’t normally opt for Sci-Fi films – it plays like a very tense thriller for the most part.

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  3. I also saw the original TV serial and, allowing for the fact I was about 11 years old, found it truly terrifying in a way the film cannot quite achieve. Doesn’t mean the film is inferior – it is just fine – but I re-watched the original in the last few years and still found it very effective. Not in colour and effects a bit clunky perhaps but the tension is terrific. And Andre Morell as the Prof is really dynamic. One of the great moments in TV history.

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  4. This is such a great movie – I think, truly, the first important piece of SF I ever saw, it made a huge impression on me when I was 12 and I still think it is wonderful. I’ll be glad to lend you my copy of the TV version – it holds up remarkably well and, at 3 hours, does allow some of the idea to develop better – also, the action scenes are pretty good as they are more dynamic than you might suspect for 1950s BBC TV as they were filmed on 35mm at Ealing studios (the rest was shot on tape as per the norm but again, has survived in very good condition).

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  5. I was never a big fan of this one and that’s probably in part due to the fact that I had fallen in love with the Gothic Hammers growing up. Seeing it again years later, softened my stance on it and I like Keir. If it weren’t for Peter Cushing being the go to guy, I think Keir may have had greater success with the studio in some of their more famous horrors.

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    • I know what you mean as I would have gotten my first taste of Hammer via the Gothic stuff too. Having said that, I quickly came to like almost all of the studio’s output.
      Cushing was untouchable for me but I really like Keir in his Hammer outings – Dracula: Prince of Darkness and the often neglected Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb are favorites of mine.

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  6. Nigel Kneale was scifi’s great idea man, seeding his scripts with horror/myth subtexts. There was always something to chew on, intellectually. Sad, but unsurprising, that he couldn’t succeed as a US screenwriter. His script for Halloween 3 was rewritten, and he worked on an abandoned Creature From The Black Lagoon reboot. He couldn’t get the auteur status in the US, with our screenplay-by-committee approach.

    The guy who wrote Chariots of the Gods prospered mightily off Kneale’s concepts.

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  7. I first saw this as a young teen and it fueled many nightmares. Revisiting it as an adult I cut my younger self some slack. It is still the stuff of disquieting nights.

    My husband wasn’t interested in watching this with me a couple of years ago until he walked through the room and saw Barbara Shelley. Must remember that sort of thing on movie night.

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    • My husband wasn’t interested in watching this with me a couple of years ago until he walked through the room and saw Barbara Shelley.

      Hush, hush! I keep telling my wife I watch the movie solely for its intelligent speculation, its extrapolation from the mundane to the groundedly fantasticated, its metafictional intensity in exploring subtextual tropes, its . . .

      Barbara Shelley, did you say?

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    • It’s the mark of fine filmmaking, isn’t it, when you still find yourself stopping and thinking even though you’re very familiar with the story and theme. And disquiet is a far more interesting sense than the ephemeral shock of merely shouting “Boo!” from behind the door.

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  8. ’68 the year that gave us the two greatest sf films on extraterrestrial origins of Mankind.

    There’s serious speculation that the building blocks of Earth life came from a crashing comet. Needless to say, one page exclaimed “QUATERMASS WAS RIGHT!!”

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    • Looking back on that era, which I’d say would draw to a close in the early 70s, and comparing it to the present is a little depressing isn’t it?
      The last decade or so has seen Sci-Fi and fantastic elements dominant in cinema, and television too, but I don’t get the feeling that, despite the numbers, there has been anything as influential or challenging in terms of ideas produced as was the case between the 50s and the mid-70s.

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  9. Ha! I’ve just twigged on-your fab new headers match perfectly the current film that you are writing about-furthermore it really works!

    Years ago-circa 1972 Cushing gave a Q & A session at London’s National Film Theatre. I always remember some lady in the audience saying that she thought Cushing would have made a wonderful Quatermass- I totally agree, Cushing was as always very gracious and I’ve always been very peeved that he never received a much deserved Knighthood-especially considering the huge amount of overseas money Hammer made for the UK. Even more dubious when one considers several odious persons who have received the nation’s highest award. The “perfect English Gentleman” suits Cushing more than anyone than I can think of. Still, in today’s cult of “famous for being famous! these values are redundant in modern Britain.

    Nigel Kneale’s dislike of Donlevy has been detailed much elsewhere and I for one loved the Donlevy films. The American backers (Lippert) needed a name more bankable with USA audiences hence Donlevy’s involvement. I still feel Hammer should have used Cushing as opposed to Keir. It’s good to hear that the Blu Ray is a marked improvement over the DVD-it’s one I’ve had on the “back burner” for some time now. What I liked about Val Guest’s first Quatermass film was his Cinema Verite approach-the use of natural locations give the film an almost documentary feel. Baker’s film, on the other hand, was a very studio bound affair which for me never worked. When the film was made Hackney and Shoreditch and other parts of the East End had not yet been gentrified (or indeed Yuppiefied!)
    and using natural East End locations would have heightened the feel and the look of the film. In fact there were still existing bombsites which would have
    given the film a more urban decadent look which for me would have worked far better.

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    • Re the header images, yes, I’ve been trying to match the theme of them up with whatever movie is current. I’ve opted so far for a similar genre or style where possible as opposed to an actual scene from the film in question. Just an experiment anyway, glad you like it.

      I agree on Cushing deserving more honors when he was alive – he was such a big part of Hammer and the British film industry itself, but I think Hammer wasn’t as highly regarded critically at that time. I certainly recall some scathing pieces about Hammer being written in the 80s.

      You know, the studio look of this film doesn’t bother me – possibly because the real locations aren’t all that familiar to me, I don’t know – but I enjoy a nice studio set at the best of times. I think I’ve gone into or at least touched on this at some point in the past but I have a real soft spot for the artifice and artfulness of well designed sets. Golden age Hollywood did this very well, and created a special atmosphere all of their own as a result. I think a movie like this one achieves something similar.

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  10. I never saw the first two Quatermass TV serials purely we did not have a TV until 1958 when I was 12. I was on board for QUATERMASS & THE PIT which scared the hell out of the nation as well as emptying pubs on the nights that it was shown.
    I did get a glimpse of the script of the first TV Quatermass which came out in a Penguin book. One scene that I wish was in Guest’s initial film was a scene where a young couple go into a flea-pit cinema to watch a typical Fifties Sci-Fi Monster film-and guess what “the creature” is lurking in the stalls-what a great scene that would have been.
    I wish that someone would re-make THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT with today’s special effects but still set it in the 50’s.’ With Peter Jackson’s KING KONG the only thing that worked for me was the 30’s setting. Again, and it’s only my warped mind but whenever I see Jeremy Corbyn I think “Quatermass” surely closer to Nigel Kneale’s original vision than Donlevy 🙂

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  11. I saw this as a young boy, and along with the Twilight Zone, and Outer Limits, it messed me up, but good. 😊

    I went for a few years a bit back when my kid’s version and my adult perception disagreed about how good it is, but I’m back on team.

    It is very much my sort of thing.

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    • Yes, I know that disconnect between the nostalgic perceptions of childhood and those of our adult selves very well, and the disappointments that it can bring. For me, this is one of those movies which still holds up just fine though.

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  12. Pingback: The Earth Dies Screaming | Riding the High Country

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