Quatermass and the Pit


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A rare foray into science fiction for Hammer Studios (better known for their gothic horror films, many of them featuring Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee in the lead roles), Quatermass and the Pit is an energetically paced, effectively directed, intelligently written, competently performed entertainment with a speculative bent. Released in the United States the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Quatermass and the Pit, but with a production budget a fraction of Stanley Kubrick’s film, Quatermass and the Pit also explores the connection between extraterrestrial visitors and human development (from hominids to modern homo sapiens), albeit in less grandiose, portentous fashion. Instead of a black monolith, the instrument of ineffable higher beings, Quatermass and the Pit throws together a dying Martian race, genetic manipulation, primates with oversized craniums, and “race memory” (which serves to trigger long-suppressed recollections of a desolate, depopulating alien planet, latent psychic abilities, and violent, xenophobic tendencies).

Quatermass and the Pit was released in the United States as Five Million Years to Earth, presumably because the lead character, a professor of physics who investigates the paranormal, the supernatural, and the extraterrestrial, familiar to British audiences from an earlier television series written by Nigel Kneale (who also wrote the screenplay for Quatermass and the Pit), was unknown to American audiences. A gray-bearded Andrew Keir here steps into the role of Professor Quartermass (he was played by American import Brian Donlevy in two earlier feature films, both produced in the 1950s).

As Quatermass and the Pit opens, underground excavations to extend the London subway system unearths primates with overdeveloped skulls, and later, a large metallic object that is first confused for a German V-2 rocket. Quatermass, already at odds with the military and the government over the use of his research for military purposes, arrives at the site just in time to discover that the metallic object is most likely a ship with strange, unearthly effects. The mysterious, metallic object, now recognized as a (possibly) extraterrestrial ship, is a kind of tuning fork, and the presence of humans inside the ship leads to gravitating, flying objects, visitations (or hallucinations) by demonic figures, and disorientation. Speculation abounds, until a secret compartment inside the ship is discovered and opened, revealing its former occupants, now more than five million years old.

Research into the history of the area above the ship also reveals multiple incidents of unexplained phenomenon. The two are obviously tied, but the examination of the occupants (sans decontamination suits or sterile chambers), in addition to the primate skulls surrounding the ship lead Quartermass to startling (some might say illogical, or unsupported) conclusions about the connection and nature between the occupants and present-day humans. But the ship is more than a repository of archeological and anthropological knowledge, it also functions to awaken long dormant psychic activities in the men excavating the underground area, the military, and local residents. In essence, the ship alive with an ancient evil (cleverly visualized to represent the Judeo-Christian personification of evil, while remaining true to the vision of the aliens depicted in the film).

Only Professor Quatermass, the anthropology professor first on the scene, Mathew Roney (James Donald) and Roney’s assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) can save the world, or at least England, in the suitably apocalyptic finale. A disbelieving Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), a textbook marionette (and, therefore, unsympathetic) and the (unnamed) Minister of Defense (Edwin Richfield) also pose (surmountable) problems for our heroic trio.

As the synopsis indicates, Quatermass and the Pit is far more pulpy, and therefore less “serious” than Kubrick’s attempt to grapple with similar problems and issues about human origins. While Kubrick’s film is, at times, dramatically inert (it’s more cinematic essay than narrative film), [I]Quatermass and the Pit[/I] follows narrative conventions closely, ensuring that viewers will encounter vigorous protagonists, several levels and layers of conflict, and a dramatic structure that poses increasingly dire questions and dilemmas.

On the minus side, the limited production values may, unfortunately, lead potential viewers to dismiss Quatermass and the Pit without giving it a second thought, Contemporary audiences will have to make a noticeable effort to look beyond the often risible visual effects (with the possible exception of the monstrous figure shown at the climax) and the convincing puppets used to represent the enigmatic aliens, including the apparent use of finger puppets for a flashback scene set on the Martians’ home world.

© Mel Valentin, 22nd December, 2004

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