The year of 1968 was a turning point for genre cinema. Massive hits such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby tempting people who would not normally have considered going to see science fiction or horror films. Meanwhile, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead broke barriers of taste and realism in its graphic depiction of zombies wreaking havoc (and society repressing them with the same alacrity shown in repressing contemporary race riots) and Planet of the Apes demonstrated that ‘hard’ science fiction could be palatable to a family audience if presented with wit, style and excitement. But one film, made in 1967 but released in the USA in February 1968 and not appreciated at the time, is just as interesting as any of the major contenders – Hammer’s adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s 1958 television series Quatermass and the Pit. Dismissed as a low budget pot-boiler by many contemporary writers, it has come to be seen as not only one of the best Hammer films but also as an important piece of science fiction which presents ideas just as audacious as those expressed in 2001 and does so with considerably less pretension.
Nigel Kneale’s career has been one of the most distinguished of any script writer of the past 50 years. Beginning in the early days of television, he carved a niche for himself as the number one writer of science fiction drama with his three “Quatermass” serials for the BBC and his notorious adaptation of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four”. Later, he began to see this as rather an albatross but it’s still quite remarkable how well his work stands up fifty years later. Kneale’s writing is good on character and dialogue but his real strength lies in his ideas. From the concept of the stone of a house acting as a primitive recording device to the idea of an alien intelligence feeding on the youth of the planet, Kneale has consistently pushed the boundaries of what television executives and other simpletons consider to the be within the grasp of a general audience.
But of all the ideas which Kneale has presented, the most memorable for me are the ones which link hard science with the supernatural. His 1971 TV play The Stone Tape does this to staggering effect, creating a haunting which is presented in rational scientific terms but also manages to be pretty damned terrifying as a straight ghost story. Indeed, so influential was that play that later ghost stories have been hard pressed to escape from its shadow without going back to the earlier influence of Henry James. Even in his one Hollywood adventure, the original screenplay for Halloween 3: Season of the Witch - much altered by the producers – was based on a classic science/magic idea, that the Celtic gods who regard the commercialisation of their ancient festival as sacrilege must be appeased using all the wonders of modern technology.
But I am of the firm opinion that Kneale’s most substantial claim to immortality lies in his original script for the TV series and, subsequently, the film of Quatermass and the Pit. Although the film condenses the original serial, it doesn’t lose much of importance and it still manages to tell a story which is surely among the most ingenious of alien invasion plots ever devised. During routine engineering works at Hobbs' End underground station, a group of bones and half complete skeletons of ape men are discovered, apparently establishing that men walked the earth long before is generally accepted. Later, a strange metal container is unearthed. The authorities, led by the unimaginative martinet Colonel Breen (Glover), believe it to be an unexploded bomb left over from World War 2 but Professor Bernard Quatermass (Keir), head of the British Rocket Group, thinks otherwise. Along with a scientist Matthew Rooney (Donald), Quatermass presses for the container to be opened. When it is, the contents lead him towards a discovery which shatters the accepted history of human evolution and offers a dire warning for the future of mankind.
SPOILERS WARNING In some respects, Quatermass and the Pit can be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films are about the impact of an alien intelligence upon the evolution of mankind and both films deal with the consequences of that intervention being discovered. Of course, in style and tone the two films are worlds apart and the painstaking special effects of Kubrick’s film make the leaping alien puppets of Quatermass and the Pit look like amateur night stuff. But in terms of intellectual ambition, the two films are directly comparable and Kneale’s imagination is just as inventive and complex as that of Clarke and Kubrick. He suggests that the Martian intervention was far from benign; in fact it was actively malevolent, transferring the Martians own instinct to kill the ‘other’ – through some kind of carnivorous ethnic cleansing – into the ape men who were experimented upon. Consequently, the human urge to hate, despise and destroy anything different is explained through the fact that, as is explicitly stated in the film, “We ARE the Martians!”
This is awesomely ambitious stuff and it’s interlinked with an equally ambitious attempt to rationalise the nature of both supernatural hauntings and human concepts of the devil. People in Hobbs’ End – once named Hob’s End, perhaps after ‘Hob’, the folk name for Satan – have been seeing mysterious images for years and Kneale suggests that this is due to the power contained within the container leaking out, or perhaps derived from some Jungian race memory. The Martian creatures themselves – hideous, horned creatures – could explain our image of the devil as ‘the horned beast’. It’s hard to believe that Science Fiction – now endless self-consuming and plagiaristic, used as an excuse for elaborate action scenes – could once have been so intellectually nourishing. Although the execution sometimes lets down the concepts, those ideas are strong enough to remain potent and, bizarrely, convincing. Nigel Kneale’s greatest achievement is to make the most outlandish claims and then render them strangely believable by treating them in an unpatronising, adult manner.
The screenplay is a small masterpiece. The film, unfortunately, is flawed. It’s not so much the special effects which render it somewhat tamer than it should be but it’s undoubtedly the case that they seriously damage one scene – the ethnic cleansing of the Martians - which is vitally important and tend, at other times, to look rather amateurish. To be fair, the physical effects when all hell breaks loose are rather better but the final image of ‘Hob’ looming over the London skyline is something of an anticlimax, despite Kneale’s brilliant use of the idea that iron was a defence against the powers of evil. Smaller annoyances build up too. The appalling acting of some of the supporting cast makes the opening unintentionally comic and it’s all too obvious that Julian Glover’s Colonel Breen is much too young to have seen service in World War Two. A few of the sets look rather too makeshift for comfort as well.
However, Roy Ward Baker’s direction is generally very good and I think this is probably the best film he directed – it’s certainly on a par with A Night To Remember. The pace of the film is spot-on and Baker creates some genuinely suspenseful moments. The apocalyptic conclusion is especially well handled considering the obvious limitations of the budget. He’s helped by the screenplay of course and by the superb cast which he has assembled. Andrew Keir is much the best screen Quatermass and the only one to capture the avuncular side of the TV character as well as the off-hand selfishness. Keir was an excellent actor who made a strong impression in two other Hammer films; as the monk Shandor in Dracula Prince of Darkness and as the obsessive professor in the underrated Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb. He’s well matched by James Donald, a quirky actor who is fondly remembered for his ‘Madness, madness’ at the end of Bridge on the River Kwai. There are also nice bits from the miscast Julian Glover – although his character is much too one-sided to convince – and from Barbara Shelley as Rooney’s flame haired assistant. But I think that this is one of the rare films which belongs to the writer and it’s as good a testament to Nigel Kneale’s abilities as you’ll find. Add the BFI DVD of The Stone Tape and you’ve got ample evidence to suggest that he’s one of the most interesting writers of his generation.
Optimum Home Entertainment have chosen to release Quatermass and the Pit on Blu-ray as a Double Play release with a DVD copy (which wasn't provided for review) and a very funky new exclusive front cover designed by British artist Olly Moss. They've obviously put some care into the packaging, but thankfully they've given the disc the same treatment, as any doubts that Optimum would crank out a basic transfer for this cult Hammer classic were washed away within five minutes of sitting down with this 1080p, 1.66:1 presentation.
I can't claim to hold any memories of how this film played in theatres back in the late 60s (having first discovered it on DVD a few years back), but the colour scheme looks both nicely saturated and very naturalistic, with mundane skin tones and rich primary tones. There's a medium-to-heavy layer of grain present throughout that blows up very well on a big screen so it hardly makes its presence known at all, and the image detail is good: maintaining just a touch of a slightly-worn softness that you'd expect from a film over 40yrs old, but with enough Hi-Def fine detail to bring out the texture of the tweed jackets and Andrew Kerr's straggly facial hair during close-ups. Contrast and brightness seem nicely weighted to me, black levels may not be quite as deep as some LCD/Plasma owners are used to, but I couldn't really find clear signs of excessive brightness boosting - although some scenes were clearly filmed in a way that means they will exhibit a dip in black levels/shadow detail (the opening shot, for instance).
Optimum claim they've "Digitally Restored" the print and there's certainly no significant damage present; just the odd white nick/pop and black fleck here and there, nor can I confirm any obvious signs of over-processing: The grain structure suggests no major noise reduction is in play, nor did I notice any edge enhancements, so it's all very un-controversial. Even their AVC encode delivers, with a healthy average video bitrate of 32.95Mbps exhibiting no significant noise during regular playback.
The understated approach extends to the audio, with only a LPCM 2.0 Stereo presentation of the original English audio, which sounds impressively polished given its age. Obviously the general sound is a little hollow with some faint distortion on the harsher end of the dialogue thanks to the wear and tear of time, but really the track sounds much crisper than I ever would have guessed: Dialogue is clean and audible throughout, the soundtrack sounds reasonably dynamic with enough bass to handle the heavier moments, and treble is surprisingly solid. It's hard to see how Optimum could have improved the audio much further.
Optional English SDH Subtitles are provided for the film only, not for any of the Extra Features.
A single theatrical trailer is about all the extra material Optimum and Studio Canal could muster between their two previous UK releases of Quatermass and the Pit on DVD, however on Blu-ray they have sought to rectify past transgressions by not only porting over the Extra Features from the 1998 R1 Anchor Bay DVD, but also including a handful of newly conducted interviews with Kneale's widow: Judith Kerr, Colonel Breen himself: Julian Glover, and a handful of Hammer Film fans/experts. In total there is nearly two hours of interview footage on the disc!
Please Note: No subtitles are provided for any of the extra features on the disc.
Commentary with Roy Ward Baker and Nigel Kneale
Both men were getting on a bit when this was recorded for the 1998 DVD release, so their reticence is understandable; but silence can kill an audio commentary and there's plenty of it here if you're not much of a fan of the format. If you persevere then there is a decent amount of information imparted, with Roy Ward Baker discussing his filmmaking career and Nigel Kneale offering little insights into the production of the original TV series in-between their combined musings on the 1967 film, its cast, and the Hammer studio.
Interview with Judith Kerr (17m:11s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
Judith had been married to Kneale for 52years by the time of his passing in 2006, so I guess it's only natural that her interview be first in the line on this disc, and the one to focus more on Kneale the man rather than his work. She offers the tale of how they met and fell in love and goes into detail on those early years writing and working on the original Quatermass series at the BBC, before she moves on to discuss Kneale's legacy.
Interview with Joe Dante (11m:05s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
Dante speaks here more as an expert/lover of classic horror/science fiction rather than as a filmmaker, offering an overview of the Hammer studio and Quatermass franchise from more of an American perspective. This may be the shortest interview of the lot, but Dante's loquacious enthusiasm ensures it is densely packed with information.
Interview with Kim Newman (29m:30s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
Giving Dante a run for his money in the enthusiasm stakes, but running much longer, Newman unsurprisingly provides the jewel in the crown of these newly recorded interviews; offering about as much information on Hammer, Kneale, the Quatermass franchise and his own personal recollections of the various entries, as can possibly be crammed into half an hour. Perhaps most endearing about this interview, given the wealth of topics covered, is how jovial and chatty and not at all scripted it feels. It's almost as if the crew just turned up on his doorstep one day and asked him for a few comments!
Interview with Julian Glover (29m:27s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
The only star to be interviewed (only he, Shelley and Marshall remain from the principal cast), Julian Glover gives a frank and amusing account of his time filming Quatermass and the Pit - and the stupidity of his character! Lucas fans will probably perk up at the mention of his roles in Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as well.
Interview with Marcus Hearn (12m:24s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
I'm sure Hammer fans will be familiar with the writings of lifetime fan and Hammer Historian: Marcus Hearn. He's here to provide a little more detail on how Quatermass shifted from BBC TV series to Hammer Film franchise and the inter-studio politics (and writer disapproval) that led to such a wide gap in time between the productions of The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass and the Pit. It's a shame this interview isn't longer, although we could well be seeing more of this session on future Hammer releases by Studio Canal.
Interview with Mark Gatiss (19m:14s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
The final interview provides a slightly more casual fan perspective (although Gatiss is clearly an ardent fan himself) on all things Quatermass, Kneale, and Hammer, with Gatiss discussing his earliest memories of the franchise/studio and the time he met Kneale back when he was attempting to get a remake of The Road off the ground at the BBC. Surprisingly, he doesn't really talk about his role in the 2005 BBC Four adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment much at all.
"The World of Hammer" Sci-Fi Episode (24m:35s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
I think this was first broadcast on Channel 4 back in September 1994 as part of "The World of Hammer" series that offered a different profile each week - narrated by Oliver Reed - of the various genres and most infamous stars/themes featured throughout the studios illustrious (and not so illustrious) history. Looking back now, it's actually little more than a quite boring clip show, with Reed's narration providing very basic summaries of each film's plot (the Quatermass films included), plus it tends to revel the endings to most of the films featured, so best avoided if you don't want to be exposed to spoilers for a number of various Hammer Sci-fi classics!
One thing worth noting is that, obviously the quality of this feature isn't ideal, but the audio has been mixed very poorly in stereo, with Oliver Reed's narration only appearing on the front-left channel at roughly the same volume as the audio from the film clips (which plays mostly on the front-right channel). This means the clips drown out Reed's soft, raspy narration, so you'll need to crank the volume right up I'm afraid - or better yet, mute or reduce the volume of your front-right channel.
Trailer (02m:29s, 1080i, English LPCM 2.0)
The original theatrical trailer.
Alternate American Credits (00m:26s, 1080p, English LPCM 2.0) 1080p
With the film being renamed to Five Million Years to Earth in the states, they had to create two versions of the end credits (basically, it's the same credit sequence but with a different title). Presented progressively.
Alternative American Trailer (02m:32s, 1080p, English LPCM 2.0) 1080p
And again they needed a different trailer for the US market. Presented progressively.
OverallWhether you prefer the longer 1958 TV serial or the 1967 Hammer Film adaptation, Quatermass and the Pit remains one of the great examples of what can be achieve within the science fiction genre if a writer has a head full of great ideas and the ability to weave them together in a realistic way. Optimum have done a terrific job of bringing this classic to Blu-ray, offering an excellent presentation and a more than satisfactory selection of extra features.
The film review in this feature first appeared in Mike Sutton's review of the Quatermass and the Pit R2 DVD that featured in the Hammer Horror Resurrected Box Set released in the UK in 2003.