It’s hard to imagine now, just how much impact the BBC’s original Quatermass television serials had in 1950s Britain. Made in the days before multiple channels and repeats, they were event television and gripped the nation. The success of the first two serials The Quatermass Experiment in 1953 and Quatermass II in 1955, led Hammer Studios to acquire the film rights producing two adaptations in 1955 and 1957. Both starred an American lead Brian Donlevy much to the displeasure of Quatermass’ creator Nigel Kneale. Although the films were extremely successful, Kneale was so displeased with them that he resisted Hammer’s attempts to film the third of the BBC serials 1958s Quatermass and the Pit and the eventual Hammer adaptation (written by Kneale) did not appear until 1967 with Scottish actor Andrew Keir playing the character. The delay benefitted the production, allowing for greater resources and the use of the rich colour palate for which Hammer became known during the 1960s – the previous two films were black and white.
In Quatermass and the Pit London Underground workers discover ancient bones whilst excavating a new line extension. An eminent archaeologist Dr. Rooney (Donald) is called to the find. Further excavations uncover a large metallic object buried in the clay. Believing it might be unexploded German ordinance from the blitz, the authorities call in the army.
Quatermass enters the scene with the army, but soon becomes convinced that the find is no bomb, but an alien craft that has been buried for over five million years. Investigations into local history uncover evidence of a persistent curse afflicting the area of Hobbs End (formerly known as Hob’s End, Hob being an archaic word meaning devil or demon). While Quatermass initially dismisses these findings as superstitious twaddle, the increasingly uncanny events at the dig lead him to to a terrifying theory.
Quatermass and the Pit is a superb example of Kneale’s work, favouring ideas over action, and character over spectacle. While the film does eventually work its way up to a finale involving the large scale destruction of much of Kensington, this is built on a bedrock of solid plotting, dense with fascinating notions. At the heart of the film is a quasi scientific explanation for the existence of evil and the mythology of demons. In many ways Quatermass and the Pit deals in strikingly similar themes to those Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark tackled in the following year’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker – who had directed A Night to Remember (the best Titanic film) and went on to direct many films for Hammer – the film is efficiently constructed making good use of claustrophobic subterranean sets. However it is very nearly undone by some truly appalling special effects in the final movement. However enhanced by an excellent cast, and with such a great script, the film recovers through the sheer strength of Kneale’s ideas. There’s more in here than in every Hollywood big budget SF film made in the last ten years combined. Kneale is a key figure in British science fiction and horror, but he eschews the shock scare and instead seeks to find an idea that is in itself frightening through the mere act of comprehension.
The influence of Quatermass and the Pit can be clearly seen in Stephen King’s novel The Tommyknockers (virtually a rewrite, and a vastly inferior one at that). Also John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Paul WS Anderson’s Event Horizon both explore quasi-SF explanations of demoniacal evil (although neither with the Kneale’s depth). In fact Carpenter acknowledged his debt by writing Prince of Darkness under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass.
For anyone who prizes ideas over spectacle, this is not only the best film Hammer ever produced, it is one of the best Science Fiction films ever made in the UK.