Nigel Kneale’s work has been having a revival of late. He had the ability to provoke an audience into thinking; be it about the nature of life, states of being, about social systems, politics, etc. He could tell us things about ourselves; reveal hidden fears and desires, through expansive stories that take the viewer to the borders of experience.
Kneale also brought a satirical element into his work, as is evident in this brilliant film, based upon the then popular tv show, documenting the scientific adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass.
‘Quatermass and the Pit’ is arguably his finest, and probably most famous story. Without giving too much away, this really cleverly presents a ‘life, the universe and everything’ world view. Taking into account concepts of evolutionary biology, technology, the supernatural, folklore and even Panspermia.
Hammer’s limited budget approach to film making often meant that over time, the films themselves lost their power and impact. But when they got a good story, like here, this issue didn’t matter. And so its no surprise that the special effects in ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ are generally pretty basic. However, the final ‘phoenix’ scenes are still as malevolent and disturbing as when I first saw them as a child.
The film starts with the discovery of something long ago buried (no prizes for associating this theme with another ultra famous 1960s sci-fi epic). Experts are called in, and we then meet our main character, Professor Quatermass himself, who is the king boffin of boffinesque characters. His ‘only work’ philosophy, and maths teacher attire, all fit in with the eccentric but sane ‘explainer’ image. Andrew Keir was good casting for the Prof, and he is brilliant at keeping the audience informed as the story plays out.
A clash of egos then develops between Quatermass and Colonel Breen, and this clash underpins the whole narrative. Julian Glover’s ramrod soldier does everything by the book, battling with the Prof as to the best course of action. A very good performance; by playing the certainties of command to the extreme, he makes the subliminal fears rising gradually in some of the other characters even more apparent.
A touch of mystery is supplied courtesy of the empathetic Barbara Judd, played by Barbara Shelley. It is incredible looking back at so many films from those times, to examine how a supporting female character was expected to behave and look. Immaculately dressed, demure and made up in every situation. However, in ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, Shelley’s Judd is central to revealing the mystery at the heart of the story, and assertive in her opinions. Still, she is definitely ‘supporting’ rather than leading proceedings here. Immaculately dressed.
In general, this film is a very old school affair. All the workmen, scientists, ministers and military men are played to type. But overall this doesn’t really spoil things.
My favorite acting moment is probably when the old bobby explains why the area around ‘Hobbs End’ station is unpopulated. A moment of genuine primordial fear is conveyed. And here’s the point. This film conveys primal fears in ways like no other I can think of. One of the rare examples of a teleplay successfully standing up as a film. The stock used for ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ is typically ‘Hammer’, and its colour seems garish (to these eyes at least). However, it really doesn’t matter because its lack of verisimilitude actually ends up making the familiar, unfamiliar.
In conclusion, I’d recommend this film if you are interested in the history of British sci-fi or enjoyed films like ‘The Wicker Man’. Catch a classic while you can!
(c) 2012 Gideon Hall (first published in ‘Femalearts’ Magazine)