Saturday 20 April 2013

A to Z - Quatermass and the Pit

On Thursday, I visited The Plague of the Zombies for 'P', and today I'm back with Hammer for Quatermass & The Pit. Hammer are probably most associated with horror, despite their forays into other genres, and their 1950s boom of popularity actually came through science fiction, with the triple whammy of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X - The Unknown (1956), and Quatermass II (1957). It took ten years for the final Quatermass instalment in 1967, by which point Hammer had switched to Technicolor and become more famous for their Dracula and Frankenstein films.

The film opens with work being done at Hobb's End, a fictional station on the London Underground's Central line. When skulls are uncovered by the workers, Dr Roney (James Donald) is called in to investigate. That's not all they found - an alien spacecraft is found buried beneath the mud, bringing Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) and Professor Quatermass (Andrew Kier) into the story as rocket experts who need to decide exactly what the spacecraft is. Soon Quatermass and Roney's assistant Miss Judd (Barbara Shelley) have uncovered local tales of demons and poltergeists, and the site has a long history of disturbances. When the corpses of giant insects are found inside the craft, Quatermass begins to wonder if these aliens and the skulls found in the pit are connected.

It's an interesting plot, and the hypothesis that alien intervention may explain the sudden evolution of man from apes is more plausible than most. Quatermass goes one step further to guess that maybe the likes of poltergeists and telekinesis can be explained by their alien ancestry - maybe humans were originally part Martian. It all kicks off and soon London is tearing itself apart. One of its attractions is definitely the idea of something buried under London - I know I've always been fascinated as much by what is below London as what is on display at street level. With forgotten or abandoned stations, plague pits and buried Roman amphitheatres, it almost seems plausible that a Martian spaceship could be down there as well.

I know some people have problems with the Quatermass films, and many prefer the BBC TV serial, but I've never seen it so I can't really compare it. All I have to go on is the films, and in a way, it's amazing how much Quatermass & The Pit prefigures more modern cinematic tropes. Quatermass was looking at the links between humans and aliens well before The X Files came along, and the shots of Londoners facing off in the streets recall later zombie films; those Londoners who still possess alien ancestry hunt those who don't, seeking to destroy anything which doesn't belong to the alien colony. Sound familiar?

I can't help thinking that one of Hammer's problems was that by the late 1960s, its period horrors were beginning to look rather quaint and dated compared to the output of other filmmakers. A year after Quatermass & The Pit, both Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead introduced horror into the modern day, and brought it kicking and screaming into the home. It took Hammer until 1972 to bring Dracula into the present day, and even then, it seemed way out of date. By contrast, Quatermass & The Pit represented a possible direction that would have allowed Hammer to blend science fiction with horror within contemporary settings - and hopefully find audiences.

Anyway, here's the opening scene...


Bevimus said...

Another new one for me, and introduction to all the Quartermass films which I've never been exposed to. But I'll bet you anything my dad has seen them all, and probably owns them. I'll ask next time I visit home!

Chris Hewson said...

Quatermass is such a great franchise! It's just a shame that the series' writer Nigel Kneale seems so unlikeable.

Tony Noland said...

I didn't recognize this film until you gave the description of the insectoid aliens. I saw this one on TV when I was a kid. Much of the strangeness of it was in the London setting, with so many things presented as though they were obvious and familiar to the audience. Perhaps to a UK audience, but not to a kid in the American midwest.

After watching the clip, I'm reminded that one of the most confusing things was the term "underground". Yes, they were working underground, but what were they building? Much of the other nuances of interaction were lost on me as well.

Clearly, I need to rewatch it. ;-)

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