Quatermass and the Pit (US: Five Million Years to Earth), 1967.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker.
Starring James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley and Julian Glover.
When a Martian spacecraft linked to the origins of humanity is discovered at a London tube station, only Professor Bernard Quatermass is capable of unravelling its mysteries.
If you think you know a rule about sequels, banish it from your mind. Certainly, never make the same film twice, but don’t be afraid of providing a next chapter to your story. If at all possible, leave a bit of time between instalments. Ten years would be good, just to make sure your characters are a little older, a little wiser and hopefully a lot stranger.
Quatermass and the Pit was probably the first sequel to pick up on this technique. A decade after the Professor’s original alien encounters in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957), an ancient skull is unearthed during extension works on the London Underground. Archeologists Dr Roney (James Donald) and Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) estimate it at five million years old, dating human existence on this planet much further back than previously thought. They’re practically bouncing off the tiled walls, until they stumble on what appears to be an unexploded bomb.
The military move in, led by Julian Glover’s smug young Colonel Breen, and, it just so happens, his new colleague at the British Experimental Rocket Group, Professor Bernard Quatermass. We’re introduced to a Quatermass markedly different to Brian Donlevy’s abrupt, dogmatic man of action. Andrew Keir plays our hero as a man scarred by his experiences: “I never had a career. Only…work.” Keir’s Professor has his occasional rail against establishment, but this is largely a quiet, curious scientist, reluctant to be drawn back into mysteries and adventures.
Then he sees what the Army have dug out of Hobb’s End station, and you can practically see the events of ten years past flash through his mind. Unexploded bombs left over from the war were all too commonplace in 1960s Britain, so naturally, the first thought is of some kind of top-secret Nazi rocket. Colonel Breen never gets past this first thought, ploughing on through the whole event in tunnel vision, blinkered to any other possibility.
Glover excels, even revels in making Breen as unlikeable as possible. This man isn’t a villain in the sense of being actively evil; he thinks himself practically minded, curbing the scientists’ flights of fancy about Martians and spaceships. He knows about missiles and war-time propaganda. He’s heading up this operation. There it is, then. The two must be connected. We can understand what’s going on with Breen; the tragedy is that he doesn’t understand what’s going on around him.
Meanwhile, our small team of scientists charge headlong into the unknown, researching, examining, experimenting with this strange new object. Director Roy Ward Baker uses a certain unspoken chemistry between Keir and Shelley’s characters to give us a sense of the sheer thrill of chasing down the truth. Rather than exploit this chemistry with some overblown romantic subplot where Quatermass has to save her and gather her up in his arms, these characters go on something of a secret arc of their own. Quite fitting for a story that offers no easy solutions to dealing with real evil.
Keir and Shelley were already the best thing about Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), so it’s a joy to see Barbara Shelley commanding the screen as a leading character accepted on her own terms, as a serious, clever and determined scientist. It’s not just Shelley holding her own either; Nigel Kneale’s polished, intelligent script gives her every opportunity to shine in her own right without slipping into the sassy, outspoken, feminist mouthpiece trope. Women’s lib may have been the bigot’s joke of the time, but Quatermass and the Pit is a horror film that bucks the trend. For once, females aren’t objectified, demonised, belittled or ignored on screen, and that deserves as much of a shout out as anything else of merit here.
Roy Ward Baker wasn’t working with cutting edge equipment, generous budgets, or even an original story; he was adapting a TV serial about Martians in the London Underground. So what? He had a killer script, a disciplined, highly professional approach to film-making and an unbeatable cast.
Quatermass and the Pit throws some pretty fantastic concepts at us, but because it’s Barbara Shelley telling you we’re all Martians, you suspend that all-important disbelief. Put Megan Fox or Jessica Alba in the same position and we’d have a problem. But Barbara Shelley? Nope. We’re Martians alright. Better get used to it. Barbara Shelley said so.
EXTRA FEATURES: A Worlds of Hammer documentary looks enticing, until you realise it’s completely unwatchable. Oliver Reed talking over clips of sci-fi cinema might have been fun, but we can’t hear him. The deeply unbalanced sound mix forbids it.
Next, the cast and crew interviews. Now we’re cooking with gas. Sci-fi legend Julian Glover heads up the list, giving us his take on life, death, the filming process, working with his screen idol, buying a used car off his screen idol and why today’s CGI will never top yesterday’s good storytelling. You could seriously watch this man for hours, setting the world to rights with a few Star Wars and Indiana Jones anecdotes in between.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.