Much like the disbelieving military types that constantly frustrate the volcanic titular scientist, I’ve kinda done the Quatermass movies ass-backwards. You see, Hammer Film’s third adaptation of the cult BBC sci-fi series is, to date, the first and only official entry in the franchise I’ve actually seen technically speaking.
“Technically speaking?” you reply with a quizzical, cocked eyebrow – that’s right, because if you accept that Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper’s utterly barmy, 1980’s, 21 gun salute to unfettered craziness, is an unofficial remake of the third Quatermass adventure, then you’re going to have to realise that my experiences with this very british series truly started with a gaudily exaggerated homage that mixed a whole bunch of stuff upper lips with exploding energy zombies and a boat load of nudity. How on earth could a 1967, low budget, slow burner possibly stand out compared with that?
Work on the extension to the London Underground grinds to a halt when workers at Hobb’s End uncover what seems to be a misshapen human skull that boasts the kind of oversized cranium that would give its owner a hell of a time trying to find a suitable hat. Disgruntled technicians shuffle out in favour of the excitable Palaeontologist Dr Matthew Roney and his assistants who quickly turn the space into a makeshift archeological dig as they enthusiastically search for more lumpy skulls, but then they themselves are brought on screeching halt when they uncover something large and metallic buried in the clay. Shuffled out as sharply as they were shuffled in, Roney and his crew are replaced by soldiers led by the excruciatingly inflexible Colonal Breen who believe that the object could very well be an unexploded German bomb left over from World War II, but as they dig further, the bomb disposal boys find that this thing is far more sinister than anything dropped by luftwaffe.
Enter Professor Bernard Quatermass, an anti-war boffin with a volcanic temper who already has a strong dislike of Breen due to him losing his plans for the colonisation of the Moon to the military who is only present by pure chance. Along with Roney they find that the weird happenings and visions that’s been freaking out some of the soldier is due to the fact that this metal object is a space craft made of unidentified metal that’s apparently crashed on Earth five million years ago and caused some instances of primitive man to mutate. This revelation is further proved when, upon finally gaining entry to the craft, both Roney and Quatermass discover a trio of long dead, three-legged bug like creatures who apparently originated from Mars, but the uptight Breen stubbonly won’t believe a word of it and thinks that the craft and mummified alien bug remains are simply failed examples of Nazi propaganda in order to scare Londoners. However, the kooky abilities of the craft are still functioning and if Quatermass can’t convince the authorities of this, all of London may fall into chaos.
Nigel Kneale’s classic cult BBC series (and similarly the Hammer movies that adapted them) took an admirably non-American style approach to sci-fi, making the vaguely Lovecraftian tales of other worldly threats that threaten old Blighty much more lower in key than the histrionic “keep watching the skies!” nature of the Cold War. Coincidentally, Quatermass And The Pit turns out to be a great example of this as the threat may be provided by a slumbering craft that’s on the verge of projecting the traumatic history of these Martian bugs into the psyche of anyone within a certain radius, but the true villain of the piece is the cast iron snobbery of an agenda-led military. In fact, if you were to take out all aspects of alien skullduggery and replaced it with a virus or a ticking bomb, you’d still have the skeleton of a riveting thriller that would see the forces of good hamstrung from diffusing the danger by infighting caused by clashing ideologies. Breen, played by arch-sneerer Julian Glover, is an unconscionable asshole who I assume chooses to shit in a colostomy bag seeing as the stick up his sphincter is wedged in nice and tight and matters get as out of control as they do primarily because of his obvious derision of anyone not wearing more stripes than him on his arm – in comparison, the Martians and their feeble attempts to preserve their intelligence (even if it involves transferring it to an entirely different species) are only doing what comes naturally, even if that means they inadvertently changed the course of evolution for all of humankind.
However, while our hero, Bernard Quatermass (now played by Andrew Keir who took over from Brian Donlevy who had played him in the previous two Hammer productions), is obviously on the side of the Angel’s, he’s admittedly something of an intriguing hero. Despite his keen mind and general love of the concept of humanity and all we could accomplish if we all pulled together, Quatermass really is a fucking nightmare to have around in high pressure situations as his preferred method of dealing with any obstacle is to immediately fly into a stubborn rage therefore making every problem literally ten times worse. Defiantly middle-age, liable to fly spectacularly off the handle at a moments notice if someone dares disagrees with him and probably highly likely to enjoy more than a light tipple at the drop of a hat (“Normally I don’t before noon.” he says after being offered some alcohol, but I suspect he’s lying through his booze soaked teeth), Quatermass is something of a fascinating hero who literally just wanders in and starts throwing his opinion around. In fact, arguably the more traditional hero of the piece is James Donald’s Dr Roney who (SPOILER) not only stands on the front line when discovering and identifying these things, but also snaps Quatermass round when all the alien mind control kicks off and even gives his life to ending the insidious effects of the craft by heroically fucking it up with a crane, but having having Quatermass repeatedly turn up and witness things gives the titular character almost the feel of an impressively ineffectual, Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who.
There’s a commendable amount of grey matter at work here and Kneale’s concepts of alien life is awesomely thought out as an insectoid race prone to acts of mutation cleansing genocide whose horned visage may have even inspired our belief in ghosts, demons and even the devil himself, but if there’s a problem with Quatermass And The Pit, it’s due to the woeful effects work that leeches the film of most of its impact. Now, I’m not usually one to knock a film for a dodgy visual or two, but any tension that Kneale and director Roy Ward Baker has managed to set up is fairly sabotaged by some goofy, Muppet level effects that are more likely to inspire chuckles than chills even though the sight of a panic stricken London is a sight to behold.
Going back to my earlier reference to Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, if we could somehow implant Kneale’s script with that movie’s budget, we would have had something amazing, but as it stands, strong characters and a rock solid premise ultimately takes an unfortunate beating from sub-par cinema magic. But despite the weak production values of the finale, this third outing for the shouty Quatermass is anything but the pits…