Thursday, 1 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)


Director: Roy Ward Baker
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale
Cast: James Donald; Andrew Keir; Barbara Shelley; Julian Glover; Duncan Lamont

Synopsis: An archaeological site containing an ancestor of mankind is found during an extension being built in the London Underground. When it's perceived that an unexploded World War II bomb has also been found, leading to Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) and Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) visiting the site, its discovered that they might've uncovered an alien vessel instead. A possible origin to the human species may've been found as well as a potential threat to them as well.

For a few months before this Halloween season, I've been going through the Quatermass stories created by the mind of one of the most acclaimed writers of British sci-fi and horror television Nigel Kneale. Originally I intended to only watch the Hammer productions, but an accident led to viewing the three original BBC mini-series. This was for the better, an (almost) chronological trip through the franchise which was as much as a discovery for me of Kneale, my only knowledge of him for a while that of his brief involvement with Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which he disowned the involvement with story wise because of his displeasure with the violence and gore. Sadly only the first two of six episodes of The Quatermass Experiment (!953) have survived, but Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59) have. Hammer cast American actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the adaptation of the first two series, then with Andrew Keir in the titular role came the most well known of their adaptations in 1967.

The original reason for going through the Quatermass franchise was because I grew up with Quatermass and the Pit and wanted more than just the memory of it I held for all these years before. My parents during the DVD boom of the early 2000s rented a lot of films, including horror movies, from a place called Global Video in town and from LoveFilm when they had an account. Strangely, though they were a young couple between the Sixties and Seventies, they didn't really rent older films that often. Somehow Quatermass and the Pit was the exception, abruptly ending up on the TV screen and being etched in memory for me as a result. History even repeated when, planning to watch only a couple of episodes per night, I ended up marathoning the whole of the BBC television production with my father one night.

I once, years ago, made the suggestion American stories explained how an object became evil, while in British stories the object is inherently evil, the vessel found a likely cause of centuries of paranormal activities in the nearby street Hobb's End. This was completely wrong, but there are clear differences in a lot of the storytelling even if both countries can share the same storytelling structures together. There are examples in American stories that follow the ideal of forces out of clear explanation - HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe and, discovering his work, William Hope Hodson, beings that merely exist be they gods or giant crabs that have grown out of human society. But especially when serial killers and slashers films become more significant in American horror films, rational reasons influenced supernatural stories and tales of cursed icons, and significantly they depict forces that could've easily come to existence the same era its victims did. The British, like Japanese, do veer towards forces and influences that have always existed before mankind, more than likely influenced by each country's individual folklore. Nigel Kneale's work on Quatermass does offer scientific explanations or aliens trying to conquer the Earth, but there are visible links to the idea of unforeseen primordial forces in all the version of Quatermass in the BBC and Hammer versions. This is poignant here as, while the story suggests magic and the supernatural can be explained by way of aliens, it doesn't stop it from presenting a force that could destroy mankind, an innate will suddenly awoken in the finale where any human in the vicinity of the vessel baring a certain few will sudden develop a hive mind and destructive abilities. The strange insect-like creatures found the vessel, while explained in a science fiction way, have a sense of elder forms from an ancient position long before man literally existed. The archaic is found in Quatermass and the Pit even if it's using then-modern terms.

Ironically after viewing the BBC mini-series first, I prefer that version of the story than the one whose memory of which led to this venture in the first place. Kneale, scripting both versions, was also very good at dialogue and memorable characters, where exposition actually leads you to feel even more interested in what was happening, and he made a character like Quatermass such a bold and noble man. He also had an interest in eccentric and quaint Britishness, such as in the mini-series with an elderly couple who start the interest in Hobb's End and its paranormal history. The mini-series over six episodes had more time to allow the characters to breath and the main theme of the story to stand out, a subtext for human barbarism where Quatermass is originally stuck with Colonel Breen because the military would rather want army bases on the Moon rather than live harmoniously on  human metropolises in the craters. The whittling down of the plot for the film allows the story to move quickly but with less detail that made the story more gripping. Both have to deal with an issue that, unless with a high budget, it's difficult to pull off the finale where London goes up in flames. The original mini-series manages to go further for the better, including the involvement of an American airplane over the skyline, regardless of the limitations.

Technical Detail:
Hammer films are fondly remembered for their lush colours, and I cannot object to seeing this tale this way with handsome production design as well. It shares a very different mood from the previous Hammer Quatermass films which, being black and white, become much more atmospheric in comparison to Quatermass and the Pit. If there is a major flaw, there are details much more better done in the BBC production such as the insectoid beings found in the mysterious vessel having an ickiness that is strangely absence in the Hammer film. This version is cinematic, but depending on your tastes the sense of improvisation and creativity with the BBC version may appeal more.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nigel Kneale in the Quatermass adaptation never depicts cryptic ideas or anything metaphysical, so it's not worth discussing this aspect further.

Personal Opinion:
There are plenty of classic Hammer films I still need to see, but I've been indifferent to many of them. This adaptation does explain my issues why, in how they can be too clean and straightforward for me, lacking the contemplation or detail of other British horror films like The Wicker Man (1973), or the baroque style of European genre films. The first two Quatermass films stand out differently due to their monochrome look and tones, but Quatermass and the Pit is does suffer from these failures. There is a greater sense of mystery to the TV version, despite its technical limitations, in comparison to this much more glossier adaptation.

That said, I still enjoy this version immensely. In either version it's an incredibly engaging and smart sci-fi narrative, one that is creepy in its implications. My nostalgia with the film will never become tarnished now I've revisited it, and if anything the viewing of these Quatermass stories has led me to love the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass as a whole, wanting to investigate any remaining stories. It's also led me to want to investigate Nigel Kneale's other work, such as The Stone Tape (1972), an even better result from my nostalgia trip in how it's meant seeing some intelligent science fiction.

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