It’s not particularly well known that Hammer Films had their first horror genre success with The Quatermass Xperiment in the mid-1950s, an adaptation of a hugely successful BBC TV science fiction series. Toward the end of Hammer’s successful times after years of vampires, werewolves, mummies and monsters, the studio returned to a belated adaptation of the third (and last, at the time) TV serial, Quatermass and the Pit.
Like its predecessors, this Quatermass serial is intelligent, adult science fiction with serious themes: here, a theory of how religious evil and superstition can have its roots in science (or more accurately, science fiction – ancient telepathic little green men from Mars.) The gradual revealing of this is compelling, and the implications (that humans today may be the result of Martian genetic experimentation) profoundly shocking for the day.
Nowadays, such theories are tame and routine and have been done to death. Indeed, serial author Nigel Kneale was already stealing from some well-known SF theories when he wrote Pit, and certainly his own serials have since been plundered themselves to the point of cliché. It’s a shame that Quatermass doesn’t get more credit for popularising some of these theories, and it doesn’t help that modern audiences will look at this and say “Hang on, this is basically just a big Doctor Who episode.” Well, it is – but only because that show stole pretty much the entire format and approach of Quatermass when it regenerated the format into The UNIT Years with Jon Pertwee essentially playing Professor Quatermass at least as much as he was a renegade Time Lord.
It’s a shame that Quatermass himself is not a better character, but he was always more of a cipher and a plot device for the events that unfold round him than he was a fully-rounded creation. It didn’t help that the part was played by someone different in almost every TV serial and film version so that there was no ‘proper’ Quatermass, just a bunch of different actors playing wildly different roles from Andre Morell to John Mills. The most damaging and inappropriate of these was Brian Donlevy, the American (albeit Northern Ireland-born) ‘tough guy’ who essayed the role in the first two Hammer films. At least in Pit the part is played by Andrew Keir, perhaps the best of all the actors to play the role.
It’s a really great premise, with the scenes set in the eponymous Pit – actually a closed London Underground station in Kensington undergoing extension – particularly effective. Okay, it’s all clearly done on studio sets (even the London streets are evidently the slightly unreal studio backlot version of the city rather than the real thing) but it all looks good enough to suspend disbelief even now in high-def – save for one ill-conceived ‘dream sequence’ which just looks like toy soldiers poorly concealed by false-looking static interference.
Given the age of the material and the fact that it was never a big budget affair,it’s amazing that the Blu-ray looks as good as it does. A large amount of fine grain has been left in place, but it never distracts or obscures the details and instead just reinforces the film nature of the original in a satisfying way. The colours are good and strong and there’s nice contrast throughout, and the sound is also perfect (whereas the original DVD version had a nasty irritating buzzing sound through one portion of the film as I recall.)
It’s a classic of its time, and still thoroughly enjoyable on its own terms today, despite its age.