31 Days of Hell: Quatermass and the Pit (1967) - Reviewed

Years prior to Doctor Who, the British television serial format first saw a heroic scientist taking on extraterrestrial forces threatening the survival of humankind in the form of Professor Bernard Quatermass.  Created by British screenwriter Nigel Keale for BBC television serial broadcast, Quatermass unlike the mad scientists of American science fiction horror thrillers was a man thoroughly invested in approaching the bizarre alien invasion scenarios through scientific deductive logic and reason.  

First introduced to audiences in 1953 with the six episode long television series The Quatermass Experiment with Reginald Tate in the leading role as Professor Quatermass, the series was a hit and spawned two more serials in 1955 with Quatermass II and once more between 1958 and 1959 with Quatermass and the Pit.  Each iteration due to unforeseen circumstances recast the lead actor in each serial, the second featuring quick replacement John Robinson in the part and AndrĂ© Morell reluctantly taking on the role for the third.

While the television serials proving to be massively commercially appealing, it was only a matter of time before interest in translating the adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass from the small screen to the big one began to take hold.  Almost immediately, Hammer Film Productions best known for their ongoing horror film series prominently featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, bought up the rights to the Quatermass series and quickly began reshaping the hit serials into feature films.  Back to back in 1955 and 1957, British writer-director Val Guest (The Day the Earth Caught Fire) churned out the first two Quatermass serials as theatrical features with American actor Brian Donlevy taking on the role of Professor Quatermass.   

The three televised serials and the first two feature films telling the tales of Professor Quatermass proved to be highly successful and critically revered though many, particularly the character’s creator Nigel Keale, expressed dismay at Brian Donlevy’s take on the character.  Meanwhile Keale and Hammer Film Productions were steadfast at work on producing a feature film version of the third and final Quatermass serial with Keale’s screenplay ready to go in 1961, but problems finding an American co-financier delayed production until 1967 which left a large gap between the second and third pictures.  Despite the delays, the time in between meant (much to Keale’s delight) Donlevy would not be able to reprise the part for a third time.  In addition, Val Guest also would not return as director, leaving ample room to start from scratch with a new filmmaker helming the piece and a new actor to play the lead closer to Keale’s intentions.

Given a go-ahead with A Night to Remember director Roy Ward Baker and Andrew Keir in the role of Professor Quatermass in place, Quatermass and the Pit went into production.  Ultimately it proved to be not only one of Hammer Film Productions’ most technically ambitious science fiction horror films to date but also proved to be closest to Keale’s vision of the character yet portrayed on the silver screen.  Cited among many horror filmgoers as the best of the Quatermass series, it instantly served as the basis for many likeminded end-of-the-world pictures dealing with the occult and the extraterrestrial such as Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter’s screenplay credited to Martin Quatermass) and Lifeforce.

Exceedingly simple in premise yet grandiose in the size and scope of its execution, Quatermass and the Pit (retitled Five Million Years to Earth in the US) opens on a London subway under construction when a mysterious artifact though by the military to be an unexploded WWII missile surrounded by human skeletons is discovered.  Well into the excavation, rocket scientist Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) joins the team and upon closer inspection begins to believe their discovery may in fact be an alien spacecraft which holds the key to human evolution.  Unbeknownst to Quatermass and the military team, there’s far more sinister and deadly machinations held inside this strange artifact than meets the eye.

Much like the aforementioned Prince of Darkness and Lifeforce, Quatermass and the Pit is a supernatural science fiction horror thriller gone completely berserk with many wild scenarios played out on large set pieces adorned with still innovative and eye-popping special effects wizardry.  Unlike the mid-80s sci-fi horror shows it inspired, however, Quatermass and the Pit is a methodically paced freakout which takes its sweet old time building up to the inevitable crescendo and outbreak of absolute pandemonium.  Also, much like the equally insane and unhinged British directed Ken Russell shocker The Devils, Quatermass and the Pit is anchored by the central protagonist guiding the viewer through the madness unfolding. 

Shot on MGM’s British Borehamwood sound stages (known for the set pieces on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) and aided by an innovate score/soundscape designed by Tristram Cary, Quatermass and the Pit while a condensed adaptation of the original televised miniseries is a truly epic Hammer Horror film with allegories about the human condition that are far more frightening than a prototypical H.G. Wells’ inspired alien invasion ala The War of the Worlds.  Rather than simply turn the monsters loose, which look frankly like intergalactic grasshoppers seen in surreal flashbacks, the real horrors of Quatermass and the Pit much like Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and the Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street concern mankind’s generally self-destructive response to such an otherworldly entity.  In other worlds, any alien invasion and eradication of humankind would be unnecessary when it’s so easy to influence mankind towards destroying itself. 

Even without the allegorical context lending psychological weight to the proceedings, from a purely visceral end Quatermass and the Pit careens so rapidly into primordial chaos and disorder the viewer quickly finds himself in the midst of a harrowing waking nightmare.  While some optical effects do indeed show their age, many of the on-set special effects created in camera in real time still remain some of the most technically proficient and pioneering illusions ever attempted.  As with prior Hammer Horror pictures, Quatermass and the Pit contains its own fair share of blood and gore including a grisly moment where a military advisor's face is melted clean off, earning the film an X certificate rating in the UK at the time though shown now the picture would likely earn a PG-13 in the US.

While there have been many varied iterations and explorations of the now beloved Professor Bernard Quatermass over the years including but not limited to remakes, loose tie-ins and a fourth official final Quatermass entry for Thames Television, the 1967 film Quatermass and the Pit is generally regarded as the pinnacle of the series.  On its own the condensed theatrical film adaptation stands as a seminal example of late ‘60s British science fiction horror.  Though familiarity with the first two Quatermass pictures and/or the television serials before them can be helpful, they’re not essential to enjoying Quatermass and the Pit as an indelible thriller of the supernatural and unknown.  Much like the surviving characters regarding the Hell, fire and brimstone unleashed all around them, by the film’s end you won’t know what hit you!


- Andrew Kotwicki