Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: Quatermass & the Pit
You know what’s worse than having insomnia? Having insomnia brought on by one of the nastiest little GI bugs that I’ve had in recent memory. I will say sleep is not a thing you’ll get much of when you are too busy puking or pooping your brains out for several hours straight.
However, what it does afford you is time to convalesce around some classic science fiction masterpieces involving other little nasty bugs albeit of the Martian variety. So once again, GhostAndy’s unfortunate series of sleepless events has delivered to you, my adoring public, some more movie reviews, hopefully geared towards getting you to check these out yourself one late night when you can’t sleep.
Now typically on these blogs, I do a double feature of sorts, in which I review two different movies. But today, just to mix things up, I thought I’d discuss the same story which was adapted twice, once as a TV serial in the most early days of the medium, and second as big budget movie years later.
I do this because I think the story is so very very good that I really think everyone should watch it in some form at some point, so by giving everyone separate options, you can decide which one you’d rather seek out for your own personal viewing.
So without further ado, there’s my reviews of Quatermass & The Pit, the original BBC TV version and the Hammer Films version.
Quatermass & The Pit (TV Show Version)
For those of you out there that might be fans of Doctor Who like I am, this particular TV series as well as it’s two predecessors, really set the foundation for the type of science fiction that the world’s most famous Time Lord would eventually deliver.
However, I’ll go over that a bit more later, as I wanted to point out that beyond just being an influence for Doctor Who, in particular, Quatermass and the Pit has become one of the shining jewels of of not just early British style science fiction, but drama in general. The serial has been cited as having influenced Stephen King especially with his book The Tommyknockers and film director John Carpenter. Plus it was included on the list of the 100 Greatest British Television Program as compiled by the British Film Institute in 2000.
The series was transmitted live by BBC Television between December 1958 and January 1959 which is a pretty stupendous feat in itself given all the special effects and such. It was the third and last of the Quatermass serials all three of which were written by Nigel Kneale, and as a result maintain a loose continuity from one story to the next. Finally, they all contain a central character in the form of Bernard Quatermass, head of a experimental British Rocket Group and scientist extraordinaire.
Since both the movie and this TV show were both written by Nigel Kneale and have pretty much the same plot, I thought I’d deliver the 10 cent synopsis here and kill two birds as it were.
The serial starts when workmen excavating a site at Hobb’s Lane in London, discover a strange skull and other human like remains along side and what appears to be some sort of capsule. Quatermass is called in along with his new military advisor, Colonel Breen due to the notion it could be an unexploded V-2 rocket from the end of WWII.
Also at the scene is Dr. Matthew Roney, a paleontologist, who is studying the human like remains which turns out to be primitive ancestors of ours albeit with much larger brains that what should have been around at that time. Mysteries deepen as stories begin to surface that Hobb’s Lane has always been linked to unusual phenomenon over the centuries, with stories of ghosts, the occult, and demons being always interconnected with the location.
Quatermass and Roney then make the shocking discovery that the capsule is actually an alien spacecraft and within it’s cockpit find the remains of horned locust like Martians which used to live on that now dead planet 5 million years ago. Through further research, they determine that upon finding that their planet was dying, the Martians started coming to Earth, kidnapping pre-humans, experimenting on them genetically to give them abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis and other psychic powers like they had in a vain attempt to change humanity’s ancestors into have minds and abilities similar to their own, but with a bodily form adapted to life on Earth. In essence, we are their genetic creations, a form of colonization by those ancient Martians.
The biggest problem with this is the fact that the Martians were insect like and had a hive mentality. And with that hive mentality came the need to systematically destroy any genetic anomalies within the colony, a predisposition we as humans still possess in the form our racial and ethic bigotry.
Quatermass warns that if the implanted psychic powers survive within the human race, there could also still be an ingrained call to enact the “Wild Hunt” of a race purge, one that could be activated by the influence of the Martian spacecraft.
However, Colonel Breen and the rest of the government dismiss the whole thing as failed Nazi propaganda scare that was buried during the war to demoralize the British, and allows the media to film the site. The power cables they bring to run their cameras accidentally reactivate the ship and it awakens the ancient racial programming. Those that have the genetic markers of the Martian experiments begin to merge into a group mind and begin a telekinetic mass murder of anyone without the alien genes, to “clean the hive” of impurities.
Quatermass succumbs to the mass psychosis and attempts to kill Roney, who lacks the alien gene and is immune to alien influence. However, Roney manages to shake Quatermass out of the trance long enough to hatch a plan to use iron chains to ground the spacecraft and draw away it’s power similar to a lightning rod draws electricity into the ground. Roney is killed in the process, but ultimately Quatermass does free the city of London from the ancient grip of the Martian mind control.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
First off, I definitely want to gush a bit over the performance of André Morell who plays Quatermass in this serial. Although he was the third actor to play the part, for many he has been described as the definitive interpretation of the character. I can’t really say for sure whether I agree with that statement, given I haven’t watched enough of the other actors that have played Quatermass to really develop that strong of an opinion.
However, I can say that Morell’s strong fatherly presence mixed with a sense of genuine curiosity and a quiet vulnerability makes for an incredible combination of attributes. He somewhat reminds me of William Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor, especially with he way that he strokes his vest with his thumbs while deep in thought. It’s insane to think that he was actually the first actor to be offered the role of Quatermass only to turn it down for the original serial The Quatermass Experiment in 1953. I feel if he had accepted it, he would have been the actor for all three serials, and thus there would be no question as to who people would equate with the role. Something like Basil Rathbone and Sherlock Holmes.
Not to beat a dead cat over this, but honestly this series reminded me so much of Doctor Who that at times I mentally had to remind myself that a Tardis wasn’t going to magically materialize. It was like one of those UNIT stories from the 3rd Doctor or 4th Doctor era, except Colonel Breen was a complete douche bag unlike Lethbridge-Stewart.
In fact, when I was younger I would read Doctor Who guides and for serials like The Dæmons and Image of the Fendahl they used to claim Quatermass and the Pit as a influence. Now I understand why. This series really did lay the foundations that Doctor Who would later be built on, in terms of tone, story content, even the notion of serialized cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Sincerely if there are any fans of the world famous Time Lord, you should take it upon yourself to track down this series and give it a try. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Final Grade: A
Although I’m sure there’s going to be a large part of the modern audiences that will feel this series is out dated, slow, and somewhat low budget when it comes to special effects. However, for me, I feel like focusing on those things instead of the story itself is missing the point. And again, speaking of story, there are going to be those that will say that they have seen the old “creepy aliens experimenting on humans and giving them terrible powers” shtick in other science fiction stories as well. But again they are missing the point as well.
This is where all that came from. This is the terrifying vision of extraterrestrials playing God with our DNA, of the horrible legacy we have of mob violence and racial bigotry, the clash of science fiction and the supernatural, of lost long memories ingrained in our collective subconscious about demons and devils and how they point to things far beyond our world. It all comes from this place. Stephen King loved this story. It was one of his narrative sign posts in all its Lovecraftian like horror of creatures preying on us from the stars. I can’t stress how you too should give it a chance. Let it play out over the course of 6 episodes, even with the slow points. It builds to something well worth it.
Hell, the race memory of the genocidal Martian Hunt in itself is enough to make you squirm uncomfortably in your seats.
Quatermass & The Pit (Movie Version)
The movie version of Quatermass & The Pit came out nearly ten years after the TV serial in 1967. It was done by the British science fiction horror film company named Hammer Film Productions, which is now pretty famous for some of adaptions of such classics as Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in both. This movie is a sequel of sorts to the earlier Hammer films adaptations of both The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2, which completes the trilogy of sorts. I do think it’s pretty awesome that the same production company worked on all three movie versions of the Quatermass serials, meaning for those of you that like these versions, you too can see a singular vision in terms of the interpretation which doesn’t happen very often.
Although the original Quatermass author, Nigel Kneale, wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1961, this was a movie that sat in developmental hell for nearly 6 years as it had difficulties in attracting interest from American co-financiers.
Still though it’s got a pretty great little cast with James Donald as Doctor Roney, who I knew immediately from his role in one of my all time favorite movies: The Great Escape. Julian Glover who many might know as Donovan from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or General Veers in Empire Strikes Back, or hell even Count Scarlioni in the Doctor Who story “City of Death”, plays Colonial Breen, and I must say is a much better bureaucratic asshole that the Breen in the TV Series. Andrew Keir plays Quatermass, evidently because Nigel Kneale had been highly critical of Brian Donlevy’s interpretation of Quatermass (the actor who played the role in first 2 Quatermass films) and pushed for the role to be recast despite some concerns with breaking continuity by doing so. Finally, Barbara Shelley plays Barbara Judd, Roney’s assistant, and given she is somewhat more attractive and provocative than the TV version, she gets a good deal more screen time, a fact I’ll talk about more in my reflections in just a moment.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
For those of you that are fans of the original TV serial, like I was, I’m happy to report that the movie storyline is largely faithful to the original television production. There are some minor changes, like Quatermass and Roney not being friends prior to the events at Hobb’s Lane, and really only meeting during the investigation.
Roney’s assistant Barbara also has a lot more to do in this series, although not so much with Roney, but with Quatermass himself. I hate to use the Doctor Who analogy again here, but sincerely it seems like Barbara plays the part of Quatermass’s companion in this movie version, running around with him and sharing his adventures. Plus in the TV series, she’s often times tied to this Army Captain that was originally sent to investigate the spaceship as a bomb before Breen and Quatermass show up. That Army Captain doesn’t play a very substantial role in the movie so hence they tied her to Quatermass instead, which in some ways actually works better, albeit not as realistic as the TV series in that she has a job to do instead of just running around with the Professor.
The spaceship is found in the London Underground which for me again makes it feel like a Doctor Who story, in the “Web of Fear”, as well as being a lot more claustrophobic than the open air pit of the TV serial.
Finally, Roney actually disrupts the spaceship’s evil influence at the end by dropping a construction crane on the gigantic demonic image of the Martian as opposed to a simple iron chain, which is a lot more dramatic for sure.
Still though, my main reaction to this movie version was that it was nearly identical to the TV series, just truncated in terms of pacing and some of the minor story details. The special effects are obviously much better with that classic Hammer Films gothic feel, so it was definitely worth my time watching despite knowing the story already.
Final Grade: B
Although I do prefer the original serial and will promote that version to the end of my days, the movie adaption is not bad at all. In fact, the only reason I give the movie a lower grade than the serial is simply because I really want people to watch the serial and I felt if I gave the movie the same grade, people will just watch the film.
But in the end, I think that’s just a fool’s errand. It will be easier for most people to find the movie. It will be easier for most people to watch the movie, both in terms of time and overall mass appeal. It’s a more polished, condensed version of the tale and although I prefer the slow burn suspense and level of detail of the serial, I feel like most people won’t.
So yeah, if you want to watch the film instead of the serial, I won’t fault you. The adaptation is just as good, I just want you to do know my preference.