Thoughts on ‘Quatermass’ and ‘Quatermass And The Pit’ : film comments by Mark R. Leeper

I was at my last Toronto International Film Festival, likely to remain my last Toronto International Film Festival ever for a variety of reasons. In any case, you run into all sorts of film fans not just from Toronto but from all over the world. I was making notes on the last film I had seen and the man sitting next to me asked me about what films the TIFF were featuring.

Then he asked what films I had liked and then generally what my favorite film of all time was. That was a good way to get a lot of information about me and my interests. But I think that he was expecting me to give him some general popularity film, maybe a Spielberg film. Without even taking a breath I gave him ‘Quatermass And The Pit’. My new friend was English (if I am correct about accents), and English fans seem to think that ‘Quatermass And The Pit’ is almost unknown in the colonies.

‘Quatermass And The Pit’ is something of a legend in Britain. The three ‘Quatermass’ plays were written for and played on the BBC. Quatermass (which, by the way, is a familiar name in Wales) was the head of the British rocket group. Each play has Quatermass facing down an alien that represents a threat to humanity, with Quatermass first having to get some understanding of what kind of threat we face. By the time the series was broadcasting the third play, churches and were changing their schedules because people were home watching ‘Quatermass’.

Director Roy Ward Baker is able to give a deep and frightening atmosphere to this film that is not often found in an urban setting.

Writer Nigel Kneale skilfully blended several story touches to tie this project with then-current news items, eg they are doing work in an underground tunnel at the same time similar things were being done in the real world. One way to see how good the writing is on this film is how much is it relevant to today. My observation is that it is extremely relevant.

I like the kind of Science Fiction reasoning when, for example, Colonel Breen and Quatermass discuss the possibility of ancient visits by doomed Martians is what people are interested in Science Fiction for.

One goof in either the writing or the art design is that what Quatermass calls a pentacle is not a pentacle. It might be a hex-something, but not a penta-something.

It is surprising that nobody figures out that a skull encased in a metal shell would be something very strange. It’s Quatermass who asks the telling question, what has been protecting the skull? For that matter, it is odd that the surrounding rocks formed a sort of a chamber where fossils would be discovered, especially since there are not too many flat vertical walls in nature. A bigger goof is that apparently the sinews of the skeleton have not disintegrated or been torn by the rocks.

Two examples of good art design: the statue of some alien in the lab is visually very similar to one of the workers. This will be subtly significant later in the story. There are also many strange curves on the found device which compares impressively against the object’s shape in the original television version. Hammer’s set designer also creates a set that is actually nearly believable.

If you want a good embodiment of confirmation bias, just listen to Colonel Breen as more information is discovered. He remains in total denial. Interestingly, Andrew Keir’s Quatermass is on the fence as to whether the fossils found are significant. The real hero of the film is Miss Judd.

It is a good touch that as the archive reader goes through the Latin text, he has to stop and go back and pick up a word from the previous page because sentence structure and word order is different in Latin than in English.

I cannot prove, but genuinely believe, that I discovered that the scene on the ‘mind-reading’ visual analyser was borrowed by Baker from the early Hammer Science Fiction film ‘Four-Sided Triangle’. I had never noticed it until many years later but I definitely heard people citing it after I mentioned it in an article. This is the one Science Fiction idea in the film that does not ring true. It is very unlikely that in such a short time one could develop a ‘visual analyzer’.

The ‘alien playback’ scene is the one scene that really could use much better special effects. It seems very amateurish-looking. If the film is ever remade this should be where the additional effort is put. Another scene with flawed special effects is the scene in which we first see the telekinetic effects. It has a heavy use of wire work which is not quite believable. However, this aspect is clearly one that would look better in a film made today.

Barbara Shelley (who plays Miss Judd) was one of Hammer films most favored actresses, although this was her last Hammer film and, except for one film, her last feature film.  She basically did a lot of television work for the next twenty years.

Julian Glover, who plays Colonel Breen, had a very long career, showing up in many later fantasy films, including films in the ‘Indiana Jones’ series, the ‘Harry Potter’ series  and ‘The Game Of Thrones’  and is still acting.

Bee Duffell (who plays the lab assistant) was actually in a surprising number of Hammer horror and Science Fiction films. Her suicide in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is one of that film’s memorable touches. She was also in ‘A Night To Remember’, along with nine (!) other actors from ‘Quatermass And The Pit’. Since Baker directed both films, he may have just decided to use many actors he was already familiar with.

Duncan Lamont, who plays Sladden, the driller, in an iconic performance, played the monster in ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ and has been in many films for Hammer and other studios.

(c) Mark R. Leeper 2022

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