QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967 United Kingdom)

lastronave degli esseri perduti 320x240It is difficult for me to post at this time (too busy) but here is one more. This may be the mother of all my film reviews. We are talking about cinema that grabs me by the hair. The amazing Nigel Kneale was England’s answer to Richard Matheson, and his powerful story is given the glossy Technicolour treatment by director Roy Ward Baker. The first two monochrome Quatermass movies in the 1950s were spoiled by the inclusion of Brian Donlevy playing the main protagonist. A blank, shouting trench coat is one way to describe Donlevy.

This greatly upset writer, Nigel Kneale, who wanted his creation to be played by a more dignified, thoughtful British actor instead. Ten years later he got his wish. Scotsman Andrew Keir received star billing as the tweedy yet irascible hero. At last they got the final element right. The remains of prehistoric ape men are found at Hobbs End underground station. Paleontologist Dr Roney (James Donald is wonderfully sensitive in the role) calculates them to be five million years old. The military move in, and they unearth a space craft that had been ‘manned’ by large, green insect – like creatures. The government summons the help of Professor Bernard Quatermass to help Dr Roney, his assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the army chaps to find out what in blazes is going on. Professor Q immediately crosses swords with the martial Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) and various other ministry of defence types peppered throughout the story.

The Colonel smugly asserts his opinion that the remains are linked to secret German weapons from the Second World War. Quatermass thinks otherwise, proposing a theory that offends just about everyone involved – managing to question both creationism and evolution. Quatermass comes to the conclusion that millions of years ago, aliens landed on Earth, removed primitive apes and took them back to their home planet (probably Mars) for experimentation. They continued to do so, each time making them more intelligent until man was eventually born. He could be right, but not necessarily. The government is definitely on the wrong track and choose to open up the site to the general public. The dormant evil is then unleashed and those exposed to it become mindless and violent mobs. Buildings collapse, fires start, citizens go on a rampage and London will eventually be completely leveled if Quatermass and chief archaeologist Dr. Roney (James Donald) can’t stop it.

The plot proceeds like a detective story with the Professor as some kind of space age Sherlock Holmes. This supreme rationalist is moved to admit the possibility that “ghosts…are phenomena that were badly observed and wrongly explained.” The brilliant script remains the most persuasive and disturbing of all sci-fi/horror speculations. But what else does the viewer experience? When the ghosts in the pit are reactivated , we are given scenes of demonic possession that make quite an impression: a civilian drill operator capers down the street like a medieval plague victim convulsed with St Vitus Dance. He proceeds to destroy a coffee stall in a blizzard of poltergeisted china. Later, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) is fitted with an “optic encephalograph” device to record subjective impressions from her unconscious mind. Now we come to perhaps the climax of the film long before the actual climax later on.

Ms Judd writhes and twists in the restraining arms of Dr Roney and Quatermass while tiles burst from the walls, mud seeps through planks, wheelbarrows fly, cables lash wildly and sound disturbances shriek from some kind of hellish dimension. These scenes provide Barbara Shelley with her finest moments out of all her efforts for Hammer horror. Earlier in proceedings she is dripping cool with a voice that can send shivers down the spine. But here her face contorts into a mask of blood lust as this most wonderful actress summons up wild elemental fury, then proceeds to let rip with helpless screaming from here to eternity. In other words poor Babs gets to experience a telekinetic, cosmic orgasm! In public too. ( Spare my blushes) All in the cause of science of course…The sheer breath of Nigel Kneale’s imaginings is extraordinary. Through his horned, gargoyle – faced Martians and their centuries old ‘hauntings’ he explains a whole field of superstition and demonology.

And in one degree or another, we are all in residual thrall to our Martian inheritance. Depressing stuff but expertly executed with gallons of suspense. In the truly apocalyptic climax, the still-sentient spaceship projects a towering ectoplasmic vision of the Horned Devil onto the London skyline while one of those monstrous Martian purges breaks out in the streets. These climactic scenes, with possessed Londoners destroying those who are “different” under a flurry of telekinetically uprooted paving stones, are epic by Hammer’s penny-pinching standards. I can feel a tremendous force being exerted into my brain by merely observing these images. And I’m not the only one…while this intergalatic orgy is twirling around him, Professor Quatermass feels an urge to murder Dr Roney!

Luckily for the sake of all that is good, our hero aborts his attack.

Roney is the most gentle and ethereal character in the film. He is immune to the alien possession and manages to save the day with an amazing sacrifice of his life. Reasoning that the Devil’s traditional enemies are iron and water, he propels a colossal crane into the demonic image in order to ‘earth’ it. The spectacle of Roney perched astride the crane, sailing headlong into the demon’s malevolent white insect face, is the most moving and amazing sequence Hammer ever filmed. Given the film’s rather meager resources, it is hard not be impressed by the story, acting, and general mood of dread. This motion picture unfolds at an unrelenting pace. Not physically of course. Yet I feel almost tired, in a good way, after watching it. I feel as if it touches something ominously spiritual and old in all of us. 🙂


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