Dir. Roy Ward Baker, UK, 1967, 97 mins, in English
Review by Colin Dibben
One of only two brilliant, spooky-crazy horror films set in the London Underground, the other being Gary Sherman’s 1972 Death Line, (if you mention 2004’s dreadful Creep in the same breath you deserve to pee on a live rail) this is a perfect piece of involving, well-developed visual story-telling. How can you not like a film that starts on the Central Line and ends up on Mars!
Workmen on the Central Line extension at fictional London Underground station Hobb’s End start digging up deformed proto-human skulls. Archaeologist Dr. Mathew Roney (Donald) is given ten days to organize a dig. He’s astonished when he realizes the skulls are fossils, suggesting that the human race can be traced back several million years. The remains prove to be scattered around a large object made from an indeterminate material. It could be a bomb, so World War 2 bomb expert Colonel Breen (Glover) is called in. He brings with him Professor Bernard Quatermass (Keir), who has just lost control of his experimental rocket development unit to Breen. Strange and frightening low-frequency noises and assorted telekinetic events start to occur at platform level. While Roney is in the lab twiddling knobs and pouring coloured liquids into test tubes, Quatermass and Roney’s assistant, Barbara Judd (Shelley) go to the library. They discover that, throughout history, Hobb’s End has had a reputation as an evil, accursed place. What has the building work unleashed?
This is a Hammer film, so don’t expect any great special effects, but apart from that this is a near-perfect film. The story is strong, zippy and well-developed and all the characters come across as engaging. Donald is one of those old-school, post-war character actors, supremely English (despite being Scottish) and his borderline boffin/twit-in-tweed performance here steals the show, despite being all reticence and reserved enthusiasm. Keir is merely bullish and shouty in comparison, but the contrast works well. Scream queen Shelley scrubs up nice in a glossy mid-60s way and acts both alluringly self-possessed and fetchingly possessed, in different scenes. Glover is also good as the tweezer-tached military bully. ‘Trust a man in tweed but watch out for the boys in khaki’ seems to be one message of the film; the viewer’s definitely rooting for the scientists as they toddle around in tweed like the good chaps they are. Scientists vs the military – it’s not very convincing as a conflict of interests, but they probably thought it was back then. There are lot of minor characters, especially soldiers and workmen, most of them well individualized; there’s also an unusual amount of chaotic crowd scenes for a Hammer film.
The real reason the film’s so good is that it’s fast-paced in both action and ideas. The script was condensed by Nigel Kneale from his own six-part 1958 TV series of the same name. He’s built the narrative layer by layer and the viewer is led from event to event, from mystery to mystery, by Quatermass’ developing conjectures about history, pre-history, species memory and telekinetic powers. Are religious ideas, paranormal events and primitive human violence testament to a primordial alien bio-engineering? Will the unearthing of the object unleash a wave of horrific mayhem acrossLondon? All of this is touched on, breathlessly, in less than 100 minutes.
And then there are those alarming low-frequency electronic sounds on the soundtrack, emanating from the object: they really are pretty repulsive. So maybe Quatermass was on to something?
Quatermass and the Pit is part of the MADE IN BRITAIN season and is showing on UK Screen on Tuesday 3rd July, 2012. Find out your nearest screening.
Find out more about Studio Canal’s and the ICO’s MADE IN BRITAIN Season at: http://www.facebook.com/madeinbritainfilm.