Direction: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Andrew Kier, James Donald, Barbara Shelley
Hammer was well-known for making several stylish Gothic horror films, which helped revitalize the genre in the late 50s. Lesser recognized are the fascinating number of science fiction films that they produced, starting in 1956 with The Quatermass Experiment, the first in a series about a renegade professor and his encounters with space-age terror. This was the third film in that series, based on the Nigel Kneale stories and remains one of the creepiest and most disturbing apocalypse films ever made. Quatermass and the Pit was released in the states as Five Million Years To Earth, and has been recognized as a cult classic on both sides of the pond ever since, remaining a unique experience among alien invasion films.
The film begins with excavators digging up an old tunnel under an English city, where they discover human remains in the form of a series of misshaped skulls dating back millions of years. Dr. Matthew Roney(James Donald) and his assistant, Barbara(Barbara Shelley) investigate and believe they have uncovered an evolutionary link. However, they also believe that the metallic structure found within the foundation where the bones were, could be a bomb. The military are called in to investigate, Led by Colonel Breen(Julian Glover) a stubborn and pigheaded career soldier, who has no scientific interest in the find, and finds himself at war with Prof. Quatermass(Andrew Kier) who has been developing a rocket for interplanetary exploration, while the Colonel believes in making planets into bases for ballistic missiles.
Quatermass is fascinated by the discovery and surmises that they may be of alien origin. The metallic thing is eventually unearthed and turns out to be a ship of some kind, though the Colonel believes it to be a left-over superweapon from the Nazis. It's impervious to all drills and torches, until it opens up itself revealing grotesque insect creatures within. They rapidly decompose in the air, as they have been sealed for 5,000,000 years. The creatures are studied and they seem to correlate with recorded phenomena from the past seven centuries, making Quatermass believe that they are the very things that inspired demons, gargoyles and possibly, the Devil himself.
The military and the government deny all of this and release a statement that it was actually a Nazi propaganda device, but the machine has a life of it's own, retaining the aura of what once inhabited it and unleashing it on the city through sheer energy. Quatermass, Roney and Barbara make a test of it to attempt to capture mental images imposed on by the energy and discover that the insects were a war-like race who eliminated their own kind in a race for perfection, attempting to create a master race. They landed here and saved humanity, adapting them to be smarter, and eliminating the "weaker" and different kind around them, in an attempt to duplicate what they had already done to their own planet.
Quatermass tries to make his findings known, but to no avail and the press are allowed to see the site.
Electrical disturbances and unnatural winds wreck havoc underground and send everyone into chaos, as the energy turns the people mad, making them into mad killers, much like what the insects were on their own planet. The Colonel goes to the pit and is fried in the process, while Quatermass gets taken over by the alien force. Roney is immune and is able to snap the Professor out of it, and realizes that it must be destroyed.
The energy rises above the city, resembling one of the demonic insects and Roney sacrifices himself, by lowering himself on a crance, causing an electrical disturbance that destroys the creature, while Barbara and Quatermass look on.
This is a very different sort of alien invasion film. It's something much more subtler, more akin to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, rather than the sort that were made popular throughout the 1950s. Quatermass and the Pit is a bleak, apocalyptic film, perfect for the time and still relevant today. It's bone-chilling reveal about the insects essentially destroying their own world and than saving us to be used as future vessels for a continued existence, ranks among the more disturbing in any sci-fi film. This is a thought-provoking film, questioning our very existence on a level, rarely matched by such films of this time. It's not a "monster" movie, nor does it contain any of the Hammer gore and titillation that the studio was then known for. This probably explains it's underground status quite clearly, but also it's popularity, for this is such an out-there plot that it was practically guaranteed to become a cult classic.
The cast perform intelligently and ably, a hallmark of Hammer films, and this is probably one of the best assembled casts for one of their productions. Andrew Kier, who I remember primarily as the Monsignor in Dracula, Prince of Darkness(1965) is the definitive Quatermass, superior to Brian Donlevy's earlier performance. He brings a stern moral authority, while also genuine empathy, as he realizes not just the origin of the aliens, but the malevolent plan that the creatures have in store for us. Throughout the film, he is believable and compelling and heightens the tension, already mounted by Roy Ward Baker, who was to become a regular in this later part of Hammer Horrors. This is probably his best film, though he apparently did not get on well with Kier, which is surprising, considering the performance that the actor gave.
James Donald is equally fine as the Doctor who understands the scientific significance of the discovery, but also the danger. Sometimes, his calmness is a bit perplexing, but so is the situation, and it's understandable as he is ultimately the only one not infected by the aliens. His last reel heroics make him a tragic character and lends a sense of melancholy to what is really, a bleak conclusion.
Barbara Shelley, one of the sexiest women to ever emerge from Hammer, and who had also starred in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, as a very memorable(and hot) vampire, is very good in this film, never sacrificing her intelligence for what could have been a wallflower role. Her character is dynamic and assertive, while also being sympathetic and intelligent, inspiring many future genre heroines to follow. Of course, she also looks great, especially in her skirts, and that combination of smarts and sexiness, makes her well-remembered.
Credit must be given to Julian Glover as Colonel Breen, a generally unlikable character, who is able to maintain such cool disattachment throughout, yet make his demise still shocking and ultimately, sad. His character is a military puppet, but means well, attempting to serve his country, but unfortunately is too blind and arrogant to see his mistake, until it is too late.
It's amazing what this film was able to achieve with such a low budget. In many ways, it's miraculous. The picture has an epic feeling to it, though clearly, judging from the limited sets, this was a cheaper affair. The effects are not always spectacular, but the story and the acting work and the conclusion is justly powerful and scary, reminding me of similar apocalyptic endings of such films like War of the Worlds(1953). It's doubtful that a film like this will ever find a large audience, for it's more cerebral and bizarre approach to the genre is likely to not attract many outside of die-hards. It's undoubtedly bizarre, but also very rewarding and may be the best British science fiction film of the decade, a bold statement considering the sheer amount of exciting and interesting genre fare released in the 60s. It may not be among the better known Hammers, or even the best loved alien invasion films, but fans of the genre owe it to themselves to give this one a once over. Quatermass and the Pit is a genuine sleeper hit of the science fiction film and one that may inspire sleepless nights among the imaginative. Few are as chilling as this one.