Thursday, October 14, 2010

DR. SHOCK'S HALLOWEENIE MOVIE OF THE DAY: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967). In honour of the late Roy Ward Baker I decided to watch the third Hammer film adaptation of the celebrated BBC-TV science fiction serial.
Deep in the underground subway station in London's Hobb's Lane, workmen uncover the skeletal remains of mutated prehistoric apemen. Dr. Roney (James Donald) and Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) are called in to conduct and archaeological excavation of the site. Further digging uncovers what appears to be an unexploded bomb from the second world war. The bomb squad is called and, seeking expert (i.e. older) advice, the young UXB team leader summons the army's Colonel Breen (Julian Glover: looking much too young to be a WWII veteran) who is an expert on unexploded bombs. Tagging along with the martinet Colonel is Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) who has just had his beloved rocket program commandeered by the government in the guise of Colonel Breen. It soon becomes apparent that the object is definitely NOT a German missile (no matter how much the government favours the theory). An old time policeman takes Quatermass and Judd across the street to the derelict houses he knew as a boy and relates the strange stories of hauntings which caused the dwellings to become abandoned in the 20's. Strange scratches are seen on the walls and the spooked bobbie dashes out the front door in a panic. An old pre-war street sign is found under the current sign with the street's original spelling of "Hob's Lane". Barbara observes that it was a sort-of nickname for the Devil! Researching further, Barbara discovers that supernatural phenomena have been observed in the "troubled" area of Hob's Lane for centuries: strange noises, poltergeist activity and even sightings of small goblin-like demonic apparitions. Meanwhile, down below in the subway station, the object is revealed to be some sort of alien craft that is impervious to heat and all drills. Now that the ground has been disturbed, the ghastly sightings have begun again!
Such is the atmospheric setting conjured by Nigel Kneale in Hammer's 1967 production of "QUATERMASS AND THE PITT" (aka FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH); third in Hammer's fabled Quatermass trilogy. The story itself is a corker and would feel right at home with Tom Baker's Doctor Who at the center of it (and I mean that as the highest compliment). The film is directed with crackling energy by Roy Ward Baker from a script Nigel Kneale trimmed down from his over 3 hour TV serial. Not a moment of fat has been left in; the result is a film that rockets along at a furious pace without sacrificing any of the mood or suspense. The acting by a superb British cast is exemplary across the board (even down to the smallest walk-on part). Andrew Keir (Father Sandor in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS) has been called by some the perfect Quatermass (taking over from the crotchety Brian Donlevy in the two previous films). In fact, Nigel Kneale admitted that the long wait between the second and third films was so that he would not have to see Donlevy on the screen as Quatermass again. Kneale was very pleased with Keir's portrayal and the film as a whole. While Brian Donlevy did not gel with the character of Quatermass as written, viewed on its own merits Donlevy's portrayal was still quite acceptable and enjoyable in an odd way. In fact, my favourite film of the trilogy remains the second one. Truly, a case can (and has) been made for each of the three films as the "best" and one cannot really quarrel with anyone's preference. The first film (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN) features the towering performance of Richard Wordsworth as astronaut Victor Caroon: one of the greatest performances in fifties genre film. The second film (QUATERMASS 2 aka ENEMY FROM SPACE) is, in my humble opinion, the best and scariest with the paranoid depiction of alien minds taking over the government from a remote base in the windswept countryside. Then there's the third film which features the richest, most elegantly complex script of them all concerning the very origins of our hostility towards anyone who is "different" from ourselves as implanted in the human species by alien locust/gargoyles trying to defend the hive against mutations. The film is so beautifully constructed through expert direction, scriptwriting and acting that it's a pity the special effects prove to be disappointing once or twice (a common occurrence in latter-day Hammers). While most of the FX (the poltergeist activity of flying debris and writhing cables, mud oozing through boards and tiles knocked from walls) are generally very effective (especially in the climactic destruction of the city). However, the mental "film" taken from Barbara Shelley's unconscious mind showing memories of swarming Martian insectoids can be quite laughable. But. All the other elements of the film are so strong as to offset this one quibble.These were the years when Hammer's budgets (and invincibility) were on the downhill slide leading straight to the embarrassing final reel of "TO THE DEVIL -- A DAUGHTER". The glory years were slipping away. But for all that, QUATERMASS AND THE PUT is superbly made and remains one of the best Hammer films from this later period (and could hold its own against just about any other Hammer film). No small accomplishment. The combination of science fiction with horror usually isn't this successful but, when it works it's dynamite! And this film works! As I said, Andrew Keir's Quatermass is sympathetic and likeable and Barbara Shelley (particularly in the scene where she is first hooked up to the "brain scanner") is fantastic. As great as she was in films ranging from CAT GIRL to DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, Barbara Shelley may just give her best performance here. And chilling indeed is the final reel where we "normal" humans are taken over by the alien hive mind. Dr. Roney's self-sacrifice (oddly James Donald is top-billed) as he rides the crane towards the huge demonic alien is riveting and very effective. The viewer truly fears for him. All in all, one of the best Hammer had to offer.

1 comment:

wellyousaythat© said...

Good call. Quatermass' insectoid creatures scared the beejeesus out of me as a youngster,in fact I can't see a grasshopper without it bringing back a shudder!