Blu-ray Region B – DVD R2 combo. Optimum / Studio Canal. 12.
Seeking to redistribute some of its eggs from the bulging Gothic basket and with one eye on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, lumbering towards completion at Shepperton, in 1967 Hammer revived the Quatermass franchise with which they had made their initial incursions into the Cinema of the Fantastique. Ten years after Quatermass II, Roy Ward Baker (here credited by that name for the first time) had supplanted Val Guest as director and Andrew Keir now provided a far more subtle and nuanced Professor Bernard Quatermass than his predecessor Brian Donlevy could ever have managed. Nigel Kneale was still scripting and came up with a doozy here.
Renovations at Hobbs End tube station lead to the disinterment of several humanoid skeletons and a crashed Martian spacecraft, which stiff upper lip military man Julian Glover and his political backers insist is a Nazi black propaganda hoax left over from WWII, despite outbreaks of telekinesis and seriously altered states of consciousness among those working the site. While the Establishment blusters and stonewalls, Quatermass and fellow boffins Dr Ronay (James Donald) and Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) research the history of Hobbs End, a shunned area since time immemorial on account of various spooky goings on. By dint of some ahead-of-its-time brain imaging gizmo, they manage to work out that insectoid Martians had been carrying out genetic experiments on proto-humans, in a failed attempt to colonise the Earth before their home planet became uninhabitable. Or did they fail? As work on the site continues, that spaceship puts on a psychedelic light show that mesmerises then melts bystanders, the laws of gravity are suspended, Martian race memories provoke a pogrom of locals whose genomes depart from those approved on The Red Planet and, as London crumbles, a huge alien insect head (or is it that of Old Nick himself?) materialises over its burning skyline. Yep, it’s going to be one of those days…
Q&TP plays Xtro to 2001’s E.T., harshing the mellow of the late ’60s trip with a suggestion that there’s a downside to transcendence and transformation and that those Chariots Of The Gods might just be taking us somewhere that we really don’t wanna go. Quatermass himself has evolved from his Donlevy incarnation, for whom every bit of hideous galactic blowback was to be answered with another reckless spasm of hubristic scientific probing. Keir’s Prof grasps the need for humanity to proceed through the cosmos with caution and humility but the fools who run the military-industrial complex will always rush in, regardless.
Baker manages to render the apocalypse as a curiously claustrophobic albeit undeniably effective chamber piece (rendering even more eerie and unsettling the one occasion that a character – the drill technician – escapes the tube station set, tripping his possessed brains out in a church graveyard.) Consider how much more money must have been spent on Lifeforce (1985) in an obvious but obviously failed attempt to emulate Q&TP. Indeed, in certain unkind quarters (principally The House Of Freudstein), Tobe Hooper’s Cannon fodder folly is customarily referred to as “Quatermass And The Shit”! Even Ridely Scott’s Prometheus (2012), which I actually love (yep, I’m the person who enjoyed Prometheus) cost astronomically more to generate a similar level of cosmic awe to what Kneale and Baker achieved here on minimal resources.
As a teenage misfit growing up in a Liverpool very different from the welcoming, folksy idyll depicted in Gerry Marsden’s Ferry Across The Mersey, I always afforded a special place of prominence, among the genre films in which I sought solace, to Quatermass And The Pit. Its scenes of rough community justice being meted out to those who didn’t quite fit in seemed more like excerpts from a kitchen sink documentary about council estate life than depictions of exotic interplanetary conflict.
The Blu-ray mastering here is faultless, both in terms of visuals and the film’s stereo soundtrack. I’m sure the DVD disc will be similarly impressive when / if I eventually get round to checking it out. Pity about the random pack shot, which image I believe was originally deployed in conjunction with the film’s US release, under the similarly non-sequitur title Five Million Miles To Earth. Special Features include all-knew interviews with Judith Kerr, Julian Glover, Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Marcus Hearn and Mark Gatiss (whose portrayal of Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock seems to be not exactly uninfluenced by Glover’s performance herein.) Arguably all these bits of footage would have served the disc better if edited into some sort of documentary supporting featurette. Whatever, the participants are unanimous in their praise of Q&TP, if also in their identification of its achilles heel, the lamely rendered flashback to Martian insect genocide.
Kneale and Baker pass over that scene silently in their audio commentary (which seems to date from some time in the mid-’90s) and indeed, there seems to be nearly as much dead air as commentary in this particular bonus, an object demonstration of a whole that is considerably less than the sum of its considerable parts, considering the wealth of schlock scientific profundity / millenarianist mysticism that the commentators once cooked up between them…
… for, make no mistake, Quatermass And The Pit deals in timeless human concerns and dilemmas. Witness the following classic and astonishingly prescient exchange between the Prof and his colleague:
Quatermass: “If we found that Earth was doomed… say by climate change… what would we do about it?”
Dr Ronay: “Nothing… just go on squabbling, as usual!”