Roy Ward Baker, 1967
Starring: James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover
At the closed London Underground stop Hobbs End, workers uncover strange skeletons that are thought to be millions of years old. A paleontologist believes them to be the missing link in human evolution, but the find is endangered when a metallic cylinder is also discovered, buried at the station. It appears to be a bomb, so a military team is called in headed by Colonel Breen, with the somewhat unwanted assistance of Professor Quatermass. He is the only one to believe that the cylinder is of alien origin, until strange, seemingly supernatural events occur around the cylinder and insectoid, demonic-looking corpses are found inside the device.
For my money, Quatermass and the Pit is the most terrifying sci-fi film until John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing nearly two decades later. The third and final film in Hammer’s Quatermass trilogy — all based on Nigel Kneale’s different television serials for the BBC — is the studio’s crowning achievement when it comes to science fiction, thanks to a spectacular combination of supernatural horror and sci-fi that blends threads of human evolution, alien invasion, and folklore into quite a ripping yarn. Despite some questionable special effects, there is little here to criticize and Quatermass and the Pit is simply one of those films you have to see, whether or not you consider yourself a Hammer aficionado or even a sci-fi fan.
Director Roy Ward Baker — then still experiencing the afterglow from A Night to Remember (1958), the only Titanic-themed film I actually like — was chosen for his technical experience when Val Guest, director of the first two Quatermass films was busy with the early Bond spoof, Casino Royale. Baker wound up having a sizable impact on British horror and would stay on to become one of Hammer’s best later-period directors, helming such films as The Vampire Lovers, Scars of Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde, and The Legend of the Seven Vampires, as well as Amicus films Asylum and And Now the Screaming Starts!
Part of the reason the film is so superior is because Hammer finally replaced hardboiled American actor Brian Donlevy — who improbably starred as Quatermass in the first two films — with the staunchly British and very professorial Andrew Keir, who was in a few other Hammer films over the years. This is by far the best cast of all three Quatermass films and for me, Keir will always embody the character. He’s matched by pseudo-antagonist Colonel Breen — the excellent Julian Glover of For Your Eyes Only and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusae — a solid example of the sci-fi/horror trope of stubborn military commander who won’t listen to the brilliant scientist. Hammer regular Barbara Shelley (Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Village of the Damned) also gives a compelling performance as a psychically sensitive lab assistant who becomes Quatermass’s clue to the alien beings.
The film’s score and soundscape is another noteworthy element. Electronics expert Tristram Cary creates a number of terrifying, dissonant sounds that help underscore the mood of claustrophobia and slowly mounting terror. Despite the cheat set and, as I said, sometimes laughable special effects, Quatermass and the Pit uses its limited resource to create a work of real fear — one that insinuates that human evolution was guided by aliens, a concept used recently in the deplorable Prometheus. In a clever twist, the presence of the aliens is conveniently explained by human folklore. The horned, insectoid creatures were interpreted over the years as demons and devils. Quatermass himself explains that the name of the subway stop — the site of many hauntings and disappearances — is Hobbs End, Hobb being another name for the Devil.
This really comes with the highest possible recommendation. I got a chance to speak about it a few months ago on the Cinepunx podcast — along with British films Horror Express and Raw Meat that also deal with the themes of human evolution and trains — and this is a great place to start for anyone not interested in Hammer’s Gothic horror output, but curious about British horror. It’s certainly one of the most underrated sci-fi horror films of the ‘60s and I wish Hammer had paired up with Nigel Kneale for a few more of these. Pick Quatermass and the Pit up on DVD immediately, though hopefully soon there will be a US-friendly Blu-ray release. If region isn’t an obstacle, there’s a UK Blu-ray from Studio Canal.