In Quatermass and the Pit, the Hammer Horror studio showed it was capable of much more than dodgy special effects and ripped bodices, argues Adam Scovell…
There’s a certain assumption, understandably perhaps, surrounding Hammer Horror films, meaning their whole back catalogue is often labelled as tongue in cheek, even camp. This means large chunks of their output is, often, wrongly overlooked. It also results in some of their best films being subject to the backhanded compliment of cult classic, rather than being judged on their own terms as examples of great cinema.
As can be the case with prejudices, such injustices often quickly subside when its believers encounter that which they previously dismissed. This Tuesday, FACT offer an opportunity to set aside those Hammer preconceptions with a screening of 1967′s Quatermass and the Pit.
Featuring none of the actors we most associate with Hammer (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, etc), it is often held as one of the studio’s best and darkest films. Edging slightly away from initial adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s BBC science fiction series, Hammer sought to change the dated Cold War influenced scenario set-up in its first two film adaptations (The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2), and move it into new territory. This new territory included the step into colour and the recasting of Professor Quatermass, replacing Brian Donlevy with Andrew Keir. It is a masterstroke in re-branding and gives the series a new lease of life.
For the uninitiated, Quartermass and the Pit follows the excavation of a mysterious spacecraft, found by builders digging out a new section for London’s Hobbs End tube station. What follows is a winning blend of science fiction, folklore and horror, tying in all sorts of concerns, from the Devil to Fascism, to ghosts and the birth of man.
Presciently, it opens up some of the folk-horror avenues the genre would explore in later years, resulting in an overriding sense of ancient evil permeating proceedings, in much the same way the likes of The Omen, or Blood on Satan’s Claw do. A fine supporting cast of established British screen actors (including James Donald), bring a sedate and serious tone to the narrative, making it both affecting and gripping.
Roy Ward Baker makes his finest film for Hammer at the first attempt, this being his directorial debut for the studio. Shot in such a way as to result in a tense, claustrophobic depiction of London, at times to the detriment of the viewer’s involvement, overall, it is a device that works. And while still being subject to questionable (not so) special effects, this film has more to do with asking big questions about humanities’ weaknesses and brutality rather than a full blown effects-reliant extravaganza.
Quatermass and the Pit is a great place to start if new to the studio, and the opportunity to see any Hammer Horror film on the big screen should be gripped tightly with both hands. The chance to see one of their best films makes this an essential screening.