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Savant Review:

Quatermass and the Pit
Anchor Bay
Starring James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Art Directors Bernard Robinson and Kenneth Ryan
Film Editor Spencer Reeve
Original Music Tristram Cary
Screenplay & Story Nigel Kneale
Produced by Anthony Nelson-Keys
Directed by Roy Ward Baker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Quatermass and the Pit, Hammer Film's third adventure featuring the Bernard Quatermass character, is front-rank science fiction overflowing with ambitious concepts. As Five Million Years to Earth, it was released in the U.S. in the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and concept-for-concept, is both less pretentious and more coherent than that landmark Kubrick epic.


Pit unspools like the grandaddy of all X-Files episodes. In a London subway excavation are found humanoid fossils and a buried emerald rocketship that logically lead Quatermass (Andrew Keir of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Rob Roy) into an expanding circle of phenomena: Unexploded bombs, Nazi propaganda weapons, Poltergeist-style occultism, alien invasion, genetic manipulation, and demonic possession. Soon Quatermass finds himself battling government and military bureaucrats over his theories about the mystery ship, which prove to be too disturbing for public acceptance: human evolution may be the result of the intervention of ancient alien visitors.

All of Hammer's Quatermass films were originally multi-chaptered BBC television serials from the 1950's. Writer Nigel Neale adapted his small-tube saga for the big screen, somehow managing to pack over three hours' worth of plot into 98 minutes. This gives the film a thrilling breakneck pace that can leave casual viewers in the dust; I confess that on my first viewing I was swamped in the avalanche of intellectual twists.

Like many color Hammer films, the production is on the anemic side. To compensate for smallish sets and limited extras, director Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember) shoots far too much of the film in closeups. The actual Martian insects are feeble props and some of the special effects involving the frightening spaceship aren't so hot even by pre-2001 standards. And a gadget that turns mental thoughts into television images is not very convincing, having been trotted onscreen a tad too quickly to be fully rationalized.

But Quatermass and the Pit really cooks as a fantasy thriller, something few effect-laden yawners can boast. A demonic riot at the finale is a chilling highlight, and the superior acting of Keir and Hammer star Barbara Shelley keep the tale involving at a personal level. Particularly effective in the frightening climactic action is top-billed James Donald, a familiar face from The Bridge On the River Kwai and The Great Escape.

Pit is often compared to 2001, which is especially interesting because Pit bears even more similarities to Arthur C. Clarke's mindblowing earlier novel Childhood's End. Both tales hinge on racial memories of devilish alien visitations that redefine human identity. Whew!

Anchor Bay's DVD of Quatermass and the Pit looks and sounds quite good. Producer William Lustig has also impressively remixed the film in punchy 5.1 Dolby Digital, and the viewer can choose between that track and a 2.0 Dolby Surround alternate. The image is not anamorphic-enhanced. Digital flaws were nowhere to be seen. As on other Anchor Bay releases, the chapter number doesn't show on the DVD player's digital display, a curious omission. The DVD looks better than the previous laserdisc edition, and retains that album's added-value extras. An alternate commentary track has an informative commentary by director Baker and writer Kneale, both of whom have a lot to say. Kneale in particular is pleasantly opinionated when speaking about the other Hammer versions of his Quatermass tv serials. The trailers and TV spots allow a comparison of the Brit and Yank ad campaigns, neither of which lets on that the film has a brain. The 'The World of Hammer Sci Fi Episode' disappointingly turns out to be a crudely edited promo showing scenes from most of Hammer's science fiction films with little comment.

Hammer cult fans are going to snap up Quatermass and the Pit, one of the British studio's finest achievements. For anyone looking for a solid science fiction thriller, it's a great show.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Quatermass and the Pit rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good++
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Good-
Packaging: Keep-Case
Reviewed: December 5, 1998.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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