Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pit of History

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)

One of the best Hammer productions, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is science fiction just as audacious as 2001, with considerable less pretension. Here the film is being shown in an uneasy double-bill with CIRCUS OF FEAR.

SCIENCE fiction is a genre of ideas, apprehensive about the universe and our role within it; H.G.Wells was obsessed with human insignificance, and George Orwell our capacity for authoritarian evil. Away from the USA-style bug-eyed monsters and space cadets, British SF is sullied by a dark ocean of history and class struggle, yet today we live in a world of perpetual surveillance, apocalyptic pathogens and computer hyperconnectivity which has not only blurred fact and fiction, but eroded boundaries of national identity and personal space (in Fredric Brown’s one-page story Answer (1954), when a new super-computer is asked if there is a God, it replies "Yes, now there is a God.") London, in particular, has suffered at the hands of SF, with differing intellectual richness; DOCTOR WHO featured numerous "creature of the week" alien invasions, and on a more dystopian level totalitarian regimes have been evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and BRAZIL (1986). More bombastically, American productions LIFEFORCE (1985) found the capital overrun by space vampires, and in REIGN OF FIRE (2002) a hibernating dragon is awakened by construction work on the London underground.

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is arguably the greatest "London under supernatural siege" picture, and a seminal ideas film. Based on the celebrated Nigel Kneale BBC series, Hammer's version  - directed by Roy Ward Baker from Kneale's screenplay - begins with the discovery of ape men skeletons - rather than dragons - during work at Hobbs End underground station. When a strange metal container is found, it is thought to be a German V2, but this is quashed when Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds insect creatures inside. He believes that these beings came from Mars five million years ago, and helped humanity to gain racial consciousness. The Martian psychokinetic energy still lies dormant in mankind and the horned insect figures are remembered in human memory as the Devil. Working with Dr Matthew Roney (James Donald) and his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), Quatermass uncovers Hobbs End as a hotspot for paranormal disturbances and now - with the full uncovering of the spaceship - the dormant powers become active.

A QUATERMASS AND THE PIT novel was published by Penguin in April 1960, with a cover illustration by the author's brother, Bryan Kneale.

Kneale has always been abrasive of the stealing of his ideas, particularly by DOCTOR WHO. But here the writer borrows from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) - a novel about a race of aliens who resemble the classic image of The Devil - and also Clarke's The Sentinel (1948), a short story which was expanded and modified into 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Although the releases are poles apart in budget, both films share a great deal thematically: the impact of alien intelligence upon human evolution and the consequences of that intervention being discovered. But while 2001's alien intelligence is arguably one of teacher and observer, Kneale suggests that Martian genetics are actively malevolent, transferring the Martians own instinct to kill the other into the ape men who they experimented upon. Consequently, the human urge to hate, despise and destroy is explained through the fact that, as is explicitly stated, “We ARE the Martians!”

Kneale's concept of induced human violence is linked with the equally sensational notion that rationalises our conception of haunting and the devil, explaining apparitions ("ghosts... [are] phenomena that were badly observed and wrongly explained") and demonology in one handy revelation. Consequently, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT portrays our layered heritage of old, weird Britain with historical and supernatural clout unlike any other. The film is lensed by Arthur Grant in his trademark muted style, providing a perfect feel for a film so obsessed with bones and ancient mythology. The scenario of unearthing a long-buried evil is addressed with equal zeal in BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1970), where a skull is uncovered by a farmer's plough; this artifact turns the young people of a 17th-century village into a cult with a penchant for erotic blood sacrifices. Shooting with an abundance of low camera angles, this amplifies the feeling of being watched by some ancient other.