Quatermass and the Pit is the second Hammer film to find its way on to a Blu-ray release. It’s perhaps not the most obvious choice as a contender for an upgrade, but Roy Ward Baker’s excellently tense sci fi/horror looks and sounds fantastic! Released today, our review follows…
During excavations in London a large unidentified object is unearthed. It defies definition although the area has always been associates with diabolical evil. Within its walls Professor Quatermass discovers the remains of intelligent alien creatures that attempted to conquer the Earth in prehistoric times and, through their experiments on early man, altered human evolution to its present state. Though dormant for many centuries, the excavations threaten to unleash the terrifying force of the aliens upon mankind once again…
Quatermass and the Pit was the third episode in Hammer’s series of films based on Nigel Kneale’s fictional scientist. Moving away from the gothic aesthetic of many of their productions, the action is transported to contemporary London in a move to capitalise on the futuristic scientific aesthetic that proved popular in films of the 1960s (an era of vast scientific and technological advancement). This gives the film a rather camp tone and it’s certainly very easy to laugh at the rudimentary effects, yet these add a charm to the proceedings and help make the film so enjoyable.
Skillfully directed by Roy Ward Baker, Quatermass is resplendent with suspense, action and melodrama that never verge too far into the realms of camp. Despite seeming dated and unintentionally funny to contemporary audiences, the film remains valid and actually is one of the more thought provoking of science fiction horror films out there. By turning the typical sci fi film plot on its head, Quatermass is actually unpredictable and poses intelligent questions that help give it a sense of realism that can obviously not be found in the bulk of Hammer’s work (I mean, however great the films are, we all know that Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster aren’t actually real!). Although the prospect of alien invasion is often considered implausible, Quatermass certainly makes a compelling case for the plausibility of a past invasion that never came into fruition. Aside from this, it’s quite simply a very enjoyable film!
The central performances cone from a trio of British actors who are extremely talented: Andrew Keir, Julian Glover and Barbara Shelley. Keir plays the eponymous role of Professor Quatermass and the actor’s almost Shakespearian quality of oration makes the character a very convincing scientist. Keir was a far more superior actor than Hammer’s B grade productions would suggest and here (as usual) he transcends the narrative to give a performance that is far greater than the material. Whether he’s describing a scientific theory or rambling like a possessed maniac, Keir convinces in his role. Glover is similarly convincing as Colonel Breen, a man whose logical thought patterns and disciplined military lifestyle refuse to allow him to believe in the supernatural. The confrontational scenes between Keir and Glover are excellently played by both actors and they bounce off each others performances to create genuine tension through their fraught relationship.
Barbara Shelley was Britain’s answer to a ‘scream queen’, with many performances in some of the most notorious horror films if the 1960s. Here, Shelley uses her extremely expressive face (particularly her large eyes) to effectively evoke terror in the majority of her scenes. It would be easy to write off her performance as mere decoration, an attractive female character in a male dominated film. However, although her performance is less refined than Keir or Glover’s, she manages to convince as an assistant scientist. Her performance helps heighten the melodramatic sequences and adds a sense of hysteria to the most mysterious and action packed elements of the narrative. These three central performances work in tandem to effectively bring Kneale’s screenplay to life. Support comes from a range of other talent, all proficient but none particularly noteworthy. The only other truly stellar performance comes from James Donald as Dr Rooney, the scientist first on the scene after the discovery of the skulls and spaceship. Donald perfectly captures the excitement of the character and his eventual terror at the discovery in equal doses.
Optimum have spent a huge amount of time painstakingly restoring Quatermass and the Pit into an HD transfer and the film certainly looks fantastic. The images are sharp and well defined, with excellent contrast and crisp lines. The smallest of details are crystal clear – from the dank masses of piles of clay like mud in the underground, to the quickly decomposing remains of the insects discovered inside the spaceship – meaning that the film has a deep and rich texture. There’s a certain amount of persistent grain, but for the most part this is mild and not particularly distracting. Little to no other blemishing or image distortion is noticeable and even the special effects hold up quite well under the scrutiny of high definition (however, the model work is extremely obvious, although it probably always was!). The colour scheme is also highlighted in the release, with a vibrancy and richness that immerses viewers directly into the highly stylised 1960s aesthetic. Splashes of bright colour break up the rather dull and dim colour schemes of the underground location that much of the film plays out in. Where the HD print has improved the colour schemes, blacks are now deep and inky and colours are rich and almost gaudy, never blurring into each other.
The audio is similarly proficient, although not quite as impressive. Dialogue is always clear and easy to hear, but it tends to gave a rather ‘tinny’ quality to it and is not as full as in other Blu-ray releases. This more sparse quality to the conversation could possibly be due to the fact that much of the action takes place in an underground station and echoing is obviously a problem with such a location. However, similarly, the internal and outside scenes are not particularly robust on an audio level, although they aren’t quite so ‘tinny’. The original soundtrack score is impressive, with a very synthesised and other-worldly feel to it. The score is expressive and helps generate suspense and tension as well as punctuating particularly dramatic or action based scenes. The film also heavily relies on sound effects – loud, whooshing winds and high pitched electronic whistles, to name only a couple – and these often take over the audio when employed. The multi layered nature of the audio will put viewers’ television speakers through their paces and make for an exciting and impressive audio experience.
There are a few special features included on the disc, but whilst they are few in number, they are extremely in depth and informative. Viewers can expect to find the following collection of material on the disc:
• NEW Interviews – These comprehensive interviews with a range of talent offer an extremely thorough and in depth look at the film, in a bid to offer viewers the most comprehensive insight into the production and Hammer series as possible. Interviewees include Julian Glover (who played Colonel Breen), Judith Kerr (writer Nigel Kneale’s wife), film director and Hammer fan Joe Dante, Hammer historian Marcus Hearne and horror aficionados Mark Gatis and Kim Newman.
• Audio Commentary – Director Roy Ward Baker and writer Nigel Kneale discuss a range of topics in this engaging and informative commentary that will please Hammer and sci fi/horror fans alike.
• World of Hammer Sci Fi Episode – This documentary looks at Hammer’s back catalogue of science fiction films and the themes and narratives explored in them. It’s informative and interesting, with a vast collection of exciting clips from a range of films (which will certainly whet viewers’ appetites to seek out more Hammer!). However, Oliver Reed’s narration is so quiet that it is virtually swallowed whole by the dialogue and (particularly) the background music of the accompanying clips. This makes it a rather difficult watch, but if viewers stick with it, it’s a very engaging one.
• Alternate US Credits – The same opening sequence, but with the US title: Five Million Years to Earth!
• UK & US Trailers
Film: 4.5 out of 5
Roy Ward Baker has created a highly engaging film that is both suspenseful and exciting, whilst generating a genuinely unnerving atmosphere. The eerie nature of the setting, direction and narrative help make Quatermass and the Pit a hugely enjoyable – if not a little cheesy – sci fi/horror romp!
Visuals: 4 out of 5
Optimum’s upgraded print is very impressive. There is a slight persistent grain, but this rarely distracts and often helps heighten the mystery surrounding the plot of the narrative. Colours are rich and bright, helping make the 60s aesthetic literally explode on screen in a plethora of vibrant hues.
Audio: 4 out of 5
The audio quality is sufficiently solid, with dialogue clear and intelligible throughout. However, there is a slight ‘tinny’ quality to the conversation, perhaps due to the underground setting. The musical soundtrack is expressive and suitably dramatic, helping sustain the suspense and tension.
Extras: 4 out of 5
A compelling range of bonus material accompanies the film on Hammer’s release and whilst its not a perfect collection of material it is interesting and informative. The highlight is certainly the array of in depth and engaging new interviews compiled exclusively for this release.
Presentation: 4 out of 5
The menu consists of moving images from the original theatrical poster and is bright and attractive. The options are also easy to navigate.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
Optimum’s painstaking transfer upgrade for this release means that Quatermass has never looked so good! With sumptuous 60s visuals and a narrative that’s as thrilling today as it was upon it’s initial release, this Bluray will be a welcome edition to anyone’s Hammer or Sci Fi collections.
Quatermass and the Pit is available on Blu-ray now.