Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit--finally, the real Quatermass steps forward to claim the big screen. Andrew Keir fits Kneale's description of Quatermass  the 'troubled scientist,' a far cry from the bullying, bellowing Brian Donlevy (you feel he badly needs a big dose of fiber in his diet).

It's easily Kneale's best work, if only because he finds a science-fictional explanation for magic, mythology and most of Christian theology (with the locust replacing the serpent, and genetic manipulation replacing original sin) and even human evolution (in effect pre-dating Kubrick's 2001 by about a decade (the original TV serial was done in 1958)); this adaptation is remarkably concise, being able to boil down the three hour original to half its length (a few gaps--we never learn why the policeman is so scared, we barely get a glimpse of the little all-night coffee stall before Duncan Lamont's drill operator Sladden (Lamont played the doomed astronaut in the original Quatermass Experiment) rushes by, flinging all the plates around telekinetically.

And one of the most famous moments in the original serial--the first uncovering of the aliens in their chamber, one of them suddenly slipping--is reproduced here, of course, but where in the original it was an accident (one that, happily for the series, had millions of Londoners jumping out of their seats), here it's just a re-staging of said accident, without the same impact.

But there's still plenty here to enjoy: Roy Ward Baker's sinuous camera moving up and down the London Underground tunnels (the tiled walls and echo-chamber sound giving the place the ambiance of a vast men's room, or a huge abbatoir); Keir as the definitive big-screen Quatermass (he's civilized and compassionate, the same time he's unafraid to speak his mind); Julian Glover as an effectively charming Breen; Barbara Shelley as a lovely and intense Barbara Judd, and the aformentioned Lamont as a tremendous Sladden (he does that half-stumble, half-hop of a Martian perfectly, and his howl when explaining what happened is an unsettling mix of terror and exuberance).

My favorite, though would be James Donald as Rooney, the man who has evolved beyond the Martians' influence. He's a wonderfully off-the-cuff, casual man, and if the antagonism between him and Breen isn't as satisfactorily developed (though Breen's with Quatermass is), Donald does get to stare at Hob in the face, and his expression is eloquent: a touch of defiance, flavored with not a little disdain, as if saying "you don't scare me, you old devil, let's see how you like this!"

Magnificent, magnificent film. May not have the kind of scares we're used to nowadays, and may not have the scares of the original, where they actually had the time to develop the texture of everyday life in London before they scared the bejesus out of people (not to mention the strange recording of a Martian purge--'virtual reality' decades before anyone thought to coin the term--is more legible in the serial version), but Kneale's themes and conclusion do come through and they do stay with you. "We are the Martians now," says Barbara in despair--the immediate danger may have been dealt with, but the basic horror remains. No last-minute rescues, no super-secret weapons, no derring-do or even Wells' germs to deliver us; we're all that's left to deal with ourselves the best we can.

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