With this review, it’s time for a tribute – Thomas Nigel Kneale (18 April 1922–29 October 2006, commonly referred to as Nigel Kneale) was one of the very best science fiction and horror writers of the 20th century and, while he was responsible for a huge amount of other great stuff, such as The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) and The Stone Tape (1972), his singular creation, that of the intelligent, highly moral, courageous but also somewhat ruthless British man of science, Professor Bernard Quatermass, is what guarantees his place in posterity.
And so it should be – in just four stories (The Quatermass Experiment (first as a BBC series in 1953, remade as Hammer film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)), Quatermass II (again a BBC series in the first instance, again remade by Hammer in 1957), Quatermass and the Pit (1959) (BBC first, then the film I am shortly about to bang on about) then Quatermass (1979) (an ITV series that was the first big programme for the channel after its strike of that year)).
Now, as you will see from my review of Quatermass if you give our link a cheeky little click, I wrote at the time that I thought the final series was the best of the entire canon. I no longer think so – it’s going to have to be Quatermass and the Pit (1967) for me from now on.
And why? Because Kneale knew, perhaps better than anyone, how to blend sci-fi and horror, and this is demonstrated amazingly well in …Pit.
Workers on site at an extension to the Hobbs End London Underground station first dig up a fossil skull – but then are amazed and horrified to discover a number of seemingly human skeletons deep within the earth. Work is halted immediately, and palaeontologist Dr Matthew Roney (James Donald) is called in – he deduces that the finds are the remnants of a group of apemen aged more than five million years, which is far more ancient than any previous finds of mankind’s ancestors.
Meanwhile, Professor Bernard Quatermass is furious to learn that his planned colonization of the moon, with his British Experimental Rocket Group, is to be turned over to the military, in order to ‘police’ the Earth with thermonuclear missiles. He is further enraged when the abrasive, hawk-like Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) is assigned to join his group (“I’ll fight this right at top level!” – “I shouldn’t, it came from there”), but then Breen is called to the Hobbs End dig, as it would appear that Roney’s researchers may have uncovered a World War II V-weapon, a subject on which the colonel is expert. Curious, Quatermass accompanies him, and finds that the as-yet unidentified artefact is clearly not of this Earth, whatever Breen might think…
And so begins one of the very best combinations of science fiction, mystery and, ultimately, horror, ever committed to film – there will be no further spoilers from me, apart from to say that Kneale, as he did in The Stone Tape and Quatermass, expertly touches on the idea that ‘supernatural’ occurences, ghosts, may well be, in Quatermass’s words “phenomena that were badly observed and wrongly explained”.
But a science-based rationale does not mean an end to the terror – just check out the finale. The devil, you say?
This is horror from a time when the genre was still taken very seriously, hence the inclusion of actors of the calibre of Donald, Glover and, most of all, Kier – the latter was Kneale’s personal favourite Quatermass, and he was even allowed to return to the role in 1996, when Kneale wrote an excellent radio series that dances wonderfully around all four stories, The Quatermass Memoirs.
So, why not join the good professor on his journey into mankind’s origins? Enjoy Quatermass and the Pit here.