14 January 2008

Return to the pit

When I was a teenager, the big screen version of Quatermass and the Pit scared me witless.

Forty years on, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that it was showing on TV in the wee small hours of the morning. Would it still have the same effect on me? I set the recorder to capture it.

Now I've finally gotten around to watching it. And no, it didn't frighten me at all this time round (I'm glad to say - I'm no fan of horror); but I'm glad that I revisited it because this time I enjoyed it. I also appreciated a lot of other things which passed me by in my teens.

The first thing I noticed about it was obvious in the opening credits. A London "Bobby" (beat policeman) walks slowly across an empty street. It is early morning, still almost dark, and the shot is made entirely by available light; the televised digitisation flickers with blocky artefacts as it tries to cope with the resulting wash of shadows. He checks a doorway. A white cat miaows, gets up to met him, winds about his legs. He moves on. It's a beautiful piece of cinema, all on its own, that opening sequence, and I've played it over and over again, at least thirty times, since watching the film. This was a time when film could luxuriate in pure visual quality.

In fact, although I no longer feel the shocks of the film, I realise now that it was the tranquil, low key quality of the surrounding scenes which made them so effective at the time. Because this willingness to embrace a "less is more" philosophy pervades the whole film. I'll only dwell on two more of them, though. My next choice is the character Miss Judd (played by Barbara Shelley), assistant to an anthropologist.

Throughout the film, Miss Judd's face is frequently allowed to occupy the screen in close up: not saying anything, but conveying impressions of surprise, puzzlement, concern, realisation, all through very small, subtle changes of facial expression which would be neither allowed nor noticed today. It's an education; some time, I would like to go through and isolate some of these little "scenettes" for closer study.

Having talked about the opening credits, I may as well visit the closing sequence as well. There is even less movement here. Quatermass (Andrew Keir) and Miss Judd frame the screen, he leaning against a wall for support at camera left and she sitting collapsed into her own lap on the right. Only their heads occasionally turn slightly: to look at each other or to look away, to stare back into what they have just witnessed or to avoid it. They express, through their minimalist movements, exhaustion and trauma. This almost static scene addresses a criticism I have often made of film endings: the way characters go through extremities of fear and pain, then laugh and joke about it light heartedly in the final scene. Quatermass and Judd, by contrast, having seen their fellow Londoners reduced to a ravening, murderous mob and watched Judd's boss Roney sacrifice himself to bring down the alien threat, are (as they bloody well ought to be) wiped out by it. The film closes there, with no a attempt to jolly over the cracks: the world has been saved, Quatermass and Judd vindicated, but they have nothing whatsoever to feel cheerful about.

That closing credit sequence, too, I have played several times: another self contained marvel of understated quality.

It's not just a collection of Zen visual moments for fiction geeks, though. The whole film is worth watching both as a window onto the worldview of the mid 1960s and, equally important, a mid sixties window onto our own time as well. There are a lot of prescient glimpses here.

"How was it controlled?" someone wonders, of the buried Martian spacecraft. "Unless ... the craft itself did much of the thinking?" He is told not to be ridiculous; but now, of course, four decades on, the idea of an artificial intelligence controlling routine functions of a complex machine is commonplace.

More emotionally piercing, though, is a throwaway fragment within a conversation between Quatermass and Roney. Quatermass is musing on what we, the human race, would we do if our planet was dying, our atmosphere degrading, our whole environment becoming hostile to our existence? This is a common theme of science fiction, and the answer is usually that everyone pulls together in a heroic effort which ultimately saves the race (see, for example, Clarke and Baxter's Sunstorm) or else a small band of survivors setting off to establish colonies elsewhere. But: "Nothing." replies Roney, "We'd just go on squabbling and fighting amongst ourselves, the same as usual." In our present age of failure to ratify, deliver on, or follow up the Kyoto agreement despite evidence of climate change, this fragment acquires blackly humorous weight.

It's no longer horror, but it's a gem of a film. If you get the opportunity to see it, especially if you are old enough to remember 1967, I recommend that you take it.

  1. Kneale/Ward, Quatermass and the Pit, Hammer 1967

No comments: