By PATRICK McCRAY
London in flames!
It is a noble genre unto itself, even if it’s only comprised of a handful of films, my favorite being LIFEFORCE. The other great in that genre is QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, a 1967 offering by Hammer that may be the studio’s best film. Really. Even without Cushing and Lee ... although they would have been more than welcomed. While I like the idea of Hammer movies, distressingly few live up to what I remembered them as being. The chief problem is their often slow talkiness.
They rarely live up to the promise of their casts and posters. Great moments in all, but the whole doesn't always justify them. In QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, we’re dealing with a radically different situation. This is a Hammer film of relentless excitement and intrigue. Every line matters. Every moment is ripe with high stakes and mystery. Every moment propels the film forward. It does so with relentless intelligence, ripe with smart characters who are always one step ahead of the audience. For a movie that saves its major action for the end, I still find myself captivated by its wondrous blend of science and the occult.
Modern day London in 1967! While expanding the Hobbs End tube stop, a work crew finds skulls! Not just skulls, but skulls to missing links! Going back millions of years! Then they find a space pod! Full of dead, giant locusts! And it turns thought into kinetic energy! Under a neighborhood always considered haunted by Satan! The pod is from Mars, and the insects genetically engineered apes so that they can escape into them — I think — as Mars was dying! Now, the pod is gaining power and turns Briton against Briton as London goes ablaze!
Only one man can stop them. Well, two men. But the important one is the guy for whom the movie is named, the roaring and bearded head of the Quatermass Rocket Group, Dr. Bernard Quartermass: Science Man of Adventure!
I first learned of the film from my writing partner, David Raines. We both have a fascination with the character of Professor Roy Hinkley of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND fame… the ultimate intellectual man of action. Additionally, we both adore All Things Ghostbusters. The idea of science and the supernatural doing battle is inherently exciting. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT combines it all, with Andrew Keir as the robust scientist/space explorer, Bernard Quatermass, a bearded bulldog of a principled man. He’s the kind of the likes of which Brian Blessed and John Rhys Davies would later echo.
When I first saw it, I was not disappointed. It manages to throw in everything imaginable within PG limits, and it’s hard to imagine any film containing more — despite the lack of a Naked Vampire woman. I enjoyed the film for years to come, and as much as I liked it, each screening showed me a film that was even better than I remembered, especially with its downer/upper, abrupt ending.
My favorite memory of the film, though had to be the fact that it came within hairs of inducing me to move to Seattle. It’s amazing what a good movie can do to change everything in a man’s life.
Let me explain and indulge me in an autobiographical tangent. Yeah, it has to do with QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Just follow me on this one.
Have you ever seen CINEMA PARADISO? If not, stop reading, go watch it, and come back.
Done? Good. Great movie, right?
Yeah, that was my childhood. Really. Except the theater wasn’t in Sicily, and it was called the Vogue. I mention it a lot. The Vogue was a type of theater that blossomed in the 1970’s and 80’s: a repertory movie theater. Rather than show new releases, the Vogue would show classic, foreign films, and deeply psychotronic offerings at midnight. And you could plan around it weeks ahead because everything was listed on a six week calendar, ubiquitous around Louisville. No refrigerator in town was complete without one. Thanks to the Vogue and its wide range of weird movies, I had the childhoods of kids of every decade from the Twenties through to the Eighties. Later, I ended up working there, standing in a spot and tearing tickets just as, reportedly, Ned Beatty had done decades before. People still try to throttle me from envy over the films I saw for the first time on that massive screen in Deco Modern splendor.
A series of poor decisions and cutthroat competition killed it in 1998. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss it.
I mention all of this because of how much I miss it, and how much I wish there were an equivalent where I presently live. But there isn’t. In all fairness (a phrase I normally hate), few cities have them anymore.
In 2009, I finally broke down and visited my cousin in Seattle. No, she’s fine. It’s the city that I dreaded. I just imagined a bunch of stringy haired and chin-bearded non-bathers creating a massive sea of plaid as everyone got drenched in a cold and miserable rain to some acoustic guitar music. Again, my joy in life is a martyr to my crass propensity to stereotype. The city was a kind of utopia. Clean, smart, modern, and yet full of the great things that other cities have abandoned. Oh, and Archie McPhee.
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But the truly golden moment came on the first night I was there. I had just gotten an iPhone and was drunk on the power it gave me. Using a movie app, I found all of the local films. I guess I was just curious. Tears nearly welled in my eyes as I saw that a local theater was showing, you guessed it, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. The next day. I am no believer in fate, but I do enjoy a good coincidence. That this film… this arguably obscure offering in the Hammer canon… would be showing on the big screen in any city restored any faith I’d ever lost in humanity. It was as if the Vogue had a lovechild, and I’d found it!
The next day, we went. It turned out to be a microscopic theater that sat, at the most, fifteen people. It was attached to a coffee house, and despite its small size, I was smitten. They had one festival after another, including a Depressing Movie Festival which, strangely, sounded like a lot of fun.
(Hilariously, there were only about five other people in the theater. All fanboys. All, I suspect, employees of Microsoft. My cousin seemed comfortable, but I knew of the peril she was in. I feared that she may have been the first woman they had ever encountered, and that she should be ready to bolt at any second.)
But the film was actually a film (as opposed to a video.) Seeing it like that is a truly special moment for me, and it was only because of my love for my current job that I didn’t pack up and move.
I’ll never forget the close call I had, however.
Yes, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is that good.
PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.