Workmen are digging in the closed Hobb's End London underground station, when amongst the chunks of clay they are removing is uncovered what looks like a human skull. A team of scientists are called in to investigate led by Doctor Mathew Roney (James Donald), assisted by Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), and they surmise from this and other bones found at the site that these are fossils from millions of years ago. Roney manages to date them to far before the normally accepted era that primitive man was supposed to have been in existence, and the press take an interest - then so do the military, headed by Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) who just happens to have taken rocket scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) with him to inspect the site...
And why are the military taking an interest? Because the archaeologists find what they believe to be an unexploded bomb in all that clay. But it's not a bomb at all. Quatermass and the Pit, one of the best films Hammer ever made, saw the mighty imagination of Nigel Kneale working at full power, and was adapted by him from his hit television series of almost ten years before. Hammer's previous Quatermass films had both been made in the nineteen-fifties with an imported American star taking the lead, but this effort feels a lot more British with less ambition to appeal to audiences across the Atlantic and Keir as the driven hero, here less aggressive, more measured yet no less forceful in his own way.
The film may have less international ambition, but its ideas are far from diminished, indeed, part of the exhiliration of the whole thing is Kneale's desire to pack in as many of his notions as possible, with none feeling extraneous and all working towards the final, chaotic climax. Quatermass is intrigued by the find in the underground station, and immediately wishes to help out - or stick his nose in, depending on your point of view. After a lot more digging, what is revealed in the pit is not a Nazi bomb but a large, sleek craft that proves impossible to open.
Some of the details are appropriately queasy, such as the way that touching the craft gives a form of frostbite on the fingers, but this is just a taste of the chills to come. The Professor being more attuned to otherworldly business than everyone else, he's the one who realises exactly the nature of the craft and how dangerous it really is. But before that he must contend with those pesky authorities, who blindly refuse to accept his position that they are dealing with an object from Mars, and worse, that it may not be entirely dormant, which is proved when they try to drill a hole in it to crack it apart. They don't succeed, but the power of the drill... awakens something...
Comparisons have been made between Quatermass and the Pit and a certain Stanley Kubrick film that came out a few months later, and it's true that this film could be seen as the horror version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. What they find inside the craft are overgrown insects which begin to decompose the second they are exposed to the air, but there's more, a psychic force that triggers a "race memory" in humans, a force that could explain any number of paranormal effects, including the Devil itself, and gradually draws its strength from the people around it. In fact, so packed with provocative ideas is the script that it makes little attempt to talk down to the audience and halt the proceedings to explain, so it's to the credit of the cast and director Roy Ward Baker that it all remains as coherent as it does. Telling us that we are all the result of violent, ancient space aliens instead of a loving God is not a subject to be taken lightly, and the result is appropriately weighty while still irresistably exciting. Music by Tristram Cary.
[Optimum's Blu-ray is blessed with an excellent print for the film's age, and many interviews with both cast members and commentators, a World of Hammer episode on sci-fi, trailers and an alternative US credits sequence.]
Reliable British director who worked his way up from teaboy to assistant to Alfred Hitchcock to overseeing his own hit projects from the 1940s to the 1970s. Making his debut with The October Man, he continued with Morning Departure, Don't Bother To Knock, Inferno, The One That Got Away and what is considered by many to be the best Titanic film, A Night To Remember.