Re-watched QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) — not to be confused with family R&B act Quatermass and the Pips — because Fiona was on a Nigel Kneale kick. It stands up very well. I was shocked last time I watched the first Hammer QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT to discover that the studio’s warping of the title character from Kneale’s BBC serial, to make him an arrogant bully, in fact a model for the studio’s vision of Victor Frankenstein, really worked quite well. Of course, Kneale wasn’t an anti-science, pro-church, pro-military conservative, so he was horrified by this, but as a statement of the studio’s philosophy it is coherent and compelling.
Roy Ward Baker’s film, however, restores the sympathetic Quatermass of the original series, embodied here by the feisty Scot Andrew Keir, a Hammer stalwart, who plays him like an angry terrier in tweed. James (“Madness! Madness!”) Donald, another Scot, plays heroic archaeologist Dr Roney. Nothing like Indiana Jones — he’s a heroic intellectual, the one character who seems to have out-evolved our deplorable Martian inheritance (read a plot synopsis elsewhere if I don’t seem to be making sense).
We were debating whether the Jumping Leaping Man was played by the same actor in both TV and movie version. It turns out he wasn’t, but the performance is quite similar. Remarkable, since Duncan Lamont (ALSO raised in Scotland) would not have been able to refer back to the TV serial, since it went out live and no recording was known to exist. Happily, it’s since been found. (Nigel Kneale complained that the BBC had junked his ground-breaking series while keeping all the Oxford-Cambridge boat races — “They’re all the same!”) Both actors deliver the line “Jumping! Leaping!” with demented brio, but only Richard Shaw in the original supplements this with a creepy, hilarious and bizarre lolloping gait, which Fiona will impersonate at parties for interested parties.
Very taken with the closing credits, which simply show an exhausted Keir and Barbara Shelley in the burning rubble of Hob’s Lane. Kneale was inspired by racist riots in his depiction of a breakdown of civilisation in which part of society tries to “purge” another. The credits rise somberly as the shot goes on, and on — actually it’s on a loop, with dissolves linking each repeated section, but that doesn’t seem to matter, might even be better. It’s a solution to the possible abruptness of the ending — Kneale doesn’t need to have Quatermass make a speech summing up what we’ve learned, as the unfolding story has already made its points. But simply solving the immediate problem and fading up a THE END title would seem too sudden. This approach suggests lingering unease, trauma and real consequences.
It also reminded Fiona of the ending of John Carpenter’s THE THING, where the face-off has even grimmer implications (or maybe not — the two survivors in the snow are fearful of one another — Keir and Shelley’s characters are alarmed by what they have found within themselves). Carpenter is a huge Kneale fan — an attempted collaboration on HALLOWEEN III rather fell apart, and PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a sort-of tribute, but Carpenter’s emphasis on pure emotion was always slightly at odds with Kneale’s intellectual, even didactic aspect. Two guys who should never approach each other’s material.
Although THEY LIVE is distinctive in Carpenter’s oeuvre, isn’t it? Ideas-led. And the central notion, that the aliens are already among us, quite established and in fact running our society, can be traced back to QUATERMASS II.