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If the title of Quatermass and the Pit doesn’t set off bells of recognition, that’s probably because it was produced at Hammer Studios, most famous for their vampire and Frankenstein movies. The film is thus on the fringes of the fringes of mainstream taste, which is a pity, because prejudice can obscure just what an entertaining (and frightening) movie this is.

“Quatermass” is the central character in three Hammer films. The first two starred Brian Donlevy; Pit features Andrew Keir. Quatermass is an ill-tempered rocket scientist with a talent for rubbing people the wrong way. He is not the sympathetic protagonist supposedly central to film story-telling, but both Donlevy and Keir manage to make Quatermass’s irascibility seem necessary, if not exactly likable, as he battles against other characters’ complacency. (One of the wittiest things about these films is that the stories are so outlandish we probably wouldn’t believe Quatermass either.)

In Quatermass and the Pit, our eponymous hero struggles against no less formidable an antagonist than the Devil himself. What is most fascinating about the film is how the filmmakers clothe that struggle in at least momentarily convincing pseudo-scientific trappings. The conceit of the story is that the very idea of Evil results from our having been given our intelligence and will to survive by Martians.

The Devil? Martians? That combination may sound risible, but in fact it is made incredibly compelling. Consider how the “Martians” are introduced. A crew working on an extension of the London underground have to stop when their excavation turns up a human skull, which turns out to be the remains of a pre-Modern hominid. As a group of archaeologists are called in and dig further, they face another surprise: a big, black bump in the clay. Initially thought to be an unexploded bomb left over from the Blitz,  the military gets involved, and Quatermass just happens to be at the Ministry of Defense when the call comes in for help…

In other words, the story’s credibility is built bit by tiny bit, repeatedly exciting our curiosity until we find ourselves accepting completely the ghosts and goblins, paranormal phenomena and frightening unpredictability of a world where nothing any longer is reliable. What starts out as a banal situation builds in small stages into a titanic struggle that deserves that grossly over-used label “epic.” Nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake, and we believe it.

Hammer Studios had a remarkable ability to combine good writing, solid acting and tremendous visual sophistication to produce thoroughly engrossing results. Made for about fifty cents, their films put to shame their extravagant Hollywood equivalents. Quatermass and the Pit is no one’s idea of profound art, but it is a smashing example of what talented people can achieve for next to nothing when given just enough resources to allow their imaginations to soar.

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