Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth)

James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover. Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround/5.1. 98 minutes. 1967. Anchor Bay DV 10505. Rated PG. $29.95.

Quatermass and the Pit---originally released in the US as Five Million Years to Earth---was the belated third installment in British film studio Hammer's justly acclaimed Quatermass sci-fi trilogy. It followed the indomitable Professor Quatermass' adventures in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957), themselves adapted from earlier BBC TV productions and released in the US as The Creeping Unknown and Enemy from Space, respectively.

However, the decade that divided those movies from this one in no way diminishes their inventiveness or impact. With a gripping screenplay by Quatermass' original creator, Nigel Kneale, Pit was as stunning in 1967 as its predecessors had been 10 years before. Excellent special effects, ranging from collapsing sidewalks to the destruction of several city blocks, do little to date the movie, and the finale is devilishly explosive, to say the least.

The story revolves around the discovery of a mysterious "spaceship" during renovation work on a London subway station. The authorities insist it's simply an unexploded German secret weapon dating from World War II, but investigations by Quatermass (Andrew Keir) point to somewhat more ancient and far-flung origins and a purpose considerably more menacing---one that has been reactivated by the disturbance of the craft's resting place.

Quatermass believes the craft to be part of a five-million-year-old Martian colonizing force unknown to modern history, which is nonetheless encased in our racial memory as the horned devil of age-old superstition. The ensuing collision between ancient folklore and modern science is complicated by Quatermass' own struggles with the maddening blindness of bureaucracy, personified by an especially unimaginative Army colonel (Julian Glover).

After years of watching this movie in increasingly murky late-night TV reruns, I found this DVD's biggest revelation to be just how vital Ward Baker's direction is. The print itself is flawless, but even that does not explain the almost three-dimensional effects he achieves---for example, in the aftermath of an abortive TV broadcast on the site of the buried craft, and as the Martians' power is finally manifested over the burning ruins of the city.

Hammer veteran Les Bowie's special effects are also spellbinding, particularly during the scenes in which the spacecraft comes to life and immolates anyone standing close by. In addition, the fully remastered soundtrack takes on a new life of its own. Tristram Cary's incidental music is one element of the movie that has been criticized over the years, most commonly for a certain lack of intensity. As the action escalates, however, and amid the chaotic roaring of a dying city, it offers lulls as foreboding as the action itself is cataclysmic.

Even up against such a tremendous main attraction, the bonus material shines brightly. The theatrical and US television trailers are nothing special, but a secondary soundtrack that allows writer Kneale and director Baker to talk their way through the movie's highlights is a must for any Hammer fan. An episode from 1990's World of Hammer documentary television series concentrates on the studio's sci-fi output, serving up teasers for the rest of the Quatermass series and sundry other Hammer non-horrors.