Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

One of the most admirable qualities of the science fiction scripts of the late Nigel Kneale is that their stories proceed through the scientific method, albeit leading to fantastic conclusions. They are examples of true science fiction – a rare commodity in TV and film. Most of his screenwriting was done for television, but among his feature work, none stands taller than Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967) for Hammer Films. It was the third and final Hammer Quatermass following The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown, 1955) and Quatermass 2 (aka Enemy from Space, 1957), and the truest to Kneale’s vision. The first films brought in an American star, Brian Donlevy, to portray Professor Quatermass, whose origins (in Kneale’s original serials for television) are as British as Doctor Who’s, and Kneale was furious at Donlevy’s bullheaded approach to the character. Nonetheless both films, in condensing the sprawling miniseries from which they were based, kept intact a very Kneale-like scientific curiosity and wide-eyed fascination for all permutations of alien grotesquerie. This quality is also on display in a Kneale-scripted Hammer film that isn’t part of the Quatermass series, the underrated chiller The Abominable Snowman (1957). Quatermass and the Pit, arriving a decade after these films and directed by Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember), attempts to right previous wrongs by replacing Donlevy with Andrew Keir, a man who radiates formidable intelligence, and who had appeared in Hammer’s The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), and, most notably, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), as the vampire-slaying Father Sandor. Kneale’s script takes the original 1958-59 serial Quatermass and the Pit and condenses it down to the major plot elements and twists, giving it an intense, anxious tone, even if it still doesn’t contain the sort of action that one usually expects from a science fiction thriller. That’s because it plays as a mystery – one that doesn’t even reveal, for quite a while, what genre it is. It respects the viewer’s intelligence; it expects us to pay attention, and rewards handsomely.

Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) explores a “haunted house” in Hobbs End.

Quatermass, who designed the rocket that sent a man into space (disastrously) in The Quatermass Xperiment, is introduced in this film arguing with a Colonel Breen (Julian Glover of The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) over the militarization of his space exploration program. The British government intends to build bases on the Moon to “police” the Earth with ballistic missiles. The two men are sidelined by a discovery at an excavation in a London Underground station, Hobbs End: what appears to be a giant unexploded bomb buried in the earth. The archaeological dig is being led by Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape), with his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, The Gorgon). The two have discovered a humanoid skull at Hobbs End which they believe dates back, astonishingly, five million years. After Quatermass and the Colonel arrive, Roney realizes that the skull was actually inside the “bomb.” Furthermore, a curious detail excites Quatermass’ interest when he learns that the homes in this section of Hobbs End were abandoned before the war due to local superstitions and remain derelict. A police inspector who lived in Hobbs End at the time, and guides the professor and Barbara through one of the empty houses, describes “noises, bumps, even things being seen.” Barbara finds claw-like scratches on the walls. As they look further into the paranormal activity reported in the area, including reports of horned imps, Quatermass also notes that it was once called “Hob’s End,” and “Hob” is a name for the Devil.

The discovery of an alien cockpit, where Quatermass finds its dead inhabitants.

Having crept into the realm of supernatural horror, the story then swerves into high-concept science fiction. Drilling into the “bomb” creates a violent psychic and physical disturbance. Inside what appears to be an alien ship, the bodies of an insect-like race are discovered. They resemble the imps of Hob’s Lane legend, but deteriorate quickly when exposed to the air. Barbara demonstrates a psychic connection with the creatures and their craft, and we learn that the extraterrestrials originated from Mars. Most disturbingly, because the Martians could not survive in Earth’s atmosphere, they seem to have genetically altered apes five million years ago in order to create a Martian-influenced race that could live on in their stead. These evolved into a parallel human race still psychically connected to the Martians to establish a Martian colony on Earth; Barbara is one of them, and soon we learn that so is Quatermass. A malevolent psychic energy is transmitted throughout London, spurring telekinesis-fueled violence and riots as those descended from the Martians try to exterminate everyone else, a reflection of the violent, race-purging mentality of Mars. But before this spectacular finale, Quatermass and the Pit acts as an ever-shifting puzzle, with multiple possibilities explored before the truth begins to reveal itself; at one point, someone even suggests the bomb was WWII Nazi propaganda to persuade England of an alien invasion.

Barbara (Barbara Shelley) unlocks her ancient racial origins and latent telekinetic abilities.

To bring this story to the big screen, the star of the serial, André Morell, was curiously replaced by Keir; odd, because Morell was himself a part of Hammer’s standard repertory players. Perhaps it was simply to separate the serial from the film – but Keir is excellent in the part, demonstrating a stubbornness, intelligence, and empathy which is more well-rounded than Donlevy’s performance in the 50’s films. Supporting players Donald, Shelley, and Glover are equally outstanding, and reveal different facets to their personalities as the story progresses. This is an actor’s film, with a paucity of special effects until the big finale, and one of the film’s most effective moments is its unusual ending credits, as we watch Keir and Shelley recover from their manipulation and absorb the impact of what they’ve just learned and what’s just unfolded. Unfortunately, the one glaring flaw in the film is when the special effects really need to deliver: an admittedly far-fetched scene where Shelley’s character mentally channels her racial origins into a television monitor, allowing a glimpse of the race wars of Mars. Here the insectoid Martians are depicted as phony-looking miniatures. A scene meant to inspire awe (the soundtrack is ominously silent while the actors are transfixed by the images on the screen) plays ludicrously. But this is a small bit of a very special film, a Hammer movie like nothing else they produced. Without quite being a Hammer horror, Kneale’s story is somehow more disturbing than most of the studio’s conventional horror films. While The Devil Rides Out (1968) and every movie where crucifixes conquer the vampires inhabit a Christian universe of good vs. evil, Kneale offers the less reassuring suggestion that we have evil encoded by malevolent designers at the cellular level, ready to be triggered at any moment, at which point we will lose our personality and moral compass. When Quatermass himself succumbs to that influence, all hope seems to be lost. The solution, neatly, utilizes both scientific and supernatural principles. In this, Kneale’s script reminds me of Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel Hell House, which also explores both supernatural and (pseudo-)scientific explanations for its haunted house scenario before splitting the difference in the finale. Kneale’s story is not entirely original – it has at least one antecedent in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End – but very little of its kind had been seen on screens big or small. Its influence was great. John Carpenter has cited Quatermass and the Pit as an inspiration (you can see glimpses in Prince of Darkness and Ghosts of Mars), and similar science fiction stories include Lifeforce (1985) and the “Inhuman” storyline in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In writing his original serial, Kneale was inspired by the race riots of Nottingham and Notting Hill against black West Indies migrants. Almost a decade later, the tale found new relevance in the riots of the late 1960’s. Sadly, it’s just as relevant today, with the Western paranoia and resentment toward immigrants and Muslims and the resurgence of white supremacist groups. Maybe some of us have Martian blood boiling deep inside, and seek to purge those who are different. Any one of us could be capable of committing sudden violence. This is why Quatermass and the Pit remains so very unsettling 50 years later.

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Fist of Fury (1972)

For his second major starring role following The Big Boss (1971), Bruce Lee reunited with director Lo Wei and Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest for Fist of Fury (1972). Shout! Factory recently released both films as part of their Shout Select series, transferred from new 4K scans with much improved color and sharpness, although the cover art uses the alternate and notoriously botched American titles of Fists of Fury for The Big Boss and The Chinese Connection for Fist of Fury. (Flip the cover art inside-out to correct this odd misstep.) In Fist of Fury, Lee plays Chen Zhen, student of the legendary (and historical) martial arts master Huo Yuanjia (or Ho Yuan-chia, as the opening titles spell it), who died in 1910 in mysterious circumstances. That means that this is a period picture, though there’s at least one scene where the extras are clearly wearing modern (1970’s) dress. Never mind. Already in the opening scene, Lo Wei creates a more visually appealing palette than his earlier film, as Huo Yuanjia is laid to rest in a cemetery in a torrential downpour, his students gathered around the plot under their Chinese parasols. It is not the first time that the film will resemble a handsomely mounted Japanese samurai movie. All of Yuanjia’s pupils are dressed in black except for Chen Zhen, newly arrived and clad in a white Mao suit, the traditional Chinese color of mourning. He falls upon the coffin, clawing at its lid until he’s whacked on the back of a head with a shovel to render him unconscious. Inside Yuanjia’s Jing Wu School in Shanghai, Chen Zhen fasts in his grief, obsessed with the idea that his master’s death wasn’t by stomach flu, as he’s told, but instead was an assassination. Trouble arrives when the local Japanese dojo, led by grandmaster Hiroshi Suzuki (Riki Hashimoto) and his translator, Mr. Hu (Pin Ou Wei, The Way of the Dragon), present a mocking gift in memory of the late Jing Wu Master, a framed sign calling him the “Sick Man of East Asia.” Enraged, Chen Zhen wants to accept their challenge of a fight to see which school is the superior, but his master taught that martial arts were for physical fitness, not for fighting. It’s not long before Chen Zhen is driven to break that ideal to avenge his master’s murder.

Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) at his master’s funeral.

In fact, a similar arc dominated The Big Boss, in which Lee swears not to fight, wearing an amulet to remind himself of his vow, but after an extended slowburn, Lee breaks his promise and unleashes rage and exquisitely choreographed fighting moves. His character is like a recovering alcoholic, and when he faces down The Big Boss himself, we see why: he kills his opponents brutally, as though he can’t help himself. He seems to go into a fog, and when he emerges, everyone around him is crippled or dead. But Fist of Fury, a much more efficient martial arts film, doesn’t waste much time turning Lee loose. His moral quandary – how to avenge his master’s honor, when his master expressly forbade the use of violence – doesn’t consume Lee for very long before he decides to fall cleanly on the side of revenge without mercy. In many ways, Lee is playing the same man, one whose desire to live in a peaceful world is undone, tragically, by the corrupt men who intervene in the lives of those he loves; and he falls off the wagon again. Here, his wish to marry the beautiful Yuan Li’er (Nora Miao, also returning from The Big Boss) is deferred permanently by his campaign against the Japanese dojo. The back and forth escalates; when he wipes out most of Suzuki’s pupils, Suzuki returns the favor, leaving some of the Jing Wu students dead. It’s a classic set-up for this kind of genre movie, but what’s interesting is that the Jing Wu school wants nothing to do with it. They’re drawn into a gang war entirely by Chen Zhen, and as Chen Zhen becomes a fugitive, by night hiding out in the cemetery by his master’s grave, by day donning disguises to infiltrate the Japanese school, the students of Jing Wu just want to find their problem student and talk some sense into him before anyone else gets killed. Chen Zhen follows a doomed path, leading to a wonderful denouement that is both tragic and strangely triumphant.

Chen Zhen battles Yoshida (Fung Ngai).

The intense racial rivalry and animosity between the Chinese and the Japanese fueling the plot was, again, historical. The film is set in the decades following the First Sino-Japanese War and following the Shanghai International Settlement which saw a rise in foreign settlers in the city, including the Japanese. The film also speaks to the invasion and occupation of Shanghai and China in the years to come, as Dwayne Wong (Omowale) writes in The Huffington Post: “Fist of Fury helped to exorcise some of the negative feelings that Chinese still had towards the ‘century of humiliation.'” This is evident throughout the film, including one notable scene where Chen Zhen is obstructed from entering a park by a sign that says “No dogs or Chinese allowed.” A dog is allowed to enter the park anyway, but he’s assured that’s because it doesn’t belong to a Chinese. (When Chen later camps out by his master’s grave, is that a dog he’s barbecuing?) The dojo features a Japanese garden straight out of the Toho back lot, a geisha gives a striptease to the saki-drinking villains in one scene, and both the instructor, Yoshida (Fung Ngai), and Suzuki wield samurai swords against Chen in the final battle. Lee answers Suzuki with his trademark nunchucks. He fights not just for the honor of his master, but as an act of nationalistic pride. This is populist filmmaking at its most sensationally effective, with a Chinese warrior confronting not just Japanese invaders but also a Russian colossus named Petrov (Robert Baker) to stick up for his fraught and battled-over country.

Chen in his final battle.

But the reason Fist of Fury plays so well to non-Chinese audiences is Lee’s charisma and martial arts talent. His down-and-dirty streetfighting moves, fast and savage, are coupled with a grace and athleticism that is always exciting to watch. When he enters a room of opponents, you can’t wait to see him let loose; while, per tradition, more challenging opponents, like the bosses at the end of each video game level, are set up with great effectiveness. (Petrov is introduced bending steel with his bare hands while Lee, disguised as a telephone repairman, watches from the corner.) The film also gives audiences more of what they want from Lee than The Big Boss did; that film moved Lee’s character only gradually into the center of the story as his multitude of friends fell to the villains, but Fist of Fury plays more like a star vehicle. Watch the moment when the messengers from the dojo depart the Jing Wu school, and all the Jing Wu students follow in a wave, leaving Lee standing alone, arrested in his outrage. He’s a loner from the start, so it’s no wonder that it isn’t very long before he’s wandering Shanghai on his own, setting into motion his multi-step plan of vengeance with cold-blooded calculation, like one of the Charles Bronson vehicles of later years. Chen Zhen became such a popular character that – despite the finality of its last freeze-frame – he was brought back to Chinese screens in subsequent years. Fist of Fury II (1977) and Fist of Fury III (1979) continued the plot with Brucesploitation actor Bruce Li in the Chen role. Though it didn’t feature Chen Zhen, another sequel, New Fist of Fury (1976), was an early attempt to launch Jackie Chan into stardom, under original director Lo Wei. (Chan has a very small role in the original Fist of Fury as one of the Jing Wu students.) Jet Li played Chen in the remake Fist of Legend (1994), which takes place in 1937. Chen also appears in the 2001 TV series Legend of Huo Yuan Jia, and the film Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010), with Donnie Yen. Not bad for a character who was invented for a quickie Bruce Lee movie. As for Lee himself, his next project was Way of the Dragon (1972), followed by his last fully completed film performance, in Enter the Dragon (1973).

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