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DVD SAVANT

Savant UK Region B
DVD Review


X: The Unknown
Anchor Bay
1956 / B&W / 1:37 unmatted full frame (should be 1:66) / 81 min / Street date July 11, 2000
Starring Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, William Lucas, Michael Ripper
Cinematography Gerald Gibbs
Makeup Philip Leakey
Film Editor James Needs
Original Music James Bernard
Writing credits Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds
Directed by Leslie Norman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

For about eight years starting in 1954, England's Hammer Films could do no wrong. Churning out feature versions of BBC television shows produced The Quatermass Xperiment, which eventually begat two more Quatermass adventures, and launched their Technicolor horror successes.

Xperiment had concluded with its astronaut hero devolving into a digusting shapeless monster. In the next three years, similar protoplasm monsters would ooze from the popular cinema of America (The Blob), Japan (The H-Man) and Italy (Caltiki, il mostro immortale). But the boys at Bray beat them all with what American showmen would call a quickie followup: X: The Unknown. A fast script was commissioned from Hammer production manager and first time writer Jimmy Sangster. The title was chosen to again capitalize on the the English Certificate X, Adults only rating. An American character actor was contracted to guarantee an overseas sale.

Synopsis:

Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) is conducting unauthorized experiments with radio waves in search of a way to neutralize radioactivity. On a nearby Scottish military test range, a muddy Y-shaped gash erupts, and a soldier is burned to death by an unseen radiation source. Inspector McGill (Leo McKern) joins Royston in the search for the mystery killer, that adds a young boy and a philandering hospital intern to its list of victims. From the evidence available, Royston hits upon a fantastic explanation, one that is soon proven to be dead-on accurate: a primordial life-form has risen from within the Earth to feed on radiation. Lying dormant for eons, it has been attracted to the surface by the new sources of sustenance created by man's nuclear energy activities. After assaulting Royston's research plant and consuming the fuel rods from its reactor, "X" flows back to the crack on the test range. Since weapons are ineffective against a wave of deadly radioactive mud, only Royston's radio theories have a chance of stopping the shapeless monster.

X: The Unknown the movie shapes up as an efficient if somewhat subdued monster thriller. Jimmy Sangster's formulaic script follows the American blueprint: a rural setting and a selection of victims that include an adorable child and illicit lovers. The beginnings of Hammer's stock company is on view, notably the capable Michael Ripper. Sangster has made all the characters basically calm and unflappable; even the usually brash Leo McKern (so good in Val Guest's Day the Earth Caught Fire) is here a creampuff. This helps create an hysteria-free mood, but some of the supporting players come off as colorless. The bald and glamourless Dean Jagger holds the center of the film effortlessly. Confronted with a lot of conflicting clues, Gene Barry or Richard Carlson would start rambling off crackpot technobabble. Jagger's Dr. Royston simply snaps that he doesn't know what's going on, and that's that.

Jagger's appearance in Leo McCarey's witch-hunt anthem My Son John must have been no accident, for the right-wing Oscar winner (for Twelve O'Clock High) refused to work with director 'Joseph Walton'. A quick looksee on the IMDB, and Walton turns out to be Joseph Walton Losey, one of the most talented of the exiled American blacklistees who emigrated to the British Cinema. X was ultimately directed by Leslie Norman, an underachiever who moved on to success in television. But Hammer films must have been impressed with Losey, for he came back to Bray several years later to helm the higher-budget CinemaScope culmination of Hammer's early science fiction films, the ambitious These are The Damned.

Radioactivity was a buzzword often evoked as a lame justification for otherwise unmotivated '50s monsters. X: The Unknown is unusual in that its subject is radiation, and little else. Unlike American movies that soft-pedaled the side effects of the growing nuclear industry, Sangster exaggerates the dangers of radiation burns. The victims of X swell like sponges and melt like popsicles in a blast furnace. When finally depicted the living slime itself is very convincing, galloping across a field and pushing through stone walls. It's almost as understated as the film's acting, and all the more menacing for being so banal: just a mass of deadly ook. At one point Sangster has a priest snatch a toddler from out of harm's way, a gag which later became a highlight in his knockoff script of the TV play The Trollenberg Terror (The Crawling Eye).

There are almost no women in Sangster's slim story, an oversight that gives credence to Peter Hutchings' curious cinematic analysis of X: The Unknown. 1 Hutchings makes some good remarks about weak English heroes and dominating female monsters in Hammer's output, but his contrasting of The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown would seem meant only for symbol-happy semiologists. For Hutchings, Xperiment's phallic rocket, sticking up in a farmyard, is complimented by X's vaginal gash in the Earth, a Terran womb that unleashes the ultimate 'Earth Mother' monster. Such a reading conjures memories of the gleefully combative outer space creatures in Francis Coppola's patchwork Battle Beyond the Sun. He intentionally had them shaped like male and female sex organs, a revelation that makes their featured presence on Battle's poster look all the more bizarre.

Or perhaps Coppola's in-joke proves the validity of Hutchings' interpretation, and Savant is just uneasy with the idea! At one point, soldiers attempt to suppress the Unknown X in its 'crack' by sealing it up with explosives and paving it over. Even a lazy extrapolation of the Hutchings thought process would imply that the stodgy military, operating in sexual denial, is trying to fit Mother Nature with a concrete chastity belt!


Anchor Bay's DVD of X: The Unknown is another of their acclaimed 'Hammer Collection' titles, and includes the basic high-quality accoutrements: excellent transfer, handsome animated menus (the flying red 'X' is nice!), and a trailer. This disc's World of Hammer Sci-fi docu is, Savant believes, a repeat offering. Anchor Bay's packaging erroneously claims a length of 91 minutes. The IMDB says the English cut was 81 minutes long, and the American 79. The DVD clocks in at 79:34, so Savant assumes the print used must be the shorter Warner American version.2 There are no obvious missing bits or jump cuts to draw attention to places where footage might be missing. If anything, the shots of melting victims seem more complete than was evident on earlier TV prints. Editorially, only the unusually-long Warner Logo over James Bernard's typical nervous-strings title music seems a bit odd.

X: The Unknown shows Hammer's monster thriller in a new transfer that makes the dark, edited 16mm prints shown on American television forever obsolete. It also allows an appreciation of X without having to weather the condescending hosts on the American Movie Channel. It makes an excellent companion to Anchor Bay's previous Quatermass DVDs. And don't forget the sexual symbolism, whatever you do!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, X: The Unknown rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, World of Hammer short docu
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: September 16, 2000

Footnotes:

1. Hutchings, Peter, Hammer and Beyond, The British Horror Film Manchester University Press, 1993.
Return

2. The presence of the Warner Bros logo doesn't make this obvious, given the precedent of Columbia's Curse of the Demon and These Are the Damned, both of which graft American titles onto uncut prints not shown in the U.S.
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Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
Quatermass 2, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera, Night Creatures, Nightmare, Paranoiac, The Kiss of the Vampire, The Evil of Frankenstein, The Plague of the Zombies, Die! Die! My Darling!, Quatermass and the Pit, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Demons of the Mind, Straight on Till Morning


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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