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
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
soon adds a young boy and a philandering hospitalintern to its list of victims. From the evidence
available, Royston hits upon a fantastic explanation that is soon proven to be dead-on accurate:
There is a primordial life-form from within the Earth that feeds 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 the plant's 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
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,
promised from Anchor Bay) is a creampuff here. 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
Radioactivity was a buzzword often evoked as a lame justification for otherwise unmotivated '50s
monsters. X the Unknown is unusual in that it is about 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 it is finally depicted, the living slime itself is
very convincing, galloping across a field and pushing through stone walls. It's as understated
as the 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
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.
makes some good remarks about weak English heroes and
dominating female monsters, 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 outerspace 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 is another of their acclaimed 'Hammer Collection' titles, and includes the basic
accoutrements: excellent transfer, handsome animated menus (the flying red 'X' is very nice!),
and a trailer. Sci-Fi, this disc's World of Hammer 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:
Supplements: Trailer, World of Hammer short docu
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: September 16, 2000
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.
Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
The Curse of Frankenstein,
The Revenge of Frankenstein,
Hound of the Baskervilles,
Horror of Dracula,
The Brides of Dracula,
The Curse of the Werewolf,
The Phantom of the Opera,
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,
The Vampire Lovers,
Taste the Blood of Dracula,
Demons of the Mind,
Straight on Till Morning
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson