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It's a pleasure to welcome the return of the fascinating "X", a science fiction picture as 'visionary' as the classics Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Profundity is a scarce commodity in commercial genre filmmaking, so it's especially impressive when Roger Corman gets a chance to exercise his intellectual ideas... and in an unpretentious thriller.
Italy's Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival previewed a number of international films in 1963, including Ikarie XB 1 from Czechoslovakia, Omicron from Italy, La Jetée from France and The Amphibian Man from the Soviet Union. America's entry from Roger Corman is possibly the least elaborate production of the bunch but perhaps the most meaningful. It has been described as a religious parable hiding in Sci-fi clothing. Its use of human vision as the analog for human curiosity has been imitated and elaborated in later science fiction epics. Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch and Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World immediately come to mind.
The story of a 'mad doctor' makes a strong distinction between gaining knowledge, and using it in the real world. Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) has perfected a serum that allows him to see through solid matter, by which he hopes to better cure the sick. His friends Dr. Brandt (Harold J. Stone) and grant representative Diane Fairfax (Diana Van Der Vlis) warn Xavier against proceeding, but he throws caution aside. His eyes soon mutate into super-sensitive organs. Although the doctor is granted access to a new visual world, his augmented sight gives him nothing but grief. Committees don't believe Xavier's claims; they cut off his funding while Brandt and Fairfax worry that the serum is affecting his mind. Xavier saves a small girl's life, but is forced to hijack another doctor's operation to do so. Questions of medical ethics become moot when a terrible accident convinces all that Xavier is insane. Drifting first on the carnival circuit as "Mr. Mentalo," and then in the inner city as a faith healer, Xavier's new "vision" makes him a fugitive from the law and traps him in an environment where he's almost helpless. He thinks he's seeing ever more deeply into the universe, but he doesn't recognize people sitting in front of him. Seeing through his own eyelids and a pair of leaden glasses, Xavier begins to wish he could find darkness again.
Known commonly as "X", The Man with The X-Ray Eyes, "X" is Roger Corman's best and most mature Science Fiction film. After a series of erratic but intelligent exploitation attractions Corman surprised the industry by becoming a quality interpreter of Edgar Allan Poe. Those main attraction hits gave the director mainstream box office credibility, and he began experimenting with different kinds of movies. This mystical science fiction thriller proved him fully capable of juggling high-powered ideas.
"X" was filmed economically but not as self-destructively cheaply as so many of his earlier pictures. Well acted by its small cast, the show fully realizes every eerie chill and conceptual horror in Robert Dillon and Ray Russell's clever screenplay. Corman's briskly paced direction introduces some clever narrative tricks. Time jumps and scene transitions give Xavier's story a nervous sense of temporal displacement. Feet tumbling down a staircase cut directly to a whirling Ferris Wheel point of view in a carnival. Xavier stares off-screen, and we cut not to what he's looking at but some detail in another room weeks or months later. A word cue will motivate an erratic jump forward in time.
Corman gets a top-rank performance from Ray Milland, whose commitment to the role is complete. As in Roger Corman's The Premature Burial and his self-directed Panic In Year Zero! Milland takes the film seriously, bringing a different personality to the part than would Vincent Price. The actor puts across the early expository scenes with perfect clarity, and expresses well Dr. Xavier's growing hysteria. It's implied that the "X" serum affects the doctor's mind, like the invisibility formula that transformed Claude Rains' Griffin into a power-mad maniac. We prefer to interpret Dr. Xavier as a sane man understandably overwhelmed by the information / revelation overload pouring into his brain from his rapidly mutating eyeballs. Like The Who, he can see for miles and miles. When your brain is exploring other dimensions, it's easy to lose one's grip on things like personal relationships.
Diana Van Der Vlis is sensitive and caring but also a professional, which makes her a much better match for Xavier than an upset wife or lover. Harold J. Stone and John Hoyt are the other medicos, by turns concerned and closed-minded. Corman brings in his old hands Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze as a pair of hecklers at the carnival. The film's surprise acting asset is Don Rickles as Crane, the venal, seedy carny promoter. The smart screenplay dispenses with the obvious -- what viewer hasn't been attracted to the idea of seeing through people's clothing? -- by giving that lecherous assignment to the leering Crane. 'Mr. Warmth' handles the chore with relish:
Xavier: "And you -- what would you like to see?
The strange and different "X" thrilled Sci-fi fans weary of conventional storytelling from producers like William Alland. The weirdness begins with a 60-second shot of a gory, staring eyeball backed by unsettling, wailing music. The film's theme is obviously concerned with senses and "seeing," but is not as intellectually detached as Michael Powell's essay on voyeurism Peeping Tom. Dr. Xavier's journey is that of the surreal hero into the unknown, having no idea where his obsession will take him.
The idea of relative forms of vision is very neatly worked out in the screenplay. Xavier's medical colleague worries that the "X" formula may be affecting other parts of his brain and that many of his experiences are really hallucinations. Xavier knows better. The moment his perception begins to reach further than his fellow humans he becomes more than human -- superior, perhaps, but definitely alien to them. People resist new ideas. Like a prophet, Xavier finds that challenging the preconceptions of the status quo is not easy. His gifts of wisdom firmly rejected, he finds himself ostracized, an outlaw.
"X" has been likened to a critique of LSD research, where it was theorized that mind-altering drugs can unlock mental doors to hidden resources within the human brain, and make possible the perception of greater truths. But for his every advance in "vision," Xavier becomes blinder to the real world around him. He sees people only as "living, breathing dissections" and buildings as skeletons of steel "dissolved in an acid of light." When people no longer have faces, it's difficult to relate to them. When your vision sees to the center of the universe, how do you concentrate on petty concerns and obligations in your immediate reality?
There's also a hint here of H.G. Wells' novel Food of the Gods, which was less about big animals and people than a statement about human evolution, physical, political and spiritual. Any improvement or change to the race would be taken as a threat by the rest of us left behind. Surely Timothy Leary felt that he was persecuted for being the prophet of a "new kind of man." But Wells' story can also be taken as an allegory for any kind of progress. Ayn Rand's superman-architect in The Fountainhead attains a kind of thematic God-hood. The film's final image, a giant silhouette of male confidence and courage set off against the sky, is curiously similar to the ending of the Wells novel.
Ayn Rand was unconcerned with the "ant-people" whose function was merely to appreciate the gift of her hero architect's talent. Russell and Corman see things differently. They were acutely aware of non-conformists pilloried and vilified by the culture as a whole. The previous decade had plenty of idealist adventurers, political and otherwise, who either lived in isolation from society or were brought down by it. Lenny Bruce was driven to confront petty taboos. He openly stated truths that society denied, and for that he was more or less crucified.
Despite his Gift from the Gods, Xavier is still a 'puny mortal,' and also a mutated misfit. He seeks the light of truth but also yearns for a moment of darkness. Once enlightenment is granted it can't be gotten rid of, only denied: Xavier can see, but he can't 'unsee.' The idealistic doctor hoped to transform human existence. He instead becomes a lowly outcast, an unstable fugitive from the law unable to gain control over his vision. Without that control he can't distinguish his cosmic revelations from what might be hallucinations from within. Xavier may be seeing to the center of the universe or he may be seeing to the center of his own soul. All he finds are frightening visions and harsh self-judgment.
Even Travis Bickle had the sense to realize that "morbid self-attention" is an unhealthy state of mind. Jesus spoke of the crushing burden of his responsibility. Did he envy the lesser state of enlightenment of those around him?
Robert Dillon's original screenplay has paragraphs of deleted or unused dialogue that make Xavier's experiences much more literal. When Xavier tells the congregation "what he sees," he elaborates further:
"There are great darknesses, as far off as time itself. And they are coming, coming to destroy all our world. Larger than the stars, than galaxies of stars, they're coming..."
Stanley Kubrick's cinematic cosmic journey was still years away, and Corman knew that he could not spend a fortune visualizing Robert Dillon's 'eye at the center of the universe.' Corman instead chose the mystical route of hinting, teasing and suggesting the depths of Xavier's visions. His special effects combine prismatic color separation with the axial smearing of shooting through what still photographers call a diffraction grating. In other words, Corman's optical people suggest seeing through concrete reality by futzing with images of concrete reality. Corman's effects have often been criticized as inadequate for a literal representation of X-Ray vision, but for this film they're perfect. The colored iris effect over various shots of tissues and innards and even clumsy paintings of dissections are just placeholders to allow our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Dillon's script calls for a "shimmering eye of light," but what we see is no more distinct than the effect we might get by squinting at a pulsing light bulb. But it works, simply by NOT being literal. We saw perfect living X-Ray images in the invisibility film The Hollow Man. They were so arresting that we can barely remember the dull film around them. 1
In the Dillon screenplay Xavier responds to the preacher's cry to "pluck it out" with a scream, and the screen jumps to darkness. The screams of the congregation fade out as well. Corman added a stark and primitive freeze-frame optical that seeks, for a fraction of a second, to show Xavier with empty eye-sockets. The first dozen or so times I saw this on television, the jolt was unforgettable. If you examine the film, you'll see that the image of Xavier's head whipping upright with empty eye sockets was invented in post: it's an optical reverse skip-frame printing of Milland ducking his head, from a second before. In the script the screen goes to black from the image of the Giant Eye staring down, "at all of us from the fabric of space." We hear the sound of the tent congregation wailing in terror.
There has persisted a rumor, perpetuated by Roger Corman on the commentary track from the 2001 DVD, that Ray Milland was filmed speaking a traumatized final line of dialogue, to be heard in the final darkness: "But I can still SEE!"
This notion originated in Stephen King's nonfiction book Danse Macabre, as his inspiration for a zinger that would have upped the horror quotient at the film's conclusion. Corman has long denied this, but after saying 'no' on the commentary track, he decides in mid-sentence that the line may have been recorded after all. As someone who has edited a lot of film-related interview testimony I have sensitive radar for when people are telling myth as fact, repeating apocrypha they've told so often they now believe it, or are just plain fibbing to make things more interesting. I believe Corman simply told the interviewer what he wanted to hear. It's too bad, as discussion boards and film writers now take his offhand account as gospel.
Corman's powerful imagery finally comes to rest on a genuinely frightening close-up of Xavier's anguished face as he gnashes his teeth in pain. His eyes are now obsidian orbs. There are cutways, but the giant, scary face is hypnotic. Savant has a favorite group of films that conclude with extended shots of actors' faces "evolving" with emotion. Sometimes the characters break the fourth wall and address the camera directly. The Nights of Cabiria and The Glenn Miller Story also end on magical faces that make contact with the audience. "X" is Roger Corman's most visionary movie, the one where his personal style transcends commercial filmmaking.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of "X" bests an older DVD of very good quality. The much-improved new scan was made from a 35mm inter-positive element. The color is more even overall. I only noticed a few minor scratches here and there. The creative optical effects look better than ever thanks to the increased resolution. Those really are innards (presumably animal) in the X-ray view of one of "Mr. Mentalo's" patients. And I didn't put any drops in my eyes, honest.
Kino is fighting the good fight when it comes to finding attractive extras for these fan-favorite genre titles. A Roger Corman commentary allows the director to thumb through his memories of the shoot. He has a tendency to stick with generalities, but every few minutes something illuminating slips through. A new Tim Lucas commentary track is packed with more original research "than my poor ears could stand." Tim's insights are certainly on target, and he also slips in dozens of anecdotal gems. Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller, Lucas reports, were asked to ad-lib heckling to Don Rickles' carnival barker, to hopefully inspire some Rickles-quality improvised insults in return. I especially liked Lucas' take on the "I can still see" controversy. He makes a good case for the argument that Dr. Xavier must lose his vision, to keep the story in line with Greek tragedy.
In a brisk new featurette director Joe Dante offers a warm-up intro for the adventures of the wacky Dr. Xavier, adding movie-historical context and personal comment. He's an excellent choice for the task. The original trailer included is a good one that uses nice, old-fashioned dramatic text. It definitely identifies the film as simply "X". The original print advertising, including posters and press releases, all treated the sub-line "The Man With the X-Ray Eyes" as part of the title. Also here is the trailer as presented on Trailers from Hell, with a commentary by producer-director Mick Garris. Lastly comes a TV prologue meant to pad the show to fill longer time slots. Was it was ever used? It consists of five minutes of lame narration behind what look like outtakes from educational films, intercut with oil smears and beaches from Pit and The Pendulum plus a few seconds of Ray Milland stumbling through the Indian Dunes location.
The cover artwork reproduces the film's intriguing theatrical poster. My pal Todd Stribich has a framed perfect copy of the original ... that elicits chills of recognition every time I look at it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. At about age three, my daughter got excited one day and told her mother, "I have a present for you -- look at the light up there!" She pointed to the ceiling fixture in the kitchen, said, "Here goes" and squinted at it. She then smiled proudly at her newly-discovered ability to transform reality. "Did you like that?" Empowered womanhood, 1982.
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T'was Ever Thus.