Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Directed by: Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey (uncredited)
Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, and Leo McKern
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďIt's a particle of mud, but by virtue of its atomic structure it emits radiation. That's all it is. Just mud. How do you kill mud?"
If 1957ís The Curse of Frankenstein represented a seismic shift in British horror, it was certainly heralded by a pair of tremors in the years before as Hammer shocked audiences with its distinctly grisly take on the eraís sci-fi horror films. Thereís a tendency to see Hammer as a reactionary studio, one that either looked to contemporary or past successes to forge its own future, a notion thatís somewhat accurate but nonetheless reductive. Yes, something like The Quatermass Xperiment was riffing on the likes of The Man from Planet X and The Thing From Another World, but it did so with a remarkable ghastliness that was largely alien to its American counterparts. Those films were no doubt unsettling in their own way, but I find that most of those American efforts retain a sense of whimsy that Hammerís donít. Itís not that one is superior to the other, mind you--itís just a matter of flavor.
Perhaps the best case in this point is X the Unknown, a movie that couldnít be any more dictated by popular trends and exists despite Nigel Knealeís best effort to sink it. Originally conceived as a direct sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment, the film became a more generic follow-up when Kneale denied Hammer the use of his iconic creation, leaving audiences with what ultimately became a curious middle child sandwiched between Hammerís two Quatermass films. And like most middle children, it has to get its attention by any means necessary, even if it has to literally melt some faces in the process.
It begins as so many of these things do: with the discovery of some mysterious natural phenomenon. In this case, a fissure opens at a military installation in rural Scotland, unleashing dangerous levels of flesh-melting radiation. Esteemed doctors Adam Roton (Dean Jagger) and Mac McGill (Leo McKern) open a deliberate, measured investigation, much to the consternation of local military authorities who want quick answers so they can leap into action. But as the mysterious radioactive force spreads across the countryside wreaking havoc, answers are in short supply: simply put, itís an entity unlike any ever encountered in human history.
As its title suggests, X the Unknown plays up that mystery, teasing possibilities with off-screen carnage until the characters arrive at a conclusion. Considering this was just the first film following The Quatermass Xperiment, you hesitate to call it ďformulaicĒ; however, it must be said that the script follows a familiar pattern that keeps the monster hidden away, leaving viewers with only glimpses of the charred bodies and terrified, comatose children it leaves in its wake. The authorities bicker about their course of action. The scientists insist it must be studied and reckoned with; the military simply wants to exterminate it with extreme prejudice, creating a familiar conflict glimpsed films throughout this decade and beyond. Itís a formula we still recognize as effective filmmaking: in some respects, we want to be teased, just like we need the ascent on a rollercoaster before the big drop. Thereís something primal about the thrills offered by a monster movie like X the Unknown, which allows your imagination to run wild with horrific possibilities.
Thereís a reason this kind of terrible mystery would have especially resonated with contemporary audiences, too. The advent of the atomic age fermented awe and terror in equal measure as mankind wondered what horrors the future might hold. Filmmakers from all corners of the globe obliged with visions of the universe and mother nature striking back with otherworldly terrors that insisted man had charted a course to unlocking total annihilation in the form of alien menaces, reawakened ancient beasts, and other bizarre phenomena. X the Unknown falls into the last category once itís clear weíre dealing with some kind of sludge oozing forth from the ground, a discovery that still produces more questions than answers.
The scientists here can only offer theories: just as man evolved above the surface of the earth, whatever forces lurking below must have done the same over the course of millions of years. Now, with the earthís core being squeezed tighter and tighter with each passing year, the sludge has emerged to claim dominion over the planet--maybe. Hammer staple Jimmy Sangsterís script is more elliptical than it is definitive in this regard, allowing room for doubt and mystery even as the scientists try to account for this radioactive terrors. Some mysteries canít--and shouldnít be--fully explained because thatís always scarier. Plus, you have to respect a movie for living up to its gimmick: itís titled X the Unknown, not X the Explainable, and this vague, amorphous threat inspires various allegorical possibilities. With so much political, social, and scientific upheaval abound, this primordial ooze was (and continues to be) a harbinger for those forces knocking the world off its axis.
The cynical among us might also point out that the amorphous nature of the threat was likely a necessity of invention owing to the filmís low budget. While this might be true (the creatures from the Quatermass entries are much more imaginative and impressive), X the Unknown remains a fine example of the standard Hammer would set in the coming years. None of the studioís films exactly broke the bank (that was, after all, how they remained so profitable), but these productions always had a refined, almost debonair quality to them. The early black-and-white horrors like X are a little more rugged than the vibrant, garish masterworks that would cement Hammerís legacy, but they operate with the same workmanlike fashion. These movies feel like robust productions, and this one is sturdily helmed by Leslie Norman (who stepped in for original director Joseph Losey when the latter became ill). Gerald Gibbís evocative photography is especially striking, transforming the desolate, fog-drenched moors into an eerie landscape. He creates a sort of patchwork terror with the unknown entity by mending POV camera angles with the lavish special effects demanded by the climax. The cast is a bit unusual for a Hammer production in that it boasts so few of the studioís regulars outside of Michael Ripper (though William Lucas would return to star in Shadow of the Cat a few years later). Still, Jagger and McKern were instrumental in setting that Hammer standard of leading men with an unflinching, square-jawed conviction in the face of ghastly horrors.
And the horrors here are positively ghastly. History sometimes remembers this era of B-movie filmmaking as producing zippy matinee trifles, but Hammerís offerings were often anything but that. X the Unknown is a potent example of the stark mean streak that runs through so much of the studioís work. Itís most obviously felt in the graphic on-screen violence that results in charred and mangled flesh, including two full body meltdowns that remain staggering in their grisliness. Whatís more, the unknown doesnít discriminate as it lays waste to innocent bystanders, clueless lovers, and even a child that has the misfortune of crossing its path. The mean streak doesnít even relent once our heroes vanquish the menace: before they can even properly celebrate, an explosion tremors beneath the earth, hinting that the terror isnít truly over. Itís the filmís final ellipsis, an implied question mark that mirrors unsettling, lingering implication of The Thing From Another World. Watch the ground, it implies. Keep watching the ground.
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