Tuesday, February 3, 2015

X: The Unknown (1956)

... aka: X contro il centro atomico (X versus the Atomic Center)
... aka: X... the Unknown

Directed by:
Leslie Norman
Joseph Losey (uncredited)

Made smack in the middle of the two classic black-and-white Quatermass films; the 1955 hit The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown in the U.S.) and 1957's Quatermass 2 (aka Enemy from Space in the U.S.), this was actually originally written and planned as a follow-up to the first Quatermass. However, things didn't go quite as planned as Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale refused to let them use the name. The lead character's name was then changed... but I doubt much else was because this definitely in done in the spirit of the first Quatermass. X is also noteworthy in several other regards. For starters, it was among just a small handful of Hammer Film Productions in the horror genre made before the huge international success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) changed the dynamic (and reputation) of the studio forever. Second, it marked the feature screenplay debut of Jimmy Sangster, who'd become one of the top horror, fantasy and sci-fi screenwriters in Britain for several decades afterward and also went on to write many of Hammer's finest films. Third, there's a much more famous American film made just two years later that pretty blatantly copies key aspects of this one. And finally, there were a few minor issues both during production and after the film was completed...

An interesting director; Joseph Losey, was initially chosen for the project. Losey was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and ended up exiled to the UK for a spell, where he worked on a handful of films utilizing an alias (usually "Joseph Walton;" his first and middle names). However, somewhere early on in production, Losey either quit or was let go. I have read three completely different accounts about what happened: 1. Losey lost interest in the movie and quit on his own accord. 2. Losey shot a week's worth of footage, became ill and had to be replaced. 3. Losey's "illness" was a fabrication by the studio leaked to the press to cover up for the fact star Dean Jagger refused to work with him because he believed him to be a "Communist sympathizer." Either way, neither he nor his "Walton" alias is in the credits of this film nor in any of the publicity materials. His replacement, Leslie Norman, was apparently disliked by nearly the entire cast and crew but technically knew how to put together a competent film. Still, it's no coincidence Hammer never used him again after this.

The film also saw distribution difficulties that delayed its release by eight months. Around half of this film's budget was put up by Sol Lesser and RKO Pictures in the U.S.; much of which went toward the salary of American star Jagger. The deal between Hammer and RKO eventually fell apart and the film somehow ended up in the hands of Warner Bros., who finally released it in the U.S. in May 1957. Lesser's name is, again, not listed in the credits nor in any of the publicity materials with the exception of the Italian poster pictured above.

During an army training exercise in the Scottish highlands, a Geiger counter goes crazy, suddenly the earth cracks open and smoke and fire spew forth. The army phones up The Atomic Energy Establishment and has them send out eccentric scientist Dr. Adam Royston (Jagger). He finds no signs of radioactivity at the site, but the men exposed to the underground explosion have come down with third degree burns that resemble radiation burns all over their bodies, and the one soldier closest to the explosion dies from it. In addition, the fissure where the ground cracked open is so deep there seems to be no bottom. A little boy then encounters something in the marshes while out late at night and also ends up in the hospital with severe and ultimately fatal skin burns. Soon after, something shows up at Adam's workshop while he's away and wrecks the place after stealing all of his tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) then makes an appearance at a hospital to swipe some radium and ruin a playboy doctor's backroom tryst with a nurse in the process.

Mac McGill (Leo McKern), an internal security investigator for the Atomic Energy Commission, shows up on the scene and joins Dr. Royston in his investigation. Peter Elliott (William Lucas), Royston's boss's (Edward Chapman) eager-to-impress son, who works at his father's lab as an administrator but really wants to be a scientist, volunteers to be lowered down into the deep cavern. After finding the charred corpse of a soldier and seeing an unknown being that looks like "something out of a nightmare," the military (led by John Harvey and Hammer regular Michael Ripper) use flamethrowers and explosives in an attempt to kill it and then seal up the crevice with concrete. Unfortunately, that "something out of a nightmare" turns out to be a powerful, shapeless glob of black goo from the center of the Earth out to absorb radioactive elements wherever it can find them. If someone happens to get in its way, well, too bad for them.

This is a fine, professionally-assembled little low-budget B flick. Performances are all decent, the actor play off each other well, it's fast-paced, contains little filler, is very handsomely shot by Gerald Gibbs and the dialogue is rather serious and pragmatic, with only the occasional bit of humor. In addition, the makeup (courtesy of Philip Leakey) and special effects (courtesy of Jack Curtis and an unbilled Les Bowie) are good for the time and even include a few gory moments, such as a face meltdown. It's been noted time and time again how most of these 50s sci-fi films reflect the fears of a society uneasy about "Atomic Age" advancements and this is no exception to the rule. There are several well-meaning cautionary asides, such as how scientific innovation can be a double-edged sword used to either help or harm mankind, but these elements never bring the story to a halt and are credibly worked into the dialogue.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this one is how much THE BLOB (1958) lifted from it. The creatures are both shapeless, gelatinous masses that invade small towns. They both grow larger and larger as the film advances; The Blob grows from consuming victims while the glob in this one grows from consuming energy. The both have an acidic property that allows them to dissolve / melt victims. Even the 1988 remake of The Blob seemed to borrow its own ideas from this one, including having the townsfolk barricade themselves in a church as the menace oozes through the area. Perhaps being the original Blob film isn't the most prestigious thing in the world but, hey, at least it's something, right?


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