Sunday 25 April 2010

The Joy of X

X - The Unknown 1956 UK
Directed by Leslie Norman (replacing Joseph Losey)
Hammer Films DVD Region 1 (Anchor Bay)

X- The Unknown is a low budget Hammer sci-fi horror in the same vein as their movie adaptations of the Quatermass serials and movies such as The Crawling Eye (the big screen adaptation of The Trollenberg Terror). In fact, the character of Bernard Quatermass was supposed to headline this film but Nigel Kneale wouldn’t let Hammer use his creation for their own sequels... so instead you have a science hero who is working on... something to do with radiation... well, something other than rocket engineering and space travel anyway.

Similarly, the movie was supposed to be directed by the more famous director Joseph Losey (and some of his early footage does survive in the final cut) but he was “replaced” when the American actor Dean Jagger refused to work with a “communist sympathiser”. Dean Jagger, of course, is the token American hero imported into such movies at the time to sell it to the US distributors. The first two Quatermass movies had Brian Donlevy fulfilling that role and The Crawling Eye had Forrest Tucker.

Other than Dean Jagger, other interesting acting appearances in the movie include Edward Chapman (Mr. Grimsdale in those Norman Wisdom films), a dashing young Leo McKern and in a schoolboy role, a very young Frazer Hines - a decade or so before he grew up to be Jamie opposite Patrick Troughton in Doctor Who. And of course, no Hammer movie would be a true Hammer movie without the participation of Michael Ripper... playing a sergeant in a similar role to the one he had in the original TV serial of Quatermass and the Pit.

There are, amazingly for a 1956 movie, no recognisable female leads in this movie. There are very few female characters and they seem to be only on screen for five minutes. That seems quite strange for the time.

The film is very much a poor cousin of The Quatermass Xperiment but what it lacks in script and dialogue, it more than makes up for in pacing and... well, shall we say enthusiasm of performance?

The wild plot involves a radiation eating monster that escapes from the centre of the earth and eats any handy radioactive materials.... oh, and people. For some reason it likes to eat people and melt them with what I can only deduce is a forerunner of the Dracula-melting effect in Hammer’s first take on Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire. It’s all quite fun and Anchor Bay’s DVD offers an effectively crisp transfer of a well lit, excellent black and white print... as they often did back in their early days as a DVD company, when they were second only to Criterion as the DVD supplier of choice. I’m not so sure they’d care very much about doing as good a job with it these days but back when they released this little gem they were truly doing a service to the film watching community.

James Bernard’s cracking Quatermassesque score serves this kind of movie well - in my opinion he was much more effective at scoring these things than the Gothic horrors he is more famously associated with and if the film has any major week point it’s the ending. Where some fizzy, jammy, blob-like foam is fizzled to death until it explodes unconvincingly by using some cleverly rigged up, scientific looking apparatus powered by a wildly implausible but exuberant pseudo-science shilly-shally to give the “creature” a convincing sounding demise.

All in all, a nice gem of a British sci-fi horror movie which perhaps deserves more of a mention from time to time.


  1. I like the even review and the sublime imagining that exceeds this excellent british science fiction movie top notch!!!

  2. Thanking you greatly... Mr, Mrs or Miss Anonymous!