When one talks about British science fiction on TV and in the movies, the conversation must start with the name of Nigel Kneale. This extremely influential writer created the continuing character of Prof. Bernard Quatermass, who inspired later horror/SF icons like Kolchak the Night Stalker and the intrepid investigators of the X-Files. Kneale was known for coming up with extremely frightening and unnerving tales that combined Lovecraftian horror with rigid scientific ideas. His films were famous for tackling the bizarre in a very realistic and non-sensational way.
Kneale’s touch is all over the 1956 Hammer film X the Unknown…but his name is not. The movie was originally intended to feature Kneale’s crusading scientist/investigator Prof. Bernard Quatermass as the hero, but Kneale was not happy with how Hammer planned to portray Quatermass, so he removed his name from the project. This was a heavy blow, but not an insurmountable one. Hammer hired their reliable and talented writer Jimmy Sangster, whose name was on many of their later horror classics, to re-write the story featuring a new character instead of Quatermass. In somewhat of a slap in the face to Kneale, Quatermass’ replacement was an American scientist named Royston, played by Dean Jagger.
X the Unknown was one of the films that helped to establish Hammer as a world-class creator of imaginative horror and science fiction. Because it was not part of the Quatermass series, it hasn’t gotten the credit it’s due. I found the movie more frightening and atmospheric than the earlier Quatermass film The Creeping Unknown. I’ll grant that Royston is not as hard-driving or memorable a character as Quatermass, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgettable or poorly delineated.
There’s something about black and white British science fiction of the ‘50s and early ‘60s that really sticks with the viewer. The atmosphere is cold, grim and realistic and in the case of X the Unknown, that atmosphere is punctuated by strong shocks that still pack a jolt even today. The mystery of the cryptic creature that eats radiation and burns people to a crisp is a gripping one. When we finally learn the secret of “X,” the mystery may be gone but the terror continues. The movie has scenes of almost unbearable tension with little relief.
It’s also a compact and efficient little tale. There’s not a wasted shot or meaningless bit of dialogue in the whole movie. This was another trademark of these British SF flicks. Today’s moviemakers could learn a lot from how X the Unknown unfolds.
The film begins in the chilly and barren moors outside of Glasgow, Scotland as a troop of British soldiers is engaged in war games. Several soldiers are given Geiger counters and instructed to find hidden caches of mildly radioactive material as part of the exercises. Private Lansing, though, has found something different…a source of radiation that’s causing his Geiger counter to go haywire. This is not part of the training exercise! The soldiers find an area where the radioactivity is so intense that it boils water. The men begin to run, but a huge explosion erupts from the Earth. Lansing is killed and another man suffers severe radiation burns on his back. And now there’s a huge crevice in the ground that seems to have no bottom. Baffled by these events, the military calls upon Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) from the nearby atomic energy facility to investigate.
Later that night, not far away, two young boys are skulking through the spooky woods. Ian dares Willie to visit an abandoned old tower in the woods, supposedly haunted by a tramp named Old Tom. Willie takes the dare and approaches the tower. Suddenly he sees something horrible and after being rooted to the spot for a minute, he flees in panic through the woods, straight past Ian. This whole scene is one of the best I’ve ever seen set in a forest at night. The atmosphere and dread of the unknown is almost like a physical entity.
The next day, Royston learns of a young boy hospitalized by a sudden, strange illness and wonders if it could be related to the radioactive leak. He speaks to Willie about what happened the night before and Willie is able to give a halting account before he dies of radiation poisoning. His grief-stricken parents lambaste the doctor as a devil who has brought death to their family. Royston then talks to Ian and learns about the visit to the tower.
Royston visits the tower the next day and stumbles upon Old Tom, who seems to be a harmless old drunk who hasn’t seen anything. But Royston notices empty radiation canisters laying in the tower. Tom picked up the discarded canisters from a local rubbish tip. Royston examines the canisters and finds no radioactivity at all in them. They should have some trace-radiation…but it’s like they’ve all been drained.
At the same hospital where Willie died, a randy orderly named Unwin makes time for a sneaky tryst with sexy nurse Zena. They choose the room next to the storage area for radioactive materials for their hanky-panky. Just as things are about to get steamy, an alarm goes off and an irritated Unwin goes into the room where radioactive elements are stored. Suddenly, radiation goes off the scale, the door automatically locks Unwin in and SOMETHING apparently comes right through the wall. As a screaming Zena watches through a glass window, the hapless Unwin is literally melted into sludge by whatever burrowed through the wall. This was a shocking scene of gore to see in the ‘50s and it still packs a powerful wallop today. A great line comes later when Royston talks to the police about the death. “Did she tell you what happened?” he asks, pointing at the sobbing nurse. The policeman soberly replies, “When we got here, she couldn’t en tell us her own name.”
Now Royston knows something horrible is on the loose. All the radiation in the chamber where Unwin was killed has also been drained. In front of military personnel and the skeptical head of the nuclear facility where he works, Royston theorizes that some form of radioactive life that has been trapped in the Earth’s core has come to the surface, probably in search of radioactivity to consume. Any living flesh in the thing’s path is simply melted to nothing.
At the pit in the moors, two soldiers are on night duty guarding the abyss. One sees a strange glow and goes to investigate. When the remaining soldier hears an agonized scream, he tries to help his mate but opens fire at a hideous unseen THING. Like others who have had close contact with “X,” he is fried to a crisp.
This is the last straw for the military, who put the area on lockdown and prepare to send someone into the depths of the pit by means of a large winch. Royston’s friend Elliott, the son of the skeptical nuclear plant administrator, elects to go down in the darkened hole…an incredibly brave man! Elliott’s descent into the pit is nerve-wracking suspense at its best. After finding the blasted body of the other soldier, he sees a glow far below him growing brighter. He immediately yells to be brought back up. Whatever is beneath him is approaching the surface with great speed! He escapes in the nick of time.
The army hits the crack with flamethrowers and grenades to stop whatever is coming up from below. Then they order the crack sealed with layers of concrete. Royston scoffs at that approach…if “X” was able to come from the center of the Earth, how can concrete stop it? Instead, he believes powerful radio waves tuned to a certain frequency will be able to neutralize and drain its power. He sets about building large “scanners” that can produce such radio waves.
Royston is right about the concrete. “X” eventually burns its way through it and starts stalking the countryside. And now we finally see exactly what has come up from below. “X” is nothing more than glowing radioactive sludge…a blob of living lava that consumes all in its path! It sets out in search of the largest source of radiation it can find…the nearby atomic facility where Royston works, near the bucolic Scottish village of Lochmouth. The more radiation “X” consumes, the larger it grows and the more unstoppable it becomes.
The rest of the film is now a nail-biting race to destroy the ravaging monster…a form of life completely alien to all known science and which hardly seems real. “How do you kill mud?” Royston muses in one scene. If he doesn’t find a way, Britain will be reduced to a charred uninhabitable cinder!
This film is serious science fiction of the first order. It has the atmosphere of a horror film, but at every stage the hard science behind “X” is obvious. The creature has a passing resemblance to the great American hit The Blob, but whereas The Blob is confronted by sock-hopping teenagers who drag race after meeting at the malt shop, “X” is battled by the British military and the best scientific minds in the world. The approach is entirely different.
Dean Jagger’s Dr. Royston is a lot more laid back and not as driven as Prof. Quatermass. But his keen scientific mind is the same and to me, it’s not a bad thing to have a more vulnerable character in the lead. As with most Hammer films, the acting is top notch. A very welcome face in the cast is the great Leo McKern, always one of my favorite character actors. Here, the pudgy McKern plays a very likable government official who offers assistance to Royston even when others doubt his theories. Another familiar face is Hammer regular Michael Ripper, usually known for comic relief, but playing it very straight here as a military man confronting the menace of “X.”
There’s an ominous and dark feeling hovering over the entire film, but several scenes stand out. The two young boys running in fear through the spooky forest is one of the best scenes of its kind. And when young Willie dies from the encounter, it packs a jolt. The horror of what happens to poor Unwin is also unforgettable…he seems to expand like a frying sausage and then melts like wax. A grotesque and shocking scene in the ‘50s. Elliott’s descent into the abyss is also nerve-racking.
When “X” is finally revealed, the movie actually loses some of its tension, as almost nothing could be as horrible as what our minds could imagine. The special effects are generally pretty good, although there are a couple of dodgy scenes of the larger “X” wandering the countryside. That’s just nit-picking, though.
In general, X the Unknown is a very impressive “scientific horror” that can still be enjoyed today. Making it even more impressive is the fact the original director Joseph Losey dropped out of the production very early in the filming and was replaced by Leslie Norman. That usually bodes trouble for a film, but it’s undetectable here.
The film garnered critical success upon its release but did not match the success of The Creeping Unknown. We did not see Dr. Royston and his friends again. In recent years, more people have remarked on how good X the Unknown was for its time and now I’d like to add my own recommendation. The Good Doctor says …take a dose of X the Unknown and see me in the morning. If you haven’t been burned to a crisp….