Written by Robert Dillon and Ray Russell
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone
US Release Sept. 18, 1963
RT 79 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber (Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers
The two opening shots of X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes suggest the movie that follows is going to be more sensational than it really is. I mean “sensational” as in horrifying or shocking, not as in terrific or fantastic. The image of a bloody eyeball, then of said eyeball floating in a beaker, both lean toward the former definition; however, the movie itself doesn’t quite make it to the latter. Is there a word for “pretty darned good,” though?
One of the things I like about the movie is that its story veers from the regular pattern of mad scientist who grows impatient and decides to experiment on himself. Normally, even though there are disastrous results, the doctor wants more and more; there’s never enough power and it drives him mad. However, the only reason Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) wants to continue his experiment after it goes wrong is so that he can reverse the adverse effects x-ray vision are causing him.
Plus, his intentions are mostly altruistic to begin with. He doesn’t want access to the other 90% of the “wave spectrum” that humans cannot normally see for the sole purpose of having power. He sincerely wants to help people beyond the capacity of current (1963) technology. His colleague, Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone), reminds him that “Only gods see everything,” but Xavier’s response of “I’m closing in on the gods,” does not sound like bragging. It’s just a matter-of-fact statement.
We could credit that to the star power Milland provides. Oscar-winner for The Lost Weekend (1945), he would fall much further than a Roger Corman movie later in his career starring in The Thing with Two Heads and Frogs, even though he still lends gravitas to all of them. Here, he’s sincere without being fanatical. At age 58, I wonder if he was a little old for the role. However, he sort of acknowledges as much in a scene where he’s expected to keep up with the youngsters dancing at a wild party.
Then again, maybe he’s just having fun. After all, one of the benefits of x-ray vision, which the movie gleefully recognizes, is being able to see through the clothing of the youngsters dancing at a wild party. After seeing everyone naked, with the camera conveniently directed so that no naughty bits are revealed, he jokes with Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) that he’s really seeing her for the first time, birthmark and all.
If not an egomaniac, Xavier is confident. It doesn’t deter him that the monkey used to demonstrate the effect of his magic eyedrops keels over and dies. It merely “couldn’t comprehend or adjust to what it saw.” Besides, it wasn’t human. Xavier is able to describe the effects when he uses a single drop on himself: “It’s like the splitting of the world… vision is fragmented… more light than I’ve ever seen.” For those watching the movie, it means a lot of distorted imagery as if the movie were filmed through a rainbow camera. (In reality, the end titles tell us it’s an effect called “Spectravision.”)
The problems start when Xavier feels like he’s only penetrated the surface. After another drop, he screams, “The light!” and falls unconscious. Over time, the “ray effect” persists and it’s cumulative. He tells Diane, “I see veins, organs, the blood rushing through your heart.” (Diane calls herself “a living, breathing vivisection.”) But she wants him to stop. The eyes provide a direct route to the brain, you know. She warns, “Who knows what other parts of your mind may be affected?”
OK, maybe Xavier is a little bit of an egomaniac. He wants to explore all the mysteries of creation. “Soon I will be able to see what no man has ever seen!” After an accident driven more by carelessness than by rage, he becomes responsible for Dr. Brant’s death. This properly shames him and he goes into hiding as “Mentalo, the Man Who Can Read Your Mind” at a carnival sideshow, wearing large black sunglasses because he can no longer tolerate normal light.
Using only the smallest amount of his drops, Xavier needs a laboratory so he can work on reversing the effects, but he has no money. The carnival barker, Crane (Don Rickles… yes, Don Rickles) gives him some ideas about how he can turn his curse into a money-making endeavor, with a large profit for himself, of course. He’s then advertised as a “healer of the sick” and sets up shop in what seems like a seedy part of town.
It’s discouraging work for Xavier, though. He says about a woman who comes for diagnosis, “She’s beyond my help. I can’t heal, I can only look and tell what I see.” Wearing blinders with his sunglasses now, the effects of the drops are still persistent and cumulative, but now unpredictable. “Sometimes I can see through brick and stone, sometime barely through a man’s skin.” After a run-in with Crane where Xavier ironically tells him, “Get out of my sight!” Xavier drives away with Diane.
Without his eyes shielded, he sees, “A city unborn, flesh dissolved in an acid of light… a city of the dead.” He must go somewhere… anywhere that he can either undo it or learn how to control it. Where can someone with x-ray vision go to make money? Yep, Las Vegas, although I would think all the neon on the Strip would cause his head to explode. Nevertheless, it’s a sound plan until the casino tries to shut him down. He shouts, “They can’t stop me from winning!” and things go south from there.
Making his escape, Xavier loses his sunglasses, seeing only swirling colors as he speeds along winding canyon roads, ignoring signs that say, “Slow to 35.” We don’t see the car crash, but the camera spins and a quick visual trick signifies a broken windshield. He manages to crawl from the wreckage, looking quite anguished, and stumble over train tracks and barbed wire fences into… a revival tent where the audience is chanting, “We hate sin. We must destroy it.”
Heavy-handed though it may be, I really like this ending. Prior to it, the movie only hints that Xavier has been exposed to the wonders of the universe, but during and after it, it seems he may have been exposed to the very meaning of life. “Are you a sinner? Do you come to be saved?” asks the preacher. “No, I come to tell you what I see… great darkness beyond time itself. Beyond the darkness, a great light glows… changes… and in the center of the universe, the eye that sees us all.”
It’s what the experiment reveals to him rather than the experiment itself that is destroying Xavier. When the revival crowd then recites Matthew, chapter five, you know what’s going to happen next… and you can’t wait for it! “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out.” X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is not subtle, particularly as it concludes, but it’s just different enough from similar films and just well enough made to be entertaining. I’ve “seen” much worse.